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Aug 21

X-Men Blue #7-9: Secret Empire

Posted on Monday, August 21, 2017 by Paul in x-axis

We should be grateful for small mercies, I suppose.  One such is that the X-books have largely managed to dodge the Secret Empire crossover – and X-Men Gold, which did a tie-in, largely ducked the event by using the side plot of Manhattan in the Dark Dimension (which it proceeded to largely ignore anyway).  X-Men Blue, in contrast, knuckles down to the difficult business of doing three issues engaging with the meat of Secret Empire.  It shouldn’t have bothered.

As we’ve discussed many times on the podcast, I have no particular issue with the premise of Captain America being remade as a Hydra spy by using a Cosmic Cube to retroactively change his upbringing.  The underlying ideas seem to be that fascism’s appeal lies in a twisted version of conventionally heroic notions (patriotism, sacrifice for the group and so on) and, to a lesser extent, the danger of abandoning checks and balances with anyone, no matter how seemingly infallible.  But those are ideas that seem like they want to play out on a smaller and more character-driven scale.

Few stories benefit from being turned into a line-wide crossover, and Secret Empire is especially unsuited.  Scale it up to that extent and you lose the focus.  Played at the broad strokes of an event book, it becomes a rather crass exercise in “neo-Nazis take over America”, which seems too far removed even to qualify as topical satire, and too absurd to allow any serious exploration of the psychology of fascism.

Or at least, it does when you encounter it as a tie-in.  I’m not reading Secret Empire itself, nor have I seen many of the other tie-ins.  I’ll get to them when they start showing up on Marvel Unlimited, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.  Secret Invasion was enough of a dirge, with endless variations on the same bloody Skrull story for six months.  Secret Empire feels like it could be the same, except bleaker and dumber.

As noted, Cullen Bunn and Cory Smith try to take the crossover in good faith and deal with the premise head on.  This three-parter is set in “New Tian”, the mutant-run Vichy state in California, which is apparently some sort of paradise where humans and mutants live in harmony.  Unless you’re a dissident, in which case you’re in a concentration camp.  Because apparently this is a dictatorship too, although that evidently doesn’t bother the majority of residents who seem to think it’s just great.  What?

Since Magneto has promised to stay out of North America and is sticking to the letter of his promise, he’s sent the X-Men to go do good things in New Tian.   There’s some running around rescuing prisoners, and then a bunch of mutants who all have new powers show up to arrest them on behalf of the government, and then Jean and Jimmy have to rescue everyone.

At this point the story starts trying to do things that are important to the wider plot.  The X-Men’s Blackbird turns out to be Danger, sent to keep an eye on them for Magneto.  Polaris and Briar Raleigh (from Bunn’s Magneto series) show up as new mentors for the group.  Emma Frost, who is mind-controlling everyone else in the ruling council (and presumably the henchmen who capture the X-Men too), is obsessed with young Cyclops and wants to try to re-make him into her notion of the older Scott – there’s a suggestion that she’s slightly losing her mind and thinks that he is the original Cyclops, who just needs to be set right.  And somewhere in here, Scott and Jean’s minds end up being permanently linked, in an echo of 70s X-Men which I guess is going to have to be picked up on, so I suppose this isn’t ending in a complete cosmic reset button after all.

But all of this is supposed to be playing out in New Tian, which is set up in a one page recap where apparently fascists just took over North America between issues.  Trying to handwave this away as a typical crossover concept simply doesn’t work.  It’s not simply that it’s stupid – Monsters Unleashed was stupid, but it was still basically within genre parameters.  The Marvel Universe is basically the world next door with added fantasy elements.  Secret Empire crashes the Marvel Universe because the it crosses the line from “external fantasy element”, which can get away with being ludicrous, to “development in the supposedly real world”, which requires us to accept a drastic re-making of the entirety of North American civilisation in an absurdly short timescale and (in this book at least) for no reason.

It would take heroic efforts to make this seem believable, and even if those efforts have been made elsewhere in the crossover, they’re irrelevant to somebody who’s only reading this book.  The result is that the story is dead on arrival.  The whole set up is so ridiculously unbelievable that it’s impossible to take any of it seriously.  It’s total nonsense.  It’s a lost cause.  The Scott/Emma stuff might have worked in a different context, though I’m not convinced that crazy Emma is an interesting direction under any circumstances.  I simply don’t believe a word of any of this.

It’s been a while since I’ve rejected a premise quite this comprehensively – it’s not just a bad idea, I simply can’t find my way to even respond to it as a valid story.  The bottom line is that everything is swamped by Secret Empire, and Secret Empire kills the story stone dead.  I have no other real reaction to it.

Bring on the comments

  1. Dave White says:

    So far the best SECRET EMPIRE crossover has been U.S.AVENGERS, which gives you exactly what you’d want from such a story, i.e, “superheroes smash fascists in fun ways.”

  2. Ben says:

    I hate that they’ve turned Emma Frost into yet another “bitches be crazy” character.


  3. Joseph says:

    USAvengers has been pretty good. The character development has continued unaffected, while the the crossover allows for a subplot to pick up on Canonball, and an opportunity for some of the cast to smash fascism in a team up with Euroforce.

    Most other books I can recall feel as if they’ve been derailed, even Cap: Sam Wilson, though at least in that case it’s the culmination of the preceding storylines. It’s really a shame they had to drag mutants into this. Otherwise I think the core titles have been pretty good. Not just MacGuffan chasing (though there was a bit of that for two issues). Still, despite the potential Paul is right that making it a linewide event really saps its power. Might there have been a way to do this without Cap literally taking over the world?

  4. Luis Dantas says:

    Eh. Of all books, the one that goes out of its way to be nationalistic?

    Quite the irony.

  5. SanityOrMadness says:

    > Might there have been a way to do this without Cap literally taking over the world?

    Questionable. Pretty much every other scenario involves HydraCap being stopped and reverted before any *real* damage gets done.

    The problem is that, ultimately, this is a horrible story to do in a shared universe that is going to continue on beyond the story without doing years of Aftermath.

    What they COULD have done, to square the circle, is what they did in Thor years ago when HE took over the world, and jump to “Twenty Years After” between the #0/FCBD thing with HydraCap’s successful attack/lifting Mjolnir/etc, and #1-proper. Of course, that would prohibit it being a linewide event in a meaningful sense, but you could end with a “Last of the Time Lords” semi-reset, where the world is fixed, but the main characters still remember how badly wrong things went.

    Or you could do the Age of Apocalypse/House of M thing – he gets his Cosmic Cube, remakes the world according to how he remembers it, and then the task is to reset the world back again.

    Either way, inserting it into the present-day MU doesn’t really work.

  6. Chris V says:

    I’m sure the cosmic reset button will be hit.
    Too much damage has been done to certain characters by this event for Marvel to not realize it has to erase most of these events.

    I wouldn’t even go with the “characters still remember how badly wrong things went” direction.
    How could anyone ever look at Steve Rogers the same way again?

    It certainly does feel like an alternate universe story.
    It’s very hard to accept that this is happening in the main Marvel Universe.

  7. Mark coale says:

    Since the whole thing has been built around the Cosmic Cube from the beginning, I’ve always seen it as a big What If/Elsewolds.

  8. Mikey says:

    What’s the reasoning behind the enforcing mutants having new and altered powers?

  9. Chris V says:

    My best guess is that it’s because Emma had a shard of the Cosmic Cube.
    It was never explicitly stated though.

  10. Si says:

    I just want to say again that re-re-retreading the Scott/Jean romance is a terrible idea. The most interesting thing done with Cyclops in decades was him getting a new love interest.

  11. ASV says:

    Breaking the conceits of an ongoing shared superhero universe has been par for the course in Marvel events going back to at least Civil War.

  12. andrew brown says:

    I just dip my toes in and out of the X-verse since Davids X-factor rapped, so i have to ask, what the hell’s happened to havok? when did he become scarred and evil? that… doesn’t seem like a good idea

  13. Chris V says:

    I forgot how Havok ended up scarred, but he ended up evil due to the events of the Axis cross-over.
    Red Skull becomes Onslaught, and at some point, it ends up where certain heroes and villains are morally inverted.
    Most of the characters recovered, but Havok and Sabretooth were among those who weren’t changed back.

    It was…not a very good story.

  14. Half of Havok’s face was burnt in the second run of Uncanny Avengers.

    As for US Avengers being “nationalistic”, hardly. It’s more like Sunspot trolling nationalists by focusing on how multi-cultural the team is, how the US should be.

  15. FUBAR007 says:

    Si: I just want to say again that re-re-retreading the Scott/Jean romance is a terrible idea. The most interesting thing done with Cyclops in decades was him getting a new love interest.

    Whether you like it or not, “Jott” wasn’t a finite storyline, but an iconic element of the X-Men mythos a la Reed/Sue in Fantastic Four and Lois/Clark in Superman. It’s always going to be there in some fashion if only in the background or as a touchstone for the writer to play off of.

    That said, I doubt that’s where they’re ultimately going with Tyke and Jeen. Quite the opposite, I suspect. Much like “Scemma,” it seems to me to exist primarily as a device for meta-commentary on Jott.

  16. bad johnny got out says:

    Dark Reign may be a fruitful comparison.

    Secret Empire was never going to be viable, let alone actually work, without being allowed a canvas, and a timeframe, at least as wide as Dark Reign’s. So, how did Dark Reign earn so much latitude?

    In hindsight it wasn’t even a storyline. Like Civil War with all its heroes-vs-heroes business, it was simply a new label slapped on top of the kind of stories Marvel was already telling. In Dark Reign’s case the business being: y’know, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s always been kinda sketchy, right?

    The essential ingredient for turning that business into a “storyline” was the villain. Bendis’ take on Norman Osborn as a right wing talk radio Lex Luthor was a great character. Osborn was fascinating enough to carry his own book as the protagonist, and threatening enough to serve as a ready-made antagonist for whenever any other book needed one.

    Marvel could have easily accomplished this again with Hydra Cap. Al Ewing showed us how, when he had Evil Steve Rogers give Roberto da Costa a racist dressing down in the way a real bigot in a position of authority would, not with uncoded vileness but through his choices of how and over whom to demonstrate his power.

    Narratively they had this in the bag, and it would have reflected the spirit of our times in a meaningful way. Doing it properly would have damaged Captain America as a character, probably permanently.

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