Today, Marvel Comics published Secret Empire #0 by Nick Spencer, Rod Reis and Daniel Acuna — kicking off the publisher’s big summer event as the secret society known as Hydra begins its takeover of the United States under the leadership of a corrupted Captain America. The issue played with a lot of complex and obscure corners of Marvel continuity and featured a pretty big reveal that’s going to have a lot of people talking — but what exactly happened, and what does it mean for the future of the Marvel Universe?
The secret origin of Steve Rogers
The main talking point of Secret Empire #0 comes right at the beginning of the issue, and it’s one that’s going to cause a lot of controversy. Yesterday, we covered the last two years of Nick Spencer’s Captain America comics and the controversial choices made along the way. Given fan reaction to those reveals, the new information presented in Secret Empire #0 is not going to sit well.
To catch you up to speed, about a year ago it was revealed that Steve Rogers’ past had been manipulated by the reality-warping power of the Cosmic Cube — history had been changed so that Steve was indoctrinated into Hydra as a young child and grew up in their ranks. In this new version of history, he was set on the path to becoming Captain America so that Hydra could have the ultimate spy and saboteur among the Allies and, even after the Allies won World War II, he remained a deep cover Hydra operative.
Secret Empire #0 reveals a flip on that narrative. As we’re to understand it now, in the “true” history of the Marvel Universe, the Allies actually lost World War II. The only reason no one remembers this is because the Allies used a Cosmic Cube to change reality, warping it into a false history where they won and Captain America was always the Sentinel of Liberty and representative of the American dream.
Whereas before, readers were under the impression that Secret Empire would be a story about Captain America being cosmically manipulated into being a proto-fascist, Secret Empire #0 reveals that he was simply returned to his true base state as a Hydra agent. The issue brings in Isaac Newton and Nostradamus — yes, that Isaac Newton and that Nostradamus — as they appear in Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver’s S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and has them essentially freeze Captain America’s fascist self in time, waiting to be awoken in the future by the power of the Cosmic Cube.
To put it simply, according to Secret Empire #0, Captain America was always a fascist, but no one, not even he himself, knew.
In our overview of the lead-up to Secret Empire yesterday, we talked about how Captain America was created by two Jewish artists who would go on to serve in World War II, and how the change to his character has been called out as being directly disrespectful of their contributions. The events in Secret Empire #0 double down on that disrespect by not only brazenly altering the intentions of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, but altering the course of the fictional history of the setting they helped create, for a real war they served in.
So how did Hydra take over?
The events in the present day build off a year’s worth of set-up, and mostly focus on three ongoing plot points within Nick Spencer’s Captain America books. An impending invasion by the alien Chitauri fleet, the fallout from Maria Hill’s private supervillain prison and the promotion of Steve Rogers to Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Through Rogers' and Hydra's manipulation, these events all came to a head on the same day, which allowed Hydra to swoop in and take control while America was at its weakest.
Early on in Captain America: Steve Rogers, it was revealed that the supervillain the Red Ghost was the first to figure out that a full-scale Chitauri invasion was on its way, and he devised a planetary shield which could keep the Earth safe from such an attack. The Red Ghost was subsequently killed by Captain America, who presented the plans to Captain Marvel and Maria Hill, leaders of Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., who jumped at the chance to implement them.
In the mini-event Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill, the superhero community learned that Maria Hill had been secretly brainwashing supervillain convicts into living peaceful lives. The supervillain Baron Zemo helped bring her prison down from the inside, and has been rounding up the former inmates into a new, Hydra-aligned group, to get revenge against S.H.I.E.L.D.
Lastly, following the events of Civil War II, Steve Rogers was appointed director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and congress passed a new bill allowing the U.S. government to grant emergency powers to the director in times of crisis.
In Secret Empire #0, Hydra waits for the Chitauri invasion to arrive before sabotaging that planetary shield. When all the heavy hitters of the Marvel Universe are out in space trying to hold the line against the Chitauri, Steve Rogers uses that as an opportunity to set Zemo's "Masters of Evil" on Manhattan — motivating congress to grant him emergency powers. With that done, he strands the majority of Earth's most powerful heroes in space by switching the planetary shield back, and reveals his true allegiance to Hydra. S.H.I.E.L.D. is overthrown and New York is cut off from the rest of the world in a veil of darkness.
Where does Secret Empire go from here?
Secret Empire #0 ends with Hydra converging on Washington, D.C. to complete its takeover, led by Captain America, its new “Supreme Leader.” Thanks to the hypnotic powers of Doctor Faustus, Rogers is able to brainwash dozens, possibly hundreds of people to the Hydra cause immediately. Things aren’t looking good for the heroes of the Marvel Universe.
On its face, Secret Empire #0 isn’t a wholly terrible superhero story. The bad guys won and the heroes are on the back foot; it makes you want to read on to find out how your faves are going to get out of this. However, as we discussed in yesterday’s overview, it ignores the iconography and history of Hydra’s close association with Nazism, even blatantly whitewashing it in the beginning by characterizing World War II as being a struggle between Hydra and the Allies, with no mention of Nazis, the Axis or Adolf Hitler. There’s a good, gripping story somewhere in this event comic, but using Hydra taints it as an enterprise — and the changes to Captain America’s origin are downright catastrophic.
It’s not the end of the world. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Captain America is a concept strong enough to endure this setback. At best, Secret Empire is a an unwelcome bump in the road for fans of the character who have to endure another year or so of not having a palatable version of one of the comics world's most iconic heroes. At its worst, the changes presented in Secret Empire #0 represent Marvel’s disregard for the legends who built the blueprint for its success — and the fans who invest time in those characters.
Kieran Shiach is a Salford, U.K.-based freelance writer and one half of Good Egg Podcasts. He is on Twitter, @KingImpulse. He wishes in the past he tried more things ’cause now he knows being in trouble is a fake idea.