*Spoilers for Marvel’s Secret Empire Follow!*
Much of the Secret Empire narrative has understandably centered on the controversy around Captain America’s allegiance to Hydra and Marvel’s PR response. Admittedly, the bombshell mic drop of Hydra Cap (and the quagmire of Nazi ties that autogenerates) is the ultimate WTF set-up. Nonetheless, that’s not the only time the Secret Empire event and tie-ins have baffled and bewildered us so far.
For comparison’s sake, Secret Empire isn’t necessarily that different from a Marvel event like 2013’s Age of Ultron (not to be confused with Avengers 2: Age of Ultron). Readers are flung into a dystopian future, with a small band of heroes still seeking to resist and set the world back on a path to normalcy. It’s unclear exactly how we got to this stage in the world, with the details of the journey revealed in passing remarks like a forgotten piece of history. Unlike Age of Ultron, instead of a head-scratching bungled attempt to reset time itself, the key to winning Secret Empire seems to be a quest for cosmic cube fragments located across the Marvel Universe.
As a whole, Secret Empire has differentiated itself from past Marvel events through clear-eyed political parallels, as well as team-ups and reversed character agendas typically reserved for alternate realities. As we hit the halfway point of this hot-button event, and as the heroes attempt to outwit Hydra Cap, it’s worth looking at the most shocking, surprising, and stunning moments of the event.
These are the developments from Secret Empire that made us say Wha, Huh, and WTF?!
15. HYDRA CAP IS… WORTHY?
The final panel reveal from 2017’s Free Comic Book Day Secret Empire tie-in (which should be read before Secret Empire #1) remains a source of major confusion. Throughout Marvel history it has remained a contentious debate who – other than Thor – could actually prove worthy enough to lift Mjolnir. There are bizarre anomalies in the history of heroes trying and failing to lift Mjolnir – Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuiness’s Red Hulk lifting the hammer like it was a paperweight comes to mind – but generally speaking it’s seen as an impossible challenge.
In the MCU, the fact that Captain America could lift the hammer even a centimeter during Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is enough to nearly send Chris Hemsworth into a state of catatonic shock. Nonetheless, in the FCBD chapter of Secret Empire the most evil version of Steve Rogers imaginable is seen holding the hammer of Thor skyward like a champion of the gods. Likewise, it’s entirely unclear from the story so far what has happened to the actual Thor. What occurred to make Jane Foster lose her hammer in the first place?
14. DR. STRANGE FLEW INTO A MONSTER BUTT
Encasing the entirety of Manhattan in a Darkforce Dimension is an oddly plausible part of Captain America’s plot to rule the world. And sure, we can even believe that Dr. Strange was completely taken by surprise – he HAS been busy with the death of magic and an entire legion of sorcerers supreme. Things start to get real weird in Dr. Strange #20, when Stephen Strange, master of the mystic arts, is forced to fly in through the out door of a magic monster in order to complete his quest collecting magical items to free Manhattan.
We actually had to read these panels twice to confirm that Dennis Hopeless and Niko Henrichon didn’t just send the MCU’s newest character straight on through the other side. Lo and behold, they absolutely did (Moxy!), perhaps off-handedly declaring the greatest victory Baron Mordo has ever claimed in a near 60 year battle with the one true Sorcerer Supreme.
13. EMMA FROST AKA XORN
Emma Frost has aspired to royalty since her introduction as the Hellfire Club’s White Queen, and in Secret Empire she finally has her chance to rule a nation. The mutant population of America has settled into homo superior controlled New Tian, under the apparent iron thumb of Xorn, aka the mutant who turned out to be Magneto at his most murderous in Grant Morrison’s extensive run on New X-Men. Except, as we learn in Secret Empire: United #1, it turns out Xorn is being mentally manipulated by Emma Frost, and that Hydra Cap is 100% in on the coup.
Emma’s role in the Hydra regime takeover is surprising, largely because Emma has been surprisingly quiet since her heel turn in Inhumans vs. X-men. Marvel Comics is strangely desperate to take Emma Frost back to her villainous roots, and this is a good start.
12. AMADEUS CHO IS A GREAT SINGER
In Secret Empire: Uprising #1, readers are treated to a surprise Sound of Music homage, with Black Widow training the new Champions to infiltrate Hydra’s youth choir. It’s a relatively wtf plot point in and of itself, but the revelation comes from the greatest singers in the champions. It’s little surprise that the Unstoppable Kimmy Wasp can sing show tunes no problem, but who would have guessed that the actual best singer of the bunch is Amadeus Cho, the erstwhile Totally Awesome Hulk?
Not only is Hulk the greatest stage presence since Clay Aiken, but he’s also a savvy super spy, finding a way to maintain his cover within Hydra’s youth choir during a Champions raid gone wrong. Amadeus Cho has been proving he’s awesome for years, but it’s nice to find out there are still layers to the Marvel Universe’s living Hulk.
11. KARNAK CALLS “MIDDLE BACK”
Karnak has been delightfully grumpy since Warren Ellis and Gerardo Zaffino resurrected the Inhuman for a solo series following his (apparent) death in Inhumanity #1. The one-time Rigellian lookalike with the ability to find the weakness in anything is now defined as a warrior monk who’s nearly impossible to work with. Despite the event’s overall flaws, nobody learned this better than Ulysses in Civil War 2, with Karnak’s chaotic refusal to adhere to norms of any kind.
In Secret Empire, Karnak has joined with the new Secret Warriors (who can’t hold a candle to the original Secret Warriors, but hey, who can?) on their roadtrip across Hydra’s America. The most recent issue of Secret Warriors #3 finds the Secret Warriors in mutant territory, instigating a mini Inhumans vs. X-Men redux. Still, none of this is as bizarre as a pack of Inhumans loading into a vehicle and Karnak replacing the traditional calls for “shotgun!” with an unenthused “middle back.” Never change, Karnak. Never change.
10. LAS VEGAS DESTROYED
If you’ve been following along in Captain America: Steve Rogers and the build to Secret Empire, you know full well that this Steve Rogers is as debased and cruel as any super villain we’ve seen in the Marvel Universe. During Civil War 2, Herr Rogers even infiltrated the Red Ghost’s lair and murdered the Fantastic Four villain and his super apes in cold blood. When monkey murder is on the table, you know you’re dealing with a monster.
Of course, the difference between that massacre was that Rogers was working in secret. In Secret Empire #1, Hydra’s modified squidcarriers fly over and bomb the ever-loving daylights out of the city of Las Vegas for aiding and abetting the resistance. It’s both a shocking level of devastation, and a disturbing step forward for Hydra Cap’s downfall. He doesn’t even care who’s watching anymore; there’s almost no limit to the terror he’ll enforce.
9. MOLE MAN LOVES FARGO
On a much lighter note, Captain America: Sam Wilson #22 focuses on Sam leading a group of resisting Avengers through underground tunnels to escape Hydra’s notice. Sam has been leading these escapes for Inhumans in need, but finally succumbs to the pressure of AI Tony Stark, Ant-Man, and company requesting he do so to take Hydra down.
The second we dipped below the surface, the reveal of the Mole Man’s involvement felt inevitable. Lo and behold, Sam Wilson has made a pact with the Fantastic Four’s first super villain to help refugees escape from Hydra’s regime.
What is odd about the ordeal is that the Mole Man is partnering with Sam almost entirely for seasons of new television. I suppose it stands to reason that subterranean regions wouldn’t get particularly strong cable, but who knew the Mole Man was such an avid fan of FX and HBO?
8. ODINSON SIDES WITH HYDRA
The initial Hydravengers lineup is baffling (why would these heroes side with the notorious bad guys?), but explanations have started trickling in. Recent Secret Empire issues have revealed Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch, has been possessed by the evil elder god Chthon (she really just can not catch a break). The Vision has simply been reprogrammed for Hydra compliance. Meanwhile, Odinson, the once and future Thor, seems to have merely… sided with Hydra of his own volition?
During Secret Empire #4, Hercules calls out Odinson for this despicable choice, labeling him a traitor and completely unraveling an alleged stealth mission in the process. AI Tony Stark posits that Odinson is siding with Hydra Cap in order to get Mjolnir back, and Odinson himself declares “I do what I must– for those I love and for Asgard.” This provides some context (perhaps Jane Foster is trapped in the hammer via her bond to Mjolnir and Hydra has somehow found a way to imprison her?), but approximately halfway through the event we’re still not much closer to understanding Odinson’s decision.
7. MR HYDE RUNNING INHUMAN CAMPS
We really shouldn’t be surprised by the depths Hydra Cap will sink to at this point, but assigning one-time foe Mr. Hyde as the warden of Hydra’s Inhuman camps is a disturbing fall from grace. There’s a lot to dislike about the Hydra regime, but images of Inhuman concentration camps are the hardest to stomach, painting a picture of intolerance and hate that should never come to pass in a world of heroes (or any world for that matter).
Seeing Steve Rogers work with villains is par for the course in Secret Empire, with a whole Hydra cabal with the likes of Arnim Zola, Dr. Faustus, Hive and Viper. Still, there’s something about Mr. Hyde dressed in full Nazi officer garb parading the Inhuman prison camps that is jaw-droppingly distasteful. Mr. Hyde has always been one of Cap’s most brutish foes, and although Agent Cooper certainly brought some new layers to the character in Agents of SHIELD, Hyde in this position of power is disturbing.
6. HYDRA CAP ROMANCING SHARON CARTER
If there’s one thing women love, it’s revealing you’ve been lying to them for your entire relationship and also you’re the most sinister super villain the world has ever known. Tale as old as time. This seems to be Steve Rogers expectation as he continues his efforts to sweep Sharon Carter off her feet and maintain their on-again, off-again romance.
To her credit, Sharon Carter is understandably disinterested in Rogers’ advances, and seems to have a difficult time with the whole “secret fascist regime takeover” part of the man’s day job. Of all the confounding decisions in Secret Empire, this is one of the strangest, and certainly pokes some holes in the strength and tactical brilliance of Hydra’s Supreme Leader. If he can’t see that Sharon would never be with him, what else is he blind to?
5. DEADPOOL KILLED COULSON
In Deadpool #31, Wade Wilson is told by a still “heroic” Captain America that Agent Phil Coulson has gone rogue. He needs to be taken off the board, by any means necessary. Deadpool’s still riding high on his Uncanny Avengers status and doesn’t really pause to question orders from Grandpappy Rogers. This leads to an explosive hunt for Coulson, with Deadpool ultimately trapping Coulson in one of Fury’s secret bases as Agent Phil, son of Coul, attempts to get word out that Steve Rogers has been compromised.
Despite the assignment and Deadpool’s violent tendencies, we were still expecting a change of heart or sudden unpredictable turn from the Merc with a Mouth. No such turn occurs, though, with Deadpool firing point-blank shots into Coulson and exploding the hideout behind him. This being comics, we almost certainly haven’t seen the last of Clark Gregg’s comic book transplant, but he appears to be quite dead for now.
4. ULTRON’S AVENGERS FAMILY DINNER
For readers that haven’t read Rick Remender and Jerome Opena’s (gorgeous) Rage of Ultron graphic novel (published in 2015 before Secret Wars but taking place chronologically after Secret Wars… Marvel Comics!), the appearance of a half Hank Pym (aka Ant-Man/Yellow Jacket/Found Avenger) nearly consumed by the Ultron artificial intelligence must be a real doozy. In order to stop Ultron without resorting to murder, though, Pym allows himself to become one with Ultron during Rage of Ultron. He has since been back to visit the Avengers during Gerry Duggan’s run on Uncanny Avengers, although in that story arc he appears to be largely controlled by Ultron.
The Hank Pym side takes more control in Secret Empire #4, with Hank replicating the Avengers mansion, Jarvis (with an Ultron robot head or Daft Punk Halloween costume, tough to say), and wearing a “Kiss the Overlord” chef’s apron. Hank nearly loses his cool to the Ultron impulses when Tony Stark goads him, but is ultimately strangely peaceful, and just hands over his cosmic cube fragment to Scott Lang for speaking to him like an actual person worthy of respect. Bizarre barely begins to describe it!
3. R.I.P. BUCKY
Captain America has been responsible for a number of shocking deaths so far in Secret Empire. In Uncanny Avengers #22, Steve Rogers throws Red Skull to his death, culminating in his ultimate plan to take over as Hydra’s Supreme Leader. Substantially more heart-breaking, in Secret Empire #1, Captain America orders death by firing squad for his one-time partner and long-time ally Rick Jones.
Worst of all, though, Captain America sets Baron Zemo and crew after Bucky Barnes and his Thunderbolts, currently hiding out Kobik (you know, the sentient little girl cosmic cube that started this whole ordeal back in Avengers: Standoff). Apparently “Til the end of the line pal” didn’t extend to Hydramerica. Zemo lays waste to the Thunderbolts, strapping a defeated Barnes to a rocket in a stroke of twisted irony. For all we know at this point in the narrative, Barnes has been killed, although given his relationship with Kobik, anything’s in play.
2. THE NAZIS WON WORLD WAR TWO
In the immortal words of Rocket Raccoon, what the actual flark?
There are a gazillion science fiction stories where Hitler and the Axis actually won the second World War, from Philip K. Dick’s Man In The High Castle to the Justice League Unlimited episode where Vandal Savage gives the Nazi’s future-tanks. Nonetheless, I’m not familiar with many that insist, “no, the Axis actually won World War II, but the Allies used a cosmic cube to alter reality and claim they won.”
This is Hydra’s purported truth, as they denounce the Allies “great deception” and teach schoolchildren across the nation that they have been consuming a fake history all their lives. It would be easy enough to see the political comparisons in most stories – if we can’t even agree on a version of basic facts, what can we agree on? – but Nick Spencer and Marvel seem to really be insisting that the Nazis won World War Two fair and square!
1. MY NAME IS STEVE ROGERS
It’s the return of the… ah wait… no wait… he didn’t just say what I think he did, did he?
The biggest reveal so far in Secret Empire comes in Secret Empire #2 when another Steve Rogers walks out of the woods and saves a damsel in distress. This Steve is bearded (a la Marvel NOW! Dimension Z) and seemingly way less into Hydra philosophy. Simply put, the return of a heroic Captain America is the first signal of optimism for the character since Captain America 3: Civil War.
There has been a near infinite variety of speculation around the origins of this mysterious alter-ego (Ultimate Universe Captain America at play? The better half of an emotional decision in Captain America: Reborn? Trapped in Arnim Zola’s Dimension Z all this time?), but the reality is nobody knows exactly how Nick Spencer and Marvel will explain the character’s emergence. Our guess? It’s as WTF as they come.
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