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Secret Invasion (Review/Retrospective)

This is the twelfth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

Well… that was anti-climactic.

Well, at least green and red go together...

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading build-up after build-up, or lead-in after lead-in or the simple fact that virtually all of Brian Michael Bendis’ output since he took over to New Avengers has been building to this particular moment, but I feel slightly underwhelmed by the Secret Invasion miniseries itself. It’s almost as if the even doesn’t contain enough material to support its eight-issue run, let alone the mountains and mountains of tie-ins that it has received (and, to quote the plan included here, “because the events of Secret Invasion are so sweeping, they’re going to impact on most every monthly title” – so that’s a lot of tie-ins).

Don’t get me wrong. Secret Invasion is undoubtedly conceptually fascinating. Imagine the possibilities. A world where our superheroes aren’t superheroes any more, they are actually bad guys who simply look like heroes, using the apparatus of our media to convince us that they are good guys. It’s exactly the metaphor that we need to offer for the state of the superhero genre – for the past decade or so, we’ve been offered anti-hero after anti-hero, with “grim and gritty” being offer as a replacement for actual content.

Is the Green Goblin green with envy of the green invaders?

Being entirely honest, the comic book industry is still recovering the mess they found themselves in over a decade ago (in the midst of the Disney buyout, a lot of people forget that Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1997). The best way to look at this section of Marvel universe history (from New Avengers to Siege) is as an attempt to work out the crippling psychological issues and insecurities that sort of financial meltdown and loss of identity leaves you with. Perhaps that’s why Marvel has taken its characters on this journey, bringing its fictional universe consciously to the brink of collapse like those trends in the nineties did to the company, as opposed to adopting DC’s somewhat looser exploration of the superhero genre’s identity crisis.

Either way, the key concept underpinning Secret Invasion is arguably more fascinating than that which we saw in Civil War. If Civil War is a metaphor for the political divide and the conflict between rights and security in America, it seems almost strange that Marvel decided to tell that story first. After all, with its conscious religious and imperial undertones (“This was extremism,” one character observes of the aftermath, “This was terrorism”), Secret Invasion works well as an allegory for the War on Terror. The dramatic beats certainly fit, with the attacks seemingly centred on Manhattan (with the destruction of a landmark skyscraper, no less) and even the use of Osama Bin Ladin as one of the many faces used to address the public.

Seeing doubles...

The problem is that Bendis seems to have no idea exactly what he wants to do with this big stew of ideas. For example, the Skrulls themselves seem to have been ideologically (rather than physically) redesigned to remember the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica, right down to the sleeper agents (and their crisis of identity) and their religion (“he loves you”). However, unlike the Cylons who were allowed to grow and develop over the course of the series – so a race initially so foreign and unknowable as to be beyond our comprehension eventually ended up as a group we could almost relate to – the Skrulls arrive, spew their philosophy, burn random protestors (in a scene seemingly thrown in only to illustrate that they are uncompromising evil), and promptly get their backsides handed to them.

Here is perhaps where Bendis makes his greatest misstep, however. He hits on the sort of clever idea which might have had legs if he dared to run with it. As the Skrulls conquer Earth, they broadcast to the masses that “Your days of poverty, hardship, disease and greed are over” while specifying that they are only targeting superheroes (in effect, they are affecting “regime change”). In that moment, the Skrulls go from terrorists to occupying army – they move into the rhetorical position that many Middle Eastern extremists accuse the United States of occupying. In effect, the Skrulls stage their own liberation of Afghanistan or Iraq, where they are standing in for the coalition forces, claiming “We’re here to save you” and “Your lives will go on as they were”.

Maria Hill's term as SHIELD director was awash with difficulties...

That would have been a bold and defiant step, to present the Skrull invasion of Earth in a light akin to the American and British liberation of Iraq – that would have pushed the moral boundaries and used the set-up to ask some fascinating moral questions (in the same way that the third season of Battlestar Galactica did). Instead, Bendis offers us what is essentially an eight-issue brawl.  Which, in case you haven’t noticed, seems to be the trend with these big events. Of course, World War Hulk never pretended to be anything more, but Civil War was another series which betrayed its interesting premise to over us the sight of muscle-bound figures knocking the living snot out of each other.

I do think an issue of fatigue comes into this. As mentioned above, this arc was subject to years of build-up. At the time, it seemed to be the climax of what was happening in the Marvel Universe (and, indeed, at times it seems that this series might have easily pushed us into the Heroic Age rather than making us travel through Dark Reign). Even the characters themselves seem worn out by what’s been going on. “I’m so sick of hiding,” Luke Cage laments the New Avengers status quo, “I’m sick of not trusting each other.” Boy am I with you on that one, Luke.

A natural (Os)born leader...

That said, perhaps the event could have done better to put the “Secret” in Secret Invasion. The name – and the build-up – implies some element of stealth, or a betrayal of trust. There should be a nuance of some kind, or a slow burn. Instead, the invasion fleet has arrived by the end of the first issue, and alien troops have taken New York. It doesn’t help that the first half of the series is basically a big brawl in the Savage Land, followed by a second half featuring a big brawl in New York. It doesn’t feel very secret at all. It couldn’t be any more secret if the ships had started blaring “We are the Champions!” while in a low orbit.

Of course, the series can’t decide where it stands on the whole “idealistic” or “cynical” slant of things. One hand, when Earth is threatened, every superhero bands together, regardless of their stance on registration. Hell, even the supervillains help out in fighting off the invaders (“Skrulls are the target,” Osborn clarifies to his Thunderbolts; “No Earth is bad for business,” the Hood explains to his men). I was waiting for the moment at the end where the characters hold hands and sing “kumbayah” together.

Sentry's feelings of alienation are on the rise...

And yet, at the end, despite the fact everyone banded together for the greater good, the divides are reinforced. Thor warns his old friend Tony, “I abhor what thou hast become and I’m sure I will not be the only one who finds the blame for all this to fall square on thy shoulders.” In a briefing with Norman Osborn, the President suggests, “A little less time fighting themselves and a little more time with an eye on the sky, none of this had to happen.” It’s certainly a marked contrast, particularly when the series sells the “we shall endure under crisis” line, and then doesn’t wait to set the characters against each other when it’s all done and dusted.

There’s a strong sense of nostalgia that peaks through the series. It’s interesting to note that the powers that be did not take the opportunity to update the appearance of the Skrulls. They are rendered here nearly exactly as they were forty years ago, without being given a more sinister makeover to help them seem more modern. The Skrulls are pretty much a ridiculous opponent, even with Bendis instilling in them a sense of religious extremist – it’s hard to take big green invaders with funny chins seriously. It’s also interesting to note that Tony himself shows up at the climactic battle in his original self-described “old school” armour. It’s as if Bendis is far too attached to the old comic staples for his own good.

Sifting through the wreckage of the event...

Since I’m pretty much done with Marvel’s tangled crossover continuity (although I’ll be reviewing Matt Fraction’s Dark Avengers/X-Men: Utopia next week), I should probably offer up some thoughts on this journey to the heart of the Marvel Universe. I’m a little underwhelmed, to be honest. It’s all ridiculously convoluted. I’ve engaged almost completely with all the events and have followed a chain of causation from one event to the next. It’s all about cause and effect, and I can trace the ideas as they are developed over the years of stories.

However – and this is the big problem I’ve noticed – is that every single one of these crossovers seems to serve as a set up for something else, rather than a story of itself. House of M laid out the new status quo for the X-Men, reaffirming the Avengers as Marvel’s main publishing franchise. Civil War was intended to lay out that “under siege” mentality for half of the Marvel Universe (one which ultimately had very few ramifications) and Secret Invasion ultimately became a lead in to Dark Reign. And there’s the problem: the changes these series introduced ultimately amounted to very little of themselves. A few years on and the impact of all (bar maybe House of M) have been completely wiped away. But there’s something more than that.

Feel the fury...

The simple fact is that all these changes one after the other mean that no big “event” is allowed have a proper impact. It never gets to sink in. The audience never gets a chance to “feel” the new status quo before another is thrown on top. No sooner are the Mighty Avengers a legitimate team than they’re rogue again. No sooner is Tony Stark the master of all he sees than he’s a fugitive again. The fact that everything is always transitioning means that the changes don’t feel substantial – we ultimately know that everything’s going back where it belongs, so raising the stakes by shaking everything up is robbed of its impact because we know everything will go back where it’s supposed to.

Even beyond that, the simple fact is that these events are so dedicated to offering sweeping changes (as the special features in the collections frequently boast) means that story and characterisation take something of a back seat to the big changes and set pieces. Being entirely honest, those looking for insight into characters like Captain America, Spider-Man, Wolverine or even the Hulk would be much better served to look elsewhere. Which is a shame, because pushing them to the fore would seem to be the perfect opportunity for some characteristion. In fairness, it seems to be a trend. Daredevil has featured some of the best characterisation in the Marvel universe, but the moment the character is the focus of his own crossover (the disjointed and disappointing Shadowland), he becomes one-dimensional and bland. It seems counterintuitive – why make a character centre of the Marvel Universe and then do nothing with them.

It's a Mar-Vell...

And, as such, it is intensely irritating that individual series featuring authors familiar with the characters are frequently derailed by these big crossovers – for example Ed Brubaker’s Captain America by Civil War or Matt Fraction’s The Invincible Iron Man by Secret Invasion. That these crossovers render series like that near impossible to understand without reading them is ridiculous. I understand the argument that – if you’re going to shake up the Marvel Universe – you might as well draw in outside books. But these crossovers are so regular that a book can be deferring to events like this once every six issues, with no real net impact – save perhaps the fact the story the writer was trying to tell has been thoroughly derailed.

I’ll admit that this isn’t really anything new – I felt pretty much the same way from the outset. But I did approach the series with an open mind, and did try to engage with these events. Ironically, it was the smaller events like World War Hulk which I found the strongest, perhaps because they didn’t pretend to be anything more than extended fight sequences (and it didn’t even pretend to affect continuity in any truly serious way).

Osborn again...

So, it’s been a bit of a disappointment. But I did say that I would try anything once, so I’ll stick this through to the very end. But, being honest, it’s getting to the stage where the end can’t really come soon enough.

Next week I’ll be returning to outerspace for War of Kings and then I’ll be finishing up with the last of these crossovers published in these format books, Matt Fraction’s Utopia. It’s more of a coda, though.

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