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Marvel’s Secret Empire just changed the game with a shocker of an issue

It’s the best issue of the series yet.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Gigantic spoiler warning: It’s impossible to discuss the latest issue of Marvel’s Secret Empire without revealing some major spoilers. Go get the comic, read it, and then come back.

Marvel’s Secret Empire has surprised, angered, and even upset fans from its very first page, due to the Captain America-Hydra reveal that preceded the comic’s debut. It’s been a rattling game changer: Everything we knew about the character of Steve Rogers, the American hero who has transcended his comic books through the Captain America film franchise, was wrong and he was the ultimate betrayer. Secret Empire’s third issue — Secret Empire No. 2*, released Wednesday — is a blistering reminder of just how powerful that twist was.

The issue is the series’ best one yet, and it underscores comic books’ ability to blow preconceived notions and expectations out of the water and make readers’ jaws hit the floor. By the end of it, I wanted to both strangle and congratulate Marvel for expertly playing the comic book twist game. This issue changes everything.

*Secret Empire started with Secret Empire No. 0, so we’re counting No. 2 as the series’ third issue.

The issue’s gigantic twist ties back to Marvel’s last crossover event, Civil War II, and possibly Secret Wars too

For the past few months, Marvel and a faction of its fans have been sparring over the editorial decision to make Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, an agent of Hydra. Many fans believe that move contradicts the character’s history, since Hydra has ties to Nazi Germany in Marvel’s comic books, and Captain America’s creators, as well as creators of a lot of Marvel superheroes, were Jewish.

But Marvel is in the business of selling comic books and presumably believes that the twist was editorially sound — that villainy, deaths, and bad things happening to characters people love are a constant in comic book storytelling.

The story we knew going into Secret Empire was that a powerful item called the Cosmic Cube became a sentient girl called Kobik. Kobik was influenced by the villain Red Skull to turn Steve Rogers into a Hydra agent and restore him to his youth (in the comic books, Rogers was an old man).

There has also been a “reveal” in Secret Empire that during World War II, the Allies may have used the Cosmic Cube to change the outcome of the conflict — though depending on how you read the reveal, it could be another layer of lies implanted into Rogers’s brain or, more seriously, Marvel rewriting its own history. At the start of Secret Empire, Captain America, brilliant tactician and soldier that he is, was in charge of Hydra, and Hydra is in control of everything.

Or so we thought.

The mind-blowing twist in Secret Empire No. 2 is that there’s another Steve Rogers running around the universe. The issue shows us this “other” Rogers in an unidentified location, and ends with a cliffhanger where he says he just wants to get home.

The other Rogers is a jacked muscle daddy with silver hair, and he fights off villains, members of the Serpent Society. We don’t know where he is, other than it’s a wooded area. We also don’t know where “home” is — and while running around in the woods doesn’t seem like the most efficient route to get anywhere, if he’s on the run or in a different dimension or possibly displaced in time, maybe it makes a little more sense.

My speculative (and possibly dumb) guess: Daddy Rogers has something to do with Kobik and the parts of the original Steve Rogers that are still good. We’ll have to wait and see how the story plays out, and I’m not sure whether the existence of this other, non-Hydra Rogers will be enough to satisfy all the people who are mad at Marvel for changing the spirit of the character, but those “still good” fragments of Rogers don’t just disappear, right?

And then the more I think about it, the more I suspect that this reveal ties back to Secret Wars, Marvel’s huge crossover event from 2016, which saw the company’s many alternate universes — and by extension, alternate versions of the main universe’s characters, including an alternate Steve Rogers — collapse onto one another. That alternate Steve Rogers died in the process, or so I assumed.

So now I’m totally confused, but also eager to find out what’s next.

On top of this twist is the lingering remnant of Civil War II, a Marvel crossover story also from 2016 about a man with the power to see the future and give superheroes the choice to stop bad stuff from happening. In one of his visions, he saw Miles Morales, a.k.a. Ultimate Spider-Man, killing Captain America, which makes so much sense now, because he had the vision before anyone knew about the upcoming Hydra reveal. Which means the big question now is how Daddy Rogers factors in.

The Steve Rogers twist is jaw-dropping, but Secret Empire No. 2 is a stellar issue even without it

Secret Empire No. 2 is easily the best issue of the young series thus far. It’s about evoking the hopelessness of the world under Hydra’s thumb, and its sadness is just numbing. I found myself thinking about and caring about characters I’ve never really connected to before, like Dagger and Claire Temple. Natasha, a.k.a. Black Widow, and Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, whose relationship I’m typically lukewarm on, share an apocalyptic moment that’s absolutely compelling. And those developments are in addition to the Rogers twist that possibly ties back into Marvel’s other gigantic crossover events.

Writer Nick Spencer and artists Andrea Sorrentino and Rod Reis excel in this issue. Sorrentino and Reis’s art is painful, relentlessly digging into the grime and dread of the situation. And their standout work in this issue is a sublime spread that chronicles Kobik completely shifting Marvel history.

This mosaic alone is worth the cost of Secret Empire No. 2.

Alongside them, Spencer has managed to give every character in Secret Empire a distinct, natural voice. It’s not easy to write Miles Morales and Natasha in a way that makes both sound believable, let alone have them interact with one another in a believable way. Yet Spencer pulls it off, maintaining a balance between his playfulness and her coldness, while also hitting the right notes when we get to their involvement in the book’s weightier moments.

How much any given reader enjoys Secret Empire depends a lot on their views of the Hydra twist. The series isn’t for everyone, and this twist won’t be either. I can already imagine debates over whether Marvel pulled a fast one on fans, or mined the internet outrage cycle and fans’ very real feelings for sales and reads (though, I’d also argue that this is what comic books, like soaps, and network dramas, are designed to do).

But I do think that for the first time in a while, Marvel has really given us a moment in a comic book where nothing feels definite (in a good, confident way rather than a nonsense way) and anything can happen — including the appearance of a muscle daddy Steve Rogers running around with his pecs out in the middle of a wooded area. That’s got to count for something.

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