There’s a lot to process in Secret Empire # 6. The latest instalment of Nick Spencer’s saga of Hydra’s takeover of the United States unspools multiple storylines. Aided by artists Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Rod Reis, Joshua Cassara and Rachel Rosenberg, Spencer delivers another issue so dense, that it requires a second reading to fully take it in.
Let’s dive into the heart of the story:
The Devil You Know
Things are desperate in New York City. Cut off from the world in the Darkforce Dimension, the city lacks light and the necessities of life. But it’s not just the heroes who have found an opportunity to shine in the crisis. As we learn, the Kingpin is helping to feed those most in need, much to the chagrin of Matt Murdock, who thinks he’s stealing from the hungry.
But the Kingpin is no good Samaritan. His charity may be an act of hope, but he’s counting on his generosity paying off in the long run, and on the citizens of the city remembering his act of kindness at some future point—perhaps during a mayoralty campaign.
In the context of a narrative that is questioning the concept of heroism itself, the Kingpin’s apparent goodness is a slap in the face to Daredevil. When the populace should be turning to its costumed crusaders for hope and leadership, it is instead being shepherded by the nefarious underworld leader.
Could Rogers be right about the superhero community? Has its in-fighting cost them the trust of everyday Americans? The Kingpin’s gambit and his cynical optimism suggest that the age of heroes is past, and that worthiness is perhaps conferred upon those who help people survive, no matter what their motives.
Life in Hell
Things continue to get complicated in the Enchanted Forest. The second Steve Rogers and his companions have been ensnared by the Red Skull, but this version of the First Avenger remembers neither the War, nor his nemesis. In another twist, one of Steve’s fellow travellers talks about spotting a goddess in a lake, and about having to go back to get her.
We don’t know when or where the forest might be, but if it is home to the recently deceased, as it appears, this goddess may well be Lady Hydra. and this development may reveal her ultimate fate, confirming what we see at the end of the issue.
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Perhaps more shockingly, the Skull reveals that the forest is in fact Hell (at least, that’s the conclusion the villain has come to), and that the only way out is death. He then raises his spiked club and prepares to fulfill the promise he made at the end of Secret Empire #5, and Steve freedom. It is the villain’s nature to lie, but if he’s telling the truth then one of Rogers’ companions may seek revenge, in turn freeing the Skull. This sets up the additional possibility that one of the remaining companions must then “kill” the other to resurrect him, and in the process choose the sacrifice of remaining dead.
The Children Shall Lead
As things continue to heat up, Natasha insists on going forward with her plan to assassinate Captain America, but her protégés aren’t buying it. Headstrong Nadia, a Red Room survivor like the Black Widow, tries to convince her young cohorts to walk away from Romanova, but the others aren’t buying it, and Miles decides to try to reason with the former Soviet assassin.
Even though Morales still sees hope and a way out, despite his vision that he will murder Rogers, Natasha, refuses to listen. She feels that her generation is responsible for the chaos that is ensuing, and she sees transforming the younger heroes into hardened assassins as a way to remedy her failures.
In contrast to the Kingpin, who has stuck to his code of ethics despite the circumstances, Natasha has compromised her beliefs, feeling that the situation calls for it. The kids know that she’s wrong, but she’s only one left to guide them. But just what kind of legacy is she leaving them?
Again, this is one of the core questions of Secret Empire. How worthy is the superhero legacy? Should we admire somebody like Natasha? Her behavior gives the children in the story pause. It should also set off alarm bells for readers.
An UN-Civil War
Secret Empire #6 answers a question that readers have been asking since the conclusion of Civil War II: Who or what is A.I. Tony? As Hydra troops storm the Mount, with Odinson in the vanguard, and the Hulk in tow, Rogers goes on site to deal with his frenemy in person.
Using Ultron tech, he forces Tony to materialize and the two face off in a reprise of — and a visual homage to — their battle during the first superhero Civil War. Steve is intent on killing the re-embodied Stark, which betrays his irrationality. Surely the master tactician would have considered that Tony would just upload somewhere else. This is yet another clue that Rogers’ may not be acting rationally.
As Steve is about to strike him down, Tony begs him to wait, and delivers a mea culpa for taking the wrong side during the civil war. He praises Steve as his hero, and his exemplar, but his admiration—genuine as it may be—is a ruse. The materialized Stark is building up energy. He is a bomb and the target is Rogers.
Realizing it’s a trap, Madame Hydra sacrifices herself by casting a spell that teleports Steve to safety. Her last words, as A.I. Tony explodes, are “Goodbye, son!” But is she dead? And is she the goddess in the forest?
In the aftermath of the explosion, Hydra proceeds with its final assault. Upon hearing the news, believes all is lost—and that her friends are all dead—so she prepares the assassination attempt.
The issue’s final image is the burnt-out husk of the White House we saw at the end of Civil War II: The Oath.
The Big “Ifs”
We still don’t know the identity of the old man that Natasha and her crew rescued from the Hydra facility in the pages of Secret Empire #5, but the truth about him may not be a simple matter. There is some mutilversal weirdness afoot.
Earlier this year, in the pages of Jessica Jones #5, we learned that people survived the destruction of the multiverse during 2015’s Secret Wars event, but Spencer has taken things one step further with this latest issue of his saga.
Steve Rogers’ secret weapon against his former teammates in the Resistance is Bruce Banner. Recently returned from the dead,—but only for a short time, we are told—this version of the Hulk is something of a multiversal anomaly. His eyes and his speech patterns (revealed through the use of the old-school Marvel font) tell us that this is Ultimates version of Banner. But his green skin, and his memories of being shot by Hawkeye, place him squarely in Marvel’s main continuity.
Could this another fake-out? Is this another example of Spencer’s sleight of hand, like the twist that Mockingbird is in fact working for Hill and Ant-Man is the real traitor? Or is it a clue to the promised revelation of Steve’s true nature in Secret Empire #9.
What kind of science—or magic—allows Hydra to bring back Frankenstein versions of there dead from across the multiverse? And what does this mean for the future of the Marvel universe as Secret Empire segues into Generations and Legacy?
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