WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Captain America #16 & Secret Empire #0
Captain America may have take over the world, but he's never seemed more of a failure in the eyes of some Marvel Comics readers and fans. That's the risk you take when you become a Hydra soldier helping Nazis win World War II, and survive into the modern Marvel age to betray every one of your allies. Needless to say, Cap's Secret Empire has come at a price. And for those at Marvel Comics, the story twists that led to here have brought with it some serious scorn, criticism, and outright hate. Hate of the "death threat" variety.
The editors at Marvel and Captain America: Steve Rogers writer Nick Spencer knew this story would bring the fans out in full, offended force - ending the very first issue with Steve admitted he was loyal to his lifelong enemy, Hydra. But as the story continued, revealing Steve Rogers was never the hero fans thought, and seeing him kill beloved Marvel heroes, things turned sour. The decision to present Cap's Secret Empire as a fascist victory only heightened the passion among the harshest critics, with Spencer and his higher-ups having to clarify that they are not, themselves, Nazis. That Marvel Comics does not support the kind of fascism Captain America now pursues, and that the story will eventually make that obvious.
Since everyone in this debate is having a particularly difficult time seeing things from another's point of view, we're hoping to offer a bit of clarity. Marvel fans may absolutely despise Spencer's story, and the damage it has done to the hero... but claiming it's somehow endorsing Cap's fascism or politics at the same time is a hard sell.
The Fact: Captain America is a Villain
The fans hoping to one day see the villainy of Steve Rogers and his Hydra indoctrination exposed as mere trickery have been disappointed already. Yes, Red Skull used a Cosmic Cube to rewrite the fabric of reality to make Steve Rogers loyal to the cause - but the crimson villain was only setting reality right, since Steve's true beginnings had been with Hydra. It was Allied interference that made him forget his true loyalties, and his willingness to deceive American intelligence to help the Axis powers win the war. His belief in strength, resolve, and fierce sacrifice for the Hydra cause was twisted into something else... some kind of weakness. Weakness in the sense that he 'fought the good fight' even if that meant prolonging suffering, ignoring hard truths, and vilifying those who sought to do the hard thing for the greater good.
It's a fundamental subversion of everything that the character stood for, and writer Nick Spencer hasn't shied away from the complicity Steve has in the horrors of Adolf Hitler's regime. Now, Marvel has kept a large buffer between these Hydra characters, Steve's superiors, underlings, and the actual actions taken by Hitler and Nazi Germany. But even if Steve and his true Hydra leaders only enabled Hitler so they could one day claim his empire as their own, it's one won in blood. Hydra knows it. Steve Rogers knows it. And Marvel knows it.
No matter how deeply he believes that he's doing the right thing, or that Hydra is truly better for mankind than the "chaos" of democracy, Steve Rogers has shown himself to be ruthless. He has killed friends, enemies, rivals, and presumably, collateral damage. And in the process, the hero known as Captain America rubbed shoulders with Nazis. And with the rise of his Secret Empire, he has won the day by deceiving every hero on planet Earth... becoming quite possibly Marvel's greatest villain ever.
The Fiction: Captain America is Still a Hero
It's here where things get a little trickier, especially in online conversations, heated exchanges, or message board debates between people who have read the comic, and those who have only read about it. We'll start off by saying that nobody is more or less right based on which of those groups they fall into: Marvel wanted controversy, and got it by delivering a story that sends some powerful, conflicting, and evocative messages. But it seems that the audience is fracturing along some broad, empassioned lines. There are those following Secret Empire on purely fictional, story terms, and praising Spencer's carefully wrought, game-changing event (living up to that 'event' name better than some others in recent memory). For these people, the story and premise show more promise than problems.
Others who criticize the decision to cast Steve Rogers, Captain America, as a Nazi-allied embodiment of fascist injustice, and it's not hard to see why. Some have been offended, or angered that the product of Jewish comic creators would be twisted into an ally, not an enemy of Nazi Germany (no matter what story it's done in service to). But others have taken a more aggressive stance, believing that the shifting of Cap's allegiance, and the heroic representations of Cap's victory modeling those of fascist dictators in history are sending a far more hateful message. That the Secret Empire storyline is being crafted by, or for, or in the image of apologist rhetoric or propaganda.
In other words, the people proclaiming that "Nick Spencer is a Nazi" and sparking up the online exchanges and flame wars that eventually make headlines of their own. The problem with the argument is that is implies Captain America is being framed heroically; that by connecting Steve Rogers to fascism, fascism becomes more heroic or noble by implication. In all honesty, Steve Rogers's own story hasn't explicitly stated that he is wrong, cruel, fascistic, or tyrannical... he's the hero of it, after all.
But the Marvel Universe isn't giving Steve a monopoly on contextualizing or judging his decisions and values. With the launch of Secret Empire, readers are able to see the true damage inflicted by in Steve's betrayal. The young heroes who looked up to Cap as a figure of authority and social justice are guaranteed to have a change of heart. His former friends are already seeing his disloyalty as impossible or unfathomable (rightly so). And we have little doubt that the American public will take issue with being ruled by a tyrant, superhero or not.
So it's hard to make a convincing case that Captain America's villainous beliefs are somehow being framed in a positive light. He is a fascist. He is a tyrant. He is Marvel's most terrifying, most powerful villain. And the rest of Marvel's heroes still able to fight are going to be waging war against him in the name of everything that is right. In that sense, it's comic book storytelling as usual, since the side fighting for 'good' couldn't be more obvious.
Captain America couldn't be playing the villain any better, embodying all of the terrible beliefs that Marvel and Nick Spencer apparently believe are as far from heroic as you can get. If Captain America were still a hero... then we would have a problem.
Secret Empire #0 is available now.