Welcome back to The Review of Obscure Books, my occasional-but-long-running series of reviews of comics that could use some special attention. Having finally finished it last night, some thoughts on a story that is very much not obscure: Marvel's recent mega-crossover Secret Empire. No, I'm mostly not talking about fight scenes -- ultimately, this is about modern politics -- but there's a lot of superhero trope to wade through before I get to the interesting stuff. If that's a turn-off, just skip this one and move on to my next review. (Probably soon.)
A high-level overview of the main plot helps to explain why a lot of people freaked out really badly when this started:
- Due to all the screwups in SHIELD in recent years, Steve Rogers (Captain America) is appointed as its head.
- There occur a set of near-simultaneous crises, nationwide.
- Congress gives him broad emergency powers.
- He reveals himself to be a lifelong sleeper agent of Hydra, and begins immediately converting the country to fascism.
Okay, when you just see that, it's a huge WTF???!!!?? The reality is a lot more complicated, though, and the payoff fairly interesting.
Let's get the silly bits out of the way first. What's really going on here is that the Red Skull (Captain America's arch-nemesis) managed to lay hands on a Cosmic Cube (Marvel's official Uber-MacGuffin, capable of altering reality more or less however you like). Having finally twigged to, "If you can't beat 'em, get 'em to join you", he engineers a magnificently Kafkaesque rewrite of history:
- Steve Rogers was traumatized by the death of his mother when he was young.
- He swore to do whatever it took to protect the people.
- He was taken in by Hydra, and during WWII was one of their greatest agents.
- When Hydra was on the verge of winning WWII (I assume there are Germans involved here somewhere, but they mostly talk about Hydra), the sneaky Allies got their hands on a Cosmic Cube, and rewrote history themselves so that they were winning.
- As part of that, they turned Steve into Captain America, but not before Hydra planted a sort of sleeper spell on him.
So to Steve's new POV, he has always been Hydra, and is essentially waking up from a bad dream of fighting for the wrong side. This person -- let's call him Hydra Steve -- is very much not our Steve Rogers.
The crossover as a whole is, at best, a mixed bag. There are some genuinely good stories in there: this is a "life in wartime" epic for Marvel, and has a lot to say about fascism and politics and stuff. But there was also a lot of Dumb, and wasn't entirely helped by being so earnest. I mean, Secret Wars was idiotic, but it reveled in its own ridiculousness, and managed to fit a lot of silly fun in its kitsch. This one would have been much stronger if they'd limited it to the writers and stories that had both the talent and enthusiasm to really tackle a harder tale.
Anyway: in the end, the various heroes manage to bring "our" Steve back to reality; he fights Hydra Steve (yeah, yeah -- Cosmic Cube lets you do nonsense like this) and wins; yay, freedom prevails. So much for the superhero bits.
But the payoff (and the reason it's worth talking about) is the final issue, Secret Wars: Omega. As so often, the best comics aren't fight scenes, they are issue-long conversations. This one is what happens when Good Steve confronts Hydra Steve in prison.
The beautiful hell of it is, Hydra Steve is not a villain. Quite the contrary: somewhere mid-story, he executed the Red Skull, his supposed ally, precisely because the Skull was very much a villain. By his own lights, Hydra Steve is, without the slightest doubt, the hero in this story.
The thing is, he's still Steve Rogers -- but he's a Steve Rogers whose life was slightly different, and thus whose priorities are different.
Since the 1980s, Marvel has been very clear that Captain America cares about people, and would give his life to protect them, but his highest priority is Freedom. (The original Civil War, much more clearly than the movie, was primarily about that.)
Hydra Steve doesn't oppose Freedom per se, all other things being equal -- but his highest priority is Protecting the People. And that little difference of priority, followed through, turns him into a true-believer Fascist (and, largely, Totalitarian). He is trying to build a world where the people are safe and happy, and he believes that requires imposition of Order. But he is quite sincere that Order is merely a means to an end, and to him the assumption of power is genuinely a burden (he spends a fair amount of Secret Empire agonizing over it) -- but it's what he needs to do in order to protect the country from itself, so he does it. He was groomed to be, essentially, a good King, and he's going to fulfill this responsibility.
Moreover, he is genuinely angry with Good Steve, and with the Avengers, for their weakness. He is more than happy to point out The Superhero Paradox: that if you aren't willing to stop the bad guys -- and by this, he means quite permanently -- then you are complicit in their later crimes. He lays the deaths of a lot of innocents on Good Steve's shoulders, because The Avengers Don't Kill.
And because of the way the story is structured, Good Steve and Hydra Steve literally cannot agree on history and facts. Hydra Steve knows perfectly well that he has lost (for now), and that he is living in Good Steve's reality, but he also knows to the core of his being that this reality is a corruption of the "real" one that he comes from.
Most damning, he points out (semi-accurately) that he has committed no crimes -- worse, the people welcomed him. He was handed power in full accordance with law, and when he rolled Hydra out as, essentially, a nationwide paramilitary political party, hordes of people flocked to him. He restored their pride, promised them protection, and gave them a sense of unity in something greater. He knows, and says quite explicitly, that this is his real victory: that Good Steve may have won for the moment, but the next time things go wrong, a lot of people will begin to remember the greater dream of Hydra. It is not at all clear that he is all that defeated, in the end.
Yes, it's ferociously creepy, and the metaphor is as dense as a fruitcake, but it's beautifully on-target. I often note that the silver lining of our current political moment is that at least we wound up with as inept a fascist as Trump in the White House: a greedy idiot whose ideals can be summarized as, "MineMineMine". But Secret Empire envisions the opposite: America being seduced by a brilliant, charismatic and idealistic fascist, who is far more effective. It's a story worth keeping in mind -- while we like to think that we are simply Good and they are simply Bad, it looks very different from the other perspective.
So -- despite all the above, I can't actually recommend reading Secret Empire. It's loose and sloppy, full of the stupid, with way too many threads and a story that is baroque even by Marvel standards. But there is a central spine in there that is utterly relevant to our times and very well-designed. I suspect that the same story, told in a tenth as many issues with a tenth as many plots, could have been truly great...