**WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the Secret Empire storyline. Proceed at your own risk**
Captain America, Marvel Comics’ stalwart sentinel of liberty, has been at the center of controversy since he was revealed to have been a lifelong agent of the terrorist organization Hydra on the final page of 2016’s Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. After all, the shield-slinging superhero – created by two Jewish comics professionals, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon – earned his bones slugging Adolf Hitler in the jaw on the cover of his very first issue, Captain America Comics #1, a full year before America even entered into World War II. And he’s been the moral center of the modern-day Marvel Universe since being thawed from a block of ice and joining the company’s premier super-team in 1964’s Avengers #4.
That controversy has only intensified with the April 2017 launch of Secret Empire, a crossover miniseries written, like Captain America: Steve Rogers, by Nick Spencer. The premise of Secret Empire – that Captain America is an agent of the terrorist organization Hydra and uses it to take over the U.S. – bears, for some, an all-too-disturbing resemblance to current events.
“Now that Donald Trump is president and approximately half the country lives in a state of heightened terror,” writes the A.V. Club’s Tegan O’Neil, “the idea of Captain America being a Nazi and infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. will be, for many, simply dispiriting, unsettling, and too close to home to be fun.”
Tales featuring dictatorial figures or groups restricting the freedoms of others are thick on the ground in our current media landscape, especially television. Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a near-future that seems unnervingly more plausible each week. USA’s Colony presents its own near-future vision of a military takeover in a very recognizable Los Angeles, while Amazon’s well-regarded The Man in the High Castle, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, posits an alternate America that lost World War II and is subdivided by the Nazis and the Japanese. And the most recent season of AMC’s monster hit The Walking Dead focused on the reign of Negan, a baseball bat-wielding despot who promises order and security in return for unwavering loyalty without giving his subjects a choice in the matter. But it’s not just dystopian TV shows enjoying added relevance in the current political climate: after Trump’s election, sales of George Orwell’s classic 1984 rose 9,500%.
None of these stories has struck quite the country’s collective raw nerve with the intensity of Secret Empire. For the Marvel Universe’s very face of integrity and character to align himself with a fascist organization, to say nothing of one with Nazi ties, strikes many as the ultimate addition of insult to injury: the wrong story at the wrong time.
But a closer look at the conventions of superhero comics shows that Secret Empire, for all its marketing missteps and storytelling flaws, may in fact turn out to be the opposite: the right story at the right time.
Poor Judgment and Tragic Consequences
Dystopias are as common, and as popular, in comics as they are on TV, in movies and in literature, from modern-day examinations like Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s late-‘80s series V for Vendetta to Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud’s far-flung epic The Incal, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s post-apocalyptic Y: The Last Man and the long-running Judge Dredd.
The superhero genre in particular has proven itself to be an especially fertile one for stories about dark futures (or dark presents). In fact, the dystopia is one of the genres in which superheroes work best. It’s a short leap to imagine that people who use their fantastic powers to stop petty crimes might soon decide to extend their sphere of influence—as many works like Moore and Dave Gibbons’ watershed series Watchmen have ably demonstrated. In Marvel’s mid-‘80s limited series Squadron Supreme, an alternative-universe team of heroes attempts to create a Utopian society. And in the DC Comics series Injustice: Gods Among Us, based on the popular video game of the same name, Superman snaps after the Joker kills Lois Lane and their unborn child; in response, the Man of Steel creates a superpowered police state. In all of these stories, if absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely, it leads at the very least to poor judgment and tragic consequences.
The existence of superpowered beings can also serve as a catalyst for authoritarian actions and a handy metaphor for our basest fear of those who are different. Marvel’s X-Men, for instance, has been the target of government groups and others who fear their mutant powers throughout the team’s colorful history. The most popular instance of this comes in the influential Days of Future Past storyline from 1981 (not to be confused with the 2014 film of the same name). In the two-part comics story, by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, X-Man Kitty Pryde travels to the far future of 2013, a time when mutants are hunted by giant robots called Sentinels and either placed in internment camps or killed.
How Did We Get Here?
If these bleak backdrops are nothing new in superhero fiction, Secret Empire features a different take on that tried-and-true theme, in that it presents us with a potential despot who has for decades served, like Superman, as his world’s most trusted and admired figure. And unlike the Man of Steel in Injustice: Gods Among Us, he isn’t driven to action by a tragic event like the death of a loved one – he’s been working toward this goal from the very beginning.
How we got to this point is important, if complex. In subsequent issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers, we’re led to believe that Captain America’s nemesis, the Red Skull, used a being named Kobik (a sentient version of a Cosmic Cube, a MacGuffin with the power to transform reality) to alter Steve Rogers’ history so that he was recruited into Hydra at an early age. The rest of his history as we know it is the same: Ninety-eight-pound weakling Rogers is turned into Captain America by a secret government project, only he’s been a double agent for Hydra the whole time.
Things get more complicated in April’s Secret Empire #0, which posits that the Axis Powers had World War II all sewn up until the Allies, with the aid of a Cosmic Cube, rewrote history to make themselves the victors. At a certain point, a Hydra leader intones, Kobik will reveal the truth to Cap, and transform him back into the person he’s always been. Not rewriting his reality to make him believe he’s a Hydra agent, but to restore his true past, in which he has always been loyal to Hydra.
As of this writing, roughly halfway through Secret Empire, it’s hard to tell whether this opening scene should be taken at face value (that Cap has always been evil), or whether it’s part of an elaborate fake-out to convince Rogers he’s always been this way. Still with us?
In either event, Rogers eventually kills the Red Skull, whom he resents for perverting Hydra for his own petty ends, and assumes control of the organization. At the same time, he’s also named the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., the international espionage and counter-terrorism agency, which proves useful in his plan to seize control of the country and neutralize the threat posed by Marvel’s other heroes.
It’s worth noting that while this recent turn of events has proven a tough sell with a vocal segment of Marvel’s fans, it makes perfect sense within the world of superhero comics which operate on the same laws as the soap operas that once dominated daytime television. Like soaps, monthly superhero comics must necessarily grind through a Herculean amount of plot, requiring stratospheric levels of melodrama to keep fans engaged. Evil doppelgängers, bouts of amnesia, theatrical deaths and resurrections and “heel turns” (the professional wrestling term for good guys going bad) are all standard and, indeed, expected tropes.
Over the last dozen years, for instance, Captain America has died, been replaced by his long-thought-dead WWII sidekick Bucky, gotten better, spent more than a decade wandering an alternate dimension, and aged into an old man. Given all of that, his revelation as a Hydra mole hardly seems that extreme. Especially since we know that, just as heroes’ deaths (with a few rare exceptions) are never permanent, neither are their conversions to the dark side.
Make no mistake: It’s been a given since Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 that at some point, Rogers will rejoin the side of the angels. If anyone had any doubts, they were quelled by the announcement of Marvel’s upcoming Legacy initiative which promises a return of classic versions of characters like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk alongside their newer counterparts—and by a press release Marvel issued urging readers to stick with Secret Empire in the face of growing fan backlash. “What you will see at the end of this journey,” it read in part, “is that [Captain America’s] heart and soul – his core values, not his muscle or his shield – are what save the day against Hydra.”
The Conflict That Matters
That inevitable return to form is a key part of what makes Secret Empire so potentially crucial to our particular juncture in history.
To understand why, it’s important to understand just what Captain America means. Captain America says something about America that even Superman, who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way,” doesn’t. Superman may symbolize the best parts of our individual selves, but Captain America is a symbol of all that’s great about America, the collective. As William Pietz notes in his 2013 thesis Captain America: The Epitome of American Values and Identity, “Captain America defines what America is … [and] also explains what that means in relation to the rest of the world. … (T)he truth is that Captain America epitomizes what America is and stands for. He changes as America changes. He represents the identity of America.”
Let’s face it: A story in which the walking avatar for the soul of our country becomes everything he’s ever fought against is a perfect way to illustrate the idea of a nation at war with itself. “Cap has ALWAYS been at his best,” writes Mark Hughes, “when confronting the comparison and contrast between the American Dream and the American Reality.”
The conflict that matters, then, is not how the rest of the heroes in the Marvel Universe defeat such a threat, but Cap’s battle with himself – for what it says about us.
The promising news on that front is that the early issues of Secret Empire show us a Captain America whose belief in the righteousness of Hydra’s stated goal – the imposition of order on an increasingly chaotic world – is sorely tested.
In Secret Empire #2, he’s already conflicted about the lengths to which he’s gone to secure and maintain Hydra’s victory, and whether that goal is worth the cost in actions and lives (including that of his longtime friend Rick Jones). After Hydra warships level Las Vegas in attempt to stamp out the resistance led by some of his former Avengers allies, he castigates himself for his weakness: “The whole thing is a lie. I didn’t order the attack. I couldn’t bring myself to… I only gave Elisa [Madame Hydra] the power to do it – then chose to look the other way.”
Rogers’ bitterness follows his rising frustration in Secret Empire #1, which begins with Hydra having taken over the United States following the events of the inexplicably numbered Secret Empire #0. In that book’s most telling scene, Cap objects when Arnim Zola, an evil scientist whose face looks out from the chest plate of a clunky, headless robot, links the rise of the resistance to Rogers’ decision to pardon the civilian rebels who fought Hydra’s takeover. His response reveals the character at his core, reality warp or no: “It was the right thing to do. Our authority was established – I’m not going to oversee a prison state. It was time to bring people back together.” (It’s clear that the rest of Hydra’s council would be just fine with a prison state, thank you very much.)
So Steve Rogers’ battle with himself has already begun, and the final pages of #2 present a scenario suggesting that, in tried and true comic-book fashion, that battle may take a decidedly literal turn, as we’re introduced to a man in tattered fatigues who claims to be – wait for it –Rogers himself.
At the time of this writing, in mid-June, it’s too early to tell whether this second Steve is the genuine article, and that the one we’ve been following since Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is some alternate-reality twin. This would be an unforgivable cheat, storytelling-wise, although the recent revelation of the cover of Secret Empire #10, its text teasing something called the Vanishing Point, has fueled speculation along these lines. Another possibility (this being comics, after all) is that this second Steve is the non-Hydra portion of Captain America’s psyche, somehow separated from the rest by Kobik. In any case, no reader familiar with the tropes of superhero comics would bet against a knock-down, drag-out brawl between these two symbols of America.
It’s also too early to tell whether that Cap-on-Cap battle, figurative or literal, will decide the outcome of Secret Empire. Two separate groups of resistance heroes may yet complicate matters: One seeks the fragments of the no longer sentient Cosmic Cube so that they can set history right, while the other has decided that the only way to begin to repair the damage Captain America has done is to snuff him out. It’s not difficult to imagine both plot threads playing a role in the story’s eventual climax, with the latter group killing the evil Cap and the former using the Cosmic Cube to resurrect him – just without the Hydra bits.
The Enemy Within
However the series plays out, the backlash against Secret Empire has certainly been understandable. Marvel’s staunchest hero is aligning himself with fascists just when, as Oliver Sava notes, “readers from marginalized groups … are genuinely scared of the rise of fascism in this country.” Fans have also chafed at the notion that Kirby and Simon’s creation would join an organization that has, at different times in comics and movie continuity, been linked to the Nazi Party. (While Spencer has taken pains to separate this version of HYDRA from past Nazi associations, that link remains firm in the minds of many.)
But those objections are exactly what give Secret Empire the potential to be the story those readers don’t know they need. Steve’s mounting unease with the unholy alliance with which he finds himself, and his doubts as to whether his goal is worth the means employed to reach it, carry great significance at a time when conservative officials find themselves overlooking troublesome investigations and potentially treasonous activities in the name of their party’s political objectives.
In a moment where certain politicians and media seem to encourage and celebrate authoritarian behavior, a story in which our greatest hero – the living symbol of all that is great about America – wrestles against fascism within himself (in whatever form that may take) and reclaims the values that make him a hero can be a powerful and inspiring story about hope, just when it’s needed most. And Secret Empire, the tale of a hero’s battle to conquer the enemy within, may yet be that story.