Warning: contains SPOILERS for Marvel’s Secret Empire.
Once the paragon of virtue, Captain America has become one of Marvel’s most dangerous villains since his shocking about-face. Converted by a cosmic cube into an agent of evil, he now leads a no-longer Secret Empire as it converts the United States into a totalitarian regime. Rogers and his cohorts managed to use their realigned forces to sweep through and subdue much of the nation. Now, Hydra is trying to realign the country and program the people to respect and fear their new leaders.
Much like the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, though, Cap’s administration, its tactics, and its effectiveness are up for debate. No one would argue that the Hydra Council and their pitiless tactics are saints among killers. However, as Marvel's own Darth Vader and the Emperor all rolled up in one, Steve Rogers heads the main governing body of the U.S. of H., and he still retains some of the qualities that made him the hero he once was. Could Captain America actually be good at his new job?
Note: Screen Rant and the author do NOT endorse totalitarian regimes in any way, shape or form. This article is meant for speculation and entertainment purposes only.
His Weakness Is His Strength?
As revealed early on in Captain America: Steve Rogers, aspects of Steve's original persona survived his reformatting. During a number of his missions, he's shown glimmers of the compassion and loyalty that once made him the defender of freedom and gave almost more of an antihero vibe, at first anyway. While he had no compunction about acting as a double agent or betraying his superhero allies he once fought alongside, Rogers did spare Bucky Barnes from the wrath of Helmut Zemo, and tried to convert his war-time comrade until the bitter end. It's later revealed that history has been altered yet again, and Zemo’s father died on the fateful drone instead of Bucky and Cap, which causes a decades-long rift that brings Steve no end of grief.
Cap’s “weakness” in the form of mercy is once again on display, when, compelled by Hydra to kill Super Soldier serum-maker Abraham Erskine, he balks. Instead, Helmut, who’s been watching Rogers (and watching his back, supposedly) pulls the trigger on the inventor. Once again it turns out he and Erskine had formed a friendship, bonding over their relative outsider statuses. Years later, when Zemo finally captures Bucky, Steve permits Helmut revenge, but relays his regrets about his friend's death via recording instead of in person.
Steve’s attempt to distance himself from Bucky's and Erskine's deaths revealed his continued attachments, even to those who theoretically stand in the way of his glorious empire. It’s his sentimentality which allows the “rebel fighters” amnesty after the "Day of Peace," when Hydra overruns the country. But his compassion also leaves him open to resistance from the Hydra Council, who push him towards more brutal actions.
In Secret Empire, Captain America is faced with a crisis of conscience. He’s been reformed into a tool of fascism, yet clings to memories and attachments from his prior life as well. He clearly sides with his retconned history, and as a result, undercuts friendships, undermines institutions, and even kills people outright when they stand in his way. His empathy for former comrades like Bucky, Erskine, and the unrepentant Rick Jones – who faces a firing squad rather than bending to Hydra – puts him in a difficult position. Steve has spared many of his former-life compatriots, like oft-love interest Sharon Carter, creating a conflict of interests that could undermine his authority. But it's also these qualities that make Cap a multifaceted and surprisingly humane dictator.
On the other hand, Steve may grimace after Rick admits that Cap is still his hero, but he still executes one of his oldest friends for espionage. In addition, Sharon isn’t exactly free to leave casa de Star-Spangled Avenger at will, either. Rogers also showed zero mercy when it came to murdering Red Skull to grasp power. He’s also the man who, for the glory of Hydra, overran the United States, trapped Captain Marvel and dozens others in outer space (facing certain doom at the hands of countless waves of Chitauri warriors), and set in motion events that trapped New York City in a Darkhold portal.
Captain America’s warped sense of loyalty may occasionally usurp his practicality, but his sentimentality does make him a relatively balanced and potentially dangerous potentate. But can he truly bury his latent decency enough to turn Hydra into a force for world domination?
Is Cap a Strong Leader?
One of the defenses of the Galactic Empire in Star Wars reads that, much like many terrestrial fascist states, the Imperials brought stability and, hence, peace to the galaxy. An eons-old philosophical quandary, one which readily spills over into the real world, some would argue that sacrificing liberty is an acceptable casualty for security. This premise informs Captain Marvel and Maria Hill's decision to construct a planetary force field, Carol Danvers' rationale for using Ulysses’ predictions in Civil War II, and Iron Man's support for the Superhero Registration Act in the first Civil War.
As the idiom goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Many lifetime leaders like Mao Zedong and Jean-Bertrand Aristide began their revolutions with dreams, desiring nothing more than bettering the lives of their peoples, before their dreams were corrupted along the way. Clearly, Captain America is far more on the Stalin end of the spectrum than the George Washington one, but his strength does come from his conviction.
In order to secure his Hydra-fied state, he's set up a totalitarian regime where dissidents are rounded up and shot, mutants are cordoned off in the Pacific Northwest, and Inhumans are locked away in internment camps. Fascist dictator or not, Rogers has retained a team of on-call Avengers, including Deadpool, Scarlet Witch, and Odinson (as well as Taskmaster and Red Ant) – hacking into the Vision, mystically dominating Scarlet Witch, and over-power the rest of them by wielding the mighty Mjolnir. His sneak attack caught the entire superhero community off-guard, trapping his enemies or forcing them to scurry into hiding, where they must wage a guerrilla war against the forces of Hydra. Roger's tactical skills and subtle manipulation of events are clearly well-oiled from his years of heroing.
Steve also seeks to find a balance between his own “compassionate” brand of authoritarianism verses the Hydra Council's heavy-handed one, which would gladly dispatch enemies of the state with indiscriminate force no matter the cost. While he supports efforts to soften the populace's resistance, he shows a distaste for methods of mind control, seeming to genuinely desire the populace enroll with Hydra of their own accord, even if they need a little encouragement, an act which also validates his devotion to the "cause." At this stage, Captain America exhibits all the qualities of a balanced leader, albeit a tyrannical one. While he worries aloud to Madame Hydra about his conspiratorial council and his vulnerabilities, Elisa reassures him that, once he tracks down the Cosmic Cube, his opponents will fall by the wayside. Cap also realizes his need to act decisively and make a show of force to his underlings and the world at large. As a result, he execute the "terrorists" (including Rick Jones) and cracks down on the revolutionaries in Las Vegas.
Will his show of strength bring about the true dawn of Captain America's Secret Empire, or will it merely expose more cracks in his armor?
A Better, Brighter, Hydra-fied America?
The country is, according to Hydra-run media, safer and more prosperous: crime is on the decline, the economy picking up (as the regime employs citizens to create more weapons), foreign dignitaries are falling into line behind the unsubtle hand of the country's new overlords. So, what’s not to love about Cap’s new vision for America? Aside from the alternative reality being constructed in every classroom, Inhuman concentration camps, Hydra-based witch hunts turning neighbor on neighbor, and government-controlled propaganda machines, that is. Captain America is doing his best to make the world great again in Hydra’s image.
But in the long run, is Steve Rogers a great leader? By the most non-democratic standards, he's doing pretty darn well. He’s toed the line between evil and really evil, while uniting (most of) the country beneath Hydra's banner. He jump-started the workforce with his Hydra-works campaign, and aside from those pesky death squads and dissenters (and their ridiculous notions of free expression), things are looking pretty tight. Best of all: if Captain America can find Kobik, that pesky Cosmic Cube, every change he's set in motion could become a permanent reality.
The next chapter arrives in Secret Empire #2 on May 17, and the resistance begins in earnest in Secret Empire: Uprising #1 on May 31.
Secret Empire #1 is currently available.