SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for "Captain America: Steve Rogers" #15 and "Uncanny Avengers" #22, in stores now.
It’s been a long, long road for Steve Rogers leading up to Marvel’s incoming “Secret Empire” event. Since he revealed the hero to be an agent of Hydra on the last page of “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #1, writer Nick Spencer has been setting up the World War II super-soldier to betray everyone and everything he has ever known. While the latest issue of the series (#15, illustrated by Javier Pina) continues to set up the takeover of the United States by Hydra, its final reveal may have repercussions beyond Marvel’s big summer event.
First, some additional background; "Captain America: Steve Rogers” #15 builds on the events of “Uncanny Avengers” #22. The Unity Squad (comprising X-men, Avengers and Inhumans, and formerly commanded by Rogers) captures the Red Skull and surgically removes the portion of Professor X’s brain he’d grafted onto his own, thus eliminating the telepathic powers that had allowed him to manipulate the team into doing his bidding.
After the successful completion of the surgery, Rogers arrives to take the Skull into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. He also demands, under threat of force, that Rogue remit to him the portion of Xavier’s brain that Beast had extracted, labeling it a weapon of mass destruction, but the former X-man refuses to comply. Shattering a wall, and flying free, Rogue calls for the Human Torch to follow her into the sky where, with a bolt of fire from Johnny Storm, Rogue “sends her mentor home,” cremating the last of his remains.
Rogers’ threat of force suggests that the remaining tissue from Xavier’s brain may have still be viable and therefore of use to him. Has Rogue foiled his plans? Also, as Charles’ ashes are scattered in the sky over Manhattan, the particles drift past her face. Is the tissue completely charred at this point, or did any living fragments survive, thus imbuing Rogue with Xavier's powers?
The "Final" Fate of...
Despite his failure to procure the remains of Xavier’s brain, Steve retrieves the Red Skull and remands him into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, but as we see at the beginning of “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #15, he never intended for Schmidt to remain in prison. Rather, he arranged for the villain’s daughter, Sin, to free him and take him back to his German estate for a final encounter.
There, Spencer and Pina mix a flashback with current events, as we see the Rogers of the past chided by the Skull, while the Rogers of the present essentially snaps, grabbing the Hydra leader by the collar and sending him hurtling through a window to his death. “I am loyal to nothing, Skull—except the dream.”
As this is happening, Sharon Carter -- unaware of the Skull’s predicament, and not knowing Rogers’ wheareabouts -- disobeys the orders of the World Security Council, and prepares to take on Hydra in Sokovia.
In a final flashback, Elisa Sinclair reveals that she made a deal with the Skull to save Hydra. As a betrayed Steve prepares to walk away from her and the organization, she keeps him from leaving by revealing that the Allies are developing a most terrible weapon - the first Cosmic Cube.
So - What Does This All Mean?
In killing the Skull, Steve Rogers may have taken on an enemy even greater than S.H.I.E.L.D., and opened up the possibility of further alterations to the fabric of the entire Marvel universe. It was Schmidt’s vision of Hydra that seduced Kobik into altering Captain America’s past, after all, making him an ally of his greatest enemy. But as we have seen in the build-up to “Secret Empire,” most notably in the latest issue of "Thunderbolts," elements of Rogers’ altered reality have begun to seep into everyone else’s. This begs the question: How will these alterations to the current timeline play out once the sentient Cosmic Cube discovers that Rogers has murdered the person who provided her raison d’être? Will she turn on the Captain and Hydra, or will she turn on all of humanity?
The final delicious splash page in “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #15 not only reveals the Allies’ secret weapon, it alters a crucial event in Marvel history: Now, the first Cosmic Cube was not invented by A.I.M in the 1960s, but 20-some years earlier at the conclusion of World War II.
Is this one of Steve’s altered memories? Or is Kobik re-writing her own origin in the “real” world? And what are the repercussions if the latter is true? How does that alter the stakes of the confrontation that’s about to erupt as Sharon Carter takes S.H.I.E.L.D. into battle against Hydra, not knowing that her beau is about to betray her and his every ally?
More importantly, what happens now that of one of the pillars of Marvel continuity seems to have been rewritten?
Originally introduced in the pages pages of “Tales of Suspense” in 1966, the Cosmic Cube was a MacGuffin created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee to introduce the Super-Adaptoid, an android capable of absorbing and mimicking the powers of its adversaries. A product of the renegade scientists of A.I.M. the Cosmic Cube was capable of transforming wishes into reality, despite the consequences. As it turned out, the folks at A.I.M. hadn’t created something so much as they'd harnessed a cosmic energy as dozens of alien species had done before. It wasn't the last cone, either; since then, various Cosmic Cubes have been used to trigger some of Marvel’s most fondly remembered storylines.
One of the most entertaining elements of Spencer’s Hydra Cap story has been his last page reversals. In the tradition of the best serial story telling, Spencer has been keeping readers guessing since that initial “Hail Hydra” in “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #1. Which leads us to wonder, while this latest twist obviously lays the ground work for "Secret Empire," does it also set up the world beyond Marvel’s next event? Is it a setup for the return of long-dead heroes in the “Generations” event that will follow “Secret Empire?”
Marvel editor-in-chief, Axel Alonso, recently explained that “Generations” does not take place in an alternate reality, and is not a time-travel rewrite. “These stories do happen,” he said, “they really count.” If Kobik has in fact altered reality thus rewriting Marvel continuity, this may well play out in this series of one-shots that follows “Secret Empire.”
With the current clone Skull dead, and a retooled origin for the first human-created Cosmic Cube, will we see the return of the original World War II Red Skull, alongside a redeemed Steve Rogers (who is shown in his classic garb in Alex Ross’s “Generations” teaser image)? Will Kobik’s intervention result in some kind of “rebirth” within the Marvel Universe? It’s a lot to imagine, and we may well be looking down the wrong storytelling path, but that’s all right. After all, the best thing about Nick Spencer’s Captain America runs has been guessing how far he’ll take things -- and then being pleasantly surprised when we've gotten it wrong.