Steve Rogers has had a rough couple years. Back in 2016, he had his history altered by a cosmic cube-turned-8-year-old named Kobik who made him best friends with his greatest enemies, ultimately crafting him into the modern-day supreme leader of the fascist supervillain organization Hydra. The story took place in an event known as Secret Empire, which set the stage for a full-blown Hydra takeover of the Marvel Universe, all with Captain America standing proudly in the spotlight as the mastermind behind it all.
Now, for the first time since the finale of Secret Empire, Captain America is starting over at #1, with an all new ongoing by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Francis Yu that dropped, appropriately, on the Fourth of July — but it’s not quite the patriotic extravaganza you might expect. Instead, it has rattled the ghost of Secret Empire out of its extremely shallow grave.
The Legacy of an Empire
Secret Empire concluded not with any of its many threads tied up in neat little bows, but with the consequences still very much on the table. The people who had died were still dead, the cities that had been destroyed were still destroyed, the world still remembered and understood Steve Rogers as a fascist terrorist, despite the fact he had been “returned” to his normal, heroic self.
But in the year following the final issue, Steve’s stories went out of their way to not acknowledge those facts. He was sent on pulp-flavored sci-fi adventures in alternate futures, matched back up with his Avengers teammates and otherwise pivoted away from the fallout of his unwitting turn to villainy.
Broaching the topic of a fascist Steve Rogers is, unsurprisingly, a sticky situation. The criticism Secret Empire drew wasn’t just because fans were sad to see their favorite hero break bad. Captain America is a character with a long, complex, politically charged history that dates directly bad to World War II — but despite his black-and-white anti-fascist origins, his identity and mission statement have become extremely fluid.
The modern day Steve Rogers is as tricky to define as the capital-A, capital-D American Dream to which he pledges his loyalty. Worse yet, by ignoring or otherwise shrugging off the afterimage of Secret Empire, Steve’s definitions have gotten even murkier, allowing both he and his comics to languish in a sort of willful ignorance and ambiguity in which no one wants to acknowledge the jackbooted elephant in the room.
What does that all mean for Marvel’s newest Captain America series?
Well, for starters, it means confronting the truth of Steve Rogers’ shifting and multifaceted identity in a brand new way.
Captain of Nothing
By and large, the few times various comics have touched upon Steve’s uncomfortable position post-Secret Empire, they’ve done it with a disclaimer: Hydra Steve wasn’t Steve, but a monster who wore Steve’s face. We see that Coates and Yu’s Captain America #1, but with a twist. We learn Steve has internalized that idea as well.
As he fights his way through an army of zealous Nuke clones, he’s called a betrayer, to which he quickly responds “that wasn’t me.” He “took an oath to the flag” that he’d die before betraying. The irony of his moment is that the flag Steve is so quick to declare his loyalty to is literally painted across each Nuke’s face as he and his partner Bucky Barnes take them down one by one.
Flag imagery aside, it’s subtle, and damning nonetheless — the first real effort to interrogate to the past year of stories that have let Steve gloriously off the hook for the actions done in his name. What does loyalty to the flag even mean when the flag itself has been weaponized? What responsibility does Steve have? Can you pledge fidelity to something while you’re simultaneously destroying the image of it?
Nuke, too, provides another much needed battering ram to Steve’s post-Secret Empire stability. A character designed to be the villainous, twisted approximation of a “modern” super soldier: a perpetually roid-raging, teeth gritting “patriot” who believes in absolute loyalty above all else. Stories that feature Nuke going up against Cap typically emphasize the difference between fascistic absolutes and the virtues of freedom — the difference that was so emphatically corrupted upon Steve’s Hydra turn.
The army of Nuke clones offers a stripped down take on that idea. They march out in droves chanting mantras about “our boys,” a deliberately ambiguous strawman designed to evoke the anonymous but omnipresent US military — a body that Steve himself represents in kind. But where Steve is a symbol, the Nukes “die nameless.”
Appearances, son. They matter.
The real masterstroke of Coates and Yu’s interrogation comes after the dust is settled and the Nukes have been dispatched. General Thaddeus Ross rolls up with a bit of retroactive continuity added into the mix — Ross is revealed to have been a resistance leader during Hydra’s takeover, and his action under pressure has earned him a spot in a newly minted government program for people like him, “resisters.” While Ross is otherwise amiable to Steve, he’s quick to admit that Steve will need to sit this investigation out. He follows up that it’s not because of the other Steve, but because it would look bad to have Captain America investigating a terrorist cell of American-flag-wearing psychopaths.
The logic holds, but only in this specific context. The history of Captain America has put him up against American-flag-wearing terrorist cells time and time again — in fact, the single most repeated theme in any Captain America story is Steve directly confronting corruptions of his own identity, from Cap pretenders to Nuke-like fanatics who believe they could do a better job of representing the American Dream. But everything is different now, in the post Secret Empire world. Suddenly there’s real, immediate weight behind the thought of an evil twist on Steve’s core.
For the first time, Captain America isn’t the guy best suited to the job of defending and defining what it means to wear the American flag — and that, beyond anything, is the real and lasting consequence that Steve’s stories have been trying to ignore this past year. Comic book narrative convention allows people to return from the dead and cities to be rebuilt in a blink, but tectonic shifts in the very foundations of superhero’s identity?
Those are a little more challenging to grapple with.
With any luck, Coates and Yu will continue to put Steve under a microscope as their run continues. It’s impossible to say what new facets of the Star Spangled Avenger they might uncover, but the process of excavating them, cathartic or uncomfortable as it may be, is well worth the price of admission.