The Secret Empire
If you’re going to understand the significance of the Secret Empire arc, you have to understand that the words ‘Secret Empire’ evoke powerful memories for Captain America fans. You see, in the 1970s, writer Steve Englehart decided to use Captain America to explore American self-identity. Englehart’s plot was essentially his reaction to the Watergate scandal, only in this telling, it featured Captain America discovering a conspiracy that ran to the White House itself.
Most fans view this as the definitive Captain America story, a deeply introspective arc that carried real political weight. Among other things, it featured Steve Rogers ultimately choosing to abandon his costumed identity in order to work out just how he could fit in with this strange, damaged world.
You simply have to understand the weight of the term Secret Empire if you’re going to get the story Marvel’s about to tell. By invoking memories of Steve Englehart’s legendary run, Marvel is cautioning readers to expect a deeply political story, one that wrestles with questions of American self-identity and will stand in the shadow of the White House.
The Red Shadow
Our story begins as far back as 2013, with Marvel attempting to draw the X-Men and the Avengers closer together in the aftermath of Avengers Versus X-Men. Steve Rogers assembled the so-called ‘Unity Team,’ a squad composed of a mix of classic Avengers and mutants, better known as the Uncanny Avengers. The Unity Team was dedicated to bridging the gulf between man and mutant – but soon they were facing a particularly dangerous new threat.
Writer Rick Remender unveiled a new Red Skull, who he explained as being a clone of the original. In a horrific twist, the very first issue closed with the Red Skull in possession of the brain of the recently-deceased Charles Xavier, which he somehow used to take possession of Xavier’s powers.
It was a strange concept, and one that only works with a liberal application of comic book logic, but it set up the whole new status quo – with the Red Skull more powerful than ever before, campaigning to win people over on a ticket of hatred, and swaying minds with the telepathic power of Professor X.
You really have to go this far back for the build-up to Secret Empire, as those new powers, and that new strategy, are key to the Red Skull’s development as a villain.
The Iron Nail
For the record, in that scene – suitably ironic now – S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have been mind-controlled to believe Cap and Falcon are Hydra agents. It’s a moment that really stands out in hindsight.
Rick Remender has always loved to put characters through the wringer, and The Iron Nail – which ran from Captain America #17 through to #21 – was certainly no exception. It featured Doctor Mindbubble launching an insane campaign against the “secret dictatorship” of S.H.I.E.L.D. – and it set the pattern for the next couple of years’ worth of Captain America stories. In a shocking twist, the arc ended with the super-soldier serum pulled out of Steve Rogers’s body, which reverted to its correct age. Steve Rogers was a super-soldier no more.
Perhaps the most intriguing side of The Iron Nail is that it re-established the difficult relationship between Captain America and S.H.I.E.L.D.. Steve Rogers was faced yet again with examples of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s excesses under Maria Hill. As he reflected, all too often the greatest threads hide behind the smiles of allies.