Secret Empire #4 Review

comic books:
Thomas Bacon

Reviewed by:
On June 14, 2017
Last modified:June 14, 2017


Although this is a fairly strong issue with some fun character beats, it's becoming increasingly hard to tell what kind of story Secret Empire actually is.

Secret Empire #4 Review

The problem with Secret Empire is a simple one. Somewhere along the way, Nick Spencer’s politically-aware story became a blockbuster summer event. Now, with matters building to a head, that event has kind of lost its identity – and that’s a real shame. The sad truth is that I no longer know what kind of story Secret Empire is trying to tell.

This issue takes things in a direction nobody could have anticipated. It turns out that, under cover of all the other spectacular events we’ve seen so far, Ultron has returned. His identity merged with that of Hank Pym, and this insane android forces our heroes to sit down at a dinner table and talk out their issues. Along the way, he delivers a fair few rants of his own, and turns Secret Empire #4 into a kind of meta-textual analysis of everything Marvel’s been doing since the early 2000s.

I’m not kidding; every possible twist comes up. He fumes at the Avengers’ previous attempts to save the world, pointing to the Super-Human Registration Act, House of M and even the “Dark Reign” era. Readers who’ve stuck with Marvel for the longrun will find that Hank Pym’s arguments resonate powerfully. Newer readers, however, won’t have a clue what he’s talking about.

It’s strange. Everything about this issue works, on the surface level. It’s rich in humor – Tony Stark reflects that he’s a little excited that he gets to kick Steve Rogers’s ass and nobody’s going to be mad at him afterwards. It’s full of character moments, and finally explains some of the strange decisions that have led Avengers to ally with Hydra. The issue’s self-awareness is brilliant and entertaining, showing just how well Nick Spencer understands his characters.

But in terms of the overarching narrative of the event? I honestly can’t say how effective it is, because I’m no longer certain what kind of story Nick Spencer is working on. For a year now, we’ve been told to reserve judgment on the HydraCap twist until the story was over. I guess there was more truth to that than we’d thought. I suspect even this event comic can only be judged when the dust has settled.

For all that’s the case, though, Secret Empire as an event has one major problem; it increasingly feels like a sort of ‘Elseworlds’ epic, a glorified ‘What If?’ In part, that’s because the world Nick Spencer has created just seems so very left-field; I mean, four issues in, we suddenly learn that Ultron owns a part of the North American continent, too. I’m reminded of the old maxim, “Show, Not Tell” – one that Spencer is breaking with increasing frequency.

He’s not helped by the art, either. Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan and Sunny Gho make a great team, but the problem is that their characters feel decidedly off-model. Unfortunately, that’s particularly the case with Hank Pym, a pretty important character in this strange issue. The art just helps make this book feel like an ‘Elseworlds; story, robbing the plot of some of its emotional impact. Hank Pym’s accusations would have had far more strength and force had all of the characters been on-model and recognizable.

So, where do we go from here? How important was this issue in the grand scheme of things? And does Nick Spencer have further plans for Hank Pym? For now, Secret Empire‘s overarching narrative and purpose remains a mystery. We’ll just have to see what happens in the last few issues.

Secret Empire #4 Review

Although this is a fairly strong issue with some fun character beats, it's becoming increasingly hard to tell what kind of story Secret Empire actually is.