About a year ago, Marvel Comics ended Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 on one hell of a cliffhanger: the title character, the Sentinel of Liberty, the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan, the very symbol of American idealism, Captain America himself betrays an ally and declares his loyalty...TO HYDRA!
So why is Steve Rogers betraying liberty for fascism, and why is this whole idea threatening to blow up in Marvel’s face?
Good questions, but first things first...
What is Hydra?
First appearing in Marvel Comics in 1965, Hydra is the go-to evil organization of the Marvel universe, an international cabal of “nogoodniks” with their tentacles in government and commerce through a vast network of fanatical secret agents and loyal cannon fodder. It bears a strong resemblance to SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion), the collection of James Bond villains that Ian Fleming introduced into his novels four years earlier. If Fleming or his lawyers had ever picked up a comic book and compared the logos of the two organizations, they might have taken Marvel to the cleaners.
In the 1960’s espionage adventures of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, Hydra served the same antagonistic narrative function as SPECTRE in Bond: a group of apolitical villains for the hero to thwart.
Hydra had elaborate secret facilities, doomsday weapons, and legions of disposable henchman willing to throw themselves at Marvel’s greatest heroes.
Like SPECTRE before it or COBRA after, Hydra was staffed with every sort of stock villain: saboteurs, corrupt captains of industry, political cronies, ninjas, robots, and exotic femmes fatales. And although it had predated the Third Reich by millenia, it had its share of central-casting Germans evildoers. Like Baron von Strucker...with his monocle and Heidelberg fencing scars:
Or Baron Zemo with his love of...Germanic Runes:
Or the Red Skull…who is the Death’s Head sigil from the SS uniform, fond of swanning around in a bespoke Gestapo style leather coat:
Yes, like Argentina and Brazil after 1946, Hydra had Nazis.
Which for Marvel's classic action pulps made perfect sense. Hydra is an organization dedicated to evil, Nazis are evil, and therefore if they have Nazis in their organization they must be pretty dang evil. Indeed, other franchises discovered the benefits of tying their baddies to a real-life horrible regime as well. After all, what did “The Empire” of Star Wars look like, if not “Nazis in Spaaaace?”
It was in movies and TV that Marvel was able to realize the full narrative benefits of creating a chain of villainy from WWII into the present era, first in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier and then in the companion TV series Agents of SHIELD. It was revealed that the fascist splinter group everyone assumed Captain America had thwarted in the 40’s was roaring back with a vengeance into the new millennium. Enemy scientists captured by America at the end of WWII infested the military complex that they were meant to serve and twisted it to their own ends. Eventually, our brave heroes didn’t know who they could trust among their allies or in the government because anyone could secretly be a Hydra agent.
So is Steve really Hydra now?
Good news, everybody. Steve Rogers is not Hydra after all! Never was. He just thought he was and acted with all the determination and moral certainty that makes him such a good hero.
As the story arc plays out, we discover that Steve’s memories have been manipulated. His archenemy, the actual professed Nazi and white supremacist, the Red Skull, convinced him that they were on the same side all along.
The actual mechanics of how this happened are another rabbit hole. The short version is that the Red Skull made a wish that Captain America serve Hydra. Let a reality-warping magical being worry about the nitty gritty.
Okay. Steve only thinks he's Hydra. But does he think he's a Nazi? And is any of this good for Marvel?
For the answers to these questions, see Part II of "Captain America: Hail Who?," here on Nerds who Read.
Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.