Secret Empire begins and ends with a struggle that warps, re-warps, and obscures reality to the utmost.
The dramatic rise and spectacular fall of an empire is one of those rare narratives that can be just as dramatic in real life as it is in fiction. From Ancient Rome to Star Wars, the story behind an empire has an undeniable impact on the human psyche, as well as the annuls of history (real and imagined). Every empire is unique in how it rises, grows, prospers, and falls. Sometimes it plays out over the course of centuries. Sometimes it happens over the course of a few decades. Marvel, with its ever-changing landscape, tries to squeeze that story into ten comic books.
Given the scope of empires, as a concept that's pretty daunting for anyone not equipped with Reed Richards' mind or Tony Stark's gadgets. Nick Spencer and Steve McNieven may not have such resources, but they've made every moment count in Secret Empire. It's a story that taps into real world fears about powerful individuals seizing power and imposing tyranny under the guise of order. It evokes all sorts of passions, reservations, and arguments on message boards. That alone is a testament to the scope and scale that empires carry, as a story.
Secret Empire is not just about Hydra taking over the world. It's not just about Captain America betraying the Avengers either, although that is the emotional gut punch that makes it so controversial. These elements feed into that larger narrative of an empire coming to power, taking advantage of a vulnerable moment in time, and trying to shape the course of history. The ascension of Hydra and Captain America into this position is established. Now, the downfall is underway.
For nine issues, the story sets up various plot-lines that lead to numerous skirmishes. It's not an exhibition game anymore. Both sides are carrying themselves like a couple prize fighters entering the last round. They each bear the scars of all the blows they've taken. They make clear that there will be no judge's decision. One of them is going to get knocked out. It's just a matter of who can land the finishing blow. In Secret Empire #10, that blow finally lands with an impact that has major implications -- and huge reverberations.
The rise of Hydra and the Hydra-affiliated Steve Rogers centers around a reality-warping power capable of making good into evil, right into wrong, and making Deadpool less annoying. Any story that builds itself around that kind of power risks going too far and needing more reality-warping power to fix. It goes beyond resorting to another deus ex machina, especially when that same device is used to set everything up in the first place.
From the beginning of Secret Empire Spencer makes clear that a certain amount of warping will be necessary to resolve the story. There's just no way an empire as large as Hydra's can rise, fall, and leave a meaningful impact within ten issues of a series. For the most part, the story strikes an appropriate balance between confronting the reality-warping forces behind the story and using them to defeat Hydra. Those involved in delivering that final blow even throw in some Loki-level cunning.
It isn't just a matter of all the heroes gathering in one place and collectively beating up an over-powered villain. The Hydra-affiliated Steve Rogers is not Onslaught, Thanos, or some cosmic space god. He's someone with which every hero in the Marvel universe has an emotional connection.
It's that connection that makes the very concept of Steve Rogers becoming a fascist feel so untenable to begin with. That's like making Frank Castle the Kingpin or Emma Frost a nun. It's so utterly antithetical to the core of the character that it just feels wrong for everyone involved. In a sense, both the characters in the story and those who know Captain America as the ultimate enemy of fascism are on the same page, in terms of emotional overtones. Nobody reading or participating in the story can accept a reality where Steve Rogers is, and always has been, a fascist.
By the end of Secret Empire #10, that untenable feeling is still there, to some extent. While the story does end up having to warp and re-warp reality to some extent, it stops short of completely undoing everything the Cosmic Cube changed. Certain characters stay dead. Certain places remain destroyed. Steve Rogers isn't the ultimate fascist anymore. A good chunk of the story, along with the best aspects of McNieven's art, is spent giving Rogers a chance to literally attack the fascist monster that Hydra created. While it's as satisfying as it often is when a fascist gets defeated, some of those feelings still linger.
Even though Secret Empire #10 crafts as concise a conclusion it can, given the cosmic forces involved, it still carries a distressing sentiment that may plague Captain America fans the same way the Clone Saga plagues Spider-Man fans. Regardless of the details, it's impossible to get around that Steve Rogers became a fascist. It doesn't matter that cosmic forces were involved. The very concept that such a story is even possible and a character must move forward with that kind of burden just evokes too many conflicting feelings.
The overall structure of the story still works with respect to showing the rise and fall of Hydra's empire. Secret Empire #10 even helps streamline some of the confusing, disjointed elements that are scattered throughout the previous nine issues. However, the manner in which it ends, the feelings surrounding it, and the prospect of moving forward from such a reality-shattering event are still mixed. It doesn't help that too much is narrated and too little is said in the end. It also doesn't help that some of the side-plots in the story don't connect as strongly to others and don't add to the overall impact.
These details, however, don't take too much away from the bigger picture surrounding Secret Empire. Spencer still succeeds at striking the necessary balance that's so hard to achieve when crafting a story that requires a complete deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of the space-time continuum. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment.
That accomplishment, however, will be forever lost in the stigma that Secret Empire will inevitably carry. While it might not be on the same level as the original Clone Saga, it will still be the story in which Marvel makes Captain America a fascist. It doesn't matter if someone makes a deal with Mephisto to ensure everyone in the Marvel universe forgets about it entirely. The fact that it's still a story that got told in the first place, striking all the wrong emotional chords in the process, will plague it for the foreseeable future. If every fallen empire seeks to leave its mark, then Hydra definitely leaves theirs, albeit not for the reasons they probably intended.