SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Secret Empire #3, on sale now.
Secret Empire #3 begins with a whisper, and ends with a bang. The whisper takes the form of the second Steve Rogers, whom we met on the last page of the previous issue. The bang is the Punisher, Frank Castle, who has once again chosen the side of Captain America, as he did in the first superhero Civil War.
Illustrated by Andrea Sorrentino with Rod Reis, the third chapter of the Nick Spencer-scripted Secret Empire is all about choices. When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, what happens to our heroes? Do they double down on the best versions of themselves, or do they become precisely what they’ve hated and fought against their entire lives? Do the ends justify the means when war breaks out? And what happens to ethics when liberty is at play?
Spencer’s answers offer little comfort, though there are glimmers of valor. Sam Wilson -- who has abandoned the shield and the title of Captain America -- is running an underground railroad, guiding mutants and Inhumans to safety in Canada. Having stepped away from his role as a hero, he is not fighting Hydra directly, nor is he helping his former partner. Instead, he is dealing with the consequences of the fascist takeover of the United States.
When Ant-Man, A.I. Tony Stark, Quicksilver and the former Avengers come to him seeking passage of their own out of the U.S., he initially refuses, though he reluctantly relents, provided they leave the country on his terms: refrain from using their powers, lest they attract attention and jeopardize his work. He also rejects their entreaty to join them in collecting the fragments of the Cosmic Cube that altered Steve's reality. As much as he’d like to join the quest to restore his former partner to his true self, Wilson rejects flight from the country in favor of staying behind to save whomever he can from the injustices being perpetrated by the government. The Falcon may be grounded, but Sam has returned to the social worker roots that informed his every act as a hero.
A.I. or not, Stark continues to be the master of misinformation. He tells Sam that his team of former Avengers is headed to Brazil to retrieve a fragment of the Cosmic Cube, when in fact he is off to confront the Pym/Ultron hybrid at an undisclosed location. What he doesn’t know is that Hydra has also discovered the hybrid’s location, and that Rogers and the remaining Avengers are also on their way to retrieve the fragment of the Cube. Once again, Tony and Steve, on opposite sides, are set to clash.
Things aren’t as clear-cut for Black Widow and Maria Hill, who meet in the kitchen of a wing joint in Newark. The restaurant is owned by Fred Myers, the former Boomerang, and a one-time henchman of the original Secret Empire. The enterprising thug, who has carved a niche for himself in the underworld outside the Darkforce shield that has encased New York, brokered the meeting, during which Hill delivers Captain America’s planned itinerary to Natasha. The end-game is clear: Natasha intends to assassinate Hydra Supreme.
Hill admits that she’s been forced to compromise her values to fight Hydra, but this isn’t exactly news. After all, this is the same woman who used Kobik to engineer the secret super villain prison at Pleasant Hill, thus precipitating the events that led to the overthrow of the American government. But her choice of words is sobering. When confronted about her alliance with Myers, Hill replies, “Why not? Organized crime and terrorist insurgencies actually have a long history of watching each other’s backs.”
The ensuing conversation reveals that Hill and her operatives staged an attack in St. Louis, which resulted in a mass of civilian casualties, but also took out four Hydra generals. She questions whether the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is merely a matter of optics. Hill introduces Natasha to the concept of an “Overton Window,” the notion that the range of viable solutions within a given political context shifts depending on the circumstances: what was once unthinkable or radical, may become acceptable. She then suggests that the two of them may be closer in their approaches than Natasha is willing to admit, then chides the Black Widow for training the Champions as child combatants.
The willingness of Natasha and Maria to risk everything fully illustrates their desperation. Other than his soft spot for Sharon, Steve Rogers is no longer hesitant to inflict maximum damage to advance his goals. Whereas he’d initially hesitated before executing Rick Jones and levelling Las Vegas, he has no qualms about torpedoing Atlantis to retrieve a fragment of the Cosmic Cube. However, his decision to assemble the Avengers who are still loyal to him -- whether through coercion or choice remains unclear -- and to lead the charge against Pym/Ultron himself, suggests that he may not be entirely confident in the abilities or motives of his confederates.
As Hydra Cap is scheming, the other Steve Rogers fails in his mission to bring to safety the woman he’d rescued from the Serpent Squad. Viper’s venom spread too quickly, her death triggering a flashback of Steve’s mother dying in a hospital bed (ostensibly of tuberculosis). Along with an initial flashback to his days in bootcamp, this vision suggests that this is indeed a version of Steve who has not been altered by Kobik. Having just awakened from an unspecified slumber, he also is an echo of the Avenger who was unfrozen and introduced to an unfamiliar world back in the 1960s.
The issue’s final, and in many ways biggest reveal belongs to the Punisher, who comes after Fred Myers, seeking information about Black Widow and Maria Hill. Crushing the mobster underfoot, he demands information. The closing splash page shows Frank Castle in his terrifying glory, echoing the words of his hero. “Hail Hydra,” he intones. He has incorporated the tentacles of the terrorist organization he serves into the iconic skull emblazoned on his chest.
Castle’s allegiance is both a testament to his admiration for Captain America, and a litmus test that shows how far Rogers’ moral compass has shifted. During the superhero Civil War, Frank Castle fought alongside Captain America. He saw Stark using super villains to help him enforce the Registration Act, so he sought to help Cap oppose it. But he went too far by murdering the villainous Goldbug and Plunderer, and was kicked out by the same man who now rules America with an iron fist.
Upon his dismissal, Rogers confronted Castle and called him a murderous piece of trash. Uncharacteristically, he took out his frustrations on the vigilante, and proceeded to pummel him. But the Punisher didn’t fight back against his hero, “Not against you,” he moaned as the Avenger beat him to pulp. But Rogers didn’t see things in the same light, and attributed Castle’s lack of resistance to insanity.
His willingness to now employ a man whom he considers an insane murderer shows just how far Rogers has fallen from grace, but his initiative in leading the Avengers to Pym/Ultron also suggests a potential road to redemption. In facing off against his former teammates, Steve must decide who he is, and what he stands for.