Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire came to a close on August 30th with Secret Empire #10. As I read the final chapter, I knew I’d write something about it. I’ve written about Secret Empire a few times and I’m pretty open about my love and respect for Sam Wilson: Captain America. But I didn’t want to write something right away. Secret Empire’s finale deserved more than my knee-jerk reaction. I wanted to take time to really think about it before I tried to write anything. It was an elegant story, equal parts epic superhero crossover and haunting allegory of our times. But it didn’t stop there, daring to speak to one of our most intimate and eternal human struggles. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Thank you Nick Spencer for such a thoughtful, moving, important, and inspiring story. And thank you Marvel for backing such courageous storytelling.
Given its nature, this post will obviously contain spoilers. I won’t be discussing Secret Empire: Omega #1 nor Generations: The Americas. There may be another post sometime about where the events of Secret Empire go. But this post is about its ending, an ending I might add that’s a full resolution to the story and not a faux-ending mostly focused on setting up the next storyline. However this post will explore (and thus contain spoilers for) Captain America #25 and Secret Empire #8, 9, and 10. So read on as you’d like. You’ve been warned. I’ll even put a big, flashy picture below this paragraph so you don’t accidentally glimpse something you don’t want to see, should you decide you don’t want any spoilers. Coolio? Coolio.
In discussing Secret Empire’s finale I feel like I should start here. While I always knew intellectually that the heroes would win in the end and the real Steve Rogers would be restored I never felt it emotionally. Perhaps that’s the most foundationally impressive part of this story. For this to work as it did, Nick Spencer needed to craft a narrative where you could really feel the hopelessness. He did. Regardless of everyone’s feelings with the Hydra Cap reveal, we all knew the real Steve Rogers would return someday. But reading Secret Empire, the lead-up to the series, and all the tie-ins, it never felt that way. I think that’s why, at least in part, people were so upset over the Hydra Cap thing. The hopeless nature of the story hit hard and felt real. That’s a testament to Spencer’s talent as a writer. The corruption of Steve Rogers felt absolute and it hurt…and people got angry. Comparatively, when I read The Infinity Gauntlet, for example, as a kid I couldn’t envision how the heroes would defeat a villain who was transcendent but I knew they would. I never felt a hopeless sense of defeat. They were the heroes! Of course they’d win! That wasn’t the case reading Secret Empire. I’ve loved comic book superheroes since 1986 and this was the first time I really felt like they’d lose. Nothing else felt possible.
Nick Spencer was painfully successful in creating the sense of hopelessness that grounded the narrative. I felt it. Reading this saga was difficult at times. It was bleak. But it was also necessary! Without this crushing, soul-shaking sense of desperation and hopelessness Secret Empire couldn’t have so moved us as readers when hope returned. We can most clearly see the life-giving power of hope, it’s fundamental necessity in our lives, when we’ve authentically felt its absence.
I was so completely worn down by the hopelessness that Captain America #25 and Secret Empire #8 were euphoric reads. My heart soared as Sam Wilson returned to take up the mantle of Captain America again and rally the remaining superheroes for one final push against Hydra! At first I was hesitant. It didn’t seem real. I’d spent months seeing the heroes lose again and again, costing them more physically, emotionally, and spiritually each time (and costing me a little of that as well as a reader). But then hope began to return, ever so slowly. And it meant so much.
Sam Wilson, picking up the mantel of Captain American once more, inspires the heroes gathered in Painted Desert, Nevada. As with the entire Secret Empire story, his words simultaneously fit perfectly in the narrative, ring just as true for America today, and speak to the deepest fears and questions in our own hearts. Sam asks, “Do we give up? Turn ourselves in? Surrender? Admit they were right about us? Or do we remember who we really are? I look around here and I see the men and women who stood up when Galactus came. When the Skrulls attacked. The ones who put their own lives on the line to save others. And that’s still who you are. Maybe it’s not what people remember first anymore. Maybe it’s not how you see yourselves — but you can still be that. Might be a little rusty at it. But you still know how….Who wants to speak for those people? Who’s going to be their justice? Who wants to be their Avengers?!” YES. I was so pumped up! I couldn’t wait to re-read this issue! And that experience was a wonderful microcosm of just how important hope is. After months of a story that slowly stripped it away, I couldn’t run fast enough to glimpse it once more.
Sam’s speech wasn’t just something the remaining heroes needed to hear either. Anymore it seems like the truth of the American Dream – the idea of Liberty and Justice FOR ALL – is so far from us. It seems like so many haven’t just forgotten it but openly disdain the idea. But no matter what we feel in our hearts that’s still what this country can represent. It’s still who we are…even if we’ve forgotten. So Sam’s words inspire the heroes to rally against Hydra, to stand against their greatest hero (and their greatest symbol) completely corrupted by fascism right under their noses. Sam Wilson – Captain America – inspires them to stand and to fight for what they really are. And, as all the greatest moments in comic books do, he inspires us to do the same.
As the heroes begin to push through their despair and fight once more for those who need them something happens. Their first move was to help the Inhumans imprisoned by Hydra’s racist policies. They find the Inhumans struggling back against those who would oppress them and, as they join the fight, Sam says, “It was a simple thing really. Something we’d always known how to do, but had someone forgotten. We saw people being oppressed, hurt — and we stood with them against it. And as we did, we started to remember again — everything else we’d forgotten. What made us put our lives on the line for the good of others. What we stood for, even in the face of so much evil. Why we strived, how we struggled — how to be heroes.” It is all too easy to forget, both as a society and in our own lives, how to stand with and for those being oppressed, even though it’s always the right thing to do. In our hearts we know how…even if we’ve forgotten. As I read this comic I could feel my heart swelling! I needed to hear this every bit as much as the heroes in the Marvel Universe did.
They didn’t stop with the Inhumans though. Sam sends a message to everyone trapped in the Darkforce Dimension Bubble over New York City and those stranded on the Alpha Flight Space Station beyond the planetary defense shield. Plucked from the pages of the comics, it serves as a needed rallying cry for our times. He tells those people, and by extension all of us, “I know some part of you might want to give up hope. But this is our moment to turn things around. I know we’ve been torn apart. Broken — for so damn long — but now it’s time to ASSEMBLE.”
But…the assault didn’t work. It takes more than one rousing speech to overcome systemic sin and corruption, more than standing up once to the forces of evil. “We succumbed to the darkness. What else could we do? We had allowed ourselves to believe again — and now we were being punished for it. It felt like a cruel joke — one we’d heard too many times. We’d come up short so many times by then, we should’ve been used to it — but this cut deeper than anything we’d felt before. And with that, it was over. Or so we thought. We had fallen so many times — but this time, something different happened. Something miraculous. This time — we got back up again. This time we refused to surrender. This time we refused to accept defeat. This time we hit back.” We can’t hope to overcome corruption if we only have one shot in us. We must rise, again and again, refusing to back down. In so doing, things began to change. “We rejoiced. We celebrated. We were rewarded. And all of us would remember, for the rest of our lives — who led us there. Who inspired us. Captain America.”
The fact that Sam Wilson led the charge – reclaiming the mantle of Captain America he’d cast off in the process – is no little thing given all that had happened in his own series up to this point. Sam told Misty Knight (back in Sam Wilson: Captain America #21) that he can’t wear the flag when, despite his deep love for his country, he doesn’t support so much of what it’s doing. But in America’s darkest most corrupt moment he puts it back on to fight for the America he believes in. In the face of seemingly unbeatable corruption, he returns to lead those who will fight it. Do we have that in us? When all seems impossible, to step up and lead the charge for justice in the face of injustice? To call “evil” what is evil and “wrong” what is wrong?
With Sam leading the charge they take the fight to Hydra, united once more. The heroes fight valiantly and withstand Hydra’s hardest hits…until Hydra Cap arrives, wearing a Cosmic Cube-powered version of the armor Tony Stark once built for Steve Rogers (when a Super-Soldier Serum illness left him paralyzed (back in 1995)). To be honest, I’ve always felt “Avengers” was an odd name for a group of superheroes. It’s not something I think of often but I do, from time to time. “The Defenders”? Sure. “Guardians of the Galaxy”? Perfect. Those seem like heroic ideals to me – defending and guarding. But avenging always felt a little too dark, a little too angry for me. However when Clint calls out “Avengers Assemble!” and they charge Hydra Cap it felt right. There have been so many killed, heroes and civilians alike, in this conflict. There have been so many herded and imprisoned, discriminated against and oppressed, and in this moment these heroes were their Avengers. It fit.
Yet their combined might wasn’t enough to vanquish Hydra Cap. In his victory, he sought to change the very nature of history itself, bending it and shaping it to his will regardless of what had actually happened. This hits frighteningly close to home living in an age of “Alternative Facts” and cries of “Fake News” against anyone speaking truth to power.
As we look around our country and we see people arguing over Confederate statues (statues first erected by the Cult of the Lost Cause to intentionally skew the future’s sense of the past and make the treasonous actions of the Confederacy into something heroic) or people fanatically crying out “Make America Great Again!” (implying that there was something noble in our past (something embodied by ideas of racism, sexism, and xenophobia) we’ve given up and must be reclaimed) we see how history itself becomes a battle ground for the soul of this country. So it’s all the more frightening when Hydra Cap uses the Cosmic Cube to erase the heroes and rewrite history. “He remade everything in his image. In Hydra’s image. He changed who we were, what we believed — and he changed everything we had ever been. Our history, our notions of where we came from. He gazed out on it and was pleased. He saw a vision close to perfection. But something was missing. Hope still survived.” This couldn’t be more gut-wrenching because this is a battle we are fighting now.
But, just like the heroes of the Marvel Universe, we too still have hope. Their hope came in the form of Sam Wilson, unaffected by Hydra Cap’s retooling of history and symbolizing that no matter how much someone tries to distort the truth, it can’t be completely rewritten. As these two dramatically different Captain Americas stood facing each Spencer writes, “In that moment, facing down unspeakable evil, we remembered. Remembered how he did the same. How he never wavered. We honored his legacy — by forging a new path.” Following the path laid down by Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson returned. Sam Wilson led them. And what happened? What happened when everyone stood together and opposed the fascist corruption and systemic sin that was Hydra? The real Steve Rogers returned. The symbol, the truth of what American stands for, the living embodiment of the American Dream rose from the sinful corruption that had enveloped him and led them to victory. The symbolism is clear. When we stand together against fascist corruption in the name of justice America can be reborn.
When the Red Skull used her to create this Hydra-fied version of Captain America, Kobik, the sentient Cosmic Cube, hid her memory of the real Steve Rogers away. Realizing she had done something wrong, and with the true Steve Rogers there to help her, Kobik found the courage to set things right. He inspired her just as he has always inspired us. She tells him, “We can hide here! He won’t find us –” and Steve replies, “No Kobik — listen to me — that won’t work. I’ve been fighting fascists my entire life and I promise you there is nowhere you can run or hide that will keep you safe from them. There’s only one thing you can do. You stand, and you fight. I know you’re scared. I don’t blame you. But if you really feel like you can’t face him alone — let me help you.” Hell yes! There really is no middle ground when it comes to fascism, hatred, and oppression. You either oppose it or you endorse and support it, whether openly or through your apathy.
With his support, Kobik brings the real Steve Rogers back into existence. The ensuing battle between Captain America and Hydra Cap perfectly embodies the battle over the American Dream’s place in our country and our hearts today. Spencer writes, “It was more than a battle between two men…it was a war for the heart and soul of a people. It would decide the kind of future we would live in. What our dreams would be. They were so perfectly matched. Two warriors fighting with the same motions…the same unbreakable will. It felt like it might never end. The world watched. Our champion did not falter. He was a man at war with his worst nightmare. A warped and twisted reflection of himself, and all he stood for. And his struggle inspired us — reminded us that there can only be one choice when confronted by this kind of evil. You do not run. You do not hide. You stand — and you fight. You stand — and you fight. Stand — and fight. Stand — and fight. Until you cannot stand any longer. This is how you are tested. And how your enemy is tested. They had come to power on the back of a lie. A lie some of them even believed…that others let them believe. They had made us feel small, weak, fearful. They had reveled in their strength. Their power over us. But like he had promised — it was time to see the truth. They had never been worthy.” WOW. If it hadn’t before, in this closing chapter Nick Spencer transcends the genre. I mean that with all sincerity. This isn’t just a great comic book or a great superhero story. This is the type of story that can inspire us for ages to come. This is the stuff of great literature.
I think it’s important to recognize the full scope of what Nick Spencer has done here too. This battle doesn’t speak only to the America we find before us in 2017. Secret Empire’s allegorical reach is far larger than just the battle against the forces that gained a dangerous sense of faux-legitimacy in Trump’s election. This is an eternal struggle we fight through history, on fields as large as national identity and as intimate as what plays out in our heart and souls. This is the battle between the best of us and the worst of us. This is the battle over who we all choose to be. In Secret Empire Nick Spencer has given us a superhero epic that will stand the test of time, a crossover that will entertain and excite readers forever. He also gave us an allegory to illuminate where America finds itself in 2017. And he crafted a story that speaks to the eternal battle against the forces that want to corrupt the best versions of ourselves. It’s the struggle to find the hope that gives us the courage to fight on and create the best possible world we can, no matter how many times we stumble or what forces conspire against us.
For us to make the world a better place we must believe it’s possible to do so. For that, we need hope. After showing us with unrelenting honesty a world without hope, Secret Empire shows us it is only in hope where we find the potential for salvation. “The war had been won. Hope had carried the day. And what had once seemed impossible — was now the moment we lived in.” Yes! YES! Yes, yes, yes, yes!!! This is one of the most significant lines I’ve ever read in any piece of literature. This illustrates the vital nature of hope. In everything from our struggles with our own inner demons to the struggle to right the wrongs in this country to the struggle to build the Kingdom of God and live in the beauty of the world radically transformed in the image of God this is what we need to understand. I’m not talking about an intellectual understanding either. I’m talking about an emotional understanding. We need to feel this sort of hope in every beat of our hearts, allowing it to fuel our actions until we live in a world radically transformed, until something that once seemed impossible becomes the world we live in.