Warning: Contains SPOILERS for Secret Empire #3.
Without a doubt, Secret Empire is one of the more divisive events in recent Marvel history. More compelling than last year’s Civil War redux, the HydraCap twist left a bad taste in the mouths of a number of fans. Steve Rogers being altered into a double agent by a cosmic cube (a sentient wish-maker, essentially) has also once again split the superhero community, but this time, down a distinctive line, as most superheroes rail against the Supreme Leader of America. However, a surprising few heroes – due to mind control, duplicity, or other unknown reasons – remain loyal to Rogers and his new regime.
Now in the thick of Captain America’s subjugation of America, Secret Empire #3 stabs yet again into the heart of the Marvel Universe. Every time it seems writer Nick Spencer has run out of tricks, he springs another astonishing one. In the prior issue, Spencer revealed that an alternative version of Steve Rogers, possibly his Ultimate version, was still traipsing around the – hopefully metaphorical – woods. This time around, former co-Captain America, Sam Wilson, winds his way back into the narrative, and the identity of Rogers’ ruthless problem solver comes to light.
The Resistance Splits Up
For much of the superhero community, the fall of the U.S. government could easily be known as Victory over America Day. A point of memory seared into the collective consciousness of the Marvel Universe, everyone will remember where they were when Captain America took over, unless they retcon the whole event using the cosmic cube – hopefully, they don’t cop out after all the buildup, though. In any case, the Hydra domination of the country left the opposition in a very bad way: either stuck inside a demonic Darkhold dimension around Manhattan, trapped in space (and under attack by Chitauri warriors) behind an impenetrable energy field, or fleeing the bombed-out husk of Las Vegas after Cap's brutal airstrike.
On top of that, the resistance is now ideologically split, with Hawkeye's crew trying to track down cosmic cube fragments and restore Steve Rogers and Black Widow training her own young volunteers. Armed with the Champions – consisting of Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, Viv Vision, Amadeus Cho’s Hulk, Nadia Pym’s Wasp, and Riri Williams Ironheart – she is seeking any opportunity to infiltrate Hydra and take out Cap. The few heroes still “loyal” to Steve Rogers include his Hydra-fied Avengers, but most of them aren’t even willing participants. Scarlet Witch appears to be under mind control, while Vision was hacked into and reprogrammed. Deadpool is either operating under the delusion that Rogers is a good guy, or he’s a double-agent, and Thor’s presence may relate to Cap hoisting his hammer (or even protecting Jane Foster's identity as other Thor). The rest of the squad, including Superior Octopus, Black Ant, and Taskmaster are essentially hired guns.
As shocked readers discovered in the latest chapter of Secret Empire, Cap has another ally trying to clean up the mean streets for Hydra, Frank Castle. But is The Punisher a brainwashed lackey or a willing conscript?
A Punishing New Hydra Ally?
Secret Empire has been more than willing to mess with the Marvel status quo. Magneto chose to remain unaligned, even though he capitulated to Captain America’s regime, and the Avengers are under sway or pay. Frank Castle’s “Hail Hydra,” though, comes as a true shocker. The reveal arrives after he tracks down D-grade villain Boomerang (or Fred Myers) as punishment for arranging a meeting between Black Widow and Maria Hill. Frank gives Fred a choice: reveal what took place between the two women (Maria gave Natasha a copy of Captain America's "social schedule") or die. And while The Punisher's allegiance with a protofascist organization is jarring, given what we know of the character, his choice wouldn't entirely out-of-character, since Frank Castle's own history is deeply scarred. Following his debut in '70s
Following his debut in '70s Spider-Man comics, he quickly took on a life of his own in the 1980s. His connection to the movie vigilante movement – reflected in '80s flicks like Commando and the Rambo series – as well as his alignment with the gritty comic antiheroes like Frank Miller's Batman and Daredevil. His harder-edged justice was a reflection of (mostly unfounded) cultural fears that the crime was spiking, while his an eye-for-an-eye punitive measures also echoed the zero tolerance attitudes of the era. But it was Castle's horrific experiences in the Vietnam War and, most of all, his family's accidental death during a mob hit gone wrong, which pushed him to be The Punisher.
In addition, Frank's admiration bordering on hero worship of Captain America is no secret, as he sided with Cap in the first Civil War, despite his ideological quandaries. His deep respect for a fellow soldier and Steve's symbolic value may have pushed him to sign on with Hydra, as well as gaining the ability to work on the side of law and order and still wage his one-man war. Given his black and white worldview and overwhelming drive for revenge, Castle's perspective actually somewhat aligns with HydraCap's quest for order (at any price, apparently) in a chaotic world.
That’s not to say Frank is a dyed-in-the-wool a serpent-backer. His ties also may reflect an interest in riding the green and yellow tide, playing both sides to his advantage. It's also possible Cap sold him a vision full of half-truths and promises, much like he did many of his former superhero pals. If his role in Secret Empire #3 and the previews of Secret Empire: Uprising #2 are accurate, though, Castle certainly seems gung ho about his new job. He’s already on the hunt for Black Widow and her band of Red Room trainees, and a showdown between them would pit Natasha’s rough yet effective training against one of the Marvel Universe’s most efficient and remorseless killers. Things could go from bad to worse very quickly for the youngest members of the resistance.
Whether or not Frank Castle's new gig as Steve Rogers' counter-insurrectionist will pan out or not should be enough to keep curiosity piqued as to what comes next. Watching The Punisher carry out Hydra’s bidding may be more than some fans can handle, though, even though his role and possibly the entire tale could be rewritten if Hawkeye and company can track down the cosmic cube fragments with the "help" of the Hank Pym/Ultron construct. No matter how things pan out for Castle, Hydra Cap, and the opposition (including Sam Wilson's return to action), with seven more issues on the way, as well as numerous connected tales, Secret Empire has many more tricks up its green-and-yellow sleeve.
As fans await the first season of The Punisher on Netflix, hopefully his new allegiances won’t sour their excitement for the long-standing antihero.
Secret Empire #3 is currently available.