I’ve not really talked about Hydra Cap until this week. With the initial backlash last year, when it was first revealed that Captain America was some sort of Hydra sleeper agent, I decided to just stay away from it. I figured it would be a small story, something done in 3 issues. Of course, it was revealed that magical interference was to blame, not a hard retcon of his history. I didn’t like the idea of it, but I thought it would blow over.
Since then, the story has not only permeated, but is now the focus of an entire event, Secret Empire. Marvel have doubled down hard on Hydra Cap. He’s the central villain of the story, an event which is dragging in the entire Marvel universe. As a longtime fan of the character, I want to talk about why I’m so disappointed, as well as why this isn’t like any typical comic book twist.
In 2008 we had a story in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America about homegrown fascism. A breed of hate which had been cultivated by a political candidate secretly supported by the Red Skull. It was a threat beyond something tangible, one uncomfortably close to home. We saw American citizens having their fears and grief turned into anger and hate. It’s a story that feels even more disturbingly relevant today than it did back then. How did it conclude? Captain America returned, unmasked the threat, and defeated the Red Skull with the help of his allies. Because of course, he’s the Marvel universe’s greatest hero, the antithesis of intolerance and hate.
On the surface, the premise for that story now looks like our reality. Anxiety and anger are fueling a rise in hate crime, while faith in our leaders is at an all-time low. If there was ever a time in the last 10 years to promote a Captain America story about defiance and compassion, it’s now.
But instead of summoning the inspiring hero, Marvel’s newest series has Captain America as a scheming villain.
He now represents exactly what we’re afraid of in this political climate, the very thing he was invented to combat, fascism.
It’s impossible to talk about the impact of this story without taking a moment to reflect on who, and especially what, Captain America is.
I’m reminded of an interview I read back around the release of the original Civil War. I can’t remember who said this (I suspect it was either Mark Millar or Ed Brubaker), but to paraphrase: Captain America is a complicated icon because he represents different things to different people, essentially different ideas of what America is.
To some, Captain America is outside of the government altogether, he’s a defender of the public. Both a WWII veteran and a modern day New Yorker, he’s a blend of historical and contemporary principles. He’s an incorruptible ideal of goodness, kindness and embodies everybody’s duty to help those in need. Fighting for unity and peace, he transcends political and generational dividing lines.
To others, Captain America is a soldier through and through, someone to take on America’s enemies on the frontlines. He sacrifices himself to keep everybody else safe, because he has the power and the bravery to do so, he’s a one-man weapon (The Ultimates, and its sequel Ultimates II, explore this idea somewhat).
Regardless of where you fall, or what he means to you, the bottom line is this: people look up to Captain America as a symbol, he’s a modern personification of the American spirit. When you keep that in mind, you can see how deeply troubling the idea of Hydra Cap is.
A trusted super hero turning evil is not a new concept. Daredevil became the leader of the Hand, forcing the Avengers to confront him. Wolverine became an agent of Hydra for a single story-arc, pitting him against former friends. Jean Grey famously became the Dark Phoenix and went from longtime hero to dangerous villain. They’re often controversial storylines, but I’ll happily admit that more often than not, I enjoy the result. Replacing heroes with villains, or changing their allegiances, can allow interesting character studies or even just be a way to turn a stagnating series upside down.
On its own, an evil hero is not a toxic idea. But Hydra Cap is different. Doing so in this manner, with this character, amongst the backdrop of recent worldwide events? That’s where the problem lies, that’s something new.
Yes, Hydra Cap will be reversed to the classic Captain America once Secret Empire wraps up, that’s all but guaranteed. But these stories don’t exist in a vacuum, we can’t pretend that a story is “just a story” even if we want to. At best Hydra Cap is a clunky and tasteless idea, made worse by outside political events. At worst, it’s something much more sinister.
Hydra aren’t real, but their origins are. In the mainstream Marvel comics, which this event is part of, Hydra was originally staffed and led by Nazis. Hydra has been used as a villain since the 1960s and has been used in various capacities, but their goal of world domination (and obvious allusion to being fascists) has always remained intact. The most prominent two leaders, both the Red Skull and Baron Strucker, are Nazis.
Therefore, Captain America, a character created by two Jewish men in WWII, is now the leader of a group with strong ties to Nazism, one that undoubtedly has Nazi members. That alone is disrespectful, but coupled with the recent rise in fascism, hate crime and white supremacist ideals, it’s a disturbingly irresponsible twist.
Hydra Cap as a symbol, as an idea, says to every white supremacist asshole “That American icon? He’s secretly one of you. He shares your ideals”. It’s validation that their views are worthwhile and justifiable enough that Captain America himself is now temporarily on their side.
Stories have extraordinary power over how people see the world and see themselves. Super hero characters especially play into this due to their straightforward moralistic nature. An author cannot control how their story will be read or what themes the reader will take from it, but they can illustrate in black and white who’s on the side of good and who’s the villain.
The best example of this is Superman vs. the KKK. If you’ve not heard the story, the basic version is that by broadcasting a Superman story where the man of steel went up against white supremacists, it opened some people’s eyes to the fact that these people were not to be debated or considered, they were downright evil and no different than any fictional band of villains. Recruitment numbers declined. There’s power in showing those ideas as something heroes could never even consider. But Marvel are trying to both distance Hydra from their Nazi roots, while encourage us to consider Captain America as the same man, just with a new allegiance.
Everyone wants to see themselves as the hero. Even with the context of being a villain, the image of a heroic Captain America leading a group of fascists, is one that sends a horrible message, despite what Marvel are trying to say.
Super heroes are our modern myths. They’re icons. Role models. Captain America? Especially so, he’s Marvel’s most trustworthy hero. Again and again, with different writers, in different series’ across different eras, Captain America has been the foundation of the Marvel Universe’s moral compass. It’s why he so often clashes with more practically minded heroes, because he refuses to compromise, or to sacrifice lives.
He’s therefore the most shocking candidate to be working alongside Hydra.
Marvel know this, obviously. It’s the whole point. That’s why Secret Empire is supposed to be surprising. The elevator pitch is that a famous and dependable hero is secretly a villain, the idea is that you’ll be interested and stunned by why and how such a bastion of good is suddenly evil. But that’s not how everyone is going to read the series, that’s not how the series sits in relation to its history, it’s audience, and its place in popular culture.
Racists do not see themselves as evil. Real life villains do not sit back and cackle like the Red Skull, they think they’re doing the right thing. A Captain America aligned with Hydra, an evil fascist group, is not a shocking twist for real life fascists, it’s validation and a cheeky thumbs up. It says that you can still be a hero, a good person and worthy of respect and leadership, yet hold the vile views that you do, just like our modern Captain America now does.
By aiming to shock, and sell yet another blockbuster summer event, Marvel are tarnishing their own legacy, alienating fans, and doing their character and his creators an incredible disservice.
Shocking moments sell summer events. Hydra Cap is supposed to be no different than the endless cycle of twists that fuel Marvel’s event machine. But it is different. Marvel are telling you it’s business as usual, that this is no different than Elektra being a Skrull or the Watcher being shot. You don’t have to think about it very long to see that this isn’t anywhere close to those frivolous changes.
I’m writing this because I know superhero comics can be better. Captain America deserves better. This is a character with a history of responsibility well beyond WWII.
In the 1970s, Captain America specifically distanced himself from the government, which itself was a reaction to the American people losing their faith in their leaders post-Watergate. It was a brilliant example of the comic mimicking real world issues, and an open discussion of what does the title of Captain America mean in that political climate?
Hell, the event that sparked that change? Richard Nixon himself was implied to be a villainous mastermind, which shook Captain America’s faith in the US government. Now that serious concerns are being raised about the current President of the United States in the real world, after a long campaign littered with intolerance, Captain America is revealed to be on the side of fascists. It’s a disrespectful and depressing decision, at the worst possible time.
Where does that leave us? As always when it comes to comics, vote with your money. The main reason behind this story choice is to make money. Marvel know it will grab headlines and curious readers will pick up the series as a result. If you disagree in principle with the comic, just buy something you want to read instead, that’ll send a stronger message than anything else.
If you took the time to read this, even if you disagree, I hope it at least highlights why this storyline is so controversial and why so many people like myself have a problem with it.
Ultimately, I want comics to be better, because the medium, the audience and the character deserve better.