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.
MICRO VS MACRO
Secret Empire’s first misstep has everything to do with the scale of the story. One of the most consistent traits to be found in the Steve Rogers brand identity crises plots of days gone by is their tightly knit, extremely zoomed in perspectives. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories are relegated to solo Captain America titles, or that there aren’t lasting and visible consequences for the Marvel Universe at large, but that the legwork of the arc — and the primary focus of the problem — is played close to Steve’s proverbial vest.
When stripped of any potential megalomaniacal or super-villainous frill, these stories are small, and take time to really boil down the complexity of one man learning how to articulate exactly what he alone stands for. Sure, it might involve punching some bad guys and some major explosions, but that’s all working as set decoration; a vehicle for spectacle that’s otherwise not saying much. The real end goal of these stories isn’t to tell a Michael Bay flavored blockbuster of a crippled, devastated country. The goal is to move closer to the horizon — the ever shifting goalpost of really solidifying the quicksand set beneath Steve Rogers’ constantly evolving foundation.
These stories accomplish this goal by keeping the bulk of the narrative glued to the struggle occurring in Steve’s head (sometimes literally,) rather zooming out to see what his crisis of consciousness might mean for the world around him.
This also keeps the drama from getting lost in the proverbial weeds. Too frequently, when dealing with a hero with as esoteric an engine as “the literal embodiment of The American Dream,” there is a tendency to drown personality with platitudes that limit a reader’s ability to empathize, and that lack of empathy invites a level of cynicism and questioning that chips away at the role of a hero like Captain America all together. What is “the Dream” anyway? And why should we even care to define it? What does it matter? What difference does it make if someone else steps in as Captain America when Steve Rogers is failing? Why does Steve Rogers even matter?
But by telling a small scale story about how the identity and definition of “the Dream” effects Steve specifically, rather than a large scale epic about how the identity and definition of “the Dream” affects the country as a whole, those questions are asked and answered. The weight of the narrative is put on one central pillar, rather than spread across the faceless masses of an entire population. We should care about “the Dream” because we care about Steve as an individual, and our ability to care about Steve as an individual matters because of what that impulse, conversely, says about “the Dream.”
This wasn’t the case with Secret Empire which scaled up — way, way up — to disastrous effect. The stakes of the conflict were more than national, they were global — maybe even galactic, if you take into account the inclusion of the looming threat of a Chitauri invasion. The main event book relied on the global scale of the devastation, the countries in conflict, the resistances cropping up to fight while the character of Steve Rogers: Hydra Supreme became little more than a shadowy smear of villainous intent.
There was a personal story running concurrently with the Secret Empire narrative, but it was one without real crisis — or, rather, one that expected the crisis to come from the horror of the readers as they took a front row seat to a sepia-toned retelling of Steve Rogers’ altered history. This wasn’t a Steve who was in conflict with himself, this was a Steve who was in conflict with everyone else.
WHO’S SIDE ARE WE ON ANYWAY?
Steve’s lack of internalized conflict wound up speaking to another one of Secret Empire’s thematic problems: by neglecting to give readers a version of Steve who wasn’t in direct opposition with them and just about everyone else, our ability to produce the necessary empathy to fuel the story was cut off at the knees.
As you might expect, a critical element that goes hand in hand with the microcosmic stakes of the quote-unquote “traditional” Steve Rogers identity conflict is the ability to situate the narrative camera close to an incarnation of Steve who is the one actually undergoing the struggle — a tangible element onto which readers are able to actually watch the journey of self discovery occur in real time.
It’s the observation of this journey as one incarnation clashes against the opposing incarnation where the bulk of the actual character legwork occurs — Sort of like maintaining a control group in an experiment, the practice where scientists keep one element completely unchanged as a way to measure the change in the elements they’re actually testing. When you ruin or otherwise challenge the identity of Steve Rogers, it’s critical that he is there to both react and combat it.
This is an important component no matter what the corrupting influence is — a cosmic cube, an imposter, an extrapolated misunderstanding, etc. When the end goal of a story is to make a statement about the character of Captain America, Captain America has to be present for it. He has to be on the page in some way shape or form to be able to shoulder the emotional, textual burden the crisis evokes, or the story risks shoveling that workload onto the readers.
Asking the readers to do bare the brunt of these moments is not only taxing, it’s a risk — and one that’s actually pretty unique to Steve and his context within the scope of the Marvel Universe’s roster of superheroes. Remember the problem with Steve’s inherently esoteric core and the ambiguity that invites? Imagine taking that level of subjectivity and then asking each individual reader to start connecting the dots all on their own. With a clear point of reference in the form of an uncorrupted Cap removed, the waters are immediately muddled — the point becomes desperately unclear.
Secret Empire’s insistence on the corrupted Steve’s authenticity, while simultaneously keeping the “true” Steve — the readers should be using as a point of reference — in a literal alternate reality, powerless and isolated from the bulk of the story set the character work it set out to do up for failure before the event even began. By leaning so heavily into the idea that had not just been corrupted by the influence of a cosmic cube, but that his entire history had effectively been re-written, the carefully cast on moorings that tether Captain America to the scaffoldings that support him were effectively burned away. Here was an identity crisis, minus the crisis; a bleak look at a world where there simply had never been a genuine Steve Rogers.
If the world had really earnestly just never had the Captain America that so much work has been poured into over so many years, what is the point of challenging his identity at all? Who is benefiting from the work being done to dissect and examine him?
THE CAPTAIN AND THE CAPTAIN
As if removing the “true” Steve from the equation (at least, in a physical sense) for the vast majority of the story hadn’t made things in Secret Empire complicated enough, it closed out with one final, killing stroke.
The dust began to clear and the rubble began to settle thanks to yet another intervention of a cosmic cube — and left standing at the epicenter? Two Steve Rogers’.
No, really, in a completely literal sense the Marvel Universe is now home to two genetically identical copies of Captain America. One, the Cap we know and love, uncorrupted and “normal,” the other the Cap we watched evolve and grow up over the last two or so years who has been loyal to Hydra since his childhood.
Metaphysical comic book weirdness aside, this represents a massive thematic problem for Captain America stories moving forward, quite simply because it means that Steve — the “good” Steve, our Steve — didn’t actually win. The identity crisis was left unresolved in a very literal sense. Instead of a period, Secret Empire ended with an ellipsis.
Think back to the crux of these identity-based stories and to the reason they’re told again, and again, and again: the tireless effort to solidify something malleable, to pin down and define something undefinable, to answer a question.
So there’s the problem, in the simplest possible terms. By making the imposter Steve literal in every sense of the word — not a robot, not a Skrull, not a genetically engineered clone care of the Red Skull, not a crazed and delusional fan, not a visitor from another reality, but a literal, real deal, flesh-and-blood Steve Rogers — Secret Empire has succeeded in digging an already very deep rabbit hole even deeper. And while a well like that to tumble down Wonderland style might benefit a different superhero in the Marvel roster, it certainly doesn’t benefit Steve.
Captain America succeeds as a character by taking the ideological and making it tangible, bite sized, compact and personal. He works, and has persisted for almost seventy years, because he is able to evolve and adapt to articulate qualities marked by shifting goalposts. He is a hero who exists on an ever lengthening horizon, in a way that sets him apart from any other superhero who is published today. And he maintains this status — unique, complicated, challenging, sometimes completely contentious as it may be — by being submitted to an endless battery of of stress tests.
Like a Non-Newtonian fluid that becomes solid enough to walk on when struck with enough force, the identity of Steve Rogers, Captain America, the “living symbol,” only becomes something that can be defined and revisited when put under pressure. And this is what Secret Empire attempted to do — but for all it’s lofty goals and trackable intentions, it left the legacy worse for wear, plagued by more questions than answers; dripping like quicksand through our fingers at a time in our history when we need something to hold on to more than ever before.
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