[Contains SPOILERS for Captain America: Steve Rogers #11]
Steve Rogers has been quite busy lately: since being transformed by a Cosmic Cube into an agent of Hydra, Captain America has done his best to undermine the efforts of just about everyone who considers him a friend, mentor, or ally. Maintaining his double life hasn’t been without its challenges, but this Captain America has let nothing stand in the way of his vision – one inspired by his life of indoctrination within a proto-fascist organization. All of Rogers' training and scheming culminates in an overture to his Secret Empire - one which will shake the very power structure of the United States (and the world) to its core.
To start, Captain America did his best to sour citizens on superheroes and S.H.I.E.L.D. thanks to his manipulation of events during Civil War II. Since then, he’s helped sabotage the Avengers, weakening and scattering the team. He also disbanded his own Avengers Unity Squad after the mutants members began snooping around and breaking into government installations (admittedly for clues to their own survival). Now, Cap has been installed as head of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the covert organization has been given broad discretionary legal powers in emergency situations, thanks to the SHIELD Act which he helped push through.
With everything falling into place, Captain America: Steve Rogers #11 brings his Hydra dream one step closer to fruition.
Smoothing Out the Rough Edges
If there are any weak points to Steve Rogers’ master plan, it’s the lingering tethers connected to his retconned loyalties, like Jack Flag. A former sidekick and teammate of Rogers, Flag was also the first person to uncover Steve’s true allegiances in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. Of course, the infamous “Hail Hydra” moment came as Steve tossed Jack out a helicopter to his (almost) imminent death. The plucky hero managed to survive, probably thanks to his enhanced abilities, but was rendered brain-dead and remained on life support until Captain America #10 — when his injuries finally took their toll.
While paying his final regards to Jack, Cap also uses the funeral to run some intelligence on the vanished former S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Maria Hill, as well as the Cosmic Cube masquerading as a little girl, Kobik (who’s been hiding out with former Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes). He also speaks with Peter Quill about Captain Marvel, asking the stranded Guardian to talk Carol Danvers out of constructing an energy shield around Earth. Peter agrees with Cap about the force-field, but hasn’t been able to persuade Carol to drop the project.
With the outgoing President’s sanction and nearly unlimited funding, the S.H.I.E.L.D. shield is already well underway and could put the kibosh on Cap and Hydra’s plan to destabilize the world with an alien invasion.
A Friend in Need
Throughout the course of Steve Rogers’ now-nefarious escapades, writer Nick Spencer has changed the game substantially. Not only did the Cosmic Cube recreate Steve Rogers in the Red Skull’s image, but she also managed to reform a number of super villains several years ago – those incarcerated at SHIELD’s Pleasant Hill prison (a controversial aspect of Maria Hill’s directorship). One of those detainees was Baron Helmut Zemo. The Baron’s reprogramming didn’t take as well, and he eventually led a revolt, escaping Pleasant Hill. When Kobik later rewrote Captain America’s history, she also changed Zemo into one of young Steve’s classmates at the Hydra training camp, who quickly became his closest friend and ally. In revisionist history, Zemo is essentially Rogers’ early version of Bucky Barnes, the one willing to go take care of things no matter how dirty their hands get, throughout their formative years.
As the story returns to moments from Rogers' youth, he's been charged with infiltrating the very super-soldier program that created him, stealing its secrets, and then eliminating the program’s creator Dr. Abraham Erskine. However, his and Erskine's burgeoning friendship gives Steve pause when it comes to (literally) pulling the trigger on the serum maker. Out of the blue, Helmut appeared (he’d been shadowing him on his mission), killing the doctor as Steve balked. The program continues in Erskine's death under Hydra's direction, and a young Rogers prepares for his challenging life as an America hero and a double agent.
In Captain America: Steve Rogers #11, readers also discover, at long last, who's been on the receiving end of Cap’s multi-issue monologue: Baron Zemo. He’s been trying to convince his former best friend, now confused by Cosmic Cube interference, to remember their past and help him remake the world in Hydra’s image. Rogers' elaborate tale seems to move the captured Baron, who agrees to help Rogers in constructing his Secret Empire (at least, so it seems for now).
Another Loose End
What kind of Marvel comic, much less complexly interwoven Nick Spencer plot, would it be without another layer of suspense? Captain America’s trip to the criminal-run island nation of Bagalia – when Red Skull ordered him to kill Dr. Erik Selvig and Zemo but, Rogers instead captured them – generally flew under the radar. Marvel adversary, The Taskmaster, had his few suspicions about the Star Spangled Avenger’s mission, though, and decided to dig a little deeper. Searching the wrecked plane for the black box, which was removed by Cap, he uncovers a second security recorder, which is apparently standard in the criminal-heavy country. Watching the video, he learns the shocking truth about Steve Rogers’ true loyalty, and realizes he’s hit the jackpot with blackmail opportunities.
On the bright side (at least for Steve), the new Quasar may have located Bucky Barnes and his well-stashed Cosmic Cube ward. And on that note, Captain America: Steve Rogers' latest chapter lines up all the ducks for its serpentine plot to swallow, heading into “Secret Empire.” Since the Marvel editors already revealed that Steve’s Hydra allegiance won’t be covert for long, Taskmaster could be the very candidate that spills the beans. If Cap can silence the super villain, though, he can continue building fealty in his new world order.
Assuming Spencer's carefully laid plans uncoil accordingly, "Secret Empire" will be, without a doubt, one of this year's most enthralling events.
Captain America: Steve Rogers #11 is currently available in print and online.