SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains potential spoilers for Secret Empire #5, on sale Wednesday, June 28.
CBR's exclusive preview of next week’s Secret Empire #5 has gone live, and it brings with it no shortage of brand new mysteries to pull apart. Not only does Black Widow’s plan to assassinate the Hydra-aligned Steve Rogers apparently involve recruiting the former Madame Hydra herself, Viper, by a high stakes blackmail gambit, it’s also heavily reliant on a rescue mission.
As Natasha lays it all on the table for Viper, the Champions stage a covert assault against a secluded Hydra facility, somewhere in the wilderness. Their target is, Natasha assures her young recruits, someone who can “win them the war.”
It’s also apparently a very old, very bedridden man.
Which begs the question: just who is this mysterious secret weapon? And what makes him so important?
Well, we’ve got a few guesses.
You’d be hard pressed to find another character in the Captain America mythology with a weirder history. The former leader of S.H.I.E.L.D has basically been all over the board: brainwashed, replaced, both the manipulator and the manipulated, cloned, used to craft LMDs -- you name it.
As a veritable Swiss Army Knife of wacky comic book continuity, Nick Fury’s involvement in shady black-ops style plots is basically always on the table -- and we haven’t seen much from him since his major starring role in the Original Sin event, which left him a cosmically powered entity, taking on the name of The Unseen and stepping in for the murdered Watcher.
How The Unseen was affected by Kobik’s reality manipulating -- or if he was even affected at all -- remains an untold story. And there’s always the possibility that if this old man really is Nick Fury, it might just be a Nick Fury, and not the one who is currently believed to be cosmically powered.
Natasha’s intentions with the old man are pretty unclear, but if she’s looking for someone to act as a symbol -- a rallying point -- for the resistance, then who says she needs the genuine article? A version, any version, of someone as well known in the intelligence community as Nick Fury could be a huge get.
That’s right -- there’s the chance that we might be getting a third Steve Rogers in the arena.
Immediately prior to his cosmic mind-bending, Steve spent some time actually looking his age thanks to a removal of the super soldier serum from his bloodstream. This removal came hot on the heels of Steve being stuck in a pocket dimension for some time -- it’s a long story -- that basically resulted in him experiencing the flow of time differently than the outside world.
The point being? There’s a lot of time-and-age adjacent craziness in the very, very recent past for Steve -- and that’s not even including the Cosmic Cube interference.
Grabbing a Steve that could be shown to the public as “real” against HydraSteve would clearly be a huge game changer for the resistance heroes -- but it would also spell out some pretty big tells for the future of Secret Empire as an event, both narratively and tonally. Is there room on the board for three separate versions of the same character to exist simultaneously?
And what would the reveal that this old man is the “real” Steve Rogers mean for the second Steve Rogers, currently fighting his way through a strange, dream-like forest along side his unnamed friends?
Maybe the most out of left field possibility on is if the old man turns out to be Cap’s original sidekick, Bucky Barnes.
Now, before you object, we've got it covered. Yes, the old man in the bed is a) very old, and b) clearly in possession of both arms. And yes, the last time we saw Bucky he was a.) maybe in his early 30s at best, and b.) definitely still rocking the trademark Winter Soldier metal prosthetic -- but hang on.
Bucky’s status quo since the start of Secret Empire has been... well, tenuous at best. The final two issues of Thunderbolts coupled with the “Opening Salvo” Secret Empire prelude left him waist-deep in a swamp of Cosmic Cube-related insanity.
And then it “killed” him.
It was confusing, it was rapid fire, and it was all done by a very, very emotionally unstable Kobik throwing a temper tantrum. Bucky was sent back to World War II, nearly killed, shouted at by Kobik -- resulting in reality itself “shattering” around him -- and then killed again, this time potentially for keeps by a giant explosion care of Baron Zemo.
If you’re scratching your head at that sequence of events, you wouldn’t be the only one. We haven’t seen hide nor hair from Bucky since that “Opening Salvo” bombshell -- which also means we haven’t seen a body.
Is it possible that Kobik’s temper tantrum resulted in some major changes to Bucky’s own timeline? Could Zemo have found some new “version” of him among the wreckage of the explosion and brought him into Hydra custody?
...And if he did, what does that mean for Bucky’s immediate future? And if he’s the key to winning Black Widow’s war, what, exactly, is her plan for him? We'll find out at least part of the mystery when Secret Empire #5 arrives in stores on June 28.