Contains SPOILERS for Secret Empire #0, Thunderbolts #16, and Captain America #16.
Since writer Nick Spencer first revealed Steve Rogers’ twisted new allegiance in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, he’s been slowly building Hydra into an unparalleled, covert force within the Marvel Universe. A series of divisive if enjoyable reveals, including "changes" to Captain America's history set the tone for the latest (and arguably most exciting) major event in the Marvel Universe. Nothing is sacred in Captain America’s Secret Empire: up is down, good is bad... and in case you haven't heard, Steve Rogers was always evil at heart.
Cap’s duplicitous tale is spread throughout several series, including the villains-flipped-heroic Thunderbolts, Captain America: Steve Rogers, Captain America: Sam Wilson, and USAvengers. Each smaller story thread gives a glimpse of Captain America's changing priorities, backroom dealings, and overt subterfuge, all while tying the twisted web with which Rogers has snared the planet. Which all raises one very important, narratively profound, and inherently controversial question.
Has Steve Rogers become Marvel’s most devious adversary yet?
A New World Order
As explored over the last few months, Captain America's history has changed dramatically, all thanks to Red Skull and Doctor Erik Selvig. After the events of Avengers: Standoff created a warped supervillain jail at Pleasant Hill, Steve found his own history rewritten by Kobik, the human embodiment of a Cosmic Cube. His new allegiance to Hydra altered his friendships, including new best pal Baron Helmut Zemo, new enemies in Bucky Barnes and his former comrades, and even created entirely new people from his memories like Elisa Sinclair, the new Madame Hydra.
Even though Cap is the same version fans have loved for 75 years, his values have been twisted to serve a new purpose. He’s systematically betrayed his friends – most recently, even remorsefully allowing Zemo his revenge on Bucky Barnes – setting in motion yet another series of alternative events. As such, the “truth” of that timeline not only made Captain America a member of Hydra, but also gave the Axis powers a victory in World War II – at least until the Allies developed a new super-weapon, the Cosmic Cube.
As a result, Steve finds himself frozen in time, thanks to a mystical Hydra portal, rather than 'frozen in a block of ice.' Once he arrives in the revised future, he is told, he’ll be forced to recall his “true” destiny and rebuild Hydra’s forces, remaking the world as it was meant to be (at least according to the evil organization).
Captain America's Master Plan Unfolds
Before anyone can post a “well, that escalated quickly” meme, the Marvel Universe spirals out of control. A mob of “reformed” Pleasant Hill super-villains assault New York City, nearly overwhelming the Defenders and their allies. Simultaneously, S.H.I.E.L.D. forces mount a preemptive strike on Sokovia to combat Red Skull’s takeover and nuclear presence – not realizing that Captain America already killed Red Skull. As if that weren’t enough, a massive wave of Chitauri wear down Captain Marvel’s forces, as Iron Man and Ironheart sweat bullets to repair S.H.I.E.L.D.'s global energy field, sabotaged earlier by a Hydra suicide bomber (to cover up Steve dropping it).
Meanwhile, a frantic Maria Hill patches into her former cohort Rick Jones to reveal Cap’s traitorous status. Unfortunately, she’s interrupted by a call from Steve, who decries Hill as untrustworthy and opportunistic, which of course Rick believes (at least until he's presumably captured by Black Ant). Things are looking pretty bleak in New York as explosive nemesis Nitro takes out a chunk of the city. Worst of all, the President flees Washington D.C., and the government enacts the S.H.I.E.L.D. provision, granting emergency powers to Steve Rogers.
Then, just as suddenly as the world went to hell, it seemingly rights itself.
And in that moment, the true depth and magnitude of Captain America’s brutally evil plan kicks in.
A False Sense of Security
Captain Marvel and her team manage to battle the invasion fleet as best they can, but there are too many Chitauri. Fortunately, Ironheart and Iron Man manage to enable the Earth shield just in time to stop the invasion, although they're both suspicious of how. Just as suddenly, the cadre of nasties antagonizing New York abruptly teleport away, leaving the assembled Avengers, Defenders, et al, perplexed but relieved.
The Chitauri warriors pose little threat against the energy field, thoughtlessly flinging themselves into it in a desperate attempt to retrieve their imprisoned queen. But when Captain Marvel requests to open the shield, Steve reveals his true nature, denying them entry and trapping Carol's forces, including the Ultimates, Alpha Flight, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, in outer space with millions more Chitauri on the way.
In the interim, Baron Zemo skims the harbor outside New York City with another one of his fellow Pleasant Hill patients, Blackout. He uses his dark-energy powers to create a Darkhold dimension sealing off much of the city, including hundreds of superheroes, inside. Cap also uses the hypnotic suggestion of Doctor Faustus to enslave the crews of the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier fleet, taking control and locking up his longtime lover Sharon Carter before sending his forces to the White House.
The Master's Plan, in All Its Glory
Devious, underhanded, and a tour de force of twisted genius, the birth of Captain America’s Secret Empire takes shape from a multilayered plan, unfolded with precision and ruthless efficiency. Rogers used the backlash of anger and frustration stewing from the second superhero civil war to strengthen S.H.I.E.L.D.’s power. A Civil War Captain America helped start, for the record. Thanks to his friends and colleagues Cap killed, imprisoned, or defrauded his adversaries within and beyond Hydra. Working in the shadows, the faces and forces of his retconned history pulled together a sizable group of super villains to serve his ends.
He even allowed Red Skull to build up Hydra’s power-base, while simultaneously undermining him intending to kill him at the most opportune moment. Most of all, the external and internal threats he created positioned him perfectly to take over the S.H.I.E.L.D. directorship perfectly in accordance with American democracy.
Whether you love or hate Cap’s new direction, you have to admit: he’s become quite an impressive, evil mastermind. Steve Rogers has joined the pantheon of most formidable and brilliant supervillains, even if his motives remain true to his character. The real brilliance of Nick Spencer’s tale is subverting our expectations of heroism. Without the characteristics, the charisma, the ambition, Steve Rogers wouldn’t have been capable of achieving the incredible status or feats he accomplished as a hero.The same is true for his role as a villain too.
Spencer’s run exposes the gray underbelly around concepts like patriotism, loyalty, and nobility – as well as exploring how terrifyingly easy it is to exploit our trust and undermine them.
Now, only two major hiccups keep Captain America's plan from total success: first off, Dr. Selvig, driven by his love for his immensely powerful surrogate daughter Kobik, managed to spirit away the Cosmic Cube to an undisclosed location. In addition, there are still a handful of Avengers, Champions, Inhumans, and X-Men left to oppose his plans. Around the globe, many are still in the dark about the true nature of recent happenings. It will be up to these scattered heroes to fight back before it’s too late to stop Captain America.
Oh, and let's not forget the previous glimpse of the future showing Steve Rogers murdered, dead in the arms of Spider-Man Miles Morales...
Although Secret Empire is a true crossover, those only looking to enjoy the story basics can harvest all the information they need from the main event books. However, those looking to catch up on all the important recent occurrences might want to read up on things in Thunderbolts #16, USAvengers #6, and of course Captain America #16 at the very least. Fans who aren’t up to date will want to backtrack, and sift through Captain America: Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson, as well as Thunderbolts and Uncanny Avengers for some deeper history on the rise of Hydra and its latest leader, Captain America.
Secret Empire #0 is currently available.