Comic books, as a rule, worship status quo. Batman will, in the end, always be Bruce Wayne. Spider-Man will always be, in his heart, the broke kid from Queens. That tension between this fundamental law and the need for fresh exciting stories can sometimes yield brilliant work. Other times, as with Secret Empire, you get a story that you kind of wish they’d just get to the end we all know is coming already.
To sketch out the plot, in brief, reality has been rewritten by the longtime Marvel plot device the Cosmic Cube (now a child named Kobik) so that Steve Rogers, and several other classic Marvel characters, have secretly been working for Hydra for decades. Hydra has recently seized control of the United States, and now Rogers has turned the US into a fascist dictatorship. Needless to say, Marvel’s other heroes aren’t going to accept this and are about to fight back.
If this all sounds formulaic, it is. In fact, Secret Empire‘s first issue unfolds much like the first issue of many similar crossovers. We get the basic plot, we meet the heroes, we meet the bad guys, and then the bad guys do something staggeringly awful to illustrate that the crossover is for keepsies, at least until the next crossover. That said, a formulaic structure would be fine, even welcome, if was used as a tool to reach for something more thoughtful. Many of Captain America’s best stories have put issues like Watergate into a broader, superheroic context to explore what patriotism and love of country means in a time where every morning brings a new shade of moral gray.
Secret Empire, unfortunately, falls short. Writer Nick Spencer has been building to this plotline for months in one of his books, but during that entire time, Cap secretly being a bad guy has been treated as a plot gimmick. Even that would be acceptable, if dull, except Spencer’s presentation here is of Nazis as generic bad guys, even as he casually evokes their worst crimes. Spencer’s total lack of nuance means Cap, who we’ll remind you is supposed to believe he’s doing the right thing, sits in on a cartoonishly evil board meeting where Hydra members gripe that being an evil regime is hard. Then he goes to his girlfriend, who hates his guts now and who he’s holding captive, to complain about how hard his life is and how she just doesn’t get how he’s doing the right thing.
Keep in mind Spencer claimed that he wanted to explore the power struggles inside the Nazi party. Instead we’re expected to sympathize that Cap can either please one faction of Nazis that wanted to shut down the internet, or another faction of Nazis that want to use chemtrails for mind control. It’s as if Spencer wrote to annoy Twitter rather than tell a story worth reading.
For this plot to work, at all, there needs to be some sort of deep moral conviction here, some sort of belief in the greater good, on the part of the villains. It doesn’t have to be right, we don’t even need to agree with it, it just has to make it clear they don’t think they’re the bad guys. And neither Spencer nor Marvel editorial can claim they simply didn’t know that was necessary, especially after the company rushed out a statement this morning clarifying that don’t worry, Cap won’t be a Nazi forever. Marvel has been talking up its noble aims with this plot ever since Cap was revealed to be a Hydra agent. Some fans have even tried to justify it by pointing out that Cap has been a Nazi, temporarily, before.
But that fails to consider this has been going on for a year, now, building to this crossover, and that both the stakes, and the passions of fans, are much higher than some barely remembered plotline from a few decades ago. But this story goes far beyond just Cap. We will be visiting those concentration camps Hydra built in an upcoming team book. Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, has been presented in Hydra drag. Marvel has been asking the staff of comic book shops to wear Hydra T-shirts for however long this crossover takes. Marvel very much wants its fans to read about its fictional Nazi organization,
In response, longtime Marvel readers have made it clear this plotline needs to be earned, or that otherwise it’ll just be hurtful or even outright disgraceful to the spirit of the character. Whether or not you agree with that or not, there’s no denying that it’s deeply felt among an enormous number of Marvel fans, and that making Cap a Nazi has political ramifications to them that perhaps Marvel needed to consider. This first issue shows no indication that’s happened.
Captain America’s turn to the dark side will be only temporary. Marvel has dropped hints, and even outright stated this morning, that Cap is still a good guy underneath it all, and even if they wanted to make this permanent, Disney wouldn’t let a golden goose like Cap be tarnished for more than the length of a crossover. Marvel has asked fans to reserve judgement until they’ve read the whole story, which is fair enough. Still, Secret Empire has had months to develop into a promising story, and fans have offered ideas on how to make it something more than just another generic crossover. And yet, that’s exactly what it is, so far. One has to ask, if nobody could think of anything to say, why they didn’t simply set this aside.