It’s been a little over a month since Secret Empire dropped the bombshell reveal on fans that there is a second Steve Rogers in play -- one who is “just trying to get home.” But since that revelation, the questions revolving around this other Steve’s real identity, and his location (currently some sort of mysterious, ethereal forest) continue to mount.
What, exactly, is going on with this other Steve? Where is he? And...who are the others with him?
Well, fortunately we’ve seen enough in the last two issues to start connecting some dots. Kind of.
Let's start speculating.
The first and most pressing question to examine is this: just who are these other people trapped in this forest alongside Steve?
His first encounter is a blonde woman in a plain white dress who he rescues from a Serpent Society-flavored attack -- but, unfortunately, not before she’s poisoned by Puff Adder and killed. She never offers her name, and Steve never asks. However, as she dies, there’s a pretty pointed comparison drawn between that moment and Steve’s memory of his own mother’s death.
The idea that this mysterious blonde is some version of Sarah Rogers herself is, bizarre as it may seem, pretty hard to dismiss outright.
Things get even stranger with issue #4’s introduction of the next set of people Steve meets in the woods -- a pair of unidentified men who immediately spring to Steve’s aid as he’s attacked by a group of villains.
Neither man offers their name, but their familiarity with Steve and with one another is pretty hard to miss. The word "family" specifically gets called out in narration.
This is where things get...odd. The first man looks almost immediately recognizable as James “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine, who was killed by Thanos in the build up to Civil War II. The second man bears a pretty striking resemblance to two different recently “killed” heroes -- Bucky Barnes, and Rick Jones.
Now, the similarity between Barnes and Jones isn’t an accident. Jones’ similarity to Bucky was actually a cornerstone in Jones’ early years, back in the '60s, when he was temporarily the “new” Bucky Barnes for Steve after he came off the ice. So the fact that it’s basically a 50/50 shot between which one is represented here in the forest really isn’t all that strange.
Perhaps more importantly than their visual similarities, the ways both Rick and Bucky were killed off becomes a pretty critical factor. Rick was just recently executed by firing squad in one of the darkest turns of the event yet to date, whereas Bucky was strangely and quietly “blown up” by a Kobik engineered recreation of the Winter Soldier's original deathtrap back in the “opening salvo” issue of Steve Rogers: Captain America.
This would make it all the more likely that the stranger in the woods with Steve is, in fact, a manifestation of Bucky Barnes rather than Rick -- if nothing else than, historically speaking, comic book logic means bombs that don’t leave bodies are more easily hand waved away than deaths by firing squads.
However, the stranger has one major physical disparity between himself and Bucky that keeps the answer from being too obvious: he’s got two flesh-and-blood arms. This is a pretty far cry away from Bucky’s iconic Winter Soldier silver prosthetic, one of his most recognizable features since his return to prominence at the hands of Ed Brubaker back in the early '00s.
But that doesn’t necessarily count Bucky out completely. In one of Bucky’s final moments, he found himself in an emotional contest with Kobik that resulted in what can really only be described as a Superboy Prime-style reality-shattering hit. Kobik’s temper tantrum left Bucky’s history flying out around him like shards of glass -- and the next time we saw him, he was in the process of being killed (yet again) by Baron Zemo’s plane-based death trap.
The point being: we have yet to see whether Kobik's tantrum actually had any lasting effects on Bucky, because he was "killed" almost immediately after it happened. There’s a totally viable chance that, if we are seeing a manifestation of Bucky in the forest, it’s a version that’s somehow also been manipulated in such a way to have never been the Winter Soldier in the first place, and thus, has no iconic metal arm to give him away.
So...what does all of this actually mean?
The only discernible common connection between Steve and the other people in the woods is a tie back to the manipulations of something either directly or tangentially cosmic cube related.
There’s Sarah Rogers, who was a sort of “collateral damage” for Kobik’s initial re-working of Steve’s past. Rhodey, who was killed by Thanos, the Mad Titan who’s maybe the most directly Cosmic Cube connected entity in the Marvel Universe next to someone like Kobik herself. Bucky who was killed in the heart of one of Kobik’s tangents or Rick, who was executed at the hands of the cosmically overwritten Steve.
It’s not a ton to work with just yet, but it’s certainly better than nothing. If the forest really is some sort of cosmic cube “purgatory” -- a sort of physical manifestation of the law of matter conservation -- how are the people trapped within it supposed to escape?
And if it’s not something related back to the cube -- and if these strangers in the woods aren’t who we think they are (it’s not that much of a reach to see the visual connection between the blonde woman and Sharon Carter, and the new trio of allies as the three most recent Captains America, including Sam Wilson -- and neither Sam nor Sharon are dead or missing) then...who are they?
Of course, there's also the matter of the villains populating the forest as well. So far, we've seen members of the Serpent Society, Batroc the Leaper, Whirlwind and Living Laser, all given enough page space to be specific and recognizable, though none of them seem to have any real motivation beyond just wildly attacking. None of them have actually spoken a word, or shown any indication that they know who or why they're attacking at all. If this place is some sort of purgatory (perhaps the "Vanishing Point" mentioned in Marvel's recent teaser), what's bringing these villains into the mix?
The answer to these questions is, no doubt, going to spell out some major consequences for the Marvel Universe at large.