SECRET EMPIRE: Concluding The “Hydra Cap” Saga

One of Marvel’s best, most controversial events comes to a close.

Spoilers for Secret Empire, Captain America: Steve Rogers and Captain America: Sam Wilson.

I had some questions when the Secret Empire event began back in April, kicking off the large-scale conclusion to a year’s worth of the “Hydra Captain America” storyline. The concept had alienated plenty of readers, and while I was on board myself, I had reservations that I needed to work out at length, getting into the nature of the setup and what it had to say about the dueling nature of American symbolism and the inability to come to a consensus on history itself. I continue to empathize with those alienated by Marvel’s trajectory with the character. I probably always will, and yet, I found my initial questions answered in ways that were more than satisfactory, in a story I’ve ended up both enjoying and learning from on several fronts. As a work of fiction, it’s probably the best Marvel event I’ve read in the last decade. As a fixture of our current media culture, political climate and all the conversations therein, it takes on the form of inadvertent meta-commentary that complicates my very relationship to it.

I love it, but with that uneasy feeling in my gut. Just as I love America.

My aforementioned editorial on the subject was written after Secret Empire #0, the prelude to ten stellar issues of Secret Empire and a handful more of both Captain America titles. I’d recommend giving it a read if you aren’t caught up – as always, the best way to ascertain context is by reading the series itself, though I don’t begrudge anyone choosing not to for their own reasons. This is, once again, just one person’s experience with the comic. As things stood back in April, the sentient Cosmic Cube Kobik had either created or revealed a reality in which Steve Rogers was always a HYDRA agent, and had restored the memories of this reality – one could call this both the “new” reality as well as the “original,” since a Cosmic Cube was used to un-write that reality as well in order to create the once we know – resulting in a Captain America loyal to HYDRA planting the seeds of fascism in our world before orchestrating a takeover of the American government.

The lack of clarity as to what was or wasn’t the “original” reality is one of the most interesting parts of this concept, because the cosmic loop it creates – each reality having created the other – essentially makes both realities true, even if the “Hydra Cap” reality was never factual to us or to the majority of the characters. In the current political climate, wherein debates rage over the perceptions of Confederate generals, Christopher Columbus and America itself, that’s exactly the kind of thing people are up against: the re-writing of history, so that what’s emotionally true takes precedence over factual reality. This all comes to a head in the series’ final issue, this week’s Secret Empire #10, where Steve Rogers, armed with the power of a Cosmic Cube, writes the current Avengers out of reality, rewriting history as he sees fit; one of the ultimate goals of any fascist regime. The original Avengers and the Fantastic Four are immortalized in newspaper headlines as having been HYDRA soldiers and astronauts, the world itself having been re-created in HYDRA’s image – and yet, hope still survives in the form of Captain America i.e. Sam Wilson, once The Falcon and Steve’s old sidekick, having reclaimed the American symbol and rallied the remaining heroes to fight against evil.

The conclusion of the event, as many might’ve learned in out-of-context spoilers, involves the return of the “real” Captain America, Steve Rogers as we knew him in his classic form, beating the hell out of this “new” Hydra Cap in a glorious splash page that we’ll get to later on. It’s incredibly satisfying, but it isn’t the out-of-left-field happenstance it might seem like if one hasn’t been keeping up with the series. In fact, ever since issue #2 back in May, it’s been pretty much the only possible outcome. The end of Secret Empire #2 introduces us to what feels like a world detached from time and space, setting up the story’s thematic trajectory.

In the “real” world, the new Captain America has trapped half our heroes within a darkened dome over New York City and the other half outside a wall surrounding Earth’s atmosphere. Sam Wilson has given up on the symbol of Captain America, an image now intertwined with HYDRA and used to imprison Inhumans in camps while encroaching on the sovereign lands of Black Panther’s Wakanda, Namor’s Atlantis and the mutants’ New Tian. This “real” comicbook world is as detailed as any we’re used to reading, with symbols and political rivalries becoming the interpersonal focus, from the neat technological grooves of the HYDRA headquarters, where Steve Rogers tries to convince Sharon Carter that this has always been the “real” him, to the cracks in the cave that becomes the hideout for the remaining Avengers as they try to bridge generational gaps in ideology, to the ruins of the U.S. Capitol building, the scene of the story’s inevitable conclusion as predicted in Civil War II.

The second world is nothing like this. Its background, a darkened forest, is blurry and ethereal, and rather than a political superhero comic, its inking is almost dreamlike. It only takes up a handful of pages each issue, but the story is focused on Steve Rogers as he exists without Captain America. He is still the muscular super soldier of the military experiments, but he has no memory of ever being a superhero in this realm. He has a couple of friends with him on this journey – all he knows is it’s a journey to get “home,” even though he doesn’t quite know what “home” is meant to be – and those friends are never given any real identities, though they appear to be equally pure, conceptual versions of Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes (or perhaps Jack Flag?) before either one was ever Captain America or held any other superhero identity. Where in the “real world” the symbol of Captain America had been allowed to run amok, doubling down on the Avengers’ hopelessness as they saw all they believed in fail them, this was the purest possible version of Steve Rogers, all the ideals and beliefs un-tainted by any symbol or flag or agenda.

In logistical terms, this was Kobik’s memory of Steve Rogers. Kobik, the Cosmic Cube who took the form of a scared young girl, had kept this memory alive once she realized the horrible things she’d been made to write into reality. In effect, this Steve Rogers was the pure superhero as seen through idealistic eyes, and it’s the Steve Rogers that’s retrieved from within the Cosmic Cube in the final issue, as the purity of belief and ideals finally faces down the symbols that had been corrupted and been made to abandon all that they stood for.

Fittingly, this has always been the dilemma at the heart of Captain America. Not as a singular character, but as a concept bearing the insignia of the American flag; Captain America as he exists to those outside the comic-reading circles, and outside those who watch his recent films with an even slightly critical eye. Part of the reason he was re-introduced as the frozen “man out of time” in The Avengers #4 (1963) by his original creator Jack Kirby was because for several years following World War II, Captain America has been canonically turned into the flag-waving uber-nationalist many still perceive him as. “Captain America, Commie Smasher” may have been written out of continuity, but for decades hence, there was no way for anyone outside comic readers to pick up on the nuance of the character and his political perspective since his name and outfit were synonymous with America.

Ask non-Americans unfamiliar with his modern stories and they’d probably dismiss him as just another jingoistic American action-movie type. Ask Americans unfamiliar with his modern stories, especially Americans who aspire to that same jingoistic mold, and you’re likely to find they have an affinity for the idea of Captain America for the exact reasons he’s hated elsewhere. This extends to how he’s co-opted by white nationalists and Neo Nazis in America, something that’s been happening since well before the idea of “Hydra Cap” was introduced. Images of Captain America photoshopped to show him unironically sporting Nazi insignia have been around since at least 2014 (we are after all talking about the same trolls and Neo Nazis who have taken a particular liking to images from American History X for their violently racist memes, so context isn’t exactly a relevant factor to them), which means it’s unlikely anyone showing up to a Neo Nazi rally sporting Captain America gear is doing so because they read this specific book or because it gave them the idea that Nazi Captain America is a good guy. The sales figures of the average issue would indicate some 0.0002% of Americans even read Secret Empire to begin with – which is not to prevent discussions on the impact of art, but rather to provide contextual backdrop for those casting this book as the sole reason Captain America could be co-opted by Neo Nazis or white nationalists, when that same co-opting has been going on for decades the same way people have their own interpretations of what the American flag stands for. To some, it’s progress and inclusivity. To others, it's adherence to rule of law and unwavering ethno-nationalism.

That said, if one were to question the necessity of a story in which an American beacon turns fascist at a time like this, I wouldn’t stop them. I would however recommend Captain America: Sam Wilson as an alternative they might enjoy, especially the handful of issues leading up to Captain America #25, functioning as the flipside to the corruption of American symbols in Secret Empire. In it, Sam Wilson picks the shield back up again because younger heroes (especially young black heroes) look to him to carry a mantle that’s been lost to most. For as much as symbols can be corrupted, they can be reclaimed. And boy does Sam ever reclaim the symbol of Captain America. In the following Secret Empire issue (#8, perhaps the series’ most thrilling entry), he goes above and beyond, assembling the Avengers for one last fight and even taking a bullet as he rises up out of the depths of the ocean, just to give people a chance to survive.

It’s one of those moments of comicbook heroism that exemplifies the genre, and it also acts as and encapsulation of the event itself.

Secret Empire is evenly paced, and yet every issue feels like a pivotal final battle. The Avengers and Captain America race across the world to regain the remaining fragments of the Cosmic Cube – from Hank Pym, from Wakanda, from Atlantis, from New Tian – because whoever holds them has the power to dictate reality itself. Every battle in Secret Empire, every single one, teeters on the edge of hopelessness. I don’t recall a single other event where every entry felt like its own mini-finale; not because it was in a constant state of unrelenting climax, but because every story arc was about finding glimmers of hope amidst what seemed like unrelentingly hopeless circumstances. Even one of the series’ major deaths, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, felt poignant and thematically sound despite the very idea of superheroes dying no longer feeling like it has any impact: she sacrifices herself to stop Spider-Man/Miles Morales from becoming a killer and going down the path that she did, because sometimes symbols and ideas need to endure.

That said, Secret Empire is by no means a consistently dour comic. If anything, it manages to be pretty hilarious in spurts thanks to the various character dynamics involved (including and especially an A.I. hologram of Tony Stark), not to mention my new favourite Inhuman ever, the appropriately named and ridiculously over-powered “Barf.” There’s also an absolutely gonzo issue (June’s Secret Empire #4) where everybody sits down to have dinner with Hank Pym, who’s now essentially half-Ultron in appearance.

Even this bizarre family-dinner story however, is a perfect piece of the series’ thematic puzzle. It focuses on the meta-text of the legacy character that is Ant-Man, with Scott Lang vocalizing his complicated thoughts on redemption in the context of his former mentor (a man who will forever be labeled a wife-beater thanks to a writer-artist miscommunication, and what even such despicable characters bring to our stories), but the remaining visage of Ultron here, Pym’s terrifying creation, is merely a superficial one. As it turns out, there is no trace of Ultron left in Pym. There is no mechanical evil controlling half his personality. Instead, this monstrous robotic face he wears is merely an externalization of the human struggle within him, and within all of us. The battle between light and dark that we must all eventually confront.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to stories like Secret Empire, but what’s been perhaps the most interesting part of this whole thing to me is how, regardless of intent, the real-world conversation has mirrored the story itself. Which isn’t to shield it from criticism by any stretch, but so much of modern media debate comes down to vast differences in approach and perspective based on personal history that they can often be hard to reconcile, even when the goals are aligned. Some see this story as giving ammo to fascists and Neo Nazis at a particularly turbulent time. Others such as myself see it as a stern rebuke, yet both these disparate halves probably have the same goals and perspective when it comes to fighting actual fascism – so if there’s one positive to the major disagreements between those who love this story and those who hate it, I can only hope it’s that we’ve learned to understand each other’s perspectives.

But, since this review is a distillation of my own perspective on the story, I can’t help but end on a note that sings its praises while acknowledging how and why others may have been turned off by it. For weeks on end, it became my own personal point of reflection on current events in America and the complexities of having one’s beliefs and adherence to symbols challenged when beginning to rebuild. That’s definitely the trajectory of the comics themselves, with “Hydra Cap” seemingly in custody as the new/original Captain America returns to the world but hands the shield off to Sam Wilson in a move that feels definitive as he faces a world that now sees him as a villain. I look forward to seeing how the aftermath plays out for Steve Rogers in both Secret Empire: Omega

Hydra has fallen, but the world is still not secure! As the heroes of the Marvel Universe stir from the wreckage of the battlefield, the inevitable rebuilding must begin. However, one question hangs in the air over the proceedings: What redemption can there be for Captain America?

…and the new Captain America ongoing series by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, which returns to the classic numbering with issue #695 in November:

HOME OF THE BRAVE begins – and Steve Rogers is back in action in the red-white-and-blue! Steve begins a journey across America to restore his tarnished reputation – and the dangers he encounters along the way are unlike any he's faced before!

Some have seen this Steve Rogers saga as a metaphor for current American leadership (again, your mileage may vary), but given that it began well before President Trump seemed like a possibility, to me it’s always been a story of America itself. All the evil that’s been done in the name of its flag, all the good that’s been done despite this, and the current, white-hot predicament that sees America on the verge of what feels like social upheaval, beginning with accepting the fluidity of American symbols and identity, and a new understanding of history itself…

…but of course, this being a superhero story also means the purity of ideals and belief in goodness don’t just win out over fascism ideologically. They win as anti-fascism has always won against an enemy that seeks to harm: by smashing it in the face.