[Contains Spoilers for Captain America: Steve Rogers #13.]
Some consider 13 a lucky number, while others feel as though it always precedes unfortunate events. Depending upon which side of the "Secret Empire" you fall on, Captain America: Steve Rogers #13 is either a very ominous or exciting time to be alive in the Marvel Universe. In the last issue, Steve’s ne’er-do-well status was nearly exposed, and at the moment, he seems blissfully unaware of how close his devious plans were to collapsing.
The fortuitous and perhaps non-coincidental timing of a brand new character, one thought only in Steve's own mind, Elisa Sinclair (revealed as Madame Hydra and even sharing the "Secret Empire" promo cover), kept Steve Rogers’s secrets from leaking into Maria Hill’s hands. Now, as Rogers continues his covert empire-building, he gets a little help from an old enemy turned friend, Baron Zemo. This chapter also includes a throwback to Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes’ good old days - with a major new twist that is sure to irk readers displeased with Rogers's turn to Hydra.
A Little Cosmic Cube/Pleasant Hill Primer
One of the peculiar linchpins of the Captain America saga, especially regarding his turn to the dark side, is the method for his newfound madness. For those confused as to why Steve Rogers suddenly became an agent of Hydra after decades of fighting the fascist organization, the explanation isn't simple, so we'll try to wade through the gory details. A Cosmic Cube is one of the most powerful objects in the known Marvel Universe. It's essentially an object capable of granting wishes - one of which which decided to take the form of a little girl named Kobik.
The naïve youngster is tricked by the Red Skull into believing Hydra (nifty logo and all) is a pretty cool organization. Later, when Steve Rogers was nearly killed by Crossbones, the compassionate and nigh-omnipotent Cube-child saved him, restoring him to the prime of his life. The only trouble was, thanks to Red Skull's influence, she “reformed” Steve’s past to make him a Hydra double agent. Why not inject some extra goodness into his history?
Before changing the continuity of Captain America’s reality, Kobik was also responsible for one of former S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Maria Hill’s most controversial moves: Pleasant Hill, an event detailed in the Avengers: Standoff! saga. Using the immense reality shaping power of her Cube kid, Maria re-envisioned an entire prison community as an idyllic small town, populated with artificially reformed super-villains. And her plan might have worked, were it not for Red Skull's covert interference and Baron Zemo (along with another villain, Fixer) breaking his and many of the baddies' reprogramming.
Baron Zemo’s Recruitment Drive
In Captain America: Steve Rogers #12, readers discovered that Cap’s multiple issue narrative was directed at his oldest and dearest friend, Helmut Zemo. The Baron, who’d previously been zapped by Kobik, managed to recover most of his memories but still remained caught between implanted ideas and his own sense of reality (getting a brain scramble will do that). Convinced or convincingly swayed that Steve Rogers is telling the truth (at least as he sees it), Zemo signs on for his crusade to remake the world in Hydra’s image. Of course, Helmut also realizes that as capable as Cap and he may be, they are only two men and wouldn't be capable of pulling off such a grandiose scheme alone. But the Baron has a plan.
Hydra scientist Dr. Erik Selvig (similarly reformed by Kobik) reveals that he implanted every patient at Pleasant Hill – reformed or otherwise – with a tracking device. Armed with their locations, Zemo sets out to pull them back into the fold, converting or convincing them if necessary and recreating an up-scaled version of his Masters of Evil, all for the glory of Hydra. For the most part, each villain comes along willingly - with the exception of one, identified as Bob (whose true identity hasn’t yet been revealed).
However, he brings Bob back to their secret lair, revealing dozens of reformed “family” members from Marvel's nefarious rogues gallery, including the Wrecking Crew, Circus of Crime, and assorted holy terrors like Kraven, Gray Gargoyle, and Mister Hyde. Now, with Baron Zemo’s assistance, Steve Rogers's "Secret Empire" is truly coming together. However, the true depths of Kobik’s re-imaginings are only being revealed piece by piece, including a surprising throwback to Captain America, Bucky, and Baron Zemo’s own legendary history.
Changing Treasured Marvel History... Again
Most of the alterations made during Nick Spencer’s intriguing run on Captain America: Steve Rogers have re-imagined reality in the Marvel Universe inside the bounds of Cap and his new Hydra allegiance. The latest thread of changes, however, seems to expand this revisionist history beyond Rogers’ memories - his youth, his conversion into Captain America via Super Soldier Serum, and the death of serum creator Dr. Erskine at Helmut Zemo's hands. The presence of Elisa Sinclair, later revealed as the new Madame Hydra, seems to suggest a larger swath to these revisions.
Now, another reality-rendering change plays with the threads of one of Marvel's classic storylines from the 1960s – one even loosely adapted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier. It seems the very raid which resulted in Bucky's "death" and Steve being frozen in a block of ice didn't go down that way in retroactive continuity. Instead, Bucky and the elder Zemo struggle over the rocket (which once killed Barnes), with the Baron unable to escape. The drone then launches into the sky, as Bucky reconfigures its trajectory to drop Zemo into the frigid Atlantic, presumably killing the non-super-powered Baron.
After that stunning turn, Steve and the Baron's son Helmut have a falling out. Seeing as they weren't friends to begin with, though, that means that somehow Kobik's changes to Steve are seeping into Marvel's core reality. That also means Captain America is either frozen in ice through another means, or incapacitated for decades in another manner. Bucky Barnes still winds up in the hands of the Russians as well, becoming the Winter Soldier, but it's uncertain exactly how.
Alterations to Marvel history aside, the strands of Steve and Helmut Zemo’s efforts are starting to weave together nicely in Captain America: Steve Rogers #13. With an army of re-reformed villains in tow, Cap and his (possibly) loyal band lay the groundwork for the “Secret Empire” event. Even though Nick Spencer’s tale of intrigue ran a little light on the action this week, the slow burn is well worth it in order to watch all the plot threads woven into place. It’s only a matter of time before Steve’s alternative reality becomes the Marvel Universe’s worst nightmare.
Captain America: Steve Rogers #13 is currently available.