In the final pages of Captain America: Reborn #6, Steve Rogers, previously presumed dead—and recently returned from the mists of time—contemplates a possible future. In his vision, he watches with horror as tentacled airships descend upon a city smouldering and in ruins. He sees Bucky speared by alien tendrils, Odinson and Spider-Man defeated or dead. In the distance, in the midst of what looks like a Martian invasion, a lone figure strides forward, apparently raising a hammer to the sky and summoning lightning.
It is one of two possible futures. The other, sunnier version of what is to come, sees Steve spending a long life with Sharon Carter -- S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Agent 13 -- and raising children with her. Both of these of visions flashed before him as he was pulled back to the present by Arnim Zola, Doctor Doom and the Red Skull in the culmination of a storyline writer Ed Brubaker had begun several years earlier, at the end of Marvel’s Civil War.
Unstuck in Time
After turning himself in to Tony Stark’s pro-Registration forces, Steve Rogers was assassinated on the steps of a New York City courthouse (Civil War Epilogue–Captain America #25) by Sharon, who was under the control of Doctor Faustus at the time, and Crossbones, the mercenary boyfriend of the Red Skull’s daughter, Sin. The 18-part "Death of Captain America" story then showed the Red Skull, who was inhabiting the body of Russian oil magnate Aleksander Lukin at the time, crashing the U.S. economy and trying to manipulate the outcome of the 2008 presidential race. His goal was to put into office the populist right wing senator Gordon Wright, who was also under Faustus’ control. But his plans were foiled by Bucky Barnes, who had assumed the mantle of Captain America, as requested in Steve Rogers’ will.
Rogers hadn’t actually been killed, however. Sharon’s gun turned out to be a tachyon device that displaced Rogers in time, and her person was the “constant” that anchored Captain America to the present, ensuring his safe return... eventually. She was kidnapped and taken to Latveria to help bring back the Captain, thus paving the way for what the Skull assumed would be his final revenge.
As the drama unfolded in the present, Rogers jumped through his past, finding himself reliving random points in his life. The exhausted Avenger struggled not to close his eyes, lest his inaction or hesitation alter history. As he watched the climax of the Kree-Skrull War, he mused about seeing Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell, version) in action, and wondered about jumping forward in time to the warrior’s death. It was at this moment that Rogers took action in response to his predicament, giving the synthezoid Vision a message for the future, and ordering him to forget it until the appropriate time.
It was a tiny change, and Rogers gambled that the cybernetic message in a bottle wouldn’t affect the timeline. It was a calculated risk. Ever the dutiful soldier, who considered the wisdom of his superiors before taking action, Steve had discussed time travel with Doctor Erskine when he’d jumped back to the moment he was injected with the Super Soldier Serum that transformed him into Captain America. He’d mused about going back to before the start of the war, and assassinating Hitler. But the scientist had warned him that changing the past might alter the future. ‘And in this altered future, you or the ones you love may no longer exist,” he cautioned the young Rogers, “ It’s action and reaction, my boy… a ripple in time’s pond.”
These words clearly influenced Steve, who continued to relive the triumphs and horrors of his past as a ghost trapped in his own body. Rogers, who tried to remain a spectator, had a change of heart when it came to the moment that would define his and Bucky’s future. He tried to pull his partner off Baron Zemo’s aerial drone, thus preventing the chain events that would lead to Bucky being “turned into his own worst nightmare,” becoming the Winter Soldier. But doing so could also have altered his own future, thus preventing Steve from falling into the waters of the North Atlantic, to be unfrozen decades laters to eventually lead the Avengers.
But we never found out what happened. Just as he was about to change the past, Rogers was pulled back to the present, and as he sped his way back to Doctor Doom’s Latverian laboratory, he was pulled through competing futures, one bright, one dark. But neither of these visions seemed to belong to the main Marvel universe—until now.
The Birth of Secret Empire
Nick Spencer laid the foundations of Secret Empire during Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill . An aged Steve Rogers, who had been drained of the Super-Soldier Serum, had his youth and his powers restored by Kobik, a sentient Cosmic Cube who had once belonged to the Red Skull, and whose reality-bending powers had been put to service by S.H.I.E.L.D’s Maria Hill to create a secret prison for supervillains.
In the process of restoring Captain America to his full powers, Kobik also altered his history. Possessing the body and emotional intelligence of a four-year old girl, she wanted to make Steve the best possible version of himself, and in her juvenile mind, this meant echoing the beliefs of the Red Skull, the man who had nurtured her. To please him, she made Steve Rogers a double agent, who had always worked for Hydra.
But Spencer didn’t leave it at that. He went on to reveal that Kobik had merely helped Steve remember who he really was. It turned out that the Allies had lost World War II to Hydra, and in a last ditch effort to reverse their fortunes, they’d constructed a Cosmic Cube to change history.
All of this jibes with known Marvel continuity. The first known Cosmic Cube was created by A.I.M. in the 1960s, and made its first appearance in the pages of Tales of Suspense #79. Even at this earliest point in its history, the Cube was linked to the Red Skull, who hypnotized its keeper into delivering it to him, to be used as a weapon of conquest. But his ambitions were foiled by Captain America, who defeated him in a battle of wits by playing upon his vanity.
The Skull drowned, weighed down by the golden armor he’d conjured with the Cube, and the reality altering device was thought lost under the debris of his destroyed island base. Of course, villains don’t stay dead in comics, and the Red Skull returned, time and again, often using a Cosmic Cube to battle Rogers. The Skull even went as far as switching bodies with the hero at one point, leaving Rogers stranded on a tropical island while he paraded around Manhattan in the Captain’s uniform.
The central conceit of Secret Empire is that all of this has been rewritten, or at the very least that the underpinnings of this reality have changed. This is Earth 616, and this is its Captain America. The Steve Rogers who has always been loyal to Hydra, and who has staged a coup d’état is the real deal. While all of this may be true, what if the reason it all happened isn’t what we think?
What if the true origin of Secret Empire lies elsewhere, in the pages of Captain America: Reborn? Specifically, what if it was Steve Rogers himself who altered the timeline, and changed history when he was pulled back from limbo, thus creating the conditions that transformed him into Hydra Cap?
There are plenty of clues that suggest this may actually be the case.
The first clue that Steve may have created this new reality lies in his intentions. He could have interfered with the timeline at any point as he jumped through his life, thus saving any number of friends, colleagues, or even complete strangers. If he’d so desired, he could even have altered the outcome of the War, but he’d heeded the words of Doctor Erskine about unintended consequences. The thing that broke his resolve was the possibility that he could save Bucky from becoming a Soviet assassin.
In trying to prevent Bucky from becoming his own worst nightmare, could Steve have become the opposite of everything that he, himself, stood for? Was the price of Bucky’s salvation his own perdition? Also, was is more than a coincidence that he was plucked out of his existence at that very moment? Could it be that the only way to have brought him back was to extract him at such a nexus point where timelines diverge?
If this is the case, it might explain the two different futures he foresaw in Captain America: Reborn #4 and #6.
The darker of his two visions was an apparent Martian invasion. It could be that Captain America: Reborn was setting up a sequel to the 2006-2007 miniseries Wisdom, in which a version of the Martian invaders from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds from a parallel universe (Earth-691) tried to invade the the main Marvel universe.
But such a storyline never happened, and Secret Empire architect Nick Spencer may have seen this potential lapse in continuity as a launching point for his story. The Hydra airships we see preparing to obliterate Las Vegas in Secret Empire #1 bear more than a passing resemblance to the alien vessels in Rogers’ nightmare. Lacking a frame of reference for unfamiliar technology, could Cap have interpreted what he saw as something he knew? Perhaps a cultural touchstone of his youth?
The other element of his apocalyptic vision leaves little doubt, however. Steve does in fact see a shadowy figure, who is not Thor, striding through the rubble, picking up what appears to be a hammer, and summoning the lightning, as we saw at the conclusion of the Free Comic Book Day issue of Secret Empire. Even though his vision was set in Brooklyn instead of Washington, D.C., it is difficult to imagine that the similarity is mere coincidence.
Another clue that Rogers changed the timeline when we was sucked back to the present is the way he treats Sharon in Secret Empire. As Hydra troops board S.H.I.EL.D.’s command helicarrier in Issue #0, Steve asks Sharon to trust him. “Just know that—no matter what I do—I love you. That will always be true,” he proclaims. He then reveals himself to be the architect of the Hydra takeover.
In the next issue, we see he has made her prisoner, for her own good, but that he is still treating her like a lover, pouring her wine as he reads through the day’s presidential briefing. Despite holding her hostage, he tries to convince her that he is the real Steve Rogers, and that his feelings for her are real, but Sharon isn’t having any of it. Despite the atrocities he has already committed, and those he is about to, Steve feels the sting of her rebuke. He truly believes every word he says.
Could these be the words of a man clinging to the hope that the gentler of his two visions may still come to pass? Could someone as corrupt as Hydra Cap be so naive and needy?
Bucky’s reversal of fortune is yet another indication that Secret Empire has its roots in the fateful moment when Rogers is returned to the present. In the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers #16, Helmut Zemo kills Barnes by strapping him to an aerial drone like the one he boarded in World War II, and launching him to his death.
Rogers also orders the execution by firing squad of Rick Jones, who briefly donned Bucky’s costume and served a brief stint as his sidekick. The dream of saving Bucky is thus utterly quashed.
But the biggest clue that this new reality was created when Captain America was pulled back to the present is the existence of a second Steve Rogers.
At the conclusion of Secret Empire #2, we are shown a haggard version of Steve, bearded and dressed in torn fatigues. After fighting back members of the Serpent Society, and rescuing a woman they’d just attacked, he introduces himself as Rogers and tells us that he’s “just trying to get home.”
This second Steve appears to be wandering through an enchanted forest, and is clearly not Hydra Cap. But is he the real Steve? Or is he a figment of the real Steve’s imagination?
The “Forest Steve” sequences are drawn by Rod Reis, the same artist responsible for the Secret Empire #0 prologue that revealed the Allies to have altered history. It is drawn in the same style, thus suggesting that this second Steve may also be the result of the machinations of a Cosmic Cube. Not only that, the prologue shows Steve literally stepping into a rippling pool of time, to be unfrozen at a future point.
But what if this is a feint? What if this is a distraction from another prominent visual cue?
The Steve Rogers who tried to save Bucky in the pages of Captain America Reborn #4 was dressed in fatigues as he hurled himself at the departing drone. The Steve Rogers who was pulled into the present by Doom’s time machine was dressed in his Captain America uniform. If the Steve who came back saw two possible futures, could there also be two possible Steves?
While politics and technology have been at the centre of Secret Empire, another core element has also been very much in play: magic The military might of Hydra may be based on machinery, but its origin lies in the mystic. Elisa Sinclair, the woman who recruited the young Steve, and who is the current Madame Hydra is a witch. Former Falcon and Captain America Sam Wilson relied on magic to transport refugees from rural Montana to Canada in a New York City subway car (Captain America: Sam Wilson #23). Rogers was brought back to the present by a time machine designed by Doctor Doom, who combines magic and science in his creations. The second Steve could very well be an artefact or an after-effect created by the magical element of Doom’s invention. But who is this Steve?
Arguably, he is also 616 Steve Rogers, and like his unstuck counterpart who was rescued, he too is trying to find his way back. A confirmation of this may lie in the events of Secret Empire #3. The wounded woman he rescued from the Serpent Society dies, succumbing to poison in a pool of clear water. She bears a remarkable resemblance to Sharon. As she fades from this world, Steve flashes back to the death of his mother in a hospital bed, one of the first events he jumped to when he began his journey into his past during Captain America Reborn. Erskine’s words may be a portent here. Could this be a “ripple in time’s pond?” Is this the younger version of Sharon that ceased to exist because she followed Steve into Dimension Z, and aged decades as a result?
And what of the two men he encounters in Secret Empire #4? They, too, resemble people in his life: the recently killed James “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine -- friend and confidante to Tony Stark -- and Rick Jones, who was also a one-time sidekick of Bruce Banner’s Hulk and the original Captain Marvel. Although they could be manifestations of his guilt, what if they, too, exist in this magical realm because they ceased to be in 616 after Steve changed the timeline?
If “Forest Steve” is also the Steve of the main Marvel Universe, and he is stuck in magic rather in time, does he represent Hydra Cap’s salvation? And is he the nexus of the upcoming Vanishing Point that is set to reboot Marvel continuity? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a vanishing point as “a point at which receding parallel lines seem to meet when represented in linear perspective” or “a point at which something disappears or ceases to exist.” If there are in fact two versions of 616 Steve on the loose, for reality to move forward they must either converge, or one must cease to exist.
If any of this proves to be true, then the door is open for Steve Rogers’ redemption, and for the return of some major players to the 616 universe. If the “Enchanted Forest” is a refuge for those who died because Steve accidentally altered the timeline—and the “vanishing point” from which they return -- this may be how Tony, Bruce and Bucky (and we can't forget Mar-Vell!) find their way back to main Marvel Universe, in time for Generations and Legacy.