Today sees the release of the second chapter of Marvel's Secret Empire, the event series that has seen Steve Rogers fall from one of Earth's mightiest heroes to the leader of a fascist, totalitarian Hydra ruling over the United States. Except the issue also hurls a wrench into the works that throws into question over a year's worth of Marvel's comic stories.
Image: Marvel Comics. Art by Andrea Sorrentino.
Much of Secret Empire #2 (by Nick Spencer, Andrea Sorrentino, Rod Reis and Travis Lanham) deals with the fallout from the climax of the first issue, which saw Steve's Hydra forces level the entirety of Los Angeles as punishment for harbouring the underground superhero resistance against Hydra's rule.
It sets up a lot of new threads, from growing discontent between Supreme Leader Rogers and his Hydra council — as I'd hypothesised at the time, it was not Steve who gave the order to eradicate Los Angeles, but Madame Hydra, acting on his behalf to avoid Steve carrying the crime on his conscience — to the resistance being given the quest to hunt down the shards of the Cosmic Cube that started this mess so they can restore Steve to his old self, and to Black Widow separating from the resistance, alongside the Champions, to go and put an end to Steve's rule permanently.
But what will have people talking about Secret Empire #2 is none of the above. Instead, it will be the reveal in its final few pages where a woman is attacked by members of the Serpent Society in a forest, only to be saved by a blond, bearded man in torn combat fatigues.
A man — a heroic man, even! — who says that he's Steve Rogers. It would appear that, when Kobik restored Steve Rogers to his super-serum-ed glory in Standoff, she somehow managed to make two versions of him: One a lifelong agent of Hydra, and one who seemingly retained Steve's heroism and morality, and has been in hiding somewhere ever since.
Yes, it's the standard cliffhanger page reveal, but more importantly it's one of the oldest comic book twists in the genre. And even more importantly than that, it's a twist that's relied on Marvel and its employees spending much of that year telling readers time and time again that the lead character in this story — a person who's been complicit in horrible acts and, in the eyes of many onlookers, has become associated with not just a sinister fascist organisation but one that has had roots intertwined with the Nazi party — is the one and only Steve Rogers, the original Captain America. That the man he once was is no more.
Artwork from Captain America: Steve Rogers #15 by Javier Pina, Andres Guinaldo, Rachelle Rosenberg, and Joe Caramagna.
But clearly the man he was is still around and kicking. To be fair, instead of being an actual, physical second Steve Rogers, the comic's pages depicting this Steve — which are illustrated by Rod Reis rather than Andrea Sorrentino, who pencilled the rest of the issue, and unlike every other scene change in the book were not accompanied by a location, but simply a narration box saying the word "hope" — could be hinting that this Steve is instead a metaphysical embodiment of his heroic self, having somehow survived Kobik's cosmic reworking. This would still mean that the Hydra Steve running around isn't the "real" Steve — but a Steve with his heroism removed, currently trying to make his way home. Whatever it is, it means that somewhere, somehow, there is a Hydra Steve and a Hero Steve in the mix.
Whatever the specific circumstances are, it's clear that despite Marvel's constant assurance that Hydra Steve is the "real" Captain America, for all intents and purposes he isn't real, because his good twin or good side or whatever has just shown up. Perhaps audiences are foolish for taking comic book creatives for their word, given years of reversals and resurrections and "gotcha!" moments, but the problem here is that if readers didn't take Marvel for their word, everything's that unfolded in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers and now Secret Empire falls apart into pointlessness.
What made the arc writer Nick Spencer began in that book interesting to follow was the outlandish development of watching Steve Rogers fall deeper and deeper into supervillainy, how a man with a morality and dedication that once made him one of the greatest heroes around could be so petrifying if that morality was flipped on its head. Now it means nothing, outside of the craven decision to think a year of headlines about how they turned Captain America into a fascist was worth more than telling a story better than seemingly splitting him into heroic and villainous ideals, physically or otherwise.
By maintaining the ruse that this was the real Cap, Marvel has weathered a brutal storm of backlash and controversy, from critics and readers alike, and been faced with questions of just how they would be able to satisfactorily return Steve Rogers to the heroic figure he was after this saga. The answer that Marvel Comics pleaded fans to wait for seems to be that they will do so with a cheap cop-out, a comic book cliché that's as old as Steve himself. So now the question stops being about what the company will do to move on from Secret Empire. Instead, it's this: In the end, was this really worth it?