In response to Charles Pulliam-Moore’s post “It Looks Like The Wrong Person Died in Marvel’s Secret Empire” article, I wrote a partial version of this initially as a response, but it grew into a full article in its own right. I have cleaned it up, rewritten it, and added content. (Spoilers for Secret Empire #7.)
It’s not like this is a surprise. Black Widow’s death at Hydra Cap’s hands was telegraphed. The theme of those he kills (since this story began in the Captain America: Steve Rogers book, and has continued into this event), is that he is killing all of his closest allies and friends: Rick Jones, Jack Flagg, and Black Widow are all off the top of my head, but there are others he has at least tried to kill (such as Bucky).
These are Cap’s closest people; he works with them the most and has the deepest relationships with them. Killing Black Widow, who has been a long-time and very storied partner with him both in the comics and in the movies, is his ultimate betrayal of character. Clearly this is not Cap. It is with this murder that it has become completely clear that he either has gone completely evil with no chance of redemption or simply is not and never was the real Captain America. (There is, after all, a-not-evil Steve Rogers in Secret Empire portrayed with a beard and goodness in his soul, running around dressed like a marooned plane crash victim on what appears to be the Island on LOST, or is maybe purgatory or hell, so he quite clearly is the “real” Captain America.)
Black Widow’s isn’t some senseless death, random and meaningless. Captain America killing Black Widow means that Captain America cannot possibly be Captain America. If he killed any other character (besides Sam Wilson, aka the “other” Captain America, or Bucky), then thematically, yeah, it’d be random and much less powerful. After all, with the comments I’ve seen, people really are all quite upset by Widow’s death. Whether you love it or hate it, it is causing a reaction. And a lot of writers stick to a variation of an axiom that if a story affects people, makes them angry, then the story did its job. It affected the readers; whether or not they like it is a different matter. A strong emotion was evoked and many people are talking about it, so under the axiom, Spencer succeeded in what he was trying to do with his story.
I don’t love the story line. I don’t hate it. I’ve read the two main series (but none of the tie-ins with the exception of a couple that bled into long-running series such as Avengers and Ultimates) that construct this “event”. My overall opinion is that it was important in this time and day, it was responsible, to use the comics medium and the event model to portray an America corrupted from within by an evil leader and the impacts that this has on the rest of the world geopolitically. Why? Because Trump. Most people would be hard-pressed to compliment anything Trump and his administration has done (and failed to do). Kids growing up, unfortunately, do need to read a story about how even if there is a corrupt, lying, racist, fascistic leader ruling this country that everyone else in the country can fight back against the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad-hair-piece-day sinister leader. Kids need to see that, even in the face of something as horrible and terrifying as Hydra under MurderCap, these evils can be vanquished, but only if everyone else gets together and fights the evil leader and his hench administration.
The world, the USA, reality itself, are terrifying enough right now. Being able to escape into a comic book where the situation is more horrifying on a whole other order, and seeing the heroes fight against a corrupted system, after it has taken political power, that is reminiscent of their own situation, is a really important thing for kids to experience. That’s part of what comic books are for! And if you look at TV right now? It’s failing where comics are succeeding. Shows like Veep and House of Cards pale in comparison to the insanity, cynicism, and corruption currently occurring in the American government. (The show writers have admitted as much in various interviews.) So while TV is failing to give us an escape, a brief respite in reflective fiction, from our “nightmare now” to a fantasy world of greatly vaster evil and more powerful villains and heroes, comic books are not.
What other fictive medium is succeeding in addressing the current administration in the US? I personally think that Spencer’s work in creating Secret Empire deserves some credit and respect for tackling such a difficult subject for what is essentially a PG or all ages audience. Reading MurderCap destroying the foundations of this country is a release from, but also an examination of, the hellish political and international geopolitical situation in the US and spreading around in many countries over the globe.
Even if kids don’t get this level of analogy, mirroring, symbolism, subtext, et. al., it does not matter. They still learn the lesson from the book without being able to perform literary critical analysis.
It’s 2017, and we live in scary times. It’s especially scary for kids because they are oversaturated with the disturbing political state not just on television but also on their computers, tablets, phones, podcasts, and social media. So many children are terrified, petrified, right now due to a situation out of their hands. If they get to see a much worse fantasy scenario play out, getting to see their favorite comic book and movie heroes stomping the shit out of the fascist villains, then that’s psychologically healthy for them. It’s kind of the point of reading. (Well, one of the big points of reading.) Hopefully reading these comics will give them a renewed sense of hope once it is all done and the Marvel Universe is fixed again. (After all, there’s been a lot of foreshadowing that a cosmic cube is going to be used to restore reality to the way it was, including bringing the dead back to life. The only question is whether or not Hydra of the heroes will get it first. I think we are all safe on betting that the heroes get it and that Black Widow will be alive agin in short order, before the Avengers movie is released at the latest.)
So is Secret Empire good? I don’t know. It’s not over yet. Is it random and meaningless? No, it is not, and I do know that. Whether someone likes it or not does not change the fact that Nick Spencer is working on multiple levels and tackling the big, heady issues that kids and adults are all facing just the same. So for that, I do tip my hat. (It also does say something that I’ve read all of the Captain America and Secret Empire issues so far.) I’ll wait on making my final judgment when it actually ends and I’ve finished reading it. I think this practice would really make the internet a little bit nicer of a place; too many people have a knee-jerk reaction when all they hear is that “Cap is Hydra which means Nazi”, and they jump on the boards and comments sections and write a lot of hate comments when many haven’t really read it much or even at all. It reminds me of all the people I heard complaining about how LOST ended; when they winged and whined about it, I asked them if they actually watched the ending, and most said they hadn’t. The few that said they had watched the ending and were still complaining admitted that they hadn’t really followed the show closely enough to understand it. And within a smaller section of that group, there were people who had seen it and hated the ending, and I respect that as a valid opinion. Just like with the overblown reaction to that TV finale for LOST, people are blowing up the internet about this series without actually having read it, and that’s some horse shit. If it’s not horse shit, then it’s at least annoying and time-consuming when there are people who have read it and analyzed it and have the ability to make factual statements and form coherent opinions on the subject. It’s a waste of time not just for those people who want to have a good discussion about it but also for the people who haven’t read it but are interested and then immediately turned off by the officiously vocal crowd booing it down and complaining without haven’t actually read it themselves. That’s a problem.
(Side note: I think it would be really easy to prank people and cause the exact same reaction that Secret Empire is receiving by splashing out Grant Morrison’s Multiversity issue that shows a world where Superman crashed in WWII Germany and was raised by Hitler as an ACTUAL Nazi to dominate the planet. Or the same reaction could perhaps occur with Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son series in which Superman is the Soviet Union’s puppet, raised and used by the Soviet Union to turn the cold global warfare into hot one. I bet that people would have the same knee-jerk reaction that they are having with Marvel’s version of the quintessential “American Way” hero, Captain Americ, of course, in Secret Empire. Until it’s all done and a little time has passed, it will be incredibly difficult to sift out the knee-jerk opinions from the well-thought out reactions, the opinions of those who just read or heard about it and decided to complain, based solely on information from over-simplified internet articles, from the opinions of those that read it and honestly thought the whole thing was just plain bad creative work.)
When narrowly interpreting MurderCap as a stand-in for Trump (both of them having seized power legitimately via government protocols, and then proceeding to break the sacred tenets of the Constitution and destroying America ideals and ethics in the process, all while backed by a sinister administration with corrupted goals), keep in mind that this puts Black Widow and Spider-Man in a specific light.
Black Widow is the female hero we need. She’s not a pure analogue of Clinton anymore than Cap is Trump, but instead a composition of a lot strong female American leaders (such as Elizabeth Warren, et. al.). She’s the big “good guy” who sacrifices herself to stop this evil from continuing. She becomes a literal martyr in the process. In the real world, we have seen Clinton, Warren, Kamala Harris, and many other women in politics symbolically martyred by character assassination or by being silenced.
Miles Morales, Spider-Man, comes from both Latino and black heritage and is just a teenaged kid thrust into the middle of a situation that a kid never, ever should be in in America. By Black Widow heroically taking control in Secret Empire #7, she is protecting a child who should not have to make the decision to murder MurderCap, the fascist adult destroying America. He’s a kid. She knows that it is her responsibility and the responsibility of the other adults to deal with this. In this day in age, it’s important to remind the younger generation, the kids, that they are not alone and that they do not have to be the ones to handle these problems, and they certainly don’t need to be handling them alone. On top of that, because Miles is brown, this further represents a large American demographic of youth that is being mistreated the most in real life, having their civil liberties attacked and denied more than white kids his age. It makes sense that Miles gets stuck in this position. It would not make sense if any other hero, kid or adult, was the one forced into this situation. It’s good writing. I found it deeply moving.
I think that it is incredibly timely and socially conscientious choosing the villain to be an old white guy, the hero being a woman, and the one being caught in the middle of all of this horrible shit is teenage kid with brown skin that has been dealing with all kinds of social issues (such as profiling in last year’s Civil War II story arc, the same arc which also set up the “to the death” showdown between Miles and Steve) since he first appeared.
Brian Michael Bendis created Miles Morales wholecloth several years ago, and he did so in part because he himself is the father of a child of color having married a Latina woman. Bendis set out to create a new superhero that can be a legacy for his own children to look up to, a hero that experiences situations in the Marvel Universe that he knows that his children are either facing and will face someday. It is a testament to Bendis’ work and ethics, social consciousness, and love of his family; he created a Spider-Man for a new generation of children facing different problems than Peter Parker. This is probably what has made Miles Morales such a hit character, and that fact that Miles is still so popular and meaningful after too many years during which Marvel was accused of just trying to “cash in” on racial issues during a cynical time by cynical people (probably the same kind of short-sighted people, if not the very same people, who are having knee-jerk reactions to Secret Empire.)
Spencer picked these three characters for very good reasons. They address important social issues out in the world right now. We see that the big hero of the story is a woman, a fan favorite, but too often relegated to a secondary position. We see that she is fighting someone who was one of her best friends, and she has to make the choice to kill him for the betterment of the world and to her own detriment. And caught in the crossfire, we have a kid who out of his costume deals with all kinds of specific social and civil rights problems that neither of the other two characters have ever suffered because of the color of his skin. (Nat, obviously, suffers her own specific social and civil rights issues.)
Spencer put thought into choosing these three characters to play out this climactic scene for his sweeping saga, and the seeds were sewn, what, about a year ago, right? Back in Civil War II issue #5, we saw that Miles was the one who was prophesied to be the killer of Captain America. Spencer did not make these choices randomly. He did it for good reason. He has been playing a long game, and now we see after dozens of issues the climax he was building this whole time.
Whether it works or not, though, is up to each individual reader. I find this kind of critical analysis enjoyable personally, but as I said earlier, I won’t make my final decision until after the story ends. I don’t read ¾ of a book and form my final opinion on it, then finish reading it and stick to whatever that premature opinion was, after all. The same goes for serialized stories, be they comic series or television seasons.