Image: Marvel Comics. Art and Words by Nick Spencer Daniel Acuña, and, Travis Lanham

After the reveal that Captain America has secretly been a Hydra agent, after the controversy, and after months of teasing and build-up, the first issue of Marvel’s Secret Empire event is here. And boy, there are a lot of things happening—some tragic, some exciting, and some... well, baffling.

Despite the fact that it’s built up out of a story that’s been going on for the past year, Secret Empire #0—from the team of Nick Spencer, Daniel Acuña, Rod Reis, Travis Lanham, and Andrea Sorrentino—still has tons of things to set up, mainly so it can gleefully bring them all tumbling down by its final few pages. It ends up being worth it, but it also means that you spend much of your time reading about things playing out that you know won’t matter by the end of the issue. Case in point: The defense of planet Earth from an alien invasion, an epic effort that you know is already doomed by way of a betrayal from one of the most trusted superheroes in the Marvel universe.

And yet despite knowing all that, the sense of unease and despair that pervades Secret Empire #0 is phenomenal. The story is spread through three different arenas: in the space surrounding Earth, there’s Captain Marvel, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Ultimates, and other cosmic heroes fighting a do-or-die battle against vast hordes of Chitauri invaders in a desperate attempt to keep them from swarming the Earth’s new planetary shield and killing most of its population. On the ground in New York, the Defenders are the first wave of heroes on the ground to contain a mass supervillain attack occurring at the worst possible time. And in the skies above Sokovia, SHIELD’s army of helicarriers—with SHIELD director Steve Rogers in command—is en route to prevent Hydra’s hostile takeover of the region.

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Any one of these stories on their own would make for a compelling event comic, but juggling all three at once rams the pressure all the way up on Marvel’s heroes, making for a truly vast epic of a story. Each frontier is packed with drama, moments of triumph, and in some cases, even tragedy and loss. In space, the heroes’ cosmic ace Quasar is seemingly killed in a surprise attack.

In New York, the supervillain Nitro kills himself with a suicide blast that almost levels Manhattan, if not for Jessica Jones nearly killing herself to save her fellow Defenders.

When all hope seems lost, it’s up to Captain America to rally the heroes, and for a moment, it seems like that hope will prevail. Earth’s planetary shield comes back online, the Defenders (now aided with reinforcements from Steve’s Unity squad, the Uncanny Avengers) and Carol’s forces rally themselves thanks to Steve’s words, and even though they face their darkest hour, you briefly feel they might make it out of all this okay.

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Which is when writer Nick Spencer drops the other shoe, and Captain America makes the move he’s been waiting to do for a year. And as quick as it is, it’s effectively heartbreaking to watch unfold.

First, Hydra makes its move, smashing a helicarrier into SHIELD’s flagship and using the mind-controlling powers of Dr. Faustus to brainwash SHIELD operatives into standing down and joining them, while Steve reveals himself to Sharon Carter as Hydra’s supreme leader. Then, Steve calls Captain Marvel to inform her that it was his plan all along to bring the Chitauri to Earth, before coldly sealing the planetary shield to trap her and her fellow heroes off-planet (and still surrounded by lots of very angry Chitauri). Meanwhile, Baron Zemo himself uses the magical book of the Darkhold to trap all of Manhattan—including the Defenders, the Uncanny Avengers, and tons of other superheroes who call the city home—inside the Dark Dimension.

From there, it’s total chaos, as what remains of Marvel’s hero population—Riri Williams and the A.I. consciousness of Tony Stark, the Champions, Spider-Man, and Avengers both of the All-New and All-American variety—group up and head to Washington DC to face off the Hydra’s inevitable takeover of the US government, even if they don’t quite yet realize who’s truly behind it.

Ultimately, while Secret Empire’s 0-issue nails the gut-wrenching feeling of inevitable doom, it’s also perhaps tackling a little too much all at once. First, there’s the case of the fact that if you wanted the full context of the issue, yesterday Marvel also wanted you to buy three additional different comic issues to flesh out all aspects of Secret Empire #0.

I’m not saying it’s wrong that Marvel built this event over different series for the past year, but it sure makes it weirdly impenetrable for the audience they’ve been pitching Secret Empire to in mainstream news outlets like Entertainment Weekly, ABC, and Time Magazine. And whether Marvel likes it or not, there’s also the audience attracted by the wide controversy about what the storyline has done to the symbolic appeal of Captain America as a pop culture icon—who I imagine would appreciate being able to pick up the first issue in an event like this and understand most of what’s going on and why.

Hell, I read a lot of Marvel comics, and have been following this story since it began in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, and there were still moments that baffled me—like the A.I. recreation of Tony Stark just casually walking around working with his successor, Riri Williams, in his classic Iron Man armor early in the issue:

Recent issues of Invincible Iron Man have shown the Tony A.I. capable of remote controlling suits of armor, but still, there’s not an inkling in Secret Empire #0 that this is the case, or even that, you know, Tony Stark has been in a coma (and still is!) for the past four months. These are little things, but when Secret Empire #0 is already doing a lot of work to set up the dominos it flicks over throughout the course of this issue, it makes for an intimidating read, and at times an impenetrable one, especially if you’re an unfamiliar reader jumping in to see what the fuss with this evil Captain America thing was about.

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But those little moments of confusion among the drudgery also serve to help obfuscate what is one of the biggest moments of Secret Empire #0: another flashback to Steve’s altered past that seemingly sows doubts about the reality of everything we’ve ever known about the Marvel Universe.

The flashback details Steve’s journey to meet up with World War II top Hydra muckety-muck the Kraken and a mysterious figure, who has a plan to protect Steve from the wave of reality-altering change the Allied forces are about to unleash by using their newly created cosmic cube to win the War. Steve is placed in a pool of mystical waters to protect him from the alterations in reality—which are shown as not just the Allies winning the war, but also Steve running into battle alongside Earth’s mightiest heroes and being the patriotic American superhero we’ve all known him as for decades. This is so that ostensibly, when the time comes for the reality-bending Kobik to “awaken” his identity as a Hydra agent in the modern day, he remembers the past where he was Hydra as the truth, and not the “fabrication” we’ve all read and known thought Marvel Comics’ history.

There’s just enough obfuscation here that it already has people questioning if Marvel just re-wrote its own canon to reveal that Steve Rogers has really been Hydra all along, and that the history and continuity of the Marvel universe as we’ve known it has been a lie. But this is all revealed in a flashback—like all the others we’ve seen so far in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers, and we know that these flashbacks are a lie implanted in Steve through Kobik’s alterations, at the behest of the Red Skull.

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So the “revelation” here, about the Allies using a Cosmic Cube to win World War II and change the Hydra-aligned Steve Rogers into the superhero we’ve known him as, is a lie within a lie presumably implanted by Kobik and the Red Skull so that when Steve’s fellow heroes tell him that he was brainwashed by a Cosmic Cube, he can counter back with “They told me you’d say that!” Right?

This issue could be confusing and daunting enough at times, and that was before it invited you to question the veracity of the outcome of WWII, and the entirety of Marvel’s continuity for the past 70-odd years. It’s a largely unnecessary prologue piece that seemingly serves nothing but to further stoke the anger of people who see turning Captain America into a Hydra agent as a poorly-timed undermining of American ideals.

Like I said, there’s enough obfuscation and confusion here, on top of all the weird buildup quibbles, that it makes Secret Empire #0 a slog of a read, even in its best, most tragic moments. But with all that out of the way, the die is cast, and Steven Rogers’ road to world domination has begun. Time will tell where it all goes, but for now the Marvel hero community stands shattered, separated, and confused as hell. In some ways, I imagine many readers are, too.