Yesterday, articles went up all over the nerd internet focused on the revelation of the original Captain America's sudden and controversial status quo shift. But don't let the "I told you so" chorus drown out one crucial fact: The what of this big change is far less important than the why.
Captain America: Steve Rogers #2 is out today, explaining why Steve Rogers said "Hail Hydra" a few weeks ago. First off: Yes, the reasons for that shocking ending are pretty much exactly what many people (myself amongst them) thought they might be. The memories in Steve's head that showed him being recruited into the evil terrorist organisation as a young boy were implanted by Kobik, the Cosmic Cube that evolved into a sentient four-year-old girl. And, yeah, Kobik was doing the bidding of the Red Skull, a plot beat that invokes on the historical connection that Cap's archenemy has had with the reality-warping artefacts.
But while the mechanism behind Steve Rogers' altered mindset might have been revealed in this week's issue, the drama behind this status quo shift isn't anywhere near resolved. As with his work in the Captain America: Sam Wilson book, Spencer is taking on the notion of Captain America as a symbol. This storyline seems to be designed to explore the feelings that arise when citizens can no longer trust the institutions that they have been told to put their faith in.
It's a story that Spencer's been building towards ever since the Standoff crossover, which revealed that SHIELD had created a Kobik-powered, warped-reality prison for supervillains in a sleepy suburb. There have been previous storylines that have shown SHIELD playing fast and loose with due process, human rights and situational morality before but the Pleasant Hill incident was still a very bleak moment for the super-spy organisation. Captain America: Steve Rogers #2 shows that, while Pleasant Hill was an implanted suggestion from the Red Skull, it was embraced wholeheartedly and with free will by SHIELD commander Maria Hill.
Now, every time SHIELD shows up, the reader — and average civilian in the Marvel Universe — will wonder if they're going to do the right thing. And fans will be wondering the same thing about Steve Rogers, too. That unease should be a powerful dramatic tool. We're not going to know exactly when the implanted Hydra priorities will take precedence in Steve's adventures moving forward. This isn't direct mind control; the Skull finds that level of power boring.
The new status quo is more insidious than mere telepathic commands beamed into the first Captain America's skull. Deep down, a part of him believes in the Hydra agenda. So far, the pacing on this storyline feels brisk, making it tough to tell how quickly it might resolve. It could wrap up in months. Or it might go on for years because there's a whole other Captain America in play, one who hasn't said "Hail Hydra."
The proceedings amount to a queasy bit of turnabout that taps into the anxieties stirred up by Donald Trump's candidacy and the Brexit "leave" vote. What happens when we can't believe in the original Captain America? How will some people act when the person really upholding the ideals of the Sentinel of Liberty doesn't look like them? What happens when Steve Rogers can't believe in himself?