Secret Empire #2 Review: Another Take

Yet another Marvel Big Event is upon us. This unrelenting onslaught of the yearly big event has turned into an experience much like having to get up and “go make the donuts.” It has quickly become a tired and formulaic experience that tends to wear the reader out more than invigorate Marvel’s rapidly diminishing fanbase. Luckily, once we slog through Secret Empire, Marvel has promised its readership that they get a much deserved break from the yearly big event. Thank the comic book gods for small miracles.

At any rate, Kevin has already done an excellent job reviewing Secret Empire #2. However, since the resurgence of DC has ignited my interest in comic books once again, I felt the need to give another take on the second installment of Marvel’s newest big event. Secret Empire #0 and Secret Empire #1 did not blow me away. The plot progression has been slow and the story elements have been well worn and not particularly engaging. Having said that, perhaps Secret Empire #2 kicks this story into high gear and offers some quality plot progression and more interesting story elements. Let’s hope for the best!

Words: Nick Spencer
Art: Andrea Sorrentino & Rod Reis

Story Rating: 3 Night Girls out of 10
Art Rating: 5 Night Girls out of 10
Overall Rating: 4 Night Girls out of 10

Synopsis: We being with “The Underground” heroes digging survivors out of the rubble that is the newly destroyed Las Vegas. We get some hardboiled narration to go along with this scene courtesy of Black Widow. Largely, that the heroes were played and that were to blame for this destruction. Black Widow whispers that “he” has to die.

We cut to New York City where the Darkforce has encapsulated the entire island of Manhattan. We see Iron Fist and Luke Cage bumbling around in the dark looking for some medicine in a pharmacy. The lights suddenly turn on and we see that they are surrounded by several demons. (Yay! Action time!) Our Heroes for Hire immediately take out the demons. (In three tiny panels. Yay.) Jessica Jones then appears and calls our heroes “losers” and that they are “on a clock.”

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We shift to a hospital. Luke, Jessica and Iron Fist walk in with a bag of medicine. The doctor is less than happy that they were not able to get any antibiotic. We then get an exciting recitation of all of the medical ills that the locals are succumbing to due to a lack of clean water and food. Our heroes talk about how Dagger is cracking under the mental and physical demands of providing light for New York City. That she is now only able to give them four hours of light a day.

We then zip over to a church. We see some masked thugs busting in with their guns drawn on a bunch of people huddling inside the church. The criminals demand any and all medications. Suddenly, Wilson Fisk appears on the scene with a couple of goons by his side. Fisk goes on a long overly dramatic soliloquy about how blaming man for acting like an animal during a crisis is like blaming a lion for eating an antelope. (Yay! Action time!) Fisk then snaps the neck of one of the criminals. One of Fisk’s goons shoots the other criminal. (And two panels later we are done with the action. Yay.)

Fisk then tells the people in the church that they are under his protection. Fisk says he will make sure they get all the medicine and food that they need. All Fisk asks in return is that when this crisis is over that these people remember it was Fisk who kept them safe. (Fisk. Always looking for the positive in a negative. A true entrepreneur never passes an opportunity for business growth.)

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We slide over to the Mount. Here we have Riri, Giant Man, Black Widow, Ant-Man, Wasp, Cho, Hawkeye, A.I. Tony, Miles, the new Falcon, Mockingbird and Quicksilver all meeting together. Suddenly, Black Widow shoots a gun into the air. (Uuuuh, she couldn’t have gotten everyone’s attention in a different manner? Everyone was just standing around and not talking anyway. Did Black Widow suddenly turn into a cowboy from a spaghetti western?)

Black Widow says that they do not have time to be angry or to mourn. That they have no choice. (What’s up with the jack booted ladies in the Marvel U. First, Carol Danvers is all “hang ’em high” in Civil War II and now Black Widow is all Janet Reno styled.) That they must go kill Steve Rogers. A.I. Tony then interrupts and says that there is actually an alternative. (Tony. His role is now to play that of the symbol of freedom and liberty who rails against the oppressive matriarchy in Civil War II and now Secret Empire. Uh, that did not work out so well for him in Civil War II. He might just want to keep his ideas to himself this time.)

A.I. Tony says that he found a video from Rick Jones. (You remember, Rick! The obligatory “shocking” death that is a mandatory trope of any self-respecting big event!) Tony then plays the video from Rick. (Roll that beautiful bean footage!) Rick says that if they are watching this then it must mean that he is dead. (Is it possible for a scene like this to occur in a story without this hackneyed opening line?) Rick says that he knows what happened to Captain America. That it was the cosmic cube. That it started when the cosmic cube fragments made the Pleasant Hill prison. The cube became Kobik. Kobik made friends with the Red Skull. The Red Skull convinced Kobik that “Hydra was the best thing since Frozen.” ((Nice reference to another Disney owned property! Good job, Nick. Your Disney overlords will remember your loyalty when it time for end of the year bonuses.)

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When Kobik saved Steve Rogers and made him young again she also made him Hydra. Kobik completely rewrote reality so that Steve became the perfect Hydra soldier. But, it was too perfect. Steve created his own plan for world domination. This induced turning on the Red Skull because Steve didn’t think Skull was keeping it real enough. Steve then captured Bucky and Kobik. Steve then killed Bucky and then turned Kobik back into Cosmic Cube fragments. (Ugh. Don’t remind me of this awful story. I was trying to forget it ever happened.)

However, Eric Selvig had gotten attached to Kobik and had the fragments scattered in order to keep them from Steve Rogers. Rick says that the fragments are out there. Rick says he attached everything that Hydra has on the Cosmic Cube. Rick says that Hydra is looking for the fragments all over the Earth. Rick says that means the heroes need to find the fragments first. Rick tells the heroes to not lose hope. Then Rick shuts off the video just as Hydra agents have discovered his location.

A.I. Tony says he has looked at the files and they are real. Hawkeye asks A.I. Tony if he could use the fragments to fix Steve. A.I. Tony says that he theoretically could do so. Black Widow loses it in a testosterone fueled rage. Black Widow says that A. I. Tony and Hawkeye are idiots and can’t be serious. Black Widow mocks the men for wanting to play super hero again after what happened in Las Vegas. (Uhhhh, well…they are super heroes, right?) Black Widow says that the rules have changed. (It’s like Spencer got much of his dialogue from a can of rote lines dialogue from 1980’s action movies.)

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Black Widow says that this is war and that they do not have the luxury of hope, anymore. Hawkeye says that Black Widow is wrong. That “their” Steve would be the first to disagree with Black Widow. Black Widow counters that if “their” Steve knew that his life was costing even one person their life, let along millions of lives, then Steve would beg them to kill him. (This is a reoccurring theme. First Bruce Banner. Now, Steve.) Black Widow says that A.I. Tony and Hawkeye didn’t know Steve at all. Black Widow then leaves the room.

We cut to Captain Nazi watching his speech on TV. Baron Zemo congratulates Captain Nazi for his excellent speech. Zemo says that the destruction of Las Vegas will keep the rest of the country in line. Captain Nazi is sad about his weakness that he could not personally order the destruction of Las Vegas. That he gave the power to Elisa to make the call and then looked the other way. Zemo says that it is Captain Nazi’s strength. His devotion and faith in those he loves. That those below Captain Nazi can carry out the dirty work with Captain Nazi himself remains a symbol to inspire his nation.

Captain Nazi then says that he has a mission for Zemo. Captain Nazi says that he wants Zemo to find the Cosmic Cube fragments. For Zemo to search the world and retrieve what is rightfully theirs “whatever the cost.” (Uh, wait. Didn’t we just watch a video from Rick Jones that was recorded before this scene with Captain Nazi and Zemo? And in that video didn’t Rick say that Hydra was already busy looking across the entire world for the Cosmic Cube fragments? Spencer didn’t say that this scene with Captain Nazi and Zero was a flashback scene. Why would Rick says Hydra was doing something before Captain Nazi even gave the order? Ah, quality plotting. Got to love it.)

We cut to Black Widow standing by herself on a large veranda. Hawkeye comes out to talk to her. They talk about their philosophical differences on what to do next. Hawkeye apologizes. (Because Hawkeye is wimp.) Hawkeye proceeds to spinelessly state his position. That Black Widow is not who she is pretending to be. That she is more than the trained killer from her past. That she is more than that. But, that it has been hard to remember since Bucky died. (Ugh. Seriously. Stop reminding me of that crap story. I seriously am trying to forget it.)

Black Widow says that Hawkeye is one to talk after killing Bruce Banner. (WHY?! WHY KEEP REMINDING ME OF SHIT STORIES THAT I AM TRYING TO FORGET?!?!) Hawkeye says that if he ever meant anything to Black Widow then for her to give him one more chance. Black Widow says that Hakweye said that the last time. Black Widow wants to know how many more cities are going to be destroyed while they are off looking for the Cosmic Cube fragments. If this doesn’t work then will Hawkeye really give this up and do things her way? Hawkeye looks to the ground and says that he can’t help who he is.

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Black Widow says “I know.” and kisses Hawkeye in a dominant fashion. (Wait, Hawkeye is taller than Black Widow. We just saw that fact in the pervious panels. But, in this panel, Hawkeye is shorter than Black Widow. Did Hawkeye swoon like Scarlet O’Hara and let Black Widow dip him back while kissing him?) Hawkeye then says for a second he thought Black Widow was going to pull the old sedative-in-the-lipstick stunt on him. Black Widow says that she respects Hawkeye too much for that. Black Widow then lays out Hawkeye in one punch. (One punch. Knocked out. Glad to see that Hawkeye is as much of a bitch in the comics these days as he is in the Avengers movies.) Black Widow then rides off on her motorcycle.

We zip forward to Hawkeye waking up from getting dropped like his name was Guy Gardner. Hawkeye runs off and tells A.I. Tony that Black Widow is in full steroid rage mode and is looking to kill Captain Nazi. Hawkeye then looks up into the air vent to see Miles staring at him. (Uhhhh, okay creeper. That’s some sketchy shit right there, dude.) Hawkeye says that no one will find Black Widow unless she wants to be found.

A.I. Tony says that this just means that they must work faster. Luckily, A.I. Tony has conveniently in the matter of one single scene to discover how to track all of the Cosmic Cube fragments. A.I. assembles the team of Hercules, Quicksilver, Ant-Man and Quicksilver to assist them in their mission to get the Cosmic Cube fragments. A.I. Tony says that they are going to need to get out of the country in order to find the Cosmic Cube fragments. Ant-Man says that he knows a fellow who can help them with that endeavor.

We shift to 24 hours later…in Colorado. (You know who needs some kine bud? Black Widow. Spencer has her on “11” and she needs to bring it down a few notches.) We see Black Widow in a small cabin. She is cleaning her gun. Suddenly, Miles appears in the cabin. Miles says that he already knows that Black Widow is not going to kill Captain Nazi. The reason is because of Miles’ vision from Civil War II that he kills Captain Nazi. Miles says he just wants to get this over with. Black Widow says that she does not need a sidekick. (I got to agree with her on this one. Sidekicks are lame.)

Suddenly, Cho, Viv Vision, Riri, Wasp and the new Falcon show up. (Wow, what a collection of misfit toys.) Cho says that Black Widow may not need a sidekick but she did say that she needed a team. Black Widow calls them her “little Revolutionaries.” (Ooh! Does this mean they will all wear Che Guevara hats as a team uniform?!) Black Widow asks if they are ready to get some blood on their hands. Riri responds “Nobody is saying anything about killing anyone, but where Spidey goes–” (What?! That makes absolutely no sense! Black Widow has clearly made her intentions known. She is going to kill Captain Nazi. So, either Black Widow is not okay with not going through with her plan and, therefore, would not want help from this cast of characters. Or Riri is a moron for thinking that helping Black Widow carry out her plan to kill Captain Nazi won’t know..actually killing someone.) Wasp then finishes Riri sentence with “–We all go.” Then the new Falcon then chimes in “To the end, homie.” (Homie! Of course! Get it? Cause the new Falcon is Mexican! So, he is saying “homie” all the time! This is the kind of great handling of Hispanic characters that we get to look forward to.)

Black Widow then cuts her hand with a knife and wipes the wall of the cabin with her bloody hand. (Bwahahahaha!!! This is just so cheesy and over the top.) Black Widow then says “Very well, children. Welcome to the Red Room.” (Sooo, joining up with Black Widow on her mission to kill Captain Nazi means signing up for a new version of the torture room that she underwent when being brainwashed and trained by the KGB? I have no idea what Spencer is trying to do here.)

We cut to a shady looking truck stop in Montana. Our heroes walk through the grungy truck stop bar. Ant-Man says that this place is a real life “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” vide to it. (Bing! Way to go, Spencer! A second reference to a Disney owned property in one issue. You serve your mouse-eared overlords well.)

Quicksilver comments that the people here are filthy and unshaven and asks how they could possibly be of a use to them. (Really? Unshaven? What version of Quicksilver is Spencer giving us? An alternate Earth Victorian Era Quicksilver?)

Ant-Man says that his guy is trustworthy and will be able to help him. After all, the guy use to be Captain America. Our heroes arrive at a table where Sam Wilson is seated.

We cut to a scene with a woman running though a forest. The woman is wearing a nightgown and is being chased by various members of the Serpent Society. A voice narrates that hope is the reason to keep believing and to keep fighting. That they can never take it from you. You can only lose it. Or let it be buried deeply under the guilt and the regret and the pain. And under the fear.

The Serpent Society then proceed to attack this clearly lost and confused woman. The voice narrates how sometimes when you are ready to give up you will find hope in the most strangest places.

A shadowy figure suddenly appears. The Serpent Society attacks the shadowy figure. (Oooh! Some action! Finally! Yay!) The shadowy figure beats up the three members with two punches and a kick. (And we get three small panels and that’s it. Yippie.)

The shadowy figure reaches out to the beaten woman to help her up. The woman asks “W-who are you?! What do you want?!”

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The camera pans back and we see that the shadowy figure is none other than Steve Rogers! Steve is in his World War II army uniform. Steve has a big beard. Steve says “My name is Steve Rogers. I’m just trying to get home.” End of issue.

The Good: Secret Empire #2 was another disappointing read. However, that is not to say that there were several nice moments tucked away in this issue. The best moment of this entire issue is the final scene. We get none other than Steve “fucking” Rogers making an appearance at the end of the issue! And Steve is in his World War II Nazi kicking uniform. What more do you want? This was a fantastic dramatic hook ending that smacks the reader straight in the face.

The other excellent scene in this issue was the one involving Wilson Fisk in the church in New York. I like Wilson Fisk seeing a crisis event as an opportunity to grow his power base and his business. This is exactly what I would expect from the Kingpin. Mere mortals are running scared and scrambling to stay alive. The Kingpin? He is calmly assessing the situation and calculating how to best make this apocalyptic event work to his benefit. This scene also shows the positive side of the Kingpin. Fisk is quite confident that they will survive this crisis event. This makes sense given how many world threatening crisis events that the Marvel Universe faces on a near daily basis.

Another aspect of Secret Empire #2 that I enjoyed was the attention to recent continuity in constructing a foundation for the various plot lines in this big event. I may think that Marvel has been practically unreadable since the end of Secret Wars II. However, I have to give credit to Marvel for laying a solid foundation for Secret Empire. This big event builds pleasantly off of all the various events stemming from Pleasant Hill all the way to the present. That is quality long-term plotting and storytelling where all the pieces nicely fit together in Secret Empire #2.

The Bad: Secret Empire #2 suffered from numerous flaws. From a technical standpoint, Secret Empire #2 is not a particularly well crafted issue. The pacing to this issue is atrocious. Spencer inches the story along at a snail’s pace. Spencer also engages in some navel gazing in multiple scenes that do not seem to provide much of value or purpose to the overall story. Unfortunately, there is zero plot progression in this issue. Spencer appears to meander through Secret Empire #2 with little purpose in mind or anytime of sense of urgency. Instead, this issue reads as Spencer fluffing up the story to burn page count and stretch a thin story over as many issues as possible.

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We burn two pages rehashing the damage to Las Vegas. We then waste an astonishing six pages in New York doing absolutely nothing at all. These 6 pages were a complete waste. Then we get seven pages at the Mount. All these seven pages do is tell us that Black Widow wants to kill Captain Nazi and A.I. Tony wants to find the Cosmic Cube fragments. That is just way too many pages for one simple and basic plot line. The same could have been achieved in three to four pages. We then get three pages with Captain Nazi and Baron Zemo. This scene is actually well crafted and is by far the best plotted and paced scene of the issue.

Then Spencer burns five pages of Black Widow and Hawkeye having a dull and formulaic debate and then Hawkeye telling Tony that Black Widow has left them. This scene was a total backbreaker for the reader. This could have easily been done in a couple of pages. There was absolutely no purpose for this scene at all. it did nothing to advance the story. It did nothing to enrich the story or add any layers. And this scene did nothing to advance or build up any of the characters involved in this scene. Spencer then spends two pages on the Revolutionaries joining Black Widow. This scene was also actually well paced and plotted. Then the final three pages with Steve Rogers’ arrival.

Spencer follows the well-worn big event format of wasting pages and delivering little plot progression and then delivering a tightly constructed final scene with a big “shocking” ending. The “shocking” hook ending is designed to make the reader excited for the next issue and to make the reader forget that nothing of substance actually happened at all in the issue. It is clear that Spencer is just stalling for time in an effort to stretch out a thin story over as many issues as possible.

Secret Empire #2 is a shallow read. There is not much depth or substance to the story at all. However, that is always forgivable in a big event story when it delivers plenty of action and adventure. Much like a summer blockbuster movie, the big event comic does not have to dazzle the reader with complex and sublime stories. The big event comic just has to entertain and provide quality action and adventure like a summer blockbuster movie. Unfortunately, that definitely does not happen with Secret Empire #2. Instead, we get a thin story that delivers next to nothing in action or adventure.

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This issue offers up a rather dull and boring read. We get three small panels of “action” in the scene Luke Cage and Iron Fist. The next “action” isn’t until the scene with Fisk. And there all we get are two small panels of the criminals being taken down by Fisk. The next action is the one single small panel of Black Widow punching Hawkeye. And then the last bit of action are the three tiny panels of Steve taking down the Serpent Society. That’s it. Those nine small panels of “action” might have been large enough tao take up a single page of this issue. To only get a single page worth of action in a 31 page big event comic is ridiculous. And to make it even worse, Sorrentino males sure that the panels that have any action are the smallest panels on the page! Talking heads get reserved the larger panel space. It is as if Spencer and Sorrentino forgot that they were making a big event Marvel comic and not an indie comic. This is like going to a summer blockbuster movie looking for action and adventure and getting Knight of Cups instead.

The lack of action would at least be tolerable if the story provided a deep and complex read full of excellent character work and strong dialogue. Unfortunately, none of that happens. The character work is rather poor in this issue. All of the characters are either generic, oddly unappealing, or out of character. The worst might be how Black Widow is written. Black Widow is completely unlikable at certain moments. And at other moments, Black Widow is written so cheesy and over the top that she becomes laughable . Which I am sure was not Spencer’s goal. Poor Black Widow is getting the Carol Danvers treatment from Secret Wars II and it ruins Black Widow’s character and makes her absolutely unlikable and hard to take seriously.

Hawkeye is written to be nothing more than a putz. Which is disappointing. I have always like Hawkeye’s character. It would be great to see him written like a true hero and badass rather than the accidental hero who is more of a loser than anything else. A.I. Tony is nothing more than a writer’s crutch for Spencer to waive his hands at plot gaps or problems to move the story along in a convenient fashion. All the rest of the characters? They get nothing more than a cursory generic personality. Marvel’s “new” line of heroes that they keep shoving down readers’ throats are mere window dressing. They get lots of panel time but provide absolutely nothing of substance or interest to the story. In fact, the lack of any big named heroes, other than Steve Rogers, makes this big event feel unimportant and irrelevant. The iconic big guns like the real Thor, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Logan, etc are needed to give this big event more gravitas. Right now, Secret Empire feels like the big event of C-list characters.

Spencer’s dialogue is as unimpressive as the character work. The dialogue vacillates between being generic at best and being too ham-fisted and overly dramatic. At many points, the characters chew through their dialogue like this was a hard boiled crime noir story. A particular low point of the dialogue was that the Falcon’s only line in the entire issue was such a cringe inducing stereotypical one. The poor character work and weak dialogue translates into zero chemistry between the characters. This only serves to make a dull issue that much more boring and lifeless.

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The lack of plotting and depth to the story is compounded by a lack of internal logic at various points in this issue. There are several moments where characters do or say stupid things that serve to rip the reader out of the story. The scene at the Mount where Black Widow shooting a gun to get everyone’s attention when nobody was doing anything in the first place was so silly. It was not a loud and chaotic scene. It was a rather normal and staid scene. There was zero reason for Black Widow to win out her heater and start spraying bullets. It came across as such a cheesy moment more befitting of a ham-fisted western. Then you had the scene at Black Widow’s cabin where the Revolutionaries join Black Widow’s side. Riri agrees to join Black Widow but then says that nobody said anything about killing anyone. What?! Is Riri deaf or just have the situational awareness of a brick wall? The entire scene at the Mount was all about Black Widow wanting to kill Captain Nazi. The entire reason Black Widow left the Mount was so she could carry out her plan to kill Captain Nazi. For Riri to agree to join Black Widow in her mission but say that nobody said anything about killing anyone just makes Riri look like a moron. Not sure that is what Spencer was going for with this scene.

Another example of the lack of internal logic was the scene with Rick’s videotaped message. In that scene, Rick says that Hydra was already busy at finding the fragments. We then immediately cut from this scene to a scene with Captain Nazi giving the order to go find the fragments. How can this be? The scene with Rick’s video explicitly states that Hydra was already looking for the fragments. We then cut to a scene, that is not at all labeled a flashback scene, and see Captain Nazi giving the order to go look for the fragments. Either Spencer forgot about the scene that he just wrote or he forgot to label Captain Nazi’s scene as a flashback scene.

We have more lack of internal logic with A.I. Tony magically figuring out how to find the Cosmic Cube fragments in a matter of a few pages. And then we have the scene with Black Widow punching Hawkeye. Why? They weren’t fighting. Hawkeye was not even stopping Black Widow. There was no threat that warranted Black Widow resorting to unprovoked violence. Black Widow could have easily just walked away. This just made Black Widow seem more unhinged and overly dramatic that makes the reader unintentionally laugh.

Then you have the scene at Black Widow’s cabin. Why does Black Widow slit her hand with a knife and wipe her blood across the walls and call the cabin the Red Room? The Red Room was the KGB training facility where Black Widow was held as a child. It is a place where operatives would also have their minds wiped or memories manipulated. It was basically a place of torture for Black Widow. Why would she make that reference? Why would she want to create another version of the hellish place that haunts her? Why would she ever want to draw a parallel between a place that is such a negative element in her past and her cabin where she is going to work with the young heroes? Isn’t the plan just for these young heroes to help Black Widow take down Captain Nazi? It isn’t for them to go through some long-term grueling training. It makes no sense and comes off so ridiculously over the to and campy. It only serves to make the reader chuckle for all the wrong reasons.

All of these gaps in logic make Secret Empire #2 feel like a sloppy read. There does not seem to be much effort or care placed into crafting this issue. And as a small aside, I am so over seeing heroes fighting each other. That storyline is so old. Marvel needs to put this tired and workout trope behind them and start telling stories where the heroes actually fight…villains and not each other. I know. I know. Shocking.

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Andrea Sorrentino is a talented artist. There is no doubt. But, his style is an awful match for a Marvel big event comic. Sorrentino is far more suited for a gritty street based comic like Moon Knight or a more edgy Indie title. There were a couple of panels that looked awkward. One in particular was of Cho when the young heroes arrive at Black Widow’s cabin. In general, Secret Empire #2 looks dull and muddy. Many panels look sketchy and lack any detail. This is not the type of exciting or energetic looking art that I would expect from a big event comic. It is all too dull and muted. For mainstream big event super hero titles I much prefer slick styled super hero style artwork.

Overall: Secret Empire #2 is a lackluster read. This issue offers up a thin read with little substance or actual plot progression. Keep in mind that Marvel is charging $5.00 for the price of admission with Secret Empire #2. That is a massive cover charge for a show that offers very little in return. Secret Empire #2 offers up little bang for the buck. For $5.00 I require far more content and plot progression than what Spencer dishes out with this issue. There is just no way I could recommend any reader spending their hard-earned money for Secret Empire #2.