Captain America is a tricky character to distill. This is, by and large, a part of his design. He’s unlike his fellow golden age holdovers in that the structure that makes up his core value set is inherently transformative. He’s a guy who, quite literally, was created to represent a subjective concept, something that resists definition -- an ideal that will always be changing and evolving from person to person over time.
So it’s really no surprise, then, that Cap’s plots tend to rely on confronting that malleability head on -- after all, supervillains and the threat of planetary destruction are really nothing compared to the anxiety caused by uncertainty.
The story of Steve Rogers is caught in a cycle of perpetual identity crisis -- imposters, pretenders, corrupters, fakes. These plots can be brought to life with the camp and costumed flair of big, bombastic villains or played straight as cloak-and-dagger political thrillers but they all boil down to the same fundamental idea: the scariest thing that can happen to Captain America is not a deathtrap or a cataclysm or a war, but Steve Rogers losing his way.
In fact, the single most recurring theme in Captain America stories, more than any one member of a rogues gallery, more than any doomsday plot, is Steve being set at odds against himself. These selves can be anything from Skrulls to robotic LMDs, from crazed fans trying to replace him to clones spun up by scientists to usurp him, from smear campaigns launched by secret societies to -- well, you get the idea. Master Man, Anti-Cap, William Burnside, Nuke, giant robotic Captain America, alien shape shifting overlord Captain America, Captain America infected by Nightmare, the list goes on and on and on.
It boils down to this: if Captain America is somehow corrupted, we lose our anchor to the entirely esoteric, inherently transformative “American Dream” he represents. And without the static point of Steve Rogers acting as a lightning rod for these ideals on the page, what happens to them?
It’s an unanswerable question, and as such, proves an all but bottomless well to be tapped for story arcs again and again.
Marvel’s recent Secret Empire event was an attempt to add a new chapter to this never ending story -- and on paper? It seemed primed to do just that. The ingredients were there: a cosmic cube, a corrupted identity, a Steve Rogers who was no longer Steve Rogers, a perverted version of “The Dream,” but in execution? Well, that’s where things get complicated.