Comics are at their very best when they take you on a journey that makes you feel a broad spectrum of emotions. A good comic sets up a bold premise and then crafts a plot around that central idea, but a really great comic draws you into its pages and become deeply invested in its characters' fates.
All images: Marvel
For all of the issues that have been raised about Marvel's Secret Empire, from its transforming Captain America into a fascist Nazi-analogue to its questionable characterisations of characters such as the Scarlet Witch, there are still things about the story that are compelling, at least on paper. Steve Rogers becoming the world's greatest villain? That's a fun concept. The earth's mightiest heroes becoming freedom fighters? That's cool as hell. Ultron becoming the voice of reason during a time of global panic and chaos? That's brilliant.
The thing that's kept Secret Empire's bright spots from shining as they should has been the event's reliance on gloom and dread as the go-to emotions it uses to convey just how seriously we're supposed to take it. That journey? That broad spectrum of emotions that makes a comic fantastic? They have been largely absent from the event so far.
This week's Secret Empire is trying to fix that and honestly? It succeeds.
As far as plans for worldwide domination go, Steve Rogers' has been what people in the supervillain community often refer to as machiavellian. Given the world and the larger galaxy beyond is heavily populated with all manner of superheroes who'd immediately fight back against his and Hydra's takeover of the US, Steve comes up with a strategy to divide and conquer them all according to their power sets.
Street level heroes such as Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and a few other heavy hitters such as Doctor Strange, Cloak and Dagger have been trapped in New York City, which is itself trapped in a localised pocket of the Darkforce dimension. Cosmic level heroes such as Captain Marvel and America Chavez who could easily ruin Steve's plans were lured into space, and are currently locked outside of a planet-wide force-shield preventing them from coming back. Everybody else is either on the run (the Champions), some manner of possessed (the Avengers), or just isolationist enough to pretend that everything's OK (we see you, X-Men).
At the centre of all this is a tight-knit cluster of freedom fighters locked in a desperate race against Hydra to collect fragments of the shattered cosmic cube. Hydra used the cosmic cube to rewrite the reality that led to Secret Empire, and so it stands to reason that the cube can be used to undo it. The Resistance has had a few bits of luck here and there collecting fragments for themselves, but as Secret Empire #8 opens, they know they're still at a disadvantage.
Hydra has more fragments, and the Resistance is clearly outgunned, but through Sam Wilson, the group's leader, Nick Spencer gives voice to the kind of faith and gumption that fuels all resistance movements that rise up in the face of oppressive regimes. The odds might be against them — and hell are they — but what chance does anyone have at a brighter future if they aren't willing to at least try and use what little they have to keep fighting the good fight?
With a Cosmic Fragment clutched in his hand, Sam Wilson singlehandedly flies up into the atmosphere with every intention of using the fragment's limited reality-warping abilities to break a hole in the force-shield. There's a palpable, burning hope that's visible in everyone's faces as they watch Sam, decked out in his Captain America gear, literally reaching to touch the sky.
And then he gets shot through the chest and falls into the ocean.
As Sam plunges into the inky deep, presumably about to die, back in New York City, a powerful new spell that Doctor Strange was certain was tear apart the Darkforce prison enshrouding the city fails. Up in space, Captain Marvel and the Rocket Raccoon devise a plan to strap nullifier bombs capable of hurting Galactus to the Alpha Flight space station and hurl it into the force-shield in order to break it. They throw the space station, the space station blows up, and the shield is unharmed.
In the course of a few panels, that same miasma of dread and gloom that's textured Secret Empire from the beginning comes rushing back with a vengeance as everyone really begins to accept the idea that it's all over. But it isn't. Sam Wilson bursts out of the ocean alive and well thanks to the power of the Cosmic Fragment.
Way up high, Quasar, the single person who's managed to put a dent in the force-shield, wakes up in Alpha Flight's medical bay fully rested after nearly dying early in the event. Saying very little, she drifts into the vacuum of space, takes square aim at the shield and proceeds to blast the hell out of it with every ounce of her being. Before, she'd barely managed to push the shield to about half of its potential capacity , but this time? She wrecks the thing.
These are the sorts of cheesy heroic scenes we've all come to roll our eyes at when they play out in cinematic adaptations of comic books, but in Secret Empire they feel like a much needed salve soothing away the relentless burns the event has revelled in spitting out so far. There is a point at which watching the good guys run up against brick wall after brick wall when you, as a reader, begin to feel a sort of existential fatigue regarding a story.
Even if you know at the back of your mind that everything's going to work out (these are comic books, remember) Secret Empire has at times felt punishingly dour because of the general lack of hope present in the books. Even when characters verbalised their belief that they'd win, it's different to actually see those beliefs borne out on the page because then you have something to hold onto — something to place your confidence in about the story being told.
In its darkest moments, Secret Empire has rounded up minorities and sent them to internment camps, seemingly killed off beloved heroes, and aped the darker elements of our own current political climate all so that we don't forget just how bad the enemy is. This week, the the event took a long overdue moment to breathe and remember that there has to be a careful balance to the narrative worlds that we build if we want people to keep coming back to them.
Stories such as this don't have to go out of their way to hold readers' hands in an attempt to give them a case of the feel-goods. But an event like Secret Empire needed an issue like this to cut through its own darkness and remind us all that that at the end of the day, superhero comics can still be fun.