Warning: Contains SPOILERS for Secret Empire #9.
The end is coming for Captain America’s Secret Empire and, in its wake, nothing will be the same. Over the past few months, writer Nick Spencer has taken the once beloved hero and flipped him into one of Marvel’s most charismatic villains, thanks to the Red Skull reprogramming history with a Cosmic Cube. Catching his allies and enemies by surprise, Steve Rogers overran the United States and spreading the cancerous terrorist organization, Hydra, around the world.
As bleak as things looked, Marvel’s heroes mounted a multi-pronged resistance, subverting Rogers' government and questing across the world to restore order. By the dawn of Secret Empire #9, the tides of war have shifted. Captain Marvel and her powerful band broke through the energy field trapping them beyond Earth’s bounds, and Maria Hill "dismantled" the Darkhold dimension that was enshrouding Manhattan. Just when victory seemed within their grasp, HydraCap pulled one last card from his sleeve – and it’s one hell of an ace in the hole.
Can Earth’s Mightiest Heroes withstand a cosmically endowed Captain America?
The Resistance Strikes a Major Blow
Steve Rogers’ coup d’etat moved with such rapid speed that it left everyone bewildered. The previous eight chapters dealt with Hawkeye, Black Widow, Sam Wilson, as well as the Champions and U.S. Avengers efforts to counteract Hydra’s swift reign, officially going on the offensive in Secret Empire #8. Strapping on his Captain America gear, Sam led the charge with hope in his heart and a Cosmic Cube fragment socked away in his suit. His initial charge failed, but just a tiny piece of the wish-granting changed the flavor of the battle. As Rogers’ defenses fell, the heroes finally got their first taste of victory in a long time.
But their success is tinged with bad news. Helmut Zemo captures King T’Challa, securing the third to last Cosmic Cube fragment. Not long after, Emma Frost’s delegation from New Tian concedes its piece as well, although not mutant sovereignty. Before Cap has time to revel in his victory, though, Magneto makes good on Emma’s threat (“no mutant will kneel before Hydra”), shredding their flagship. Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes slips into Hydra command and frees Black Panther in his efforts to take down Cap from the inside.
Earth’s heroes assemble in Washington D.C., rallying behind Sam Wilson and Captain Marvel. Fed up with his concessions of conscience, the Odinson switches sides with a defiant crackle, and his defection aligns more heavyweights with the anti-fascist forces. Mercenaries Black Ant and Taskmaster to reevaluate their career paths and release captive legacy heroes like Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, Amadeus Cho’s Hulk, and Ironheart among others. In addition, two of the Hydra-hijacked Avengers, Scarlet Witch and The Vision, are neutralized during the attack, and Sharon Carter breaks Dr. Faustus’ programming (and his face), crippling Hydra's remaining warships.
Before the resistance can sweep the terrorist organization from the U.S., HydraCap unleashes his diabolical last-ditch effort.
Steve Rogers: Hydra God?
In the last issue, “Vanishing Point” Steve Rogers discovered Kobik, the little girl embodiment of the Cosmic Cube, sobbing on a rock. Now, he realizes that, rather than an echo of reality or a metaphysical conscience-wrestling match, the gauzy realm is the Cube's own memory of Steve from before Red Skull’s meddling. While reacquainting him with the past, Kobik also reveals the extent of HydraCap's carnage. Steve begs her to restore him so he can set things right again. But the ultra-powerful child runs away, yelling “I can’t. He’s too scary. It’s too late.” Perhaps she’s referring to the powerful memory remnant of Red Skull, but she’s probably referring to Rogers' newly super-charged villain persona.
Dr. Armin Zola apparently recovered one of Tony Stark’s super suits during Hydra’s conquests. He modifies the chest-piece, which is normally powered by Tony’s arc reactor, replacing it with the mostly reassembled Cosmic Cube – endowing the Supreme Leader with godlike powers. As the collected superheroes enjoy a rare moment of satisfaction, Black Panther charges onto the battlefield with one simple cautionary message: “run.” Moments later, the fully armored and nigh-invincible-looking Rogers explodes onto the scene.
As Secret Empire reaches its climax, Captain America has become a near-deity and the epitome of his neo-fascistic ideals. The Cosmic Cube is one of the most powerful objects in the Marvel Universe – on par with Thanos’ fully gemmed Infinity Gauntlet. The concluding issue teases Marvel’s heroes lying in heaps around Cap, so things may only get worse before they get better. With incredible powers at his behest, Earth’s defenders can only hope that his godhood is chipped due to an incomplete Cosmic Cube. Sam Wilson still retains the last fragment, though, which could aid the heroes in their battle. In the long run, salvation may reside in the power of Vanishing Point Steve and Kobik.
Even as his world appears to collapse around him, Steve might yet convince Kobik to put things right, or at least give him a chance to reason with his Hydra-fied self. After all the clever plotting, poignant political allegories, and team rebuilding, Secret Empire could come down to Steve’s metaphorical battle versus himself – much like the war waged by all humans – whether to pit ultimate order versus free will and its inherent possibilities for chaos. If Steve can overcome his alternate self and re-revise history, he'll return the Marvel Universe to its proper state.
With so many questions to answer and heroes to track, it’s fortunate Marvel gave Spencer another issue to work things out. Even still, the penultimate issue is overcrowded with story beats and feels a little rushed. But with the fate of the Marvel Universe in the balance and a generational soft reboot underway, hopefully, the finale will close one of Marvel's most intriguing recent events in an exciting and gratifying manner.
Secret Empire #9 is currently available.