Over the course of Secret Empire, we’ve seen Stevil Rogers toy and play with the heroes of the Marvel Universe—from corrupting the Avengers, to wielding Mjolnir for his own. In his rise to dictatorship Steve has done all he can to twist his old life into a tool of Hydra... and now he’s planning to do it with the return of very familiar face.
Secret Empire #5—by Nick Spencer, Andrea Sorrentino, Rod Reis, Joshua Cassara, and Rachelle Rosenberg—largely focuses on Tony Stark and his resistance friends and their hunt for more fragments of Kobik, the cosmic cube/little girl/godlike entity who created this whole mess in the first place. It doesn’t go as well as any of them planned: instead of collecting eight or nine fragments, Tony’s team comes back to base with two. And it’s not just because some targets are dead ends or other agents in the field have got to the fragments before them. In one case, T’Challa refuses to offer the one he owns to Tony, still wary of the Iron Avenger after the events of Civil War II.
It’s a series of depressing knockbacks for the heroes in what is a very grim issue—there’s little in the way of victories this far and this deep into Hydra’s rule, so the dismay of Tony’s team coming up empty is palpable. As is the revelation that Tony had also been lying to people about his cosmic-cube-detecting doohickies, fake pieces of tech, designed to give people hope while he used Rick Jones’ final transmission of data to provide potential locations.
That feeling of despair is also reflected in the fact we finally get to check in on the three “heroic” members of Steve’s Hydra Avengers, confirming just how Scarlet Witch, Vision, and the Odinson were somehow persuaded into signing up as Hydra’s official superhero team. Wanda we knew—shockingly possessed by an elder god—and Vision is similar, infected by a technological virus that has bent him to Hydra’s will, no matter how hard he fights it.
It’s the Odinson who is the most complex and tragic figure of the three: there is no macguffin that drives the former god of Thunder to Hydra. Instead, it’s because his entire moral spectrum, and everything he thought he knew about humanity, has been completely rocked by Steve’s ascension as a Hydra agent. For a man who’s also recently had his convictions about the gods of Asgard shook in the pages of The Unworthy Thor, it’s a doubly brutal blow to him. The fact that Odinson is desperately praying to his father Odin for guidance ahead of some terrible act Steve is about to force his Avengers to commit even in the wake of that miniseries is surprisingly poignant.
That terrible act, it turns out, is the climax of the issue—Steve making his move on the Resistance’s secret mountaintop base, just outside of the ruins of Vegas. Previously untraceable, it turns out that Mockingbird herself, seemingly one of the most gung-ho members of Tony’s team to find the cube fragments, is a Hydra mole, and leads a fleet of Hydra’s ginormous ships to the hero’s base. Although Tony realizes in-time, a traitorous Bobbi Morse is not the only trick up Steve Rogers’ sleeve. Realizing his fleet won’t be enough to crush the resistance, Steve readies a secret weapon...
Bruce Banner himself. Somehow, for some reason, the original Hulk is back.
Well, cynically, we don’t know the reason for Bruce having survived his execution in the events of Civil War II in-universe yet, but in reality, it’s because comic book deaths suffer from the same sort of object permanence as your average Transformers movie does. So we can’t be too surprised, especially with Marvel’s Generations and Legacy plans on the horizon, that Civil War II’s most “shocking” moment has already been undone, less than a year later.
We’ll have to wait and see how and why Bruce Banner is not just back, but working at the behest of Steve Rogers. But after an issue of despair-laden antics for the heroes of Secret Empire, it doesn’t seem like things are going to get better for them any time soon.