With deaths, double-crosses, and surprise weddings, Marvel said the last issue of Empyre would be one of the defining moments of their star-spanning event.
But I'd said they were wrong — because the real highlight of the series is here.
Written by Al Ewing and Dan Slott
Art by Valerio Schiti and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Writers Al Ewing and Dan Slott deliver the best writing of Empyre to date — and it comes when Marvel's greatest heroes are able to be themselves. Combined with some emotional artwork from Valerio Schiti, Empyre #5 is an issue that brings a humanity that this series has sorely lacked, even as the momentum drags when it focuses on the greater Cotati conflict.
Perhaps most importantly, Ewing and Slott start their issue off with some truly engaging material — or would it be considered post-engagement? — as we see the whirlwind wedding of Hulkling and Wiccan, complete with a truly classy set of cameos from Young Avengers creators Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung. You can feel the love radiating off these two characters, and it's that sort of energy I wish the greater Empyre event had started off with — it immediately adds a human layer to an esoteric conflict, and immediately evokes readers' investment.
And that shot of humanity keeps Empyre #5 moving. Take for another example, a harrowing sequence with Ben Grimm versus a Cotati-puppeteered She-Hulk — similar to Slott's work on Spider-Man, you can tell how much he genuinely loves writing the Thing, and together with Ewing, they give Aunt Petunia's ever-lovin' blue-eyed nephew a Big Damn Hero moment that'll make you pump your fist.
But you can't complain about Valerio Schiti's artwork here, either. He really shifts gears with the energy of this story, from the rejuvenating energy of Hulkling and Wiccan's wedding to the frenetic pace of Black Panther taking a sword to a crowd of Cotati warriors. Even little moments of emotion, like the fury on Wiccan's face when he searches for the lost Hulkling, or the determined look on the Thing's bloodied face as he issues a striking challenge to his immortal enemy, they all look tremendous. This is also probably the highlight of the series for colorist Marte Gracia, whose purple and green palettes really click in a way that gives this book some much-needed energy.
Yet that same quality doesn't necessarily extend to some of the greater fisticuffs — there are a few clever one-liners with the Black Panther fighting off a Cotati horde single-handedly, but the closer Ewing and Slott hew to the aliens, the less organic the actual storytelling feels. The last third of the issue in particular drags a bit — maybe it's in part because of Wiccan solving a major problem off-panel with a flourish of marriage-enhanced abilities, or maybe it's because checking in with absent characters like Mister Fantastic or Iron Man almost feels redundant, when we've already struck emotional gold elsewhere. Ultimately, the Kree, Skrull and Cotati elements of Empyre still feel like the weakest parts of the series — which given how much that defines this event, oftentimes leads to a mixed bag.
But when I reviewed the last issue of Empyre, I wanted Ewing, Slott, and Schiti to make me eat my words — and I think they've succeeded at the eleventh hour. There's only one more issue of Empyre left, but I think this series has gotten a much-appreciated shot in the arm thanks to Ewing and Slott finally being able to wring some investment in Earth's Mightiest Heroes, rather than the feuding alien races that have caught them in the crossfire.
But there's a lesson to be remembered with Empyre #5 — when characterization comes first, the overarching threat feels that much more tense as a result. That's the whole point of hero-worship, which feels like superhero comics in a nutshell — we love these characters, we want to root for them to succeed against all odds. And by reminding us of the heart underneath all the cosmic fireworks, even if the event itself doesn't echo through eternity, Empyre #5 should be considered a much-needed win.