There’s a lot that can be said about Marvel’s various crossover events, retcons, and relaunches over the past decade. It’s now trendy for fans to roll their collective eyes at yet another major event that promises to shake the foundations of the Marvel universe, as if that doesn’t happen every other week. To some extent, Marvel does rely heavily, if not excessively, on crossover events, either to raise the profile of certain characters or establish a new status quo. The success of these efforts vary wildly, from the blockbuster success of the original Civil War to the endlessly forgettable Clone Saga.
Within this environment of cynicism and aversion to crossover events, Nick Spencer and Steve McNiven’s Secret Empire is up against unreasonably unfair odds. It’s a story that has been building for a while, having begun after the events of Avengers: Standoff. However, it’s a story that Captain America fans, and Marvel fans in general, are already prepared to despise.
That predetermined sentiment has some basis in the growing aversion to crossover events, but that hate got a gamma-powered boost with the shocking reveal/retcon that Captain America is a secret Hydra agent. That revelation is on par with Thanos revealing he’s Tony Stark’s biological father. It’s both shocking and infuriating with some eagerly awaiting answers while others complain that their childhood is ruined.
In both cases, Spencer and McNiven have an uphill battle with Secret Empire. They can’t do anything about those who are already determined to hate anything that doesn’t involve Nazi punching, but they can still make the most of Secret Empire’s potential and the potential is there. Secret Empire #1 finally unleashes the full extent of Hydra’s subversion efforts. While it’s sure to trigger those who Hulk out at the idea of Captain America being a secret Hydra agent, there’s a wealth of content and substance.
Those who can look past the lack of Nazi punching will uncover a world that offers much more than the stand heroes versus fascist narrative. Spencer dares to add a bit more balance to the conflict and when one side of that equation are regularly equated with Nazis, that’s both bold and risky. It’s also necessary within the context of Secret Empire. It’s not enough to just have Hydra raise their flag over the White House, declare themselves rulers of the world, and spend every other moment twirling their collective mustaches in triumph. It’s necessary to explore the kind of world they now rule and why some buy into it.
Spencer doesn’t water it down, either. The new world revealed in Secret Empire is a fascist, authoritarian world where children are taught the glory of Hydra and government-sponsored bullies arrest people for daring to scoff at such glory. The first part of the story doesn’t even involve any heroes. It just shows how a few school-age children live their lives in a world now dominated by Hydra. Those lives, as well as the order they now regularly hail, provide an important context that gives greater weight to the conflict.
Hydra may be fascist and anything fascist tends to elicit Hulk-like outrage by most, but the order they offer is tempting to some extent. Throughout Secret Empire #1, Spencer shows some of the benefits of that order. There’s a strong, well-equipped army armed with ridiculous Hydra weapons to enforce the peace. There’s a robust, orderly economy that’s rich in jobs and opportunity. Those who buy into it gain a level of security and certainty that doesn’t require mind control to appreciate.
That’s an important component of the narrative because it adds a certain level of complexity to the conflict. It’s not just a matter of underdog heroes taking on the big Hydra bullies who spend their days bathing in the tears of sick orphans. Secret Empire #1 dares to offer two sides of that conflict. Usually, when one of those sides is an outright fascist, there isn’t much to debate that doesn’t involve lung-bursting outrage. By ignoring that unavoidable outrage, Spencer and McNiven set up a uniquely daunting challenge for those who oppose Hydra’s new world order.
The circumstances are pretty dire, as they tend to be for those on the other side of a fascist conflict. Those who play by the rules in a fascist state don’t lose their freedom, their lives, or even their internet connection. For those resisting this style of patriotic tyranny, it’s a test of will and resolve. Unlike previous conflicts, there’s no rousing speech by Captain America to inspire the heroes. For once, the rousing speeches are working against them.
Cap being on the fascist side of the conflict in Secret Empire completely flips the script. This time, the iconic leader and pillar of virtue is working for Hydra. His style is not like that of the Red Skull or Baron Zemo. He still carries himself as a patriot, seeking to preserve the values he believes are right. It doesn’t just add yet another daunting element for the Avengers or any other hero seeking to oppose Hydra. It gives the overall conflict a dramatic impact that can only happen through Captain America.
In the same way that generations of Captain America fans who played with toy shields as kids refuse to believe his betrayal, the heroes now fighting Hydra share in that disbelief. They look for any possible excuse, clinging to the belief that the Captain America they know and love is still there. Spencer makes it clear, though, that there’s no mind control, evil clone, or Skrull agent at work here. The Captain America now leading the “Hail Hydra!” cheers is the same Captain America they’ve always known. It’s gut-wrenching on a level that no amount of Nazi punching can alleviate.
The fact that the context and structure of Secret Empire is so dramatically gut-wrenching is what gives the story such strength. The details and organization of that story are somewhat loose in certain areas, but the impact is still there. Those still determined to hate Secret Empire and everything that set it up will probably not change their opinion. Anyone who still despises the idea of Captain America being a fascist will still be sick their stomach seeing him salute Hydra’s flag.
Spencer and McNiven take a huge risk in Secret Empire #1, daring to make a conflict that involves fascists feel balanced. While that balance is somewhat fragile, it still works. It creates a story that feels compelling and dramatic. It won’t make anyone pro-fascist, but it will offer plenty of intrigue.