The Avengers try to keep hope alive.
For all its flaws, Secret Empire deserves a lot of credit for showing a much greater ambition than is usually found in Marvel’s annual summer events. This is a story with devastating and far-reaching consequences for our heroes. It’s also a story that strives to be about something deeper and more meaningful than one team of costumed superhumans punching another. That ambition continues to fuel the series, even n issues like this where the plot only inches along.
Secret Empire #6 revisits a number of ongoing story threads, but for the most part this issue is devoted to chronicling the epic showdown between Cap’s Hydra forces and the Avengers holed up in their desert hideaway. From the beginning, the odds feel very stacked against Hawkeye and his team, as this issue hammers home the idea that the Avengers are divided and and feuding precisely when they need to be united. There’s some strong character work to be had in the build-up to and during that confrontation. Tony Stark in particular stands out, with Nick Spencer using this battle as a means of revisiting the lingering trauma of Civil War and Tony’s many failed efforts to live up to the standard set by Steve Rogers.
Secret Empire continues to be a story that speaks very directly to our current world. That’s easily its greatest appeal. This may be a tale of costumed heroes fighting an ancient terrorist organization, but it’s also a story about the failures of one generation haunting the next and the struggle to maintain hope in hopeless times. The goal with Secret Empire and the transition into Marvel Legacy is clearly to bring hope and light back into the Marvel Universe in the same way Rebirth did for DC. The difference being that this is a much more prolonged and painful process in the Marvel U, one that reflects the murkier arena in which these characters operate. With the series moving into its second half now, the conflict grows ever more bleak even as a small light begins forming at the end of the tunnel.
In short, this is one of those comics that satisfies more on an emotional level than a visceral one. Spencer’s focus on the need for hope and strong moral values in the face of adversity resonates, but it doesn’t quite hide the fact that the narrative doesn’t progress much in this chapter. The Vanishing Point scenes in particular are beginning to drag. We’re at the point where it’s becoming difficult to stay invested in the saga of “the other” Steve Rogers when we don’t know how literally to take these scenes. Not for the first time, I find myself glad that the shipping schedule is so rapid, because it would be that much more difficult to tolerate the haphazard pacing and scattered focus of Secret Empire if it were only shipping once-a-month.
The other problem here is that the art quality is inconsistent, resulting in what is probably the weakest chapter of Secret Empire so far. When Leinil Yu is on his A-game, the book looks great. There are several epic, satisfying scenes of carnage as the big battle unfolds. However, in other cases Yu’s artwork feels cluttered and loses its usual level of detail. Not to mention the fact that Yu doesn’t always thrive in dialogue-heavy scenes. The Cap/Iron Man confrontation suffers especially in that regard. Though to Yu’s credit, the fact that Tony Stark currently exists as a holographic head atop a suit of armor doesn’t really help matters.
Joshua Cassara continues to pitch in on the Black Widow/Champions-focused scenes. While hardly as detailed as the better Yu-rendered pages, Cassara’s scenes do set a nice tone as Widow’s pragmatism clashes with the idealistic outlook of characters like Wasp and Spider-Man. And while the true nature of the Vanishing Point scenes remains unclear, they do have just the right touch of the fantastical courtesy of Rod Reis.