Review: Secret Empire #1

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Before I go to the review, let’s get the context out of the way here. The advance publicity for the Secret Empire mini-series—possibly starting as early as last year, with the “Cap Is Hydra” reveal—has hurt both it and Marvel. From the perceived blasphemy of Steve Rodgers secretly being a Hydra agent, to a marketing campaign that has the optics of actually “supporting” Nazi-stand-ins Hydra (not to mention an apparently “official” declaration that Hydra does not represent Nazis, going against decades of continuity both in the comics and the movies)…Secret Empire #1 has sort of launched within a massive clusterfuck.

And this is all a shame, because the actual tone of Secret Empire is the polar opposite of all that.

There is nothing heroic—or even intriguingly anti-heroic—about Steve Rogers/”Nazi Captain America” in this comic. He is a weak-willed insecure shithead who can’t make a fucking goddamn decision on his own. Artist Steve McNiven consistently gives Steve the most punchable face in all of contemporary comics, with staring vapid eyes and an empty expression that fairly screams lack of substance and personal agency. In short, Captain America here, despite all his power, is the equivalent of Jerry from Rick and Morty.

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It is very clear that we are meant to identify and sympathize with the members of the “Underground” here (many of whom are younger, “next generation” versions of older Marvel characters), and that Secret Empire is not a document to covertly recruit people into becoming fascists.

I suppose the question becomes: who exactly are these young people, the type companies like Marvel needs in order to continue and thrive into the future? And that is where I see the conflict in “messaging” in the promotion of Secret Empire coming from. Because these comic-reading Millennials—and, more crucially, post-Millennials—are neither the stereotype of the intolerant Gamergate “pro-Trump” crowd of Pepe the Frog fans, nor the sorts of exclusively liberal fans that the aging icons of “Geek Culture” continue to cluelessly play to.

And writer Nick Spencer, at least in this first issue, peppers the world of The Underground with some of the characteristics and concerns of this emerging group. And a lot of this has to do with (no surprise) online culture. As Baron Zemo notes about the Underground—and he might as well have called it The Internet—in a meeting with Hydra Command:

The Underground grows there because it is nurtured there. The people offer them safe harbor, and feel as if they are protected by them in return. A dangerous symbiosis.

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A discussion ensues among Hydra command as to whether the Internet should be shut down entirely, its ability to bring together and “radicalize” people a threat too powerful and immediate to ignore. But while this line of reasoning would be, at first blush, be considered (appropriately, because we’re talking about Hydra) fascist…hasn’t this very same argument been made about “shutting down” online trolls and whatnot?

Similarly, in the beginning of the story the children are being taught to report “threats,” to only use “corrected texts,” to essentially hew to a very specific dogma. But don’t we sometimes see examples of this sort of extremism on both sides of the ideological fence in daily life? That there is the “right,” the “wrong,” and that’s it—critical thinking be damned, and those with opposing views to be censored right off the Internet?

And while Rick Jones—the whistleblower—is essentially the hero of this issue…real-life whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and especially Wikileaks are currently regarded very ambivalently even by those who would normally consider themselves very progressive. As illustrated in Secret Empire, an anonymous online “leaker” could be a spy…or the real thing. Or both. Who knows? It’s all very complicated.

And that’s the point. Things are very complicated. The world is very complicated. And these young people—the ones represented by the Underground in Secret Empire—are navigating through a unique combination of ideologies and concerns as they walk into an uncertain future.

That said, there’s a bunch of stuff in this issue that seem like very on-the-nose Trump metaphors. Captain Marvel’s distress call. The montage of the Hydra “accomplishments” like the Wall Street boom & sharply reducing crime rate (the Duterte way, apparently). Certainly, there would be no Secret Empire without Trump being in office.

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But it’s hard for me to draw an exact parallel between Trump and Captain America here. For starters, their personas are completely different; even Trump supporters knew their guy was not a golly-shucks-gee American-Pie Boy Scout. The power of the Steve Rogers “heel turn” is that it’s a betrayal…a complete about-face. It’s about somebody you trusted ending up being a shithead Jerry.

So I don’t think Cap is Trump. Nor do I think this is a specific commentary on the actual character Captain America itself, or purposely meant to “sully” that Jack Kirby/Joe Simon creation.

No…I think I know exactly who Captain America is supposed to represent in Secret Empire.

And that’s Marvel Comics itself.

Think about it: what icon is more closely identified with Marvel as a company, other than perhaps Spider-Man?

Secret Empire—like DC Rebirth—is the story about a company and a superhero universe at the crossroads. It’s about a rapidly changing audience who the suits are desperately trying to understand. It’s about the battle over the soul of a creative—and corporate—entity.

And perhaps the future of the Marvel Universe really does literally hang in the balance.

SECRET EMPIRE #1 IS AVAILABLE NOW

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