Secret Empire #10
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten, Matthew Wilson, Rod Reis, Dave Marquez, Paco Medina, Juan Vlasco, Jesus Aburtov and Ron Lim
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10
“In the end, we overcame. We lost so much, but we never lost hope.”
As the conclusion to a different story by a different writer, Secret Empire #10 might actually work. But Nick Spencer’s denouement on hope and perseverance in the face of evil falls flat on its face. It’s lip service to an idea that wasn’t earned by the entirety of his narrative to this point and flies in the face of who and what Captain America is. It only delivers on utilizing the deus ex machina that remained at the heart of the story all along, and forcing a retread of the same tired Civil War imagery that Marvel’s been pushing for a decade now. We. Get. It.
Marvel’s approach to marketing this title was essentially to just shout “wait and see” over any criticism of the story or its execution when in the end, savvy readers and critics had already picked apart the paper-thin plot. Spencer isn’t a bad writer in general, but his style isn’t suited for grandiose storytelling. It’s telling that the best moments in this event have come from smaller scenes with an emphasis on humor, rather than the overwrought, Jonathan Hickman-esque narration over montage fight scenes. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, Spencer may be a smart and snappy writer, but his style is not particularly poetic.
One of the goals of event books is to double down on the basic tenets of the Marvel Universe - to remind readers that no matter what’s been going on in the time between events, the core the Marvel U still exists. But the Marvel Universe of the past 10 years is in an endless cycle of beating those tenets into the ground. You can’t keep telling the same basic story over and over and expect readers to keep coming back, and the constant retreads have limited the ways in which writers and editors can craft a meaningful narrative.
Nick Spencer has an unenviable task with this book, because there’s one trick at the center of it. Suddenly, the only way to create drama is to take the narrative in directions that are dead ends, check in on them when it's convenient, and then drop them. Is Hank Pym/Ultron still amassing an army? Are Black Widow and Rick Jones still dead? Atlantis is still at least partially destroyed? Does New Tian still exist? We know Las Vegas is still gone, at least. Spencer wants to sell us on some message of hope, but he didn’t really do the legwork to get us there.
And that’s what strikes me as the least “Captain America” thing about this event. Captain America is about standing and fighting, that much is true. But Spencer’s characters have mostly gotten by on a lot of luck. Good thing they were able to copy the shard of Cosmic Cube. The Champions are pretty lucky that Taskmaster and Black Ant let them out. Good thing Thor decided to switch sides just as Magneto decided to attack. I understand that sometimes stories are built on moments like these, but the way that everything in the last two issues hinges on them is unsatisfying to say the least, especially as the narration essentially says “well, we hoped really hard that we would win and then we basically did!” Was that worth all the build-up?
For their part, the art team does show up. Steve McNiven turns in a better issue than almost every other artist in this event, save for Leinil Francis Yu’s work in #4. I’ve noted before that one of the things that makes an event where the whole world is upside-down feel more grounded is presenting the Marvel Universe in as classic or traditional a style as possible. McNiven’s work with Captain America and various other the characters lends that dramatic sense of importance to the book. It says “make no mistake, this is the Marvel Universe you know” in a way that artists like Andrea Sorrentino weren’t able to deliver. And he gets to work with some iconic moments here. Of course, several panels are straight-up retreads of his imagery from Civil War but the big double-page splash certainly stands on its own. McNiven’s draftsmanship is really on display. Good Steve’s return is a huge moment, and McNiven delivers.
I like what’s going on in Rod Reis’ pages, too. It’s unclear if the large “STEVE” lettering is his doing or the work of Travis Lanham but it goes a long way to sell us on the otherworldliness of Kobik’s mind. The juxtaposition of McNiven’s art versus Reis’ works really well toward painting a clearer picture of these two distinct worlds. A variety of other artists throw their hats into the ring to help out with the rest of the book but there are no moments so big as to take anything away from the main event. For once, it actually feels like the varying art styles actually work together to create the final product.
Secret Empire heralds a new era for the Marvel Universe and it’s... mostly the same as the old one. On the whole, the event didn’t escalate properly, its conclusion didn’t answer many lingering questions, and technically, it’s still not even over. The Vanishing Point has some context now, but it feels weird that those Generations one-shots have already been coming out. It’s hard not to feel like this event won’t just be one lost to time, a plotline better served by not talking about it than by leaning into it the way Marvel has with Civil War over the years.
Nick Spencer deserves credit for trying to corral Secret Empire into something workable, but this story's pacing and escalation was overwhelmed by the scope of everything. On some level, we expect our heroes to win, but we want those wins to feel earned. The status quo right now may not be all that different, but the Marvel Universe feels broken, stuck in a cycle of chasing the ghosts of past successes. Hopefully, "Legacy" will represent a truly new beginning, because it feels like we’ve lost so much. May we never lose hope.