Best Shots Review: SECRET EMPIRE #5 Leads Readers "Farther Away From Hope and Resolution"

Marvel Comics June 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Secret Empire #5
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Andrea Sorrentino, Rod Reis, Joshua Cassara and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

“With all that we had lost, this is what we clung to. What we had left. The bonds of friendship, of brotherhood. The knowledge that even in our suffering, we were not alone.”

We’ve reached the midway point of Secret Empire, but we really feel no closer to the end. In the last issue, Nick Spencer reminded us why he got this job in the first place - he can find the core of these characters and craft meaningful moments with them. But it’s tough, for creators and audiences, to be bombarded with that all the time. So this issue takes a breath, but in doing so it trades those emotional stakes for some cheap tricks and as a result, the event toes the line of quality again. A big part of that is the mish-mash of artists, in particular another uneven outing by Andrea Sorrentino.

Part of the reason that the last issue worked so well was that it brought two of the main story threads together. To that point, we really hadn’t seen the major players in the same room together. Obviously, that’s a function of the story, but it allowed Spencer to have a bit more freedom in how he explored the dynamics of the characters during the face-off with Hank Pym/Ultron. This issue goes back to the more separate threads that we’ve seen previously. Weirdly, there’s a lot going on and at the same time, kind of nothing at all. Other-Steve is (mostly) having a grand ol’ time with Sam Wilson and Rick Jones (though it could be Bucky, it’s not really clear). Black Widow has been captured and the Champions are set to save her. And that’s not even getting into the falsehoods traded by all sides: Tony’s lying to his underground allies. Beast is lying to Cap. Cap is lying to Thor.

Spencer is all about reveals in this issue that reframe the story to this point. Some of it works really well. Tony’s deceit in particular really breaks these underground Avengers in a way that underlines everything in Ultron’s speech from last issue. Meanwhile, it feels like we’re getting closer to understanding exactly what is going on with the second Steve Rogers as it seems like his world might exist within the mind of the old man that Widow and the Champions save. Some stuff feels a little tacked on, though. Cap’s scene with Beast is little more than posturing, and is well-worn territory for Spencer at this point. I don’t think we need to keep underlining that Cap has a lot of power right now. The Red Skull showing up in the dreamworld is fine, but it lacks any punch because we still don’t have any context for what those scenes are. And the big reveal at the end (which I won’t spoil here) is a bit empty. By this very event’s nature, the Marvel Universe has been upended. But that means that we don’t necessarily have the context necessary to understand what these reveals really mean save that we’ll have to buy the next issue to find out.

The art really undercuts any meaningful work that Spencer could do. Three distinct art styles are shoehorned in here, stripping this event of any sort of visual consistency. Joshua Cassara’s work is up first in the Widow sequences, and he makes some strides over his last outing. He’s got a better handle on the characters, especially Black Widow, but his Champions seem to be a little bit off-model compared to their appearances elsewhere. Rod Reis’ work throughout the series has been an accepted counterpoint to the main action considering that the dreamworld that second Steve inhabits exists maybe entirely separately. But he takes a hit here. While the mood of his pages works well with the narration, his characters are a bit boxy and stiff. But it’s Andrea Sorrentino who handles the bulk of the artwork, and my previous criticisms of his work still stand. I appreciate Sorrentino’s experiments, in particular the way he plays with layout and color. One of his strongest pages here during a scene featuring Hercules, as Herc KO’s the Gorgon with a blaring red explosion of energy that screams catharsis. But elsewhere, Sorrentino’s characters remain lumpy and ill-defined. Their expressions are almost meaningless because they’re hard to parse out. Sorrentino definitely gets the general hopeless vibe of the event across, but he still doesn’t feel like a great fit for a big event book.

There have been some interesting theories surrounding this event that tie it back to many points in Cap’s history, notably the dark reality glimpsed during Ed Brubaker’s Captain America: Reborn miniseries. In that book, Steve Rogers witnesses a shadowy figure reaching for Mjolnir, the heroes are broken and War of the Worlds-esque ships cause mass destruction. It’s eerily similar to what we get in this book, and considering the long game Spencer’s played to get us to this point, there’s almost no way it’s a coincidence. This issue is utilitarian in that it asks even more questions and provides no answers, forcing those who seek them to hang on for another issue. If Marvel’s event format has been trying to ape the success of Civil War, they’d do well to learn one simple lesson from that book: less is more. While the event took over the entire publishing line, it was over in six fairly succinct issues. By comparison, Secret Empire is starting to feel really long and drawn out. Couple that pacing with inconsistent art, and it's unclear just what readers are supposed to show up for. Spencer keeps teasing us with hope and resolution, but keeps seemingly leading us farther away from it.

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