Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Marvel’s Secret Empire #10.
Ealier this year, Marvel Comics announced that Secret Empire will be its last major crossover event for at least 18 months. This was in response to criticism that there have been too many such events in the past few years, leading to crossover event fatigue, too many revamps of major characters, and a disruption of the flow of many titles’ ongoing stories.
Well, this break couldn’t have come sooner judging from the somewhat lacklustre ending to Nick Spenser’s Secret Empire event.
The premise of the story itself was a controversial one: Kobik, a little girl who is actually a fragment of the reality-changing Cosmic Cube that became sentient, is manipulated by the Red Skull into believing that Hydra are actually the good guys. She then changes Steve Rogers/Captain America’s memories and reality to make him believe that he is actually a Hydra agent.
When Spencer dropped that bombshell in 2016, comics fans were up in arms over Cap turning traitor and becoming a fascist leader. In light of recent real-life events in the United States (#CharlottesvilleNazis), this may not have been one of Marvel’s best moves, especially since Cap is one of its most patriotic and iconic American superheroes.
But the wheels of Hydra Cap were already set in motion, and there was no turning back for the character.
The year leading up to Secret Empire sees Steve putting the finishing touches to his ultimate plan with the other heroes completely unaware of his treachery. At the beginning of Secret Empire, he rises to become Hydra’s Supreme Leader and executes his plan to take over the world and remake it in Hydra’s image.
To do so, he eliminates Earth’s mightiest heroes in two ways: by tricking Captain Marvel and other heavy hitters into space to fight off a Chitauri invasion and then keeping them there by wrapping Earth in a powerful shield, and trapping the other heroes in a Darkforce dome around Manhattan.
Subsequently, he rounds up the Inhumans and imprisons them, and gives the mutants a new sovereign state in San Francisco to keep them happy.
With all the major heroes gone, it falls to Hawkeye and the Black Widow to lead a resistance called the Underground against Hydra Cap, alongside other lesser known heroes such as the Champions (Ms Marvel, Totally Awesome Hulk, Ironheart, Miles Morales aka Spider-Man, Viv Vision, and the new Wasp and Falcon), an AI version of Tony Stark, and Scott Lang’s Ant-Man.
In hindsight, 10 issues may have been too long for Secret Empire. While it has some great moments, there are also parts that seem completely pointless. At one point, the Underground goes on a wild goose chase for Cosmic Cube fragments that leads them on a frankly unnecessary jaunt into the “Ultronic Territories” ruled by Hank Pym/Ultron.
The whole thing ends with them not only getting only one fragment, but also suffering the ignominy of getting their headquarters, the Mount, blown up (Hydra Cap even resurrects Bruce Banner/Hulk just so he can break through the Mount’s defences).
Black Widow’s death at the hands of Hydra Cap also feels as though it is done more for the shock value (“Hey, we haven’t killed off anyone yet, let’s do Black Widow!”) than to advance the story. Yes, Miles needed to learn that the vision of him killing Steve Rogers could be changed, but did it HAVE to be in such a roundabout way?
Of the 10 issues, the best one is #9, which sees the heroes finally break out of their respective predicaments and put all their might into a final assault on Hydra Cap’s stronghold in Washington DC.
The battle is a glorious one, with fist-punching moments such as the Odinson finally coming to his senses and turning on Hydra Cap, the restoration of Vision and Scarlet Witch, the return of the Mighty Thor, and Sharon Carter getting some sweet, sweet revenge on Dr Faustus by poisoning him.
All this eventually leads to the emergence of Hydra Cap in a suit of armour powered by the Cosmic Cube, which then takes us to issue #10. After the great battle of issue #9, the finale feels a little anticlimactic.
You see, one of the biggest flaws of Secret Empire is the fact that the Cosmic Cube, and Kobik, remains in play throughout. As long as she around, there was always a chance that her reality-changing powers could simply change everything back to the way it was before Hydra Cap took over.
And that’s exactly what happens (though Black Widow stays dead, for some reason).
Throughout the story, there has also been another Steve Rogers wandering around what looked like some sort of dream state, which turns out to be the memory of the real Cap inside Kobik’s mindscape. In the end, he manages to convince her to stand against Hydra.
Having his best friend Bucky (Winter Soldier) bring him back is a nice touch (though the way they do it is a little convoluted), and the final battle between real Cap and Hydra Cap is quite satisfying. But after all the build-up over nine issues, it is a bit of a damper to see everything conveniently swept away by the deux ex machina that is Kobik.
As far as crossover events go, Secret Empire is not one of Marvel’s better ones, especially coming right after last year’s weak Civil War II event in which Iron Man went up against Captain Marvel. There are too many subplots and pointless sequences in Secret Empire, and even the battles don’t really live up to expectations until we get to #9.
What is the point of turning Captain America into Hydra Cap in the first place when everything is conveniently swept away in the final outcome anyway?
Secret Empire is proof that bigger isn’t always better when it comes to these sorts of events, and that having all your characters in one story is pointless if the story isn’t strong enough to support all of them in the first place. Yes, Marvel’s break from crossover events couldn’t have come any sooner.