There are spoilers regarding the plot of the comic book Captain America: Steve Rogers here.
Say it ain't so.
On Wednesday, with the launch of Captain America: Steve Rogers No. 1, Marvel let loose one of the biggest revelations in recent memory: Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, a.k.a. America's greatest hero, is actually a Hydra agent:
This doesn't make any sense.
Rogers is the guy who's famous for punching Hitler before America joined World War II. He's fought Nazis, and Hydra by association, on several occasions. He's saved the world and his friends. And in the latest Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War, he showed that he's a true American hero who will fight for justice even when things looks grim.
So how did this happen? And is it possibly just a marketing stunt?
Putting Captain America in bed with the enemy is good for building buzz
The crucial thing to keep in mind — before the feelings roll in and the hurt starts to ache — is that the comic book industry is a business. Publishers want people to buy and talk about their comic books.
And this week was a pretty huge one in the comic industry.
Prior to Marvel's new announcement regarding Captain America's allegiances, Marvel's main rival, DC Comics, launched the first issue of Rebirth — a huge crossover event the company is using to introduce a slew of new comic books. It's all anyone at DC wanted to talk about, and the previews for its new books were generating massive buzz.
Rebirth saw a beloved character return to the DC universe and contained a massive revelation that connects it to an Alan Moore masterwork. It's not a coincidence that Marvel released its big, compelling story in the same week as a sort of counterprogramming to DC's big reveal. Further, this summer Marvel will be launching its Civil War II crossover, and its Rogers revelation tweaks that.
In the end, only one comic story hit the mainstream news, and that was Captain America's involvement with Hydra.
What exactly happens in Captain America's new comic book?
Rogers's giant reveal happens in a new comic book, Captain America: Steve Rogers No. 1, written by Nick Spencer and drawn by Jesus Saiz. The book flashes forward and back, introducing wrinkles to the story we thought we already knew about Rogers and his mother, Sarah.
As established in previous comics, Sarah was a single mother who stood up to her abusive, alcoholic husband. While raising Steve, she worked long hours and taught Steve everything he stands for: honesty, integrity, and courage.
In the first issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers, we learn via flashback that a Hydra agent named Elisa Sinclair stepped in and saved Sarah from her husband's abuse. She invited Sarah and a young Steve out for dinner, and before they left, she offered Sarah a pamphlet with the Hydra logo on it.
That handoff is interrupted by a storyline in the present where Rogers betrays one of his colleagues, throwing him out of a plane. After doing that, he recites the Hydra catchphrase, "Hail Hydra" (as seen above).
Why this plot twist cuts much deeper than most
Comic books are filled with twists that don't really make sense: People die, or are revealed to be clones or impostors, or come back from the dead for no reason at all. Knowing your favorite characters aren't safe, and that if someone finally seems happy, he or she is probably about to get hit by the universe in a terrible way — that's the frustration of being a comic book fan.
But there's something deeper going on with Rogers. Fans of the hero and of Marvel are especially upset about his Hydra affiliation because they believe it denounces everything the character stands — or stood — for.
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the creators of Steve Rogers and myriad other comic book superheroes, were of Jewish descent. So were many of their colleagues and fellow comic book creators. And their comics reflected their life experiences and how they saw the world.
Rogers, in particular, is famous for punching Hitler on a comic book cover nine months before the American intervention in WWII; meanwhile, America isolated itself and debated intervening in Europe as the Holocaust raged on. Basically, Captain America was standing up for injustice when his country would not.
And now this comic, and the idea that Captain America is actually involved with Hydra — which has its roots in Nazi Germany (the cinematic universe makes a bigger deal of this than the comics)— feels like a slap in the face, a betrayal of his creators. Cap is essentially a figure of strength for the Jewish people, comic book fans especially, and now we find out he's been a Nazi this entire time?
Then there's the possibility that Marvel is using this reveal as a cliffhanger of sorts, and that Captain America might not be a Nazi Hydra agent after all. We won't know until the end of this arc. But no matter what happens in future issues, it's easy to see why fans could be hurt by this twist (especially if this turns out to be more of a stunt than a methodical editorial decision).
Where do we go from here?
It's a simple fact that comic book plot developments aren't always what they seem. That works both ways — characters who are first presented as good may turn out to be evil, and vice versa. And sometimes a good character is "revealed" as evil, but his evilness turns out to be false, for one reason or another. That could certainly be happening with Captain America.
"False evilness" has happened with other characters in the past. In Marvel's 2008 Secret Invasion crossover, we learned that an alien race called the Skrulls actually kidnapped and took the place of many heroes in the Marvel universe by using shape-shifting powers. And in a 2006 arc of Astonishing X-Men, Emma Frost, one of the leaders of the team, appeared to be in cahoots with a villainous group called the Hellfire Club, but her so-called collaboration with the enemy ended up being some weird story about psionic projections and whatnot.
In terms of Steve Rogers/Captain America's involvement with Hydra, all we see in Steve Rogers No. 1 are the initial stages of the character's recruitment juxtaposed with Rogers acting "evil." It's possible the comic is staging an elaborate, complicated ruse.
But Marvel wants you to to know, or at least believe, that the character's evilness is real.
Spencer, who wrote the comic, told Entertainment Weekly that there isn't any trickery at play. That the Steve Rogers who utters "Hail Hydra" is the real Steve Rogers, not a clone or an otherwise "affected" version of the character. He said:
Issue 2 will lay a lot of our cards on the table in terms of what the new status quo is, but the one thing we can say unequivocally is: This is not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control, not someone else acting through Steve. This really is Steve Rogers, Captain America himself.
Until the arc concludes, we won't really know what this snapshot of Rogers will truly mean. But in the meantime, it's gotten fans talking and eagerly anticipating the next issue, for better or worse (Spencer has reportedly received death threats).
And that was the point all along.