WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Captain America #1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan and Sunny Gho, on sale Wednesday, July 4.
What does it mean to be American? How can one continue to cherish freedom and chase the American Dream in a country that is being torn apart by strife and intolerance? These are the questions that Steve Rogers asks himself in Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Francis Yu’s Captain America #1. The answers he finds are disturbing, conclusions that would crush the soul of a lesser man, but do nothing to dampen Rogers’ desire to do the right thing. They also answer the central question of Secret Empire, the controversial event that seems all but forgotten in the pages of Marvel's comics: How did Hydra conquer the United States?
Here, Coates and Yu give us an unflinching look at post-Hydra America, and theirs is not a flattering portrait. Folks aren’t reaching across the aisle and shaking hands. Neighbours who previously fought one another are not pulling together to rebuild. In some ways, things are actually worse; Hydra “nostalgics” continue to cling to the racist ideology of the defeated terrorist organization, going out of their way to antagonize those who would reject their fascistic views. Despite the defeat of the Hydra junta, white supremacist violence remains a problem in the recovering America.
The opening issue of the rebooted title sees clones of Nuke -- the super soldier who first appeared in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil #232 -- open fire on both Hydra loyalists and antifa protesters in Washington D.C. The fracas recalls Secret Empire's climactic confrontation on the National Mall that saw the return of the original Steve Rogers to combat the version of the Hydra Cap version of himself. The Nukes have the Stars and Stripes painted on their faces, echoing Cap’s patriotic colors. Like Rogers, they are standard bearers, but they are also at cross purposes with the hero.
As the clones fire on their fellow citizens in the Capitol, they are in turn gunned down by Bucky, who plays sniper to Steve’s reluctant warrior. “I am a soldier who hates war,” muses Cap as he calls in helicopters equipped with StarkTech EMP rifles that offer a non-lethal alternative to Barnes’ bullets.
The flag-festooned gunmen shout empty slogans like, “Never forget our boys!” They call Rogers a traitor, and the Captain of Nothing. Confrontation is the name of the game, here. Their patriotism is based on brute force; America is only as great as it is strong. They are angry at Steve not because he betrayed the United States, but because Hydra Cap betrayed the military.
In response to their taunts, Rogers muses that he is loyal to nothing but the dream. This is another callout to Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Daredevil run and the introduction of the original Nuke. In issue #233, Captain America confronts an army general about the mysterious super soldier and is told that the information is classified. To placate Rogers, the general adds that the department holds him in its “highest regard” and has always valued his “commitment” and his “loyalty.”
Rogers replies, “I am loyal to nothing, General -- except the dream.” This is Captain America in a nutshell. Steve’s loyalty has never been to the military or the United States government, but to the idea of America itself. But, as we saw in Secret Empire, and continue to see in Coates and Yu’s Captain America, it is an idea that is in peril.