When is a twist not a twist? That’s the question I felt reading Empyre #4, which had been teased as a big reveal for Marvel’s latest cosmic series — but having read the issue a few times, I’m still not quite sure what was supposed to be such a grand slam. It’s not to say that Al Ewing, Dan Slott, and Valerio Schiti are producing a bad story — it just feels a bit busy, lacking that strong direction and point of view that has made these creators’ other works so satisfying.
Written by Al Ewing and Dan Slott
Art by Valerio Schiti and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10
One could argue that the impersonal nature of Empyre as a whole — bouncing from team to team, conflict to conflict, but rarely striking an emotional note that feels organic to the Avengers or the Fantastic Four — doesn't just slow down this event series, but has made all four issues of the book feel a little repetitive.
There are some cool team-ups, of course — Captain Marvel and the Human Torch feel like a good match, with Johnny's wild flames providing a nice contrast to Carol's laser-focused green energy — but beats like Iron Man and Mister Fantastic already feel a bit played out, while the Black Panther feels increasingly distant. It's a problem that Empyre has had since the jump, which has been the focus on the Kree/Skrull/Cotati politics have drained the series' energy like a kudzu vine — none of it is organic to any of our heroes, so they wind up getting sidelined in their own event book.
Usually, this is where big twists would goose the energy of the book, but it's here that the creative team runs cold. The reveal of Jennifer Walters being murdered and worn like a suit by the Cotati evokes a bit of Ewing's horror vibes from Immortal Hulk, but not only does Schiti's cartoony art undercut the terror of it all, but Ewing's own series has made it clear that Hulks have a revolving door for death — so this reveal has no more teeth than Wolverine being torched by a flamethrower.
Meanwhile, the final page reveal of Wiccan and Hulkling's wedding is certainly a long-overdue step for superheroic representation, but given that the characters had already been engaged since the days of Avengers: Children's Crusade, the reveal almost doesn't hit especially hard — both since it's shown in the past tense, as well as under the insinuation that Hulkling might have been killed and taken over by the Cotati, as well.
Yet the artwork here does look superb. Valerio Schiti adds a lot of energy and juggles all the various characters nicely — colorist Marte Gracia also turns in some superlative work, particularly with a striking red background as Mantis tries desperately to find common ground with her son. That said, Schiti also hits the limits of his cartoony style — the aforementioned She-Hulk reveal is a valiant effort that just doesn't manage to connect — but I can see him having fun with Quoi's evolving design.
Speaking of his characters, Schiti's design work, in general, deserves a lot of praise, with fun teases like Tony Stark's FF-inspired Iron Man suit, or the truly toxic elements you can see from his Swordsman design. (And if you look back to earlier issues of Empyre, you can see his teasing of She-Hulk's heel turn is apparent from the jump. Sneaky!) And finally, when Schiti is able to really go off with the action, he's able to infuse a lot of speed and motion to his pages, even when there isn't necessarily a ton going on — which is absolutely necessary for a book that focuses on the ever-shifting factions as Empyre does.
We're two-thirds of the way through Empyre, and I'll be honest — I'm not sure how this event sticks the landing at this point. While I'm a huge fan of Hulkling and the Young Avengers, there's been a fundamental disconnect with this series from the jump, making the Avengers and the Fantastic Four feel a little superfluous, almost acting as punching bags rather than organically driving the narrative. Unfortunately, I have the feeling that there was hope that the two big developments this issue might get people invested in the series as a whole, but anyone with even passing familiarity with the characters' recent history will likely only see this as a blip on the radar. I can only hope Ewing and Slott make me eat my words in the next two issues, as both are superlative creators in their own right — but given how much narrative real estate has been burned, it will take a lot to make Empyre succeed this late in the game.