NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for Captain America & Secret Empire
If you haven’t been following Marvel Comics, the current headlines are guaranteed to shock, stating that Captain America is a Nazi now. Well, he’s not actually a Nazi, but a lifelong, devoted member of Hydra – a group that Marvel and the comic’s writer have been keen to remind people isn’t actually synonymous with Nazi Germany. Just a group that working alongside them, supporting their offensvies, to take the Axis powers to victory in World War II. Regardless of specifics, it’s proven an obvious fact: when you’re explaining how your superhero is’t technically aligned with a genocidal maniac like Adolf Hitler… something has gone wrong.
Or, if you’re a member of Marvel editorial and Captain America: Steve Rogers and Secret Empire writer Nick Spencer, something has gone as intended, if not right. In terms of sales, marketing – and telling a darn compelling, twisting, unpredictable story – Cap’s rise to the heights of Hydra and the recent birth of his “secret empire” have proven a success. Unfortunately, when faced with the kind of empassioned criticism you would expect, Spencer specifically and Marvel broadly have fallen back on misunderstood intentions, and a constant defense that the ends will justify the means.
That’s little comfort to those troubled, offended, or outraged by the fact that Marvel now cloaks a figure of honor, American ideals, and social justice in the garb of fascism, nationalism, and Nazi Germany. When you frame your superhero as a former ally to Hitler, standing before a crowd of soldiers raising a single-armed salute, claiming people are ‘overreacting’ isn’t a legitimate response. Everyone, not just those buying a copy of the comic have a right to ask what Spencer and Marvel intend as their message.
When the best defense is asking that fans remain calm and give the benefit of the doubt, their critics have a right to challenge that stance, and infer meaning when placing Marvel’s Secret Empire in a modern context. In the interest of informing comic fans who may not have read every issue, and explaining why fans and critics have a valid reason to be upset, we’re exploring the new history Marvel and Spencer have crafted. And explain why we feel that, as shocking and well-told a story as Secret Empire may be, presenting it layered in Nazi and fascist imagery has obviously crossed a line.
An Uproar Marvel (Somehow) Didn’t See Coming
Before we dive into the political, social, or moral dilemmas people are now discussing, it’s worth noting how this all began – specifically, how Nick Spencer, editor Tom Brevoort, and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso all responded to the initial fan and critical response. To put it simply, the story began as inherently shocking and compelling as the rest of the series has been since then, speaking in purely narrative terms. On a conceptual level, free from context and delivered in a vacuum, Captain America revealing himself to be a secret member of his most long-standing villainous organization is one heck of a twist.
Yet comic books are not, and never have been written in a vacuum. As a result, the response to seeing Captain America – a paragon of American values created during the World War that helped shape America’s stance on the world stage as one in pursuit of justice – join Hydra – the special science division separate from, but inherently connected to Nazi Germany – people were angry. Yet Spencer told The Daily Beast in words that would soon take on a life of their own, it was a response the company wanted:
“I love this stuff. I feed off it, it’s totally fine. It’s looking like it’s gonna be a no. 1 trending topic here in a second. I’m the most hated man in America today… When you decide to do something like this… You understand that this is the kind of story designed to upset people and shock people and worry people. That’s the response you’re supposed to have to something like this, when you’re seeing a bad thing. So, yeah, this is certainly the kind of response I expected, but in terms of the magnitude of it and just how many people are chiming in… this is what we wanted, we just have even more of it than we imagined.”
From the outset, it was made clear that Marvel expected there to be a warmer reception to this twist than they got. As Spencer explained in that interview, his pitching of the story – one that now reveals Captain America the superhero was a lie, a twisting of reality away from his true beginnings in Hydra – wasn’t one that Marvel actually resisted. They supported the idea, seeing the strengths of the story, the spectacle, and presumably, the amount of visibility it would receive (given Cap’s big screen success in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).
The miscalculation was just how many people would be angered to see Cap take a dark, morally complicated turn when such stories were currently criticized on film, seen as a negative in superhero movies, as Captain America shone brightly in the MCU.
Hydra Aren’t Nazis… Just In League With Them
Once the death threats to Spencer started rolling in, it was obvious Marvel had significantly underestimated the offense that would be taken. Sadly, the response from the company in the weeks to follow did little to calm the situation – in some cases, further angering those with legitimate gripes. In several comments and interviews, Spencer, Brevoort, and Alonso suggested that the criticism was being overblown by those who weren’t actually reading the comic. That those who felt this was a betrayal or insult to the Jewish creators of the hero weren’t ‘real fans,’ or didn’t ‘understand’ that the cliffhanger would be given context in the next issue.
That those who were equating Cap’s allegiance to Hydra as a joining of the Nazis didn’t understand the difference; didn’t grasp the obvious distinction between Hitler’s Nazis and the fictional organization founded in, created by and fueling Nazi Germany, and functioning as a fictional analogue of the group with a leader who probably would be considered a Nazi. But for his part, Spencer made it clear that Hydra – the true Hydra, referred to by Steve Rogers as “a proud, ancient order that valued strength above all else” – existed before the Nazis, in pursuit of far nobler goals.
In the series’ flashback sequences to before World War II – delivered solely in the colors red, white, and black – Hydra’s leaders are shown deciding to ally themselves with Germany and the Axis Powers, supporting the Third Reich to help them reach their own goals (using Captain America to ensure the Allied defeat).
To show they didn’t share Hitler’s ideas or “bloodlust,” the Hydra leaders concede that if Hitler truly proves to be as “unsavory” as some among them suspect, then they would simply stand by as he continued his genocide and atrocities, and exploit his regime for the sake of empire. When that empire was conquered, they could rise up and claim it for themselves. Later on in the series, Steve Rogers would even kill Red Skull personally, claiming that in his closer collusion with Hitler’s ideology, he had twisted Hydra to his own ideals from its true, “proud” beginnings.
It seems, given the online comments and responses from the comic’s writer and others at Marvel, that this distinction was what was alluded to after that first issue. That once Steve’s history with Hydra was explained, people would see he was never a fan of the Nazis, nor was Hydra defined by Nazi Germany nor the Axis powers it rose to prominence beside. And that distinction would probably address the criticisms… if the “war,” “Axis,” and “unsavory Führer” were all fictional constructs, and framing Hydra and Captain America as only enabling, but not devoutly believing in Hitler’s Reich somehow freed them from guilt.
Captain America’s No Nazi… But He Sure Looks The Part
There may be some who feel that Hydra enabling, supporting, being born from, or embracing the ideals of Hitler’s Third Reich would paint them with varying levels of guilt. And there’s potential there for a compelling, if controversial story, should Spencer and Marvel choose to tell it – as a quick online search would reveal how many booming companies of the modern world gained similar profits and influence by turning a blind eye to Hitler’s regime.
Even if the story intends to free Hydra and its new, star-spangled leader from the ideology of the Nazis, the message doesn’t escape artist Daniel Acuña. As Captain America’s secret Hydra plan finally reaches its climax, with hundreds, if not thousands dying in Hydra attacks or superhuman explosions around the globe, he reveals himself to the Hydra troops now boarding his S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. He reveals to them that he is their Supreme Leader, as S.H.I.E.L.D. insignia is presented in a white circle on a red field – for the first and only time in the issue – evoking both Third Reich flags and Germany’s Reichsadler (“Imperial Eagle”).
It’s just one of many instances of Marvel calling on charged imagery to, in a sense, have their cake and eat it too: distancing Steve Rogers and Hydra from the ideologies of the Nazis… while using iconic propaganda and symbolism that blurs the line for impact. Captain America’s star insignia torn away amidst the broken concrete and barb wire of World War II. Captain America standing in a perversion of Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” as enemy flags hang in American streets, pigeons conjuring images of fighter planes dotting the sky. Captain America standing behind his podium, placed before him akin to a podium, fists raised into the air. Or Captain America dressed in a double-breasted military tunic, waving the flag of his new empire as posters show his men with a single fist raised in salute, his adoring public looking on, waving flags in support.
There’s no point in pleading ignorance, or even harmless innocence here. The creators at Marvel are intentionally placing Steve Rogers in traditionally fascist propaganda and imagery, intending such imagery to be powerful – narratively and promotionally. Both ambitions are a success, since the images have turned heads, and show just how deeply Steve Rogers has, and will descend into tyrannical rule. That in itself isn’t the problem – and it’s important to note, that resulting in a good, bad, or incredible story doesn’t change the connotations or instant reactions.
At a time when the definition of “Nazi” has been distressingly altered, softened, or dismissed in real world conversations, it is downright absurd to think that the public WOULDN’T take offense to seeing fascist, tyrannical imagery used to market a superhero – and the publisher stepping out to defend it, in any way, is going to compound the problem (to those who find this indefensible). If we’re intellectually honest, it doesn’t matter if Marvel says Steve Rogers isn’t “a Nazi.” He aided their efforts, and now leads an empire that supported and thrived for Axis victory. And if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but claims it doesn’t agree with the ideology of most ducks… it’s close enough.
We also know that Marvel Comics specifically intended to “upset, shock, and worry people” by using such charged imagery to tell a charged story… well, mission accomplished. It may have been Marvel’s and Spencer’s intention to channel all of this uproar and emotion into their story’s final chapter, hoping the ends truly would justify the offense given by the means. But the audience – of ‘real’ fans – as well as critics and commentators have a right to argue that there is simply no appetite for a story that wields this kind of imagery, subtext, or overt text in its telling.
As compelling as the story of Spencer’s Secret Empire may be, that is a separate conversation from the world which it is reflecting, and the one into which it is being released. Spencer’s investigation into how an evil organization like Hydra could seduce, empower, and radicalize recruits is creatively inspired and commendable… but expecting no criticism for showing it can work even on pop culture heroes is simply naive. Not when the audience reading it lives in fear of that very process elsewhere in the world.
Most importantly, this kind of propaganda may seem relinquished to a past as old as Captain America himself. But as the public reaction has shown, there are still those whom this imagery affects negatively. Those who remember the horrible reality this kind of propaganda masked, the denial of guilt or accountability attempted by others who simply supported villains, and the very real social, cultural danger that comes from separating this imagery from the history behind it.
Marvel Comics and their editors, writers, and artists can tell whatever stories they like. But no matter how unwavering they are in the face of doubt, or how inspired they believe their use of loaded imagery to be, once the comic hits newsstands… what they intended doesn’t matter one bit.
Secret Empire #0 is available now.