The story that began a year ago with Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, hailing Hydra and revealing himself to be a deep undercover agent for the evil organisation comes to a head with Marvel’s latest crossover event, Secret Empire.
Actually, this story began with Nick Spencer’s mini Pleasant Hill crossover last year, which introduced Kobik, a fragment of the reality-changing Cosmic Cube that became sentient and took the form of a little girl.
Manipulated by the Red Skull to believe that Hydra are actually the good guys, she altered Steve’s memories and past to make him believe he is a Hydra agent. Secret Empire is the culmination of that story, as Steve finally executes his plan to take over the world and make Hydra great again.
In the Secret Empire #0 prologue to the main event, we see how Steve manages to pull off his daring plan – taking out the heavy-hitters like Captain Marvel, Hyperion, and Quasar with a combination of a Chitauri attack and an impenetrable shield around the planet; and then turning New York City into a mousetrap to snare the other heroes, and using Dr Faustus to brainwash every single SHIELD agent into working for Hydra.
The way these different components of his plan come together is the highlight of the prologue, and frankly, without it, you might be a bit lost when you get into the main event proper. Secret Empire #1 starts off with Hydra already having a firm grip on America, with Cap ruling over the country as its Supreme Leader.
The Avengers are still around, but it’s a Hydra-ised version consisting of Taskmaster, Black Ant, Vision, Deadpool, Scarlet Witch, Superior Octopus, and the Odinson. In a move that mirrors the Superhero Registration Act that Cap so vehemently opposed in the Civil War event, the Inhumans have been forced to register themselves as soon as their powers manifest.
Opposing Cap is a group of superheroes calling themselves The Underground, led by two unlikely heroes: Hawkeye and Black Widow, who are working with the Champions (Amadeus Cho/Hulk, Nadia Pym/Wasp, Miles Morales/Spider-Man), Scott Lang/Ant-Man, Riri Williams/Ironheart, and the AI version of Tony Stark to try and get things back the way they were.
As far as setting-up the event goes, it would be best to read Secret Empire #0 before #1. Spencer has spent the past year setting up the event, so #0 gives new readers a jumping in point to get into the main event. The event itself starts off with an intriguingly ominous style, setting up the primary characters well while providing a bleak look at how the world would look if Hydra had won.
Using Hawkeye and Black Widow, two unpowered superheroes who have been championing the common people of late, as the leaders of the resistance is a nice touch as well. Ultimately, this is Steve Rogers’ story, and Spencer somehow manages to make him the hero AND the villain at the same time. Sure, he is doing all these evil things to the world and the heroes, but only because he believes what he is doing is the right thing.
And even when he is doing all those bad things, he still struggles with his honour and conscience, as well as the dilemma of advancing Hydra’s evil reach while remaining good at the same time.
His internal struggle is most evident in the ending of the first issue, when he orders the execution of a prominent Marvel character to “send a message”!
Steve McNiven’s artwork is on point most of the time, and having done the equally highly-charged Civil War event before, he is the perfect artist to bring this story forward.
While the fact that this whole thing was engineered by a Cosmic Cube means that there is always the danger of a quick fix in the end to put everything right again, this first issue at least gives us hope that Spencer has something else, something more original, up his sleeve. For now, it’s Steve Rogers’ world. Hail, Hydra!
Secret Empire #0 and #1
Writer: Nick Spencer
Artist: Steve McNiven
Publisher: Marvel Comics