The road Marvel Comics has taken to Secret Empire has seen Steve Rogers turn from sleeper agent to full-on supervillain. But Secret Empire #1, out today, goes well beyond that: it makes Captain America complicit in horrors so extreme it’s hard to see how the character can ever return to being the hero he once was.
Secret Empire #1—by Nick Spencer, Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten, Matthew Wilson, and Travis Lanham—doesn’t immediately pick up after the events of Secret Empire #0, which chronicled the reveal of Captain America’s deception of his friends, allies, and the world at large. Instead, it’s an unspecified number of months after, with Hydra in control of the United States, and Captain America at its head.
Heroes still attempt to resist—spearheaded by a group lead by Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the A.I. essence of Tony Stark operating out of a hidden base in the Nevada desert, with the young Champions running sorties against Hydra patrols in Vegas—but for the average America citizen, Hydra is now their leader. And while Marvel Comics has blustered over accusations of Hydra’s past links to the Nazis, and even attempted to deny the political undertones of Secret Empire, it’s hard to read Secret Empire #1 and not draw parallels between Hydra’s rule and the rise of the Nazi party in ‘30s Germany. Books have been burned in classrooms, history has been rewritten.
Inhumans are being rounded up and detained in internment camps.
All this, and more, is willingly accepted by the populace. Early on in Secret Empire #1, there’s an implication that the populace accepts Hydra’s fascist rule due to low-level psychotropic manipulation, mind-altering chemicals included in the fluoride of America’s water supplies to make the nation docile.
But Steve Rogers doesn’t have that excuse: he’s the one issuing these orders, and agreeing with his villainous council that these actions are necessary for him to maintain control until Hydra can find the cosmic cube formerly known as Kobik for themselves, and use its powers to alter reality to Steve’s will.
But even then, there are hints of Steve’s now-inevitable return to the hero he once was, even in this grim present of Hydra’s total domination. A pre-planned day of executing enemies of the state—including Steve’s former ally Rick Jones—keeps being delayed, much to the chagrin of Steve’s fellow council members, and the implication is that it’s because the thought of public executions is still a line Steve is hesitant to cross.
That turns out not to be the case, as shown in the most gut-churning moments of Secret Empire #1. After learning of one of the Champions’ less-than-subtle missions in Las Vegas, and a chat with Madame Hydra reminds Steve of what Hydra is fighting for, Captain America decides it’s time he showed the world the strength of his conviction.
Namely, the public execution of his old friend, and—even more horrifically—the eradication of Las Vegas as punishment for the heroes’ continued resistance.
We don’t actually see Steve give the order—in comic books, that means there’s a way for this to be wriggled out of; it could be revealed that this was an extreme action taken without Steve’s wishes by the rest of the Hydra council, and it’s something he’ll disagree with after the fact.
But even if that turns out to be the case, he is the one who brought the Hydra Empire to power, and now must be judged by its most shocking and heinous of actions—actions that are far beyond the villainy Steve has engaged in prior to this point in Secret Empire.
Yesterday, Marvel took the unprecedented step of delivering a statement to ABC News, pleading for fans to see how Secret Empire progresses before levying any more furious criticism at the series. On top of that, the statement in a roundabout way “spoiled” the climax of Secret Empire, revealing that by the end of it, Captain America will be restored to the hero that he always was. The fact that that’s the case isn’t entirely surprising—it’s usually what happens in your typical “good guy gone bad” story.
But can Steve Rogers really turn around from this and come out of it the same hero he was before this story? What will be interesting is to see how whatever follows Secret Empire handles Captain America trying to be a hero again in a world where he’s caused so much pain, death, and destruction.