Note: Contains SPOILERS for Captain America: Sam Wilson #21 and Captain America: Steve Rogers #15.
The Marvel Universe is heading for a major upheaval as Hydra takes hold of all the institutions its citizens hold dear. Steve Rogers has built his “Secret Empire” on misconceptions, treachery, and downright murder, turning friends and allies on one another and pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Now, as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., the most powerful spy and security agency in the (not long to be) free world, Rogers is poised to bring the MU to its knees.
His recent exploits found him going head to head with Hydra’s long-time supreme leader Red Skull. After handling the situation, so to speak, Rogers found himself atop a pyramid of power, with an army of villains and a clutch of dubious but close allies at the ready. In Captain America: Sam Wilson #21, not only does Steve maneuver around another obstacle, but he also steps up his indoctrination of America, and the world.
Sam Wilson’s Lament
Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon, has faced an uphill battle since an elderly Steve Rogers endorsed him to become the latest member of the shield-carrying Captain America club. Facing down racism in America was rough enough as the Falcon but took on a whole new level after he’d become a legacy Star-Spangled Avenger. When Rogers was magically restored to life and youth by Kobik (read our rundown of Captain America: Steve Rogers #2 for further explanations), everything really hit the fan, as many right-wing elements called for Sam’s resignation from the title – including the #GiveBackTheShield movement which became the #TakeBackTheShield movement.
Facing down his detractors, Wilson kept his head high and strove to bring a new political awareness to the title. But highlighting racial and social iniquity in the country only made his tenure even more divisive. A series of charged incidents – fueled by the private “security force” thuggery of the AmeriCops (run by underhanded corporate overlord Paul Keane) – created a tense atmosphere in New York and around the country. Events came to a head when former New Warrior, Rage (aka Elvin Haliday), was set up for robbery by the private security force. His subsequent conviction and imprisonment caused rioting and civil unrest, and his inside a super-powered jail led to a super-villain beat-down that left Rage in a coma. It also caused Wilson to reevaluate his efforts and perceived successes as Captain America.
After months of mounting pressure, Sam finally watches his dreams of uniting the country go down in flames (thanks in part to Cap’s covert "help" and the polarized political landscape). He decides to give his final address to the the world and end his tenure as Captain America. Although he'll continue his super-heroics, his departure is a tragic blow to disenfranchised people everywhere who looked up to and counted on him. It also leaves a heroic void – one waiting for a corrupted Steve Rogers to step back into, Hydra agenda and all.
The Revolution Will Be Televised
In addition to losing a hurdle to his Secret Empire with Sam Wilson's departure, Steve Rogers also removes another possible hurdle in his plans, while writer Nick Spencer also gives readers a hint as to the warped logic and sense of honor Cap still adheres to. Atop the city, corporate mogul Paul Keane meets with his friend political pundit Harry Hauser, convinced that Rogers is trying to set them up. Their meeting, however, is interrupted by the arrival of Cap himself, who expresses his concerns about Keane’s business operations.
Although he appreciates the magnate's efforts to clean up the streets via his AmeriCops, Cap has also discovered the true motive behind Keane’s “altruism.” It tuns out the CEO uses his private thugs to roust out the residents of those impoverished neighborhoods. Once they’re forced from their homes and apartments, his subsidiary company, Paragon Properties, scoops up the whole area for a song – gentrifying and reselling it for a major profit. Cap compliments him on his shrewdness but disapproves of Keane's dealings, noting that it’s not how he “likes to do business,” which points at a twisted sense of duty Rogers has to the future subjects of his empire. But before the corporate finagler can react to Cap's accusations, he suffers from what appears to be a heart attack. Apparently, Rogers instructed Harry to spike Keane's drink with a toxin that mimics the effects of a heart attack.
Before departing the “meeting,” Rogers reminds Hauser about his ratings boost as of late, asking him to fulfill his end of the agreement and begin broadcasting “our message.” To this, Hauser replies simply: “Hail Hydra.”
The Secret Empire Rises
With his secret cabal in the Hydra High Council, his twisted muscle in the Masters of Evil, his unsuspecting enforcers in S.H.I.E.L.D., and his propaganda wing in talk media mogul Harry Hauser, Captain America’s “Secret Empire” is falling into place. His “mock” invasion and Hydra-controlled, nuclear-powered Sokovia set to send the world into a tailspin from which they’ll only recover thanks to the help of Hydra.
Fortunately, there are still a few hiccups in Rogers’ path to victory: Sharon Carter may be rather fond of Steve, but she’s no fool. Also, Maria Hill is still out there, along with her and Captain Marvel’s still in-progress worldwide defensive shield (unless Cap manages to take it down in one way or another). The “Secret Empire” may be dawning, but the heroes of the Marvel Universe certainly won’t make its ascension easy.
Captain America: Sam Wilson #21 is currently available. Secret Empire #0 arrives on April 19, 2017.