Thursday, June 8, 2017

Captain America: Hail Who? Part II

by Kerey McKenna.

In Part I, I wrote that contrary to what you’ve seen in the headlines, Steve Rogers, Captain America, was never a sleeper agent for the organization of Marvel villains known as Hydra. He just thinks he is, thanks to his memory having been tampered with. Some readers have taken to calling the brainwashed and power mad corruption of Steve “Hydra Cap.” But Hydra is chock full of Nazis—Baron von Strucker, Baron Zemo, the Red Skull—and that brings us to another question…

Is Hydra Cap also Nazi Cap?

Hydra Cap believes that fascism is the logical means to bring safety and security to the world. But as for whether he believes in Nazism as well as fascism, I’m going to say no. He considers himself to be part of “True Hydra,” an ancient secret society that is fascistic in nature but does not discriminate based on race, nationality, and religion. While Steve believes that he and the Nazi Red Skull have both been serving Hydra for decades, they are still enemies. Crazy Hydra-brainwashed Steve is certain the Red Skull is a heretic.

Our Story so Far

The Hydra Cap story line has expanded from a Captain America tale to a Marvel Universe epic, "Secret Empire," in which brainwashed Rogers traded upon his irreproachable image of American idealism to call heroes into his cabal and consolidate power, eventually openly declaring his allegiance to a new fascist order for America. As a tent pole crossover event it has mined narrative possibilities that played well in previous crossovers “Civil War” (2006-2007, later adapted into the 2016 Civil War movie) and “Secret Invasion” (2008).

Just as “Civil War” divided Marvel heroes into factions, pitting former allies against each other, this new scenario again calls for heroes to rally to or reject Steve Rogers as their leader. And just as “Secret Invasion” had the heroes looking over their shoulders, unsure who they could trust amid a massive infiltration of their ranks by shape-shifting aliens, now they’ve been rendered equally paranoid by the legions of Hydra agents in their midst.

With America under the heel of Hydra Cap’s “Secret Empire,” a resistance of heroes has formed to fight the coup. The resistance even has its own Captain America, Sam Wilson—the Falcon—a former ally of Steve’s who had previously taken up Captain America’s vibranium shield in 2010 when Steve had to step aside temporarily due to illness.

So what’s next?

It’s hard to say. “Secret Empire” is still playing out through Marvel Comics monthly issues and like most crossovers it weaves the narrative through a rabbit’s warren designed to sell as many comic books as possible.

When Steve was restored to health in 2016, the stated plan (in story and at Marvel) was that both Steve and Sam would carry on as Captain America. But then Steve’s first issue back in action revealed his change of allegiance. Assuming Steve Rogers is defeated and brought to his senses, but loses the public trust, it stands to reason that Sam will remain standing as the only Captain America—assuming he survives. Of course, there’s the possibility that Steve won’t come out of it alive either: a persistent thread of the story is that he is prophesied to fall in battle. But even if the event ends in his “death” nobody expects it to stick.

Did Marvel go too far?

In the world of comics, death is cheap. Thanks to a deluge of high profile character deaths and resurrections, beginning with Superman in 1992, a jaded readership doesn’t expect dead characters ever to stay dead. Steve Rogers already “died” once, at the end of Civil War, and was replaced by his old sidekick Bucky Barnes, but was then resurrected in time for the 2011 Captain America movie.

If putting a hero in the ground doesn’t sell comics anymore, the writers have to resort to other measures, like dragging him through the mud. The “Face-Heel Turn”—a hero turning into a heel—is an overused cliché, both in professional wrestling (where the term originated) and in comic books. But perhaps this one was so shocking, Marvel was right to deploy it.

It seems to have worked. Marvel has been getting a lot of press because they get to release lots of shocking headlines in slow drip about new turns of the narrative. But not without controversy.

Critics argue that Marvel has crossed a line: that for the sake of shock value, Marvel irreparably tainted an American Icon. Captain America was created in 1940 by two Jewish Americans who had desperate desire for the United States to get into the war against Nazism. In view of that, many feel Cap should not be twisted into a fascist. Furthermore, by accident or design, Marvel is amplifying the anxieties of an America where Left and Right are constantly accusing each other of a nefarious plot to take over America from within, and extremists of all manner are coming out of the woodwork. With trust in the institutions of America shaken, our mythical heroes should be beyond reproach.

The critics also say Marvel can’t have it both ways: Hydra can’t be the heirs of Nazi Germany and still be a mere caricature of villainy, safe for children’s play time.

Even the name “Secret Empire,” while presumably chosen to tie the event thematically with other famous Marvel crossovers, “Secret Wars” (1984), “Secret Invasion” (2008), and “Secret Wars 2” (2015), may not be so innocent after all. As the real-world KKK dubbed itself “The Invisible Empire”, so a “Secret Empire” has very sinister connotations for those familiar with white supremacy and domestic terrorism here in the U.S.

I’m not going to say here and now whether this story works; I will reserve judgment until it reaches its conclusion.

But I will say that this whole thing has made me start examining the almost too casual and familiar way visual works like films and comics have been invoking the trappings of Nazism—its symbols, its pageantry, its fabricated lore—without putting much thought into the horrors that it brought, the ideologies and historical forces that made it possible, and how to inoculate a culture against it.

I will also add this: I won’t be buying any of Marvel’s Hydra branded merchandise. Actually any merchandise with skulls on it. Not for a while. Yeah that’s probably going to be my SOP. No skulls. I mean, seriously. Why skulls?

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

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