It took us a while, didn’t it? But hey! Now we have an issue of Secret Wars that has some actual wars and actual secrets in it.
Things certainly seem ratcheting toward the conclusion, which is a good thing to have happening since we have just a few issues left. If this really is the final act, however, it still feels like we missed the second one, or otherwise like we really needed an Act 2.5 or something. The Prophet/Maximus the Mad stands revealed after his rapid introduction last issue, and Mr Fantastic and the Maker continue their working relationship from before, even though we still don’t know what they are working on. Gone are the Spider-Men and their pivotal moment, although Star Lord finally earns a total of six words. Thor must have had a conversation with the Thor Corps at some point, because all the Thors are now on “our” side after a span of a couple of pages, but we’re still not sure if the Captain Marvel we’re seeing alongside Mr. Sinister is “our” Captain Marvel at all.
The problem with these sprawling epics is that we are losing all sight of trees as we see the forest. We have spend a lot of time with Dr. Doom and have even been led to sympathize with the ennui of a god. That’s not a bad thing at all, of course, and might even be a selling point, but more and more he is, by necessity, sidelined by the action that has to take place. Most notably, he doesn’t take on the roles that the covers suggest. Rather than loom large (even metaphorically) as the heroes battle below him, Doom just pouts a bit and sends in the Thors to smash everybody. I keep wanting to look at particular parts of that story, but the comic keeps putting both hands on the side of my head and forcing me to look at other things instead, with little reason why I should pay attention to that. Oh! Squirrel!
You would think that as Doom’s prominence decreases, our heroes’ would rise the forefront, taking on more of the focus. But really we only get a page of Mr. Fantastic and the Maker (adding nothing new to their interaction but title-dropping the word “secret” in bold font) and a page or two of Black Panther and Sub-Mariner. The latter is actually nice; the banter between these two feels the most earned and genuine of all the characters involved. What we do get is a lot of interaction with Mr. Sinister, of all people. With this and his previous appearances in the series, I’m wondering if he’s a new pet character for the author. He’s been given more focus than over half of the Life Raft Survivors. There’s certainly something that’s silly and charming in his dialogue (and depictions by the artist), which can lend some levity to the seriousness and full-on war that’s happening, but such moments of levity don’t feel right, like they’re not earned while we’re still not quite sure what the real stakes are.
I also have a hard time taking dialogue seriously when characters speak critically of other characters. Mr. Sinister shouts in varied font sizes and broken dialogue balloons that he “just / can’t… stand / that / tacky outfit” the Goblin Queen is wearing. Really? That doesn’t sound like something Mr. Sinister would say, but it does sound like something someone who is reading comics would say through Mr. Sinister. Same with the Prophet revealing himself as Maximus, to “you idiots.” Which “you” is that to, exactly? To us readers? Hmm. I wonder.
The artistic focus here is really on the characters and expressions, as always. The field of war, then, is completely indistinct, as figures are, at best, shown on a literal field or, more likely, shown battling in piles of something with billows of clouds as a backdrop. It may be the first time that we learn that Doomstadt is atop a giant tree, something Asgardian no doubt, but the now-literal fog of war obscures any true sense of scale. When do get a couple of full-scale dramatic set pieces, one a massive helicarrier full of Hulks and the other a floating castle of Thors, in semi-full page spreads, it’s pretty amazing. The concept is, come on, cool. Like most of Secret Wars, though, these really cool ideas are like wonderfully constructed movie façades that present a dramatic face but when you enter them you realize you can’t really do much with them.
Secret Wars has drifted a lot, and suffered precisely from a lack of a point-of-view character. This issue bounces around too much to allow Dr. Doom that role (one that he enjoyed in the past) but neither allows any of our heroes to rise to prominence, either. It’s good to see a lot of action, with this issue being the largest number of characters involved so far, I think, but it all feels perfunctory. The villains do bad things; the heroes try some last-ditch efforts. It’s hard to tell if I’m being unnecessarily critical, as if a several-month delay may have hardened me to it all, but everything feels a bit too going-through-the-motions to allow me to connect to the story the same way I did at the start of the series.