With two little words, writer Nick Spencer ignited a firestorm of controversy. The last page of his and artist Jesus Saiz’s “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #1 revealed that the flag-waving Avenger was an agent of Hydra, a revelation fans soon learned “had been true all along.” The character birthed in World War II by Jewish creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby was outed as Marvel Comics’ version of a neo-Nazi. The poster boy for patriotism — depicted as punching out Hitler on the cover of his first outing in 1941 — was working for a clone of his longtime nemesis, the Red Skull.
The backlash was instant and fierce. Death threats were issued on Twitter. Fans accused Spencer and Marvel of orchestrating a cheap publicity stunt. Some claimed their childhoods had been ruined (or something like that), while others asked readers to chill; this was, after all, a comic book, and a bizarre plot twist would explain away the revelation. These things are always reversed in the future. Right?
Fast forward to the more recent past, just a few weeks ago, where the last three pages of Spencer and artist Rod Reis’ “Civil War II: The Oath” show the United States under Hydra. The American flag morphs into the banner of the terrorist organization, we see Hydra-manned checkpoints, children saluting Hydra in schools, and humans and Skrulls in concentration camps. The final splash page shows the U.S. Capitol, its shattered dome in flames; in the foreground, row upon row of Hydra foot soldiers line up, their arms raised in salute.
How did we get here? And more importantly, can Spencer’s Steve Rogers be redeemed?
Readers didn’t have to wait very long for an explanation of Cap’s betrayal. Spencer and Saiz delivered an explanation with the next issue: Steve Rogers’ reality had been altered by Kobik, the same sentient cosmic cube used by S.H.I.E.L.D. director, Maria Hill, to create the Pleasant Hill prison for super villains. And that’s when things got really interesting.
Pleasant Hill was a disaster for S.H.I.E.L.D. A being of immense power composed of the fragments of numerous cosmic cubes, Kobik manifested itself as a little girl who sought to transform people into the best version of themselves. S.H.I.E.L.D. ran with her innocent notion, and used her ability to alter reality to create a prison on American soil where super villains were robbed of their memories, made to believe they were ordinary folks living normal lives in picturesque Small Town, CT.
Naturally, somebody found a way to counter Kobik’s programming, and all hell broke loose. Pleasant Hill turned out to be a ruse, the brainchild of the Red Skull designed as nothing more than a way of humiliating S.H.I.E.L.D. and gaining access to Rogers. Kobik had bonded with the clone Skull because one of the fragments composing her had belonged to the original Cube, which the Skull once help sway over. Consequently, she sees perfection in belonging to Hydra, and rewrote the Captain’s reality to reflect this.
In this altered reality, Steve Rogers’ mother was recruited into Hydra, and he was raised by the organization after she, and his father, were murdered by its members. But this isn’t the Hydra of old. The Hydra presented to Sarah Rogers in the late-’20s is a “small group,” and “a sort of civic league” combatting crime and poverty.
At first glance, Hydra appears progressive — however, it is anything but. As the new Skull explains in the present day, he doesn’t want soldiers, he wants believers. His Hydra is a white supremacist-filled nightmare filled with racist thugs and disaffected workers who blame immigrants and big government for their economic woes.
Spencer’s writing hinted at this new Hydra in “Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega” #1, the bookend to that event, then fully deployed the retooled organization in the debut issue of his Steve Rogers title over two storylines separated by 90 years. The recruitment of Sarah Rogers in the years leading up to the Great Depression, is paralleled in the present with the story of Robbie Dean Tomlin, a ne’er-do-well who fell into a life of crime and addiction, and who finds an answer to his pain in the anti-immigrant rantings of the Red Skull.
Things don’t end well for Robbie, who blows himself up in a highjacked train. Refusing to surrender to Captain America, he detonates the bomb strapped to his chest before reaching Penn Station, his intended destination. His act of domestic terrorism has little to do with the colorful, costumed foot soldiers of Hydra past, and echoes the atrocities of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof. But Spencer doesn’t play him as a deplorable; instead, he humanizes Robbie, drawing a through line from the depths of his despair to his descent into depravity.
Stepping back into the present, Tomlin’s suicide is a distant memory and Spencer is now spinning out his Hydra Cap storyline into Marvel’s next event, “Secret Empire.”
The hero known as Jack Flag is dead, having finally succumbed to his injuries after Rogers, in an effort to maintain his Hydra cover, threw the sidekick from an airplane. Rogers seems to be aware that the world he inhabits is different from the one he grew up in, but scoffs at the thought that Kobik has altered his reality. And his allegiance to Hydra is about to be revealed to the world.
Rogers has also survived another superhero civil war, during which a young Inhuman named Ulysses gave him a glimpse of his future. Part of his vision was also seen by his fellow Avengers: an image of Miles Morales, the younger of the current Spider-Men, standing over Rogers’ body, apparently having just killed the Captain. But the vision’s entirety is known only to Steve, and he shares it with a comatose Tony Stark at the end of Spencer’s “Civil War II: The Oath”
Despite the unfurling of these horrific images, the blowback to Spencer’s “Secret Empire” prelude was practically non-existent. Perhaps readers have succumbed to event fatigue, as some have suggested. After all, “Civil War II” was concluding as “Monsters Unleashed” was gearing up, and there was that whole “Clone Conspiracy” going on in the Spider-Verse titles. The story lines in Spencer’s “Captain America” series are expanding into other titles in the build up to “Secret Empire,” though, so perhaps they’re hitting too close to home, and readers are stunned.
In the real world, America has a brand new president in the person of Donald J. Trump. In the first few weeks of his chaotic reign, 45 — as he is called by those who refuse to say his name — has assembled a cabinet of billionaires, instigated a wildly contested and quickly repealed immigration ban, and lost his national security advisor to allegations of improper communications with Russian intelligence agents. His chief of staff, Steve Bannon, once told the Hollywood Reporter that “darkness is good,” further elaborating, “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”
At a time when real-life white supremacists are coming out of the woodwork to threaten synagogues and mosques; as citizens are taking to the streets and social media in protest; while the president holds hour-long press conferences ranting about fake news while citing made-up “facts,” complaining about the “failing” New York Times, and declaring what an excellent job he’s doing, all while when talk of impeachment hangs in the air and a steady stream of new revelations threaten to derail the presidency, do we really need a Hydra loyalist Cap?
Isn’t this a job for the uncomplicated, unwavering, straight-as-an-arrow Captain America, who knows good from evil, and right from wrong? Well, no. I’d argue that is Spencer’s dark take on a compromised Steve Rogers the perfect metaphor for our troubled times.
At his core, Spencer’s Steve Rogers appears to be a good man. He is the same Captain America we’ve known for the past 75 years, and he wants what’s best for America and for the world. But his vision is violent and toxic. It’s not even his, actually; completely distorted by Kobik, Rogers’ reality is shared by precious few individuals — we know for sure that Dr. Selvig’s past has been altered — who are hellbent on carnage, and imposing their view on everyone else.
At a time when fake news and Facebook bubbles are making headlines, a Steve Rogers who lives in his own alternate reality is the perfect metaphor for the technologies and the ideologies that are dividing America. Spencer is asking us to sympathize with a follower of one of the vilest groups in the Marvel Universe because we recognize his core of goodness. He is asking us to believe in somebody who has embraced a repellent worldview, the opposite of what we believe to be good.
More importantly, Spencer is asking Rogers to make that journey, to peer into his own heart, to recognize what is good in himself, and to reject delusion. And isn’t this soul searching precisely what we should be doing with all of our beliefs, positive and negative? No matter which side of the political divide we fall upon, is it not incumbent on all of us to look at the ideas that we cherish, and to see whether or not they correspond to reality? When our social media feeds prevent us from seeing what the other side sees, from questioning truths that we believe to be self-evident, do we not need to ask whether we are being deceived and whether our biases are leading us astray?
More importantly, is the way that we see others distorted by our biases? And do we then reduce those who think differently to the status of “deplorables?” If we are willing to give Captain America, a fictional character, the benefit of the doubt; if we are able to accept that he is more than a caricature, and that he has retained a core of goodness despite the distortion of his reality, can we not extend a similar courtesy to our neighbors, and perhaps find allies?
But there is more to the heartbreak of Rogers’ fall from grace. The cause of his descent into Hydra servitude is not a deep personal failure; it originates in the ethical lapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Maria Hill.
When presented with the reality-altering powers of Kobik, Hill went to the dark side. She rejected rehabilitation and humane incarceration in favour of a secret project that condemned prisoners to a form of psychic oblivion. Housed in a secret facility on U.S. soil, super villains were not only disappeared, but also stripped of their very identities. Their memories were replaced with alternate pasts that bore no resemblance to their actual lives. Not knowing that they were incarcerated, the “citizens” of Pleasant Hill had no awareness that they had rights, let alone that they’d been stripped of them.
This metaphorical Guantanamo was a corruption of the values of S.H.I.E.L.D. A stopgap solution that Hill accepted to stem the tide of supervillainy, it couldn’t fail to draw the ire of Steve Rogers, and ultimately that was the plan. It was not Doctor Selvig who concocted the scheme but the Red Skull himself.
Upon discovering that Kobik had altered Selvig to make him believe he’d been working for Hydra instead of S.H.I.E.L.D, the clone Skull set a plan into motion. The goal of Pleasant Hill was to draw Rogers into the orbit of Kobik so she could manipulate him into believing he was actually everything he’d ever stood against — namely, an agent of Hydra.
Like suicide bomber Robbie Dean Tomlin, Steve Rogers was manipulated into doing the bidding of Hydra. He was led to believe that a tragic life left him with a single option: embracing the beliefs of the organization, and advancing its agenda.
Even though he questions the authenticity of his allegiance, and indeed of his life, Rogers stays the course. He goes as far as to use about his condition before a captive Baron Zemo, whom he believes to be a childhood friend. “You probably think I’m insane. Or brainwashed. Or maybe you just think the Cosmic Cube changed me, that I’m the aberration, and not—all of this…”
Despite having lived through Pleasant Hill, and possessing data suggesting that he is being led astray, Rogers has chosen to believe in Hydra—even if he is deceiving the Red Skull. Kobik, who can alter reality and teleport across the universe in a nanosecond, also believes in Hydra. If two such traumatized super beings are susceptible to the thrall of its white supremacist banner, what chance does someone like Tomlin have?
As Spencer spins his run into “Secret Empire,” and the Captain’s Hydra connection is revealed to the world, what fate awaits Steve Rogers? Will his vision of an America in flames come to pass? Will he be killed by Miles Morales and, like Tomlin, welcome death because he no longer has a home? Or will he fight his programming, to rise again as the Steve Rogers we all know and admire?
We all know how we want this story to end. We want the best for the Captain and for America itself. We want an end to hatred and intolerance. We want to believe in hope, not in fear. We understand that we don’t have to make America great again because it still is—but we have to make it better. And it all starts with recognizing who the real enemies are.
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