[Note: This review reveals major plot points for Empyre #1.]
“I’m itching for something simple… and this is it,” Tony Stark says in Empyre #1 (Marvel) as he sees a massive armada of spaceships descend on the “Blue Area” of Earth’s moon. “Space invaders versus Avengers. Good guys versus bad guys.” It’s a moment of lampshading for Marvel’s big summer crossover event, drawing attention to the basic nature of the narrative. The world is so complicated right now, your superhero comics don’t have to be. That approach isn’t especially exciting, though, and despite the obvious craft on display in Empyre #1, the issue lacks the spark of ambition.
Marvel and DC’s competing summer events are both continuations of previous stories. While DC returns to the Dark Multiverse of 2017’s Dark Nights: Metal in Dark Nights: Death Metal, Marvel goes much further back in its history for Empyre, building on 1970s epics like “The Kree/Skrull War” and “The Celestial Madonna Saga.” Death Metal is even more over-than-top than its predecessor in its madcap mashup of corporate IP, but Empyre calls back to more traditional modes of superhero storytelling. Marvel’s best writer, Al Ewing, takes lead, co-writing the story with Dan Slott and reuniting with his Mighty Avengers collaborator, Valerio Schiti, on art duties. But unlike Ewing’s other work, Empyre is comfortable with competence, completing the required assignment without much style or ingenuity.
The two one-shots leading into the event, Empyre: Avengers and Empyre: Fantastic Four, take very different approaches to set-up. The former, written by Ewing with art by Pepe Larraz, gives readers a crash course on the aforementioned past events via a quasi-religious experience for Tony Stark as he and the Avengers enter the lush garden created by Cotati aliens on the moon. The latter, written by Dan Slott with art by Sean Izaakse and R.B. Silva, is far less essential, exploring the ripple effects of the Kree/Skrull alliance by introducing a new Elder Of The Universe: The Profiteer. The issue would be serviceable as an Empyre prelude in the Fantastic Four ongoing, but presenting it as required reading for the crossover is an unnecessary cash-grab. (According to the checklist in the back of Empyre #1, the event has 18 crossover miniseries/one-shots and three tie-ins with ongoing series: Captain Marvel, Fantastic Four, and X-Men.)
When it comes to space invaders versus Avengers, this creative team delivers the goods. The Avengers’ Quinjet gets a Ghost Rider makeover and flies through space shooting fireballs out of two skull-shaped cannons. Black Panther puts on a mecha suit and fights a Super-Skrull with all the powers of the Fantastic Four. The script plays to Schiti and colorist Marte Gracia’s strengths, and they deliver striking cosmic action with dynamic layouts and vibrant colors. Effective action can go a long way in boosting an event’s appeal, and there’s a particularly powerful sequence involving Thor’s hammer that is both very cool and makes one of the event’s key players much more formidable.
There are a lot of substantial ideas for the creative team to explore here—war as driving economic force, oppressed groups reclaiming their power, a queer hero working to unite opposing groups—but can they get the attention they deserve when the story has to hit the typical event beats? The end of Empyre #1 shows how the conventions of the genre flatten the conflict, revealing that the Cotati are exactly as dangerous as the Kree and Skrulls feared.
The Cotati become standard warmongering villains, a troubling heel turn considering how the Cotati’s visual designs are rooted in cultures that are often othered and vilified in mainstream pop culture. In Empyre: Avengers, Quoi, the leader of the Cotati, wears a tunic and turban reminiscent of Middle Eastern garb, and in Empyre #1, he changes into garments akin to those worn by Native American tribes as he and the rest of the Cotati prepare to go to war. There’s a long history of ethnic stereotypes in comics, and it’s disappointing to see Empyre’s back-to-basics storytelling tap into one of the worst aspects of classic superhero books.