It's always darkest before the dawn, and things get very dark indeed in Secret Empire #5. At the halfway mark of Marvel’s summer event, writer Nick Spencer ramps up the tension and asks more questions than he answers. There is a lot of set-up and plenty of story in this oversized issue, which features three cliffhangers instead of the usual one.
With so much to unpack, readers can be forgiven for thinking they may need a roadmap, but the intertwined narratives that comprise this midpoint entry propel the story of Hydra Cap’s takeover into exciting and unexpected directions, while illuminating some of the event's ongoing mysteries.
This Old Man
All is not well in Steve Rogers’ America, and Hydra is not the big happy family Elisa Sinclair would have her protégé believe. Secret Empire #5 begins with the revelation that Viper has been dealing drugs on the side. Catching her in the act, Natasha blackmails the villain into providing a Hydra transport for her teenage cohorts and their passenger, a feeble old man they are transporting out of a tightly-guarded facility in Washington, D.C.
It is someone who will help win the war against Hydra, we are told at the conclusion of this prologue, but we are left guessing who it is. Is this the aged Steve Rogers? Did Kobik create another version of him when she gave him back his youth, leaving the de-powered version at the mercy of Hydracap? Or is this a version of Bucky who never climbed aboard Zemo’s drone in World War II, thus growing old instead of becoming the Winter Soldier? Or, in a really out there theory, could it be Captain Mar-vell's reintroduction to Marvel continuity, just in time for his Generations one-shot?
Spencer leaves readers hanging as he moves on to other stories, but the prologue provides a glimmer of hope, even as the rest of the issue shows things growing incredibly bleak for our heroes.
Tony Stark Lied... Again
A good chunk of the issue's narrative revolves around A.I. Tony leading a group of resistance members across the planet, as they attempt to beat Steve to fragments of Kobik, the sentient Cosmic Cube that altered reality, and which is central to the success of Hydra Cap’s nefarious plans.
The group succeeds at capturing two of the precious pieces, but the others elude them. It also turns out that Tony’s detection device was a feint, and that there’s no way to track the fragments. He was merely taking his cohorts to locations where he suspected the cubes to be, based on intelligence Rick Jones transmitted before his death. As his deception is revealed upon the group’s return to the Mount, the traitor in its midst signals Captain America, and Hydra airships descend on the secret base.
In a sequence that leaves readers wondering just how much power Rogers really has, Captain America meets with mutant ambassador Hank McCoy in the shadow of the Washington Monument near the Capitol. He hints that the mutants have a fragment of the Cosmic Cube and that he’d like it back, threatening to bring the full brunt of Mjolnir to bear against New Tian, explaining that he leaves Thor’s hammer out in the open as a reminder that he was worthy of wielding its powers once, and is willing to do so again.
“There are other reasons to keep the hammer resting here,” Rogers cautions McCoy. “When kings mounted their swords above their thrones, it wasn't to make everyone who came before them thing they’d use them. It was to remind them that they once did.” Rogers then walks over to Mjolnir and crouches before the weapon. He reaches out but does not pick it up.
Could it be that he can’t because he is no longer worthy? Or perhaps there was a morality inversion spell involved when he raised it battle? Another equally chilling possibility is that Steve is very much aware of his own temper and insecurities. As we saw in Captain America: Steve Rogers #18, Hydra Supreme is easily provoked and responds by lashing out at those who challenge him. A tantrum with Mjolnir in hand is a terrifying possibility, and one a calmer Rogers would likely want to avoid.
Another revelation here is that this Mjolnir belongs to our universe, and is the one wielded by the current Thor, Jane Foster, who is being held prisoner by Hydra, and being used as leverage against Odinson. In a poignant sequence, we see Unworthy Thor kneeling in prayer, hands upon his battle axe, begging his father for wisdom. He senses the lie that Hydra can “save Jane Foster from the purgatory where she now resides” and restore Midgard’s connection to Asgard. But he is full of doubt, not only about his own unworthiness, but about the terrible mission he is about to undertake.
As for Jane Foster, readers of her series know it is Mjolnir that has halted the progress of her mortal form's cancer. In its absence, she is surely in deadly peril, possibly hastening her towards the events teased in Marvel's recently released Legacy cover showcasing the imminent arrival of a "Death of Thor" storyline. Again, with Generations spinning directly out of Secret Empire, we may be seeing the basis of the two hammer-wielding heroes' one-shot storyline being laid out.
Another clue that Rogers may not be as powerful as he seems resides in the fate of the Vision and Scarlet Witch. His hold on the former Avengers is strong, but not absolute. Wanda is possessed by the elder god Chthon, but his control only runs so far, and he can only harness a portion of her power.
The Vision, who is infected by an A.I. virus created by Arnim Zola, is also mostly under control, but occasionally tries to resist. Hooked into an aparatus that feeds the infection and keeps him prisoner, we see him trying to get a message to his daughter Viv, and Tony Stark.
Despite these “hiccups,” Madame Hydra assures Steve that, like Odinson, the pair will be ready for the assault on the Mount. But Steve has another ace up his sleeve, as the issue closes he asks Armin Zola to go check on their secret weapon.
Enchanted Forest Cap also makes an appearance, and Spencer continues to muddy the waters, specifically about his traveling companions through the woods. At the beginning of the issue, we see him fishing with them, and reminiscing about “the bonds of friendship” and “of brotherhood.” This lends some credence to the notion that the unnamed travellers accompanying Steve are Sam Rogers and Bucky Barnes.
However, the competing theory that his Vanishing Point companions may be the recently deceased Rick Jones and James “Rhodey” Rhodes is bolstered by the appearance of another character who was recently killed as a result of Steve’s transgressions as Hydra Cap.
As the trio makes its way through the woods, they discover fresh tracks, and are immediately ambushed. One of Steve’s companions is ensnared in a net. The other takes a tranquilizer dart in the neck. Steve is clubbed in the back of the head and begs his assailant for mercy. But his attacker strikes a conciliatory tone, and offers hope to the terrified, kneeling Steve.
“There is no need to be afraid, old friend.” he says as he steps out of the shadows. “After all, I am your salvation, don’t you see.”
A glorious full page panel reveals the aggressor to be Rogers’s a battered and bloodied, club-wielding incarnation of his nemesis, the Red Skull.
One More Thing...
In any other comic, this would have been the final reveal, but Spencer has one more shocker in store for us. As Hydra bombards the Mount, Captain America and Armin Zola make their way to their secret weapon. They pause before a massive doorway, and Zola assures Hydra Supreme that the person behind the hatch is awake and cogent, but disoriented. He also warns that “the procedure is only temporary” and that the subject’s condition will degrade quite quickly.
“I only need him for a short time,” says Rogers as he steps through the entrance to greet his old friend, Bruce Banner. Could this, along with the old man seen in the issue's prologue, be a fresh clue as to how the upcoming Generations one-shots will work? The solicitations and other information for Generations indicate some sort of time-travel trickery, but could there be more at play? Though vague, Marvel has teased that the events in Secret Empire would lead directly into the Generations team-ups, so it's entirely possible we're seeing the seeds being planted right here.
There is so much darkness in Secret Empire #5, but there are cracks in Steve Rogers’ and Hydra’s armor. The light is starting to shine through, but the dawn is a long way off.