WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Secret Empire #4
If anyone was ever going to make Captain America pay for joining Hydra, it was always destined to be Iron Man - the two have a bit of history. In the world of Marvel Comics, Steve Rogers has spent the past few weeks and months consolidating his rule over America, replacing its democracy with a dictatorship, and essentially turning Americans into helpless subjects of a fascist state. When he wasn't killing beloved MCU characters or rounding up Inhumans into prison camps, of course. Which means he was bound to face off against the Avengers at some point.
That long-awaited showdown arrives in Secret Empire #4, as an alcoholic, digital Tony Stark (long story) accompanies heroes like Ant-Man, Quicksilver, Mockingbird, and Sam Wilson on a mission to undo the evil that twisted Steve Rogers into a monster. In the long tradition of Marvel's epic, hero-vs-her events, the moment that Tony and Steve face off proves Secret Empire is far more complicated and sinister than readers even grasp.
Two Men, One Shard
The fact that Tony Stark is an alcoholic A.I. occupying an old suit of Iron Man armor is a long story to explain, but the more pressing issue is his mission. Thanks to information smuggled out of Hydra's computer systems, the remaining resistance members (Tony, Black Widow, and Hawkeye leading countless others) have been filled in on the reason behind Steve's transformation. As they understand it, it's a Cosmic Cube to blame for re-writing reality, and rendering their friend a villain. While Widow believes killing Steve is the only way forward, Tony, Clint, Sam, and the other members of Tony's team agree to give him one last shot.
Their mission: gather up the fragments of that Cube that have been scattered across the globe, entrusted to mighty heroes or villains, and set reality right. So when one fragment turns up in a city of Ultrons apparently built with Cap's blessing in the frozen North, Tony has his target. But once Steve catches wind of the plan, he assembles his own team of traitorous Avengers to back him up. Needless to say, the fight the ensues when both teams come face to face is... memorable.
A Clash of Teams (Again)
Assuming there are Marvel fans still craving explosive battles between two sides of Marvel heroes, villains, antiheroes, and outlaws in the wake of Civil War II, Secret Empire #4 is what's needed. Fortunately, the moral lines are drawn a bit clearer this time around, since one side is explicitly working to bring America to order through intimidation, incarceration, and total control. It's a cause that's attracted the likes of Taskmaster and Black Ant (a Life Model Decoy of a former Ant-Man Eric O'Grady) - who soon descend upon their most fitting opponents in the still-un-alerted Ultron City.
Things get a little bit stranger when Scarlet Witch and Vision fight their former friends, as Tony Stark finally understands what has caused their turn to Steve's side. For Vision, it seems to be an infection with an A.I. virus making him a puppet of Hydra, and with Scarlet witch possession by the demon Chthon. And as Vision ambushes Sam Wilson (the now-retired Captain America), Wanda Maximoff takes on her brother, Pietro. Most strangely, Thor Odinson does battle with Hercules, showing no sign of mental manipulation or possession. What is of interest is his claim that what he does, he does for those he loves... perhaps to bring back Jane Foster's Thor after Cap stole her Mjolnir?
We'll have to wait and see. Because it's all building up to the moment that Tony Stark finds Steve in the crowd.
The Moment They've Each Waited For
It would be an understatement to say that Steve and Tony were on bad terms - even before Captain America became a tyrannical traitor. After the first Civil War showed them willing to beat eachother bloody over ideological questions, the two have stood, more or less, in opposition (even if they poked fun at the dynamic themselves). But with Civil War II, it seemed they may have found common ground against Captain Marvel... until it was later revealed that Steve Rogers was deceiving them all the entire time. A world divided was easier to conquer, for obvious reasons.
When Tony spots Steve and faces off, he can't help but voice his excitement at having all the moral high ground this time around. Or, as he puts it, "I'm actually very excited about the prospect of kicking your ass and nobody being mad at me for it afterwards." Captain America responds with excitement of his own (which is a little lacking in context, unless it really is Steve wanting to permanently kill his former friend), before launching full steam into a second round of blaster-fire and shield-absorption... until something special steps in.
The source of that unnamed voice blasts everyone out cold, beginning the unexpected twist of the issue. Writer Nick Spencer turns this semi-reunion of classic Avengers into a full-blown walk down memory lane, and while we won't spoil the story here, we're happy to say that the rest of Secret Empire #4 shows that there is more between Steve, Tony, and their former friends than simple hostility. The rest is still drenched in deceit and betrayal... but when it's old friends doing it, maybe it's just more compelling.
Secret Empire #4 is available now.