We’re almost halfway through Marvel’s controversial event storyline Secret Empire and the comic’s controversial choices have only gotten more numerous. The fourth issue takes a brief detour from Nazi [Captain America](https://www.inverse.com/topic/captain-america)’s Hydra-controlled United States to visit an old Avengers friend-turned-foe. It’s Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, who once physically assaulted his wife. The message this reunion is sending is, uh, troubling.
Spoilers for Secret Empire #4 are below, you know the drill.
Both the Avengers (lead by an A.I. version of Tony Stark) and HydraCap’s evil Avengers are headed to Alaska to retrieve a fragment of the all-important cosmic cube which could, potentially, undo all the bad that’s happened. The problem is that Alaska is currently occupied by Hank Pym, who happens to be fused with the Avenger’s greatest foe: Ultron. Hank’s presence in this fusion of man and machine has leveled out the genocidal robot a little bit, but he’s still evil, mostly.
The two Avengers teams fight a little bit before Ultron captures them and forces them all to attend… a dinner party. It’s an odd scene, as Ultron’s power keeps the captured heroes in place while Hank pain and longing keep them alive (and well-fed). As they chat, Tony Stark makes a gambit to get out — he tells Hank the real reason why the Avengers stopped getting dinner together well before Captain America turned Nazi.
“It’s because they got to be too awkward,” he says to Hank. “Too uncomfortable. It was hard for people to act like everything was still okay, like they were still okay with you… after what you did to Jan.”
Upon being reminded of the 1981 comic where a frustrated Hank slugged his wife, the first Wasp, Ultron freaks out. It’s only when the current Ant-Man, Scott Lang, tells Hank that he’s not actually a bad guy. He just made a big, big mistake, but the way he was able to overcome them and go on to do good things. Scott, and ex-con, looked up to him for this reason.
There’s maybe something to this line of logic. Hanky Pym is an old character, but this one panel (one that the original comic author claims he never intended to happen) has haunted him ever since. But, on the other hand, it’s disconcerting that Secret Empire scribe Nick Spencer has roped Hank’s domestic abuse past into his story about another iconic Marvel hero who is doing something very bad.
As with most of Secret Empire, the plot seems to want to have it both ways. By showing that Hank forever sullied himself with his actions, the comic is setting up that it might be impossible for HydraCap to ever really come back from what he’s done. At the same time, though, we’re meant to feel bad, at least somewhat, for Hank. The comic ends with him doing the right thing and making a speech about how “we’re the sum of our choices” and saying that the argument he just had with his old friends had “a cleansing effect” that got rid of “old baggage.”
Secret Empire isn’t going so far as to excuse domestic abuse. It’s just telling that Spencer is harkening back to one of the darkest episodes of Marvel history in the middle of his own controversial storyline. At the same time that Marvel higher-ups are issuing public assurances that everything will be okay in the end, Secret Empire’s reminding us of the damage a single storyline can do to a beloved character. Spencer probably doesn’t want to go down in history as the man who forever ruined Captain America. He has a plan — and the reveal that there’s a good version of Steve out there seems to hint that there’s still good in him that will ultimately triumph. Yet, here were are reminding everyone how hard it is to come back after you’ve abused your spouse.