SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Captain America: Sam Wilson #22 and Secret Empire #3, on sale now.
Captain America: Sam Wilson #22 reveals what happened after Sam walked away from the shield and the title bestowed up him by Steve Rogers. The story begins with a question: “Where were you… when history was made… when it all went wrong?” The issue retells the Hydra takeover of America from a bird’s eye view. Following the death of Elwin Haliday, aka Rage, Wilson seeks out solitude. Camped out under the desert skies of the American Southwest, he witnesses the violence secondhand via his telepathic link to Red Wing, the falcon to whom he was psychically bonded by the Red Skull’s manipulation of a Cosmic Cube.
Illustrated by Sean Izaakse and coloured by Nolan Woodard, Captain America: Sam Wilson #22 takes a decidedly different tonal and thematic and approach to the storyline that it ties in to. Whereas Secret Empire #3 is all about heroes compromising their ethics to fight Steve Rogers and Hydra, Nick Spencer has here written a story about Wilson staying true to his beliefs by accepting defeat. But there is light in his surrender, and giving in does not mean giving up.
Upon his return from the wilderness, Sam finds a world turned upside down. He is shocked by the open displays of bigotry, and the casual acceptance of the new fascist order. Reality hits him hard as he debates a man who would gladly build Hydra warships at a nearby factory that is under construction rather than remain at his dead-end restaurant job. Economics trump idealism.
Sam is further tested when he exits the diner to find a group of four men bearing down on a woman of colour and her Inhuman daughter. They tell her that they “don’t let unregistered freaks run loose” in their town anymore, and threaten to turn her and the child in to the Hydra Observation Committee. As she screams for help, Wilson takes action. Using the lid of a garbage pail as an impromptu shield, he takes on her attackers, and sends them scattering.
A glorious splash page shows Sam glaring at the retreating thugs. Bathed in the rays of the sun, with Redwing descending from the skies, and the grateful mother and daughter beaming behind him, Wilson stands tall, brandishing the tin garbage pail lid that might as well have been made of vibranium. It is obvious that the uniform does not make the man.
Despite his reluctance, Sam Wilson cannot escape the title he was given. The woman he’s rescued takes him to task. She recognizes him, and begs for his help to get her daughter to safety. “If Captain America won’t help us,” she cries, “Who will?” This is the turning point for Sam, who realizes he must not only help the two of them, but also others like her, who have been targeted by Hydra for internment and deportation.
With the help of Misty Knight and Dennis Dunphy, Wilson sets up a new hotline on the deep web, creating the 21st-century underground railroad to smuggle people to freedom and safety in Canada that we saw in the pages of Secret Empire-proper. A nine-panel page shows some of those who have sought him out, their faces a powerful testament to the destructive power of bigotry.
But it’s not just ordinary folks who come calling, as the issue concludes with a handful of former Avengers showing up, threatening to drag Sam into the wider conflict. We see how this plays out in Secret Empire #3, but in the pages of Captain America: Sam Wilson #3, it is clear that Sam has rejected superheroes and superheroics, and that his rejection is rooted in a sense of betrayal.
As he sits in the diner, watching coverage of the Hydra takeover, Sam is reduced to tears. It isn’t the thought of the Hydra Flag flying in front of the Capitol Building, or the sight of Americops helping to enforce martial law, that guts him. He his crushed by the notion that the whole thing was engineered by his best friend, and the man most looked up to, Steve Rogers.
As he watches in horror, we see a reflection of the television image in Sam’s teary eye. Captain America framed by lightning, holds up Mjolnir in triumph. It looks like Rogers is encased in a glowing Cosmic Cube. Sam can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. He doesn’t know what to think. But this visual clue suggests that, in his heart of hearts, Wilson knows that his hero and mentor has somehow been corrupted, and isn’t who he appears to be. But as we also see, Sam knows exactly what Steve — not HydraCap — would have wanted him to do.