SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Secret Empire #2, on sale now.
Today sees the release of Nick Spencer, Andrea Sorrentino and Rod Reis’ Secret Empire #2, which mostly finds the heroes of the Marvel Universe reeling from Hydra’s attack on Las Vegas. As the Defenders in the Darkforce-infested New York scramble to keep the lights on, and Supreme Leader Rogers addresses the nation, The Avengers are given two rather unpleasant choices for their next move as the resistance.
However, that’s not the biggest news of the issue, as the final page features the return of an iconic Marvel hero no one expected to come back, a return that’s going to raise a lot of questions about the future of Secret Empire, Captain America and the entire Marvel Universe.
Secret Empire #2 is possibly the best issue of the event so far, mostly because it spends little time with Hydra and Cap and focuses its attention on the scrambling heroes looking to find ways to be, well, heroes again. Black Widow and Hawkeye represent an ideological divide on how to handle the Hydra problem, while Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and the Kingpin of all people, are in New York City, just trying to keep the lights on long enough to keep people alive.
It’s the last page that’s going to get everyone talking, though. A woman is attacked by The Serpent Society, who are driven off by a mystery savior. As soon as the snake-themed villains catch a glimpse of the hero’s face, they scarper off, and on the next page we see why: Secret Empire #2 ends with a bearded Steve Rogers proclaiming that he’s just trying to get home.
It’s unclear exactly what’s going on here, but based on the pages presented to us, it would appear that the “real” Captain America, who isn’t aligned with Hydra, has somehow returned. Not only that, he’s poised to throw a spanner in the works of the “fake” Captain America currently ruling the country with an iron fist.
It’s likely that when Marvel Comics issued its statement asking fans to be patient with the Secret Empire storyline that this particular moment was a turning point it hoped to highlight. Steve Rogers is back, apparently, and Marvel likely hopes that fans who had written of the storyline due to what Spencer had put the character through would give the series a fresh chance upon hearing that “the real Captain America” was back.
However, since the original “Hail Hydra” reveal last May, Marvel has sworn up and down that the Hydra-aligned Captain America was the real Captain America. In the first interview after the Hydra reveal, Spencer stated to Entertainment Weekly “This is not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.” The return of this new Captain America, who still may not be the “real” Cap, throws a lot of that up in the air but readers are definitely supposed to be making this conclusions and assumptions based on the final page to Secret Empire #2.
It’s likely that there’s a semantic get-out for how that is still true and yet Captain America could also be back. There’s precedent all over superhero comics for this exact situation, after all. It could be a split personality made physical deal like Superman Red and Superman Blue. It could be a weird time travel thing like how the whole “Teen Tony” situation in Avengers: The Crossing. HydraCap could be Ultimate Captain America, or maybe this Steve Rogers on the last page of Secret Empire #2 is Ultimate Captain America and the Hydra-aligned one is the “real” one. There are a million potential get-out clauses, but comic fans are proving not nearly as patient as Marvel wants them to be.
The Marvel Universe is still feeling the after effects of Secret Wars almost two years later, with Old Man Logan’s presence on the X-Men, the ongoing mystery in Jessica Jones and the recent arrival of Jimmy Hudson from the Ultimate Universe. There’s definitely a larger story at play regarding Marvel’s dimensional inconsistencies that could lead to a number of different explanations for the two Captains America; it could even bring in elements of Rick Remender’s Hail Hydra miniseries which was set in a Hydra dominated reality.
Throughout the last year of Captain America‘s Hydra storyline, there have been bluffs and fakeouts and misdirections, all of which are designed to keep fans guessing. Even the reveal of the use of the Cosmic Cube way back in Steve Rogers: Captain America #2 went against some of the earliest statements made about the reveal. There’s not enough information about this new Steve Rogers to know for certain that he’s the “real” Captain America, but if that’s the case, many fans may feel that they can’t trust Marvel at its word anymore.
To the issue’s credit, there is a lot to think about presented here, especially in the divide between Black Widow and Hawkeye which sees heroes draw a line and pick a side on a decision that’s instantly more captivating and compelling than either Civil War comics. The issue sets up a number of the tie-in miniseries and reintroduces the disgraced and dejected Sam Wilson to the fold, but for many fans it may be too little, too late.
Secret Empire #2 is certainly a turning point for the event and the overall Hydra storyline, but depending on how it is interpreted and where the story goes from here, it might not be the one Marvel wants it to be. The reveal in its final pages may grow an even wider divide among fans, and between critics of the story and Marvel itself, which must be hoping to catch a break at some point. Marvel Legacy is on the horizon and with Secret Empire’s accelerated publication schedule, the DC Rebirth-esque relaunch of Marvel’s brand will arrive soon enough. Until then, Secret Empire #2 does represent the return of some much-missed heroism to the Marvel Universe.