Note: Contains SPOILERS for Captain America: Steve Rogers #15, Uncanny Avengers #22, and Thunderbolts #11.
Since being turned into a puppet of Hydra by Kobik – a humanoid embodiment of a Cosmic Cube (essentially a wish-fulfilment device) – Steve Rogers has covertly thrown the Marvel Universe out of balance. Exceeding the devious mandates of his own new handler, Red Skull, he’s also been simultaneously undermining the fascist leader’s powerbase. His altered history gives him an undying respect for the order and power of the ancient organization he now serves, something which tweaks his antagonism with Red Skull (aka Herr Schmidt). Since Hydra had allied itself with Schmidt and his Nazi associates, Cap felt they were too self-serving and were subverting the principles set forward by his sect. Now, as all the cards fall into place, Rogers faces one more major obstacle: who will lead the terrorist organization into its Secret Empire.
The power struggle for control of Hydra has been building for months (decades, technically). Like a Russian nesting doll, Rogers and Schmidt have both constructed plans within plans, designed to keep each other off balance, as well as undermine the very systems of power put in place to protect the world from the many-headed terrorist group. Captain America: Steve Rogers #15, as well as Uncanny Avengers #22, aligns the final pieces of the puzzle, as Steve finally makes his next power grab.
Red Skull Takes Sokovia
By his own nefarious designs, Red Skull has been undercutting the world to position Hydra for a major coup. After getting a foothold in the war-torn Eastern European country of Sokovia (recognizable from the Sokovia Accords on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and which caused Captain America: Civil War), Hydra’s presence convinced S.H.I.E.L.D. to stage covert strikes against the government. All the while, Skull’s ties inside their organization, namely now-director Steve Rogers, have undermined Sokovia's government, funneling weapons and supplies into the organization’s hands.
Herr Schmidt’s agenda, as devious as it already was, had a more sinister ulterior motive. As S.H.I.E.L.D. and the puppet Sokovian forces fought each other, he and his daughter Sin scoured the embattled countryside for dusty old Cold War bunkers. Cracking them open one by one, he discovered their irradiated treasure – a cache of nuclear warheads. Once his forces officially overran Sokovia, Red Skull broadcasts a message to the world, complete with an overt threat of nuclear obliteration for anyone that opposed Hydra's legitimacy as rulers of the small nation.
Even as Herr Skull’s master plan began to unfold, a changing of the guard is underway.
Red Skull Gets a Mutant Lobotomy
Since his return to action, Red Skull has proved nearly unbeatable for one simple reason: he had pieces of Professor Charles Xavier’s mind grafted to his own. Possessing the telepathic abilities of one of the world’s most powerful mutants gave the Hydra head the ability to control his enemies’ minds, ferret out potential rats, and read the thoughts of those around him. From that point forward, it was nearly impossible to get the jump on old crimson dome. Even Steve Rogers had to hide his own designs for conquest – at least those which didn’t involve his fearless leader. However, Cap had a contingency plan, one involving a band of extremely powerful superheroes at his beck and call.
Despite “disbanding” the Avengers Unity Squad many months ago, the team surreptitiously reformed: first to track down Bruce Banner’s kidnapped corpse, and then to finish their covert objective of separating Professor X’s brain from Red Skull. Of course, Steve never let on that he was aware of their continued activities, much less that he'd set the whole thing. Capturing Red Skull would make his Hydra takeover a whole lot easier. Even if they failed, though, it would just mean a few less superheroes to get in his way.
However, they succeeded. After Deadpool gathered some random reinforcements, he staged a one-man assault on Skull’s hidden stronghold inside the former Avengers’ mansion (now a superhero-themed hotel, ironically). In an inspired move, he dug up one of Magneto’s telepathy-blocking helmets, fitting it on Rogue just before he was mowed down. With it, Rogue overcame his mind control, kicking Skull’s keister and ferrying him off to Hank McCoy (aka Beast) – who promptly sliced Xavier’s brain out of the Hydra bigwig.
The Struggle Comes to an End
Throughout Captain America: Steve Rogers #15, we’re treated to glimpses of the Red Skull and Cap’s long-standing beef. An interesting contrast to their pre-Cosmic Cube antagonism, their power struggle stretches back to the World War II, when Schmidt forced Captain America's cooperation by threatening those he most cared about, Elisa Sinclair and his estranged friend Helmut Zemo. Cap capitulates to save their lives but remains his anger and resentment towards Schmidt and his command of Hydra.
After the surgery, Steve Rogers and S.H.I.E.L.D. commandeers the terrorist leader, imprisoning him at their facilities. While the agency runs damage control, trying to counteract the Sokovia situation, Rogers allows Sinthea to break her father out of custody, returning him to his personal estate. Before Red Skull even has a chance to breathe, much less recuperate, he finds Cap already waiting for him. Without his defenses (psychic or otherwise) in play, Steve takes the opportunity to challenge Herr Schmidt for the leadership of Hydra.
Red Skull is understandably furious that his protégé would betray him, but Cap quickly rebukes him. To this day, he still believes Schmidt misused his position, diverting the order’s sacred mission from its true destiny and using it to serve his own purposes. As Sin and Crossbones turn a blind eye, Cap throws Red Skull from a window, killing him and claiming control of all of Hydra. Crossbones then asks Cap how they'll continue without Skull’s strategies, and Steve informs his underling that he’s the true architect behind the organization's ascension. To underscore to his point, the latest Madame Hydra arrives with Hive, the new Kraken, Armin Zola, and Viper, as well as several other new villainous recruits.
Interestingly enough, the epilogue to Captain America: Steve Rogers #15 reveals that Steve nearly left the war after being forced to bow to Red Skull. Elisa Sinclair, revealed as Madame Hydra in the present, actually pushed Steve to stay with the organization by revealing that America is developing a new, devastating super-weapon: a Cosmic Cube. After being realigned by a Cube himself, Cap is well-aware of the potential power the Allies’ new “weapon” possesses. It's unclear how this new wrinkle in Marvel’s revisionist history of World War II ties in with coming events, but it does link up with recent revelations in Thunderbolts #11.
After Kobik revised Bucky Barnes own history, trying to get him to join their "secret club" by saying "Hail Hydra," Bucky discovered the truth behind Steve Rogers altered history. Thanks to Red Skull's trickery, the Marvel Universe has been rewritten by a confused, child-like super-being. Although things don't look good for Bucky at the moment, he tried to educate the "young" Cosmic Cube before she turned him into blinding white light. The change up certainly hints at a curious alternative reality in the making, one where Kobik’s own shifting perspective on good and evil could continue to rewrite the nature of reality.
If Bucky is unable to convince her that Hydra is truly evil, Red Skull's death may be very short-lived. At the same time, assuming Bucky can reeducate her, she may begin to reset the drastic changes set in motion during the standoff at Pleasant Hill. Either way, the true depths of Steve Rogers’ machinations will be revealed shortly, as his "Secret Empire" rises from the ashes of Red Skull, Sokovia, and S.H.I.E.L.D.
Captain America: Steve Rogers #15 and Uncanny Avengers #22 are currently available.