It’s fairly common to say the superhero comics are incapable of having successful plot-twists in the modern era. Not only have most popular characters been around for so long that it feels like every conceivable story to be told with them has already been told at least twice, comics publishers have taken to staging major twists so often (and undoing them with similar frequency) that the impact has been permanently blunted. But some swerves are still major enough to draw a real response, and Marvel Comics recently made one with the (apparent) revelation that Steve Rogers – a.k.a. Captain America – has secretly been an agent of the supervillain organization Hydra… seemingly for his entire superhero career.
The news was received with the kind of coverage traditional superhero comics typically aren’t afforded, with mainstream news outlets reporting on the reveal alongside the expected comics-specific websites and fan outlets – and the obligatory response from Stan Lee (he supports it). The audacity of the symbolism probably has a lot to do with that (Steve Rogers is literally the superhero-mascot of his country, so anything else he’s said to be or represent automatically becomes a form of commentary), but the timing and the character’s relatively newfound prominence probably deserve the lion’s share of the credit.
While Cap has had peaks and valleys of popularity over the years, his cinematic incarnation as performed by actor Chris Evans has elevated him into becoming easily the most popular Avenger outside of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, and the “moral center” of the mega-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. The twist (occurring in the newly-launched Steve Rogers: Captain America #1) hit at the height of Captain America: Civil War’s blockbuster box-office run, creating a stark juxtaposition between versions of the character that generated a backlash among non-comics-following superhero fans – the likes of which have not been seen since the general public found out DC Comics had killed off Robin (but not the one they actually cared about).
Even when they aren’t taken seriously, such twists are always received with debate among comics fans. Sure, these are fictional characters living ink-and-paint lives, but forming an emotional connection to made-up people and stories is the whole purpose of reading fiction to begin with. And while longtime comics readers may be jaded about the dramatic impact of major story turns, the sort of person who commits to following (in Captain America’s case) about 70+ years of comic book continuity tends to be the sort of person who’s going to care when (as is the case here) a twist calls into question the in-universe truth of every event in those 70+ years.
Realistically, Marvel knew devoted readers and fans of the Captain America movies would react strongly to the surprise – why else do it? They may even have expected some political pushback, since “Captain America is actually evil” almost certainly reads as a statement more about the flag than the man wearing it from a certain perspective. But they almost certainly didn’t count on the surprising number of fans who suggested that the storyline (which still has yet to play out beyond the initial reveal) was an act of anti-semitism, owing to the associations between Hydra and Nazi supervillains like The Red Skull, and the fact that Captain America’s creators – Joe Simon and Jack Kirby – were both Jewish. So, for that matter, is Stan Lee, who didn’t create Steve Rogers but did write the 1964 story that brought him into present day Marvel continuity (and dozens of stories thereafter.)
But is the twist really so deeply offensive? Is it merely badly-executed shock value masquerading as a narrative? Does it even make sense on its own merits? Well, obviously that’s up to the individual reader to determine. But any answer aiming for depth beyond an immediate, emotional gut reaction inevitably involves an exploration into the unique history and inner workings of how superhero comics – and Marvel-published comics in particular – function… and that’s where things become tricky.
IT’S ABOUT TIME
“Does this make sense” is something of a loaded question when it comes to anything involving superhero continuity. Steve Rogers, prior to this twist, was a sickly young man transformed into the peak of human physicality by an (apparently irreplicable) chemical/radiation cocktail in the 1940s, who was later frozen only to be revived again in the modern day. He’s the ostensible field-leader of a superhero team whose membership has included aliens, robots, mutants, gods from several different mythic pantheons, martial-arts experts and guys who are pretty good at archery. He has been killed, resurrected, traveled through time, visited outer space, leapt between dimensions and was once transformed into a werewolf. In other words: Nothing about him “makes sense.”
But, in terms of comics, something can at least be determined to fit into the established context of its own logic or not; and whether or not Steve Rogers secretly having been a Hydra agent does so is certainly up for discussion. On the surface, it would seem to fail even by the exceptionally loose rules of Marvel continuity. Even setting aside the logistics of why Hydra would hatch this plan in the first place, how it fits into the dozens of instances wherein Captain America has battled (fellow?) Hydra agents and/or crushed Hydra schemes, or even why this has never once come up before among Marvel’s myriad other Hydra affiliated characters (who are rarely entirely on the same page or even all that fond of each other); a more basic overall question hangs heavy over everything else:
How did he keep this a secret for 70+ years of stories?
The short answer is: He didn’t. Granted, the idea of anyone being able to cover-up something of this scale for any amount of time in a Marvel Universe populated by numerous psychics, telepaths and mind-readers strains credulity to begin with. But objections grounded in a timeline of the character’s history have to be framed against the context of how the passage of time works (and doesn’t work) in the Marvel Universe… which just so happens to be one of the most complicated, convoluted and brain-straining elements of modern comics fandom, requiring a dizzying mix of reader diligence, publisher caretaking and mutual self-delusion just to (barely) function. We’ll attempt an explanation momentarily, but for now let’s start with the most pertinent point: Between his initial WWII adventures and his post-unfreezing exploits, Steve Rogers has only been Captain America (and thus would only have had to keep this secret) for about 15-20 years.
When the modern Marvel Universe first started with the publication of The Fantastic Four in the ’60s (with certain specific WWII-era characters/stories like Captain America and Namor: The Sub-Mariner being made “canon” retroactively later), part of their operating “anything can happen” mandate was that the characters aged and progressed. There was a rigid timeline being kept up, but at the bare minimum you saw (to use the best example) Peter Parker finish high school, graduate college and strike out on his own as a young adult, or Reed Richards and Sue Storm marry and have a baby, or the original X-Men go from teenagers to young adults etc.
For a while, this was one of the key points dividing the Marvel Way from competitors like DC; who relegated major life-changes to “Imaginary Stories” or events set on alternate Earths – but it didn’t last. There’s no “official” hard date for it, but as Marvel moved into the ’70s and saw its characters attaining greater prominence in mainstream pop-culture, the “mandate” increasingly became keeping the characters themselves fixed in an “iconic” status-quo while Stan Lee’s famous (some would say infamous) “Illusion of Change” approach to narrative happened around them… which soon presented a new problem of its own. It’s one thing to say “keep drawing everyone the same age we’ve been drawing them” and put the kibosh on “time-stamping” events like death by natural causes, but what about all of that ever-increasing backstory? When did all of these events happen?
Marvel’s answer: The Sliding Timescale, or “Marvel Time.” Essentially, whenever you pick up any Marvel book published after 1970 (or thereabout) that does not explicitly state that it takes place at some point in the past, it is assumed to take place in “the present” – and the the present is always assumed to be “about ten years since The Fantastic Four got their powers.” The modern Marvel Universe has “always been” (wink wink) roughly a decade old, the start-date keeps moving forward in time (everything in it now takes place post-9/11 – let that sink in), and as it does all the major events are retroactively assumed to have happened closer and closer together. What about events tied to real (then) present history? They get rewritten and moved-up, too, usually in fans’ “headcanon” first and later by writers: Tony Stark and Flash Thompson both went to Vietnam originally, now Stark’s injury and Flash’s service (and subsequent injury) both took place during the War on Terror. How old is Magneto, a Holocaust-survivor, exactly? Don’t ask.
Sure, it certainly doesn’t answer everything, but if we’re trying to parse out whether or not this Hydra plot-turn for Captain America fits together or not, the fact that he’s only been doing this for a little over a decade (post-unfreezing, anyway) has to enter into it. And speaking of Hydra…
If you follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe all the way through (not just the movies, but also the various Netflix series, the One-Shots, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, etc;) you may have noticed that Hydra doesn’t make a lot of sense.
According to Captain America: The First Avenger, Hydra was a Nazi “deep science division” that spun-off into their own independent entity under their leader, The Red Skull, and later broke off into several different inter-related sects. On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, we later find out that not only were there always multiple branches of the organization, of which the Nazi-affiliated version was only one, but they all descend from a prehistoric religious cult that worshiped one of the first Inhumans – which some of them still worship, while others do not. And while they’ve been “defeated” any number of times (S.H.I.E.L.D. has wiped out Hydra’s leadership at least twice) they keep popping up in the form of paramilitary outfits, shadowy Illuminati-esque manipulators, sinister industrialists or whatever else the film or TV episode they’re appearing in calls for.
Suffice it to say, Hydra is not exactly the most consistent aspect of the grand MCU experiment. So it should come as no surprise that they’re even harder to pin down on the comics side of the equation.
Hydra first appeared in issue #135 of Marvel’s anthology series Strange Tales in 1965, as the antagonists of one of the first Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stories from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. This early version of Fury (formerly the military hero of the WWII-set series Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos – how that works is another column entirely) was Marvel’s fairly blatant attempt to cash in on the James Bond/Man From U.N.C.L.E. spy craze, and appropriately enough Hydra was essentially a direct lift of perennial 007 nemesis S.P.E.C.T.R.E. – right down to both being run by a mad genius industrialist, with businessman Arnold Brown serving a Marvel’s answer to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Whether Lee or Kirby ever originally meant for their roman a’ clef of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to be more than a one-off concept isn’t clear (this was the period when the Marvel creatives were throwing almost any idea that would stick into dozens of stories a month), but planned or not the concept was quickly revived as the Marvel Universe all-purpose “behind the scenes” bad guy outfit under the leadership of Baron Von Strucker. Subsequent storylines established other Marvel villain organizations like A.I.M., The Secret Empire and The Serpent Society as offshoots and/or subgroups, while select stories from the publisher’s “pre-superhero” era found themselves being reprinted with text alterations to imply Hydra as having been involved in their plots. At this point, the “canonical” history of Hydra stretches all the way back to various sinister machinations afoot in ancient Egypt, which in turn stretches back to The Eternals and The Celestials.
Basically, Hydra is historically Marvel’s answer to The Illuminati (as in the “real” Illuminati, there’s another group within the Marvel Universe that calls themselves “The Illuminati,” but it’s sort of an inside joke), i.e. In Case of Overly-Complicated Conspiracy Storyline: Break Glass, and somehow it was Hydra all along. But are they or are they not still Nazis? Or, at least, some strain of Neo-Nazis? Well… believe it or not, that’s where it gets even more complicated.
The simple answer is that since Hydra is whatever the person currently writing the most-recent storyline featuring Hydra needs them to be, they both are and are not – Schroedinger’s Fascists, if you like. In-universe, they supported Nazism during the war, and high-ranking members like Baron Zemo, Baron Von Strucker and Arnim Zola were either party members or willing servants of the Nazi war machine; but apart from The Red Skull (in the comics, Red Skull is a committed Nazi but only rose to Hydra prominence later on) they seldom waved the swastika around for most of the organization’s Silver and Bronze age comic history. Even Red Skull has, on occasion, been presented as viewing Nazism as more of a means to an end than an ideology; at one point musing about how the Old Guard would’ve overlooked the contributions of his female and non-Aryan henchmen, to their detriment… although that tends to go right out the window as soon as someone needs a “name” villain for a storyline about bigotry, racism, etc. Old habits and all that.
YOU DID NAZI THAT COMING
The spectacle of Hydra and/or Red Skull being consistently held to account for their Hitler-adjacent backgrounds is a relatively recent phenomenon within the comics, and even there it mainly started to come up as a shorthand to making other villains more sympathetic. Want to remind audiences that we’re supposed to feel bad for Magneto or Doctor Doom? Have them make a point of refusing to align with The Red Skull and/or Hydra because of what Nazi Germany did to their respective Jewish and Romani ancestors.
Prior to that, however, the fact of Hydra being staffed and run in part by (mostly) unrepentant Nazis was usually treated as a matter of aesthetics moreso than ideology. That The Red Skull liked to keep swastikas and art-deco eagles around was part of what distinguished him from, say, The Mandarin or Count Nefaria. Sure, that he was a Nazi made him implicitly “scarier” than most, but the overall sense was that this was owed to Nazis having been “real world” villains as opposed to anything specific to their ideology. And while that may sound bizarre (even historically-irresponsible) to modern ears, at the time it was more or less business as usual for comics and popular-fiction more broadly.
To understand this, you need to place the Silver and Bronze ages of comics (roughly 1962 to 1985, with the Silver/Bronze “split” being roughly 1970) when the bulk of the formative Hydra stories were written in the context of the culture that informed them. While today the idea of not thinking of the Nazis and The Holocaust as conjoined concepts is almost offensively absurd, the fact is it took a long time for the post-WWII United States’ popular culture to fully wrap its head around the full horrors of the Third Reich. The gruesome details of The Holocaust and the deep seated bigotry that informed it were unlikely to be spoken of in “polite company” (or, really, outside of a history classroom) and even less likely to be fodder for comics and pulp-novels, which largely preferred its “ex-Nazi supervillain” characters to be all about mad science and general world-domination schemes.
It also, of course, didn’t help that so much else about the Nazis was so ready-made for comics fodder; i.e. their occult obsessions and affection for mythic iconography. Writers had to invent fictionalized “Oriental” supernaturalism to add flourish to figures like The Mandarin or Fu Manchu, but The Nazis were digging around for religious relics and setting up “old god” rituals in castles in real life – why focus on them as racist mass-murderers when framing them as wannabe wizards was also on the table? Even after the Nuremberg Trials, pop culture (with rare exception) didn’t want to talk plainly about the real horrors of Nazism until the concerted pushback against the rising popularity of Holocaust-denial increased in earnest in the 1970s – and even after that, it would be at least another decade and change before you’d regularly find Marvel stories treating The Red Skull and (some) of Hydra as a special kind of evil.
None of that, to be clear, should be taken as a “defense” of how comics and pop-culture played coy for so long with characters like this; borrowing the recognizable aesthetics and “universal evil” associations of The Nazis as thematic decor for villains while avoiding grappling with the darker implications. But it does, at least, suggest that Marvel hasn’t sinned uniquely here.
WHAT WOULD CAPTAIN AMERICA DO?
The paradox of comic book superheroes is this: For them to work at all as characters, we need to be able to invest in them – to view them as full-fledged (if fictional) persons whose actions we can not only relate to but understand and even anticipate. But for them to take part in the sprawling, multivolume stories that help us build up that investment, we also need to accept that their “core” is ever-changing and infinitely malleable.
In fact, anticipation factor is more key to superheroes than to almost any other type of imaginary character, because their job is the mete out justice and react. The “archetypal” superhero story presents us with an evil deed in progress and creates tension not about what the hero will do but by drawing out the amount of time it will take before the hero arrives, because we already know them enough to know that they’ll be there to thwart it (or, if we’re talking about Batman or The Punisher, exact a penalty for it.) If someone decides to make trouble in Metropolis, the reader’s first response is “Oooh, Superman’s not gonna like that!” And yet, more often than not, the history that informs our collective understanding of what Superman (or any superhero) will or won’t feel happy or unhappy about is founded not in some set of rules cast in bronze at the character’s inception, but in a succession of varied – sometimes even contradictory – depictions by myriad writers across years if not decades of publication.
Yes, ideally, enough writers respect the work of those who came before them or justify major deviations with solid logic so that a vein of consistency remains throughout; but the fact is our idea of what the “correct” actions of a fictional character should be have even less grounding when it comes to comic books than in any other realm of the imaginary. Not only are they subject to the whims of creators who often project their own beliefs and hangups onto them, they’re also frequently at the mercy of changing attitudes and social mores of the decades they travel through. To jump directly to an extreme example: If one key objection to the Hydra/Cap twist is that Steve Rogers, typically depicted as a tolerant left-of-center do-gooder in most circumstances, wouldn’t be part of an outfit often marked by racial-bigotry because of his many racially diverse friends, well… does that have to be “squared” with the outright racist language he and Bucky Barnes commonly deployed against Japanese enemies in the original WWII-era comics?
It’s also worth recalling that the idea of Rogers being frozen between the ’40s and ’60s was itself a retcon to erase a period in the 1950s when he was depicted beating up fellow Americans for their “subversive” political beliefs as “Captain America: Commie Smasher” – and it was later still that an entirely new “imposter Cap” character was invented to excuse those stories further. Which of these characterizations is the correct one? Was the “Commie Smasher” Cap okay until he wasn’t? For that matter, if the problem with “Hydra Cap” is the symbolism more than the storytelling, did that also apply when Simon and Kirby did a story where Rogers feigned Nazi allegiance (even snapping a “Heil Hitler!” salute) to attack the Third Reich internally?
On one level, it’s easy to say “of course the Hydra twist feels like a betrayal of the character and fundamentally ‘wrong’ – that’s why it works!” But that presupposes that the story the twist is part of will be worthy of the shock-value that starts it off – and that’s almost as subjective as it is unknowable. The reason that it’s resonated so profoundly (well, apart from Chris Evans’ turn in the Marvel movies transforming Steve Rogers into an especially patriotic sad-eyed puppy meme as far as popular-culture is concerned) is that it strains even comic-book logic to the breaking point – and that’s saying something considering that this character has (once again) made it unscathed through time-displacement, forced-retirement (three times and counting!,) lycanthropy and death itself.
And in the end, that’s where the real distinction will have to be drawn: Has writer Nick Spencer betrayed the character, his creators and the fans with this new twist? No – not exactly. But what he most definitely has done is set himself up a precarious challenge. Because if the story he’s telling in its aftermath isn’t worthy of such an extreme setup – of the questions of taste and timing it raises, of the emotional buttons it presses for fans, of the potential it has to negatively color perceptions of the character both going forward and retroactively – that will be the betrayal.