The following includes spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. Do not read any further if you want to avoid them.
In Avengers: Endgame, there’s an elevator scene where Captain America (Chris Evans) convinces a group of HYDRA agents to part ways with a briefcase containing an Infinity Stone. Instead of taking the package by force, he simply utters the words “Hail Hydra” and walks away with his prize. Given that Cap dealt with the aforementioned agents in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, his approach makes sense. They don’t know that he’s from the future and using his knowledge of past events to fool them. However, Cap’s words are also a cheeky reference to a comic book storyline that caused a major rift among the Marvel faithful.
In 2017, Marvel released a controversial series called Secret Empire. Penned by Nick Spencer, the story revealed that Cap (aka Steve Rogers) wasn’t the wholesome superhero everyone thought he was. As it turned out, he was actually an agent for the Nazi-aligned Hydra. The reason for his dark turn was the result of his memories being affected by the Cosmic Cube Kobik, but this explanation wasn’t good enough for some fans. This storyline went beyond comics.
The decision to make Cap a symbol for fascism divided readers and caused outrage. The general consensus among disapproving fans and pundits was that Spencer wanted to shock people for the sake of it. But it’s worth remembering that the character was created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, both of whom were Jewish. You don’t need me to explain why people were unhappy with Cap’s newfound association with a Nazi-lite organization.
The fire was further fueled by the story’s decision to make Magneto a Hydra agent as well. Despite being a supervillain in Marvel lore, he’s also a Holocaust survivor who harbors a deep-rooted hatred for the Nazis. In the past, Magneto carried out revenge on fellow villain Red Skull, simply to get revenge for his crimes during World War II. Naturally, making Magneto of all characters a Hydra agent was an unwelcome surprise for many Marvel aficionados.
Some people merely expressed legitimate concerns over the radical makeovers of such iconic characters. Elsewhere, others believed that Secret Empire was disrespectful and socially irresponsible given the legacy of Cap and Magneto, not to mention the heated political climate in America following the 2016 US presidential election.
Spencer didn’t do himself any favors on social media, either. People were especially upset over a tweet he made in which he claimed punching Nazis was wrong. This was posted in response to white nationalist Richard Spencer being attacked by a protester. Considering that one of the most historic Captain America moments featured him punching Hitler in the kisser, the writer’s critics weren’t too fond of his viewpoint.
That said, some people took Secret Empire more personal and even accused Spencer of being an anti-Semite, long before the story even had time to properly unfold and justify Spencer’s creative decisions. Then there was the extreme minority who sent death threats to the writer on social media. Overall, it was an ugly time for the discourse.
Not everyone hated the series, though. Despite the loud outcry against it, Secret Empire received favorable reviews for the most part. Supporters of the series believed Spencer’s changes were daring and refreshing. Cap was perceived as a predictable hero who was in need of a bold revamp. What is bolder than turning one of the noblest characters in the Marvel Universe into a member of a fascistic organization?
Judging by his various interviews and social media posts about the series, Spencer comes across as someone who just wanted to do something different. He’s not the first writer to do so and he won’t be the last. Whether or not his ideas worked out, though, depends on who you ask. I doubt he expected it to become such a heated topic of sociopolitical debate.
Of course, the real-world implications surrounding Secret Empire were understandable. Marvel claimed that the series wasn’t intended to be a political commentary about contemporary America. However, given that the saga launched shortly after the country elected a leader with authoritarian tendencies, the parallels were strong — at least on paper.
Secret Empire isn’t all that political, though. While its plot disturbingly echoes the political landscape of 2017 (and now), the overall story is more or less a basic superhero romp. The decision to taint Cap of all heroes could have made for a compelling commentary about the dangers of a corrupt administration, but Spencer and co. weren’t out to comment on the big issues.
In the end, it turned out that evil Cap was a doppelganger all along and the real Steve Rogers eventually returned to restore balance. All was right in the Marvel Universe once again. Or was the reveal a safe cop-out because Marvel wasn’t ballsy enough to stand by this controversial vision? These are the questions that will always be synonymous with Secret Empire.