At the beginning of Secret Empire, in Marvel's Free Comic Book Day issue for the summer event, writer Nick Spencer and artist Andrea Sorrentino shocked readers by showing Captain America striding across the battlefield to pick up Mjolnir. It happened in heat of the Hydra’s takeover of the United States government, and within the story it was meant to legitimize Rogers’ coup d’état by signaling his worthiness. But the gesture also suggested the man who had become Hydra Supreme was the same Rogers who had served as the Sentinel of Liberty for all those years. If he was worthy of picking up the enchanted hammer, perhaps his intentions were pure, even if his actions were deplorable.
Still, the issue hinted there was trickery involved. A sequence of panels showed the Scarlet Witch possessed by Chthon, the Vision infected with a computer virus, and Jane Foster dropping her hammer during the fight. What actually transpired with the hammer was revealed in the pages of Secret Empire #10 during the showdown that pitted the restored Steve Rogers against Hydra Cap. In short: Elisa Sinclair, aka Madame Hydra, had used a fragment of Kobik to alter Mjolnir, transforming it into an arbiter of strength, rather than a judge of worthiness.
Was this part of the plan all along, and an example of Rogers’ skill as a tactician? Or was it something improvised by Sinclair, who saw Rogers as a son, to the point that she sacrificed herself to save him from A.I. Tony’s improvised explosive device in Secret Empire #8? Either way, did Hydra Cap know what had happened, and whether the effect on Mjolnir was temporary?
Secret Empire #5 showed Rogers and mutant ambassador Hank McCoy in the shadow of the Capitol discussing the fate of New Tian. Rogers brought McCoy to the place where Mjolnir sat in the field of battle and reminded the former X-Man that he had once wielded the hammer, and could do so again, to rain destruction upon the mutant homeland. He knelt down, smiled, and caressed the hammer's hilt; McCoy teased him that the temptation to use Mjolnir must have been constant.
But did Rogers then know he couldn't pick up the weapon again? Was he aware that he was not, in fact, worthy? He quoted the inscription to McCoy, but only its first word, “Whomsoever.” As we saw in Secret Empire #10, the altered inscription was about having the strength to lead Hydra, while the true words inscribed on Mjolnir are about the worthiness to be Thor.
In the Free Comic Book Day issue, the inscription was facing Rogers as he lifted Mjolnir. Even if it was a last-minute trick — and a temporary change to reality — conceived by the doting Elisa without his prior knowledge, Rogers may have seen the inscription and would thus have realized that he was not in fact worthy.
Either way, he was probably speaking the truth when he told McCoy he didn’t need the hammer to play god. After all, if he had used trickery to wield Mjolnir, he was merely playing the part, and wasn’t worthy of being a god.
But if Hydra Cap did not know the truth — and Madame Hydra had, indeed, acted in the manner of an overprotective mother, protecting her “son” — this would certainly explain why he reached for the hammer as he fought the real Steve. It might also explain his tear-stained eye when he realized he could no longer lift Mjolnir.
To the bitter end, the man who had been raised by Hydra believed that he was doing the right thing. And in his mind, he may have thought himself worthy at the time he’d hoisted Mjolnir during the battle in Washington. We never saw him give the order to execute Rick Jones in Secret Empire #1, and in the following issue we learned that he couldn’t bring himself to authorize the attack on Las Vegas, He’d let Elisa issue the command, instead. He may have been thoroughly corrupt at the time, but he certainly didn’t believe so.
Was Hydra Cap deluded? Was he the victim of a “mother’s” love? Perhaps these are not the right questions. When it comes to the matter of nature versus nurture, we know that childhood trauma can result in very damaged adults. We also know that many—if not most—abused children do not grow up to become abusers themselves.
The core question of Secret Empire therefore comes down to the inscription on Mjolnir: What makes a hero worthy? The simplistic answer of Hydra is strength. Might makes right, and such. But that’s not what the real Steve Rogers is about. The orphaned 98-pound weakling who always did the right thing earned the right to the Super Soldier Serum by persistently trying to enlist. He wanted to fight evil, and despite his physical weakness, his worthiness made him strong.
The Hydra version of Rogers — the one who was raised to believe in strength — was the weak one. When he was confronted with unspeakable crimes, he not only allowed others to do his dirty work for him, he turned the other way. He was anything but worthy.