A few weeks ago, the assembled heroes of the Marvel Universe took on the Hydra-aligned Captain America with the fate of all reality at stake, in the final issue in Marvel Comics’ controversial Secret Empire event.
The series and the stories leading into it have been subject to much debate about the responsibility of storytelling within the superhero genre. Now that everything is officially over — with the publication of the event’s epilogue issue, Secret Empire: Omega #1 — it’s a good time to reflect on the events both in and outside of the comic, and to assess whether Secret Empire was worth all the hubbub.
While the lead-in to Secret Empire seemed like the event itself was going to have something to say about the nature of American fascism, the actual series focused more on being a standard superhero romp without much to say. Over the course of eighteen months, the story of Captain America’s turn towards outright fascism has caused pain, anger and outrage and ultimately just wasn’t worth the the offense, the excuses or the effort.
So, What Happened?
Although Secret Empire touted itself as a timely story about unchecked power and limited responsibility, the majority of the event instead featured a ‘round the world macguffin hunt for the shattered pieces of the Cosmic Cube. The understanding was that whomever assembled the reality-shaping plot device would decide the fate of the Marvel Universe.
At the beginning of Secret Empire’s final issue, the Hydra-aligned Steve Rogers had assembled most of a cosmic cube. Rogers’ was able to rewrite reality into one where Hydra truly won World War II and had influenced the growth of American culture for close to a century. Sam Wilson, who had survived the change in reality unaltered, held the final piece of the Cosmic Cube, and, in a surprise move, he handed it over to Rogers to complete his power.
What Rogers didn’t know was that Ant-Man and the Winter Soldier had hitched a ride at the microscopic level into the pocket dimension within the Cube itself. There, the true Steve Rogers’ consciousness had been kept safe by Kobik, the childlike manifestation of the Cosmic Cube’s sentience. Within the Vanishing Point, Bucky was able to bring Kobik back into the world, and she promptly undid Hydra-Rogers' changes to reality and created a new physical form for the true Steve’s personality.
From there, it was a clash between two Captains America; one who represented the American Dream and one who was a twisted reflection of the country’s worst traits. As people across the United States watched the fight on the news, the Hydra-aligned Cap reached for Mjolnir but was no longer able to wield it, due to no longer being in possession of any Cosmic Cube fragments. The real Steve Rogers however, can and did, smashing it into his doppelganger and ending the fight.
In this week’s epilogue, the real Steve Rogers visited his imposter in prison to get the measure of the man who ruined his reputation. The event ended with a tease that there are still Hydra followers loyal to their Supreme Leader, ready to take up arms for their cause.
Was It Worth It?
Since the original Captain America-as-Hydra reveal in May 2016, the message from Marvel Comics has been “Wait and see.” Criticism towards the series’ themes and events was met with pleas to stick it out to the end, because it would all be explained and it would all be worth it. Marvel even released a statement to ABC News — also a subsidiary of Disney — asking for patience from fans and assurances that it would all be worth it in the end.
Many of the criticisms levelled towards the story over the past eighteen months have been about the symbolism of corrupting a Jewish-created American icon with a Nazi-aligned terrorist organisation. It doesn’t matter if you eventually explain that Thor’s hammer was affected by the Cosmic Cube when that image is all too easily exists separated from the rest of the comic book explanation. It’s irresponsible to play sleight of hand with potentially volatile and offensive imagery just because “it all works out in the end.”
Furthermore, Hydra-Cap survived the fight and changes to reality and is currently in custody, a supervillain available to return at a writer’s whim, just like any other. Though his personal history and memories were altered by the Cosmic Cube, this Captain America is the original Captain America of the Marvel Universe; the red, white and blue one summoned by Kobik is an artificially created Cap with all of the original Steve Rogers’ memories. Nick Spencer has stated on Twitter that once the original Steve Rogers came back, he became the “real” Captain America again and HydraCap became the imposter. But, even if you find it a convincing explanation, it's one that is wholly absent from the comic itself.
Over the course of the past eighteen months or so, Spencer has gone out of his way to clarify that some factions of Hydra are Nazis, but not all of them are, and Hydra-Cap’s faction is not. However, in the final moments of Secret Empire Omega #1, Steve Rogers says to his doppelganger “I know what you are, and I’ve been fighting you my whole life,” a reference to Captain America’s history and origin — which is indelibly tied to World War II and the fight against The Third Reich.
So the Hydra-aligned Captain America was the real Steve Rogers until the end of the comic when he wasn’t, and Hydra weren’t Nazis until the end of the comic where they were. So much of Secret Empire has revolved around splitting hairs over semantics and arguing subtle differences to explain how the story isn’t offensive. A big summer event from a major superhero publisher should not need to thread that needle. If you start a sentence with “Well, actually it’s not a Nazi thing, because…” you’ve already lost your argument. “Is this supposed to be a Nazi thing?” isn’t a question readers should have to ask in the first place.
It also doesn’t help that much of the storytelling was straight-up sloppy, with plot holes, dropped narratives and unanswered questions throughout. The series glossed over important and pivotal moments in the development of the Hydra nation, going from Captain America defeating the Avengers in Washington straight to an America where Hydra is the norm and everyone’s used to it. Similarly, Secret Empire #10 jumps from the defeat of HydraCap to the reconstruction efforts in a post-Hydra society — it seems like deposing Hydra is as simple as beating up the guy currently in charge.
Secret Empire: Omega #1 pays some lip service to the reconstruction efforts, including the mutants surrendering New Tian, the sovereign nation they established in California, back to the US government. But there’s no time to address the fact that Hydra wouldn’t fall apart at the defeat of one man in a green rocket suit, if it was embedded as deeply throughout America as we’ve been shown. But Secret Empire never actually wanted to address the systemic and troubling nature of the ways fascism and totalitarianism worms its way into democracy, it just wanted to play with the symbology — like a big green octopus shaped toy.
Where do we go from here?
On the horizon is Marvel Legacy, in which much of Marvel’s line will revert back to something resembling the title’s original numbering scheme if it hadn’t be rebooted or renumbered, as a tribute to the decades of continuity that came before. The true, good, all-American Steve Rogers returns to Captain America under the guidance of a new creative team: Daredevil and Black Widow’s Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. Following the end of Secret Empire, the damage left by Hydra is still present throughout America and it seems like the new Captain America story will see Steve addressing the population’s concerns and fears following his doppelganger’s takeover of the United States.
Mark Waid is a truly legendary creator at this point, responsible for masterpieces across more than three decades. In recent years, however, he has developed a habit of attempting to broach divisive topics such as race and religion in his comics. Often, his attempts have struggled to accurately convey the experiences of the people the story represents — at worst, they have come off as out-of-touch and offensive portrayals of communities that Waid is not a part of. Unfortunately, the idea of a legendary writer who already has two classic runs with Captain America under his belt isn’t as appealing a concept as it first might seem, regardless of how gorgeous Chris Samnee’s art surely will be.
There’s also the matter of the other Captain America, Sam Wilson. Since donning the red-white-and-blue, Sam has lead sidekicks to their death, let billionaires off the hook, stood on the sidelines while private police terrorise minority communities and eventually decided it was all too hard and quit to go camp out in Montana. While it’s hardly the character’s fault — he deserved much better — Sam Wilson was a terrible Captain America. And now that the real Steve Rogers is back, he’s heading back to becoming the Falcon. It’s a missed opportunity to have him to actually live up to the name and mantle of Captain America in the wake of Hydra’s takeover.
A glance at Marvel’s schedule for the next few months shows a surprisingly meagre amount of Secret Empire fallout, especially for a publisher that usually ends events with line-wide branding, like “The Initiative” after Civil War and “Dark Reign” after Secret Invasion. The X-Men books are going straight into a crossover event in the Mojoverse; the Punisher is taking over the War Machine armor, after working with Hydra of his own free will; and the Avengers are going straight into a crossover with the Champions featuring the High Evolutionary.
Secret Empire is the second worst selling event comic in Marvel’s history. Furthermore, it failed to bolster sales of its tie-in issues — series launched out of Secret Empire, such as Secret Warriors, were already hovering around the cancellation line just a couple of issues in. Marvel has spent a lot of time and money on this event, and has come out of the other side with lower sales and lower confidence from readers and retailers alike.
No one comic or story is going turn things around for Marvel. It’ll take some really good stories and a sincere sign that things will change for the better to regain the trust of those driven away from Secret Empire. At the end of this month, Secret Empire will be a distant memory in the Marvel Universe — or at least that seems to be the hope — but whether fans can forgive and forget remains to be seen.
Kieran Shiach is a Salford, U.K.-based freelance writer and one half of Good Egg Podcasts. He is on Twitter, @KingImpulse. He wishes in the past he tried more things ’cause now he knows being in trouble is a fake idea.