Secret Empire #1 Puts Shock Value Above Soldiers And That’s A Problem

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the Dark Dimension (actually, even there) you’ve heard the news: Captain America, beloved hero and all-around good guy, is Hydra in the current story line. At C2E2 this weekend I had a chance to read an advance copy of Secret Empire #1 and… well, you know what site you’re on, guys. There are FEELINGS.

Full disclosure: I’m well-known in my circle for my deep love of Captain America. I loved Cap when I was a kid and his main appeal was the cool costume and shield. In my Army days, I would tag along on trips to the main base in hopes that one of the new cheesy-but-awesome special military edition Marvel comics was out. When the MCU got to Winter Soldier, I fell in love all over again from the way they portrayed Cap: torn between loyalties, faithful to his country but uneasy at the direction it’s taking and no longer sure what’s wrong or right.

A lot of my fellow veterans feel the same way. We feel this way because to us – to the military and to veterans – Captain America is one of us. Steven Grant Rogers is a symbol of every soldier who gives their all to a government that plays fast and loose with that loyalty.

That’s kind of a metaphor for what Marvel is doing with him right now, actually.

See, the problem isn’t that the writing throughout this story arc is bad. That loose-leaf early copy of Secret Empire #1 I got to read? I mean… I’m a comics fan at heart, people. I know good writing when I see it, and this is good writing. Amid the devastation wrought by the utter debasement of a beautiful character, other characters that don’t get as much love as they should are stepping into the light. Female characters and POCs seem to be carrying the heroic torch throughout the Secret Empire, and I do like seeing that kind of representation.

Except, as I said, quality of writing isn’t the problem. It’s actually the opposite case. If the writing was bad – if Nick Spencer was a hack with no talent – none of this would matter. I could write this off with an eye roll as a lazy “but what if the good guy was… BAD?” story line and move on with my day.

The problem is this: Marvel is denying responsibility for having connected soldiers and Captain America. They’re pretending they didn’t deliberately cultivate a sense of brotherhood with the Star Spangled Man With A Plan, and by doing that they can’t see that this story is flourishing at the expense of soldiers.

Maybe that statement seems like I’m overreacting. I’ll grant that it’s a possibility. I certainly don’t speak for all veterans here. I did talk to some of my nerdy veteran friends about this, though, and if I’m taking it too seriously so are they. Our less comic-centric battle buddies are trying to remind us that it’s not about us, that Captain America isn’t about us, but Marvel has gone so far out of their way to build a connection between Cap and the military that it’s almost ridiculous.

Those comics we got while deployed? They showed Captain America and friends as among us, fighting beside us, doing the things we did but also kind of deferring to us as experts in our field. Over and over again we were shown that Cap is one of us. It’s not a leap to return that with “we are Cap”. I watched Chris Evans throughout Winter Soldier and Civil War and thought, “Me too, man. Me, too.” I have also had to navigate conflicting loyalties between battle buddies and the government. I felt those stories to my bones.

Not this one. For the first time, Captain America is someone I can’t like, let alone love.

I can’t fully divorce myself from him, either, and that’s double-plus ungood.

When you identify with Cap like so many of us do – like we were encouraged to do – and he turns into this, it can put you in a dark place. You start looking uneasily at your past for things you could have done better, places you made the wrong choice. Do I logically regret anything I did overseas? Nope, not one. Mine was a fairly tame experience as deployments go – but still, this story line has cost me sleep in a bad way. (Thanks, Marvel. I really needed one more thing keeping me awake.)

Even worse is the fact that Captain America didn’t have to be innately evil to create an interesting story. My veteran buddies and I would be all aboard a story arc where Cap is suffering from worsening PTSD and the government is hushing it up to preserve their hero’s reputation. Bam, Cap can do some bad things without being bad.

So where do we go from here?

I could ignore this entire label until Secret Empire ends – but there’s another problem. Marvel has been criticized for linking the increase in minority titles to poor sales (because clearly people aren’t just mad/bored/offended by Nazi Cap). By ignoring the entire Secret Empire, I might be hurting amazing talent like Margaret Stohl. Seriously, if you haven’t read her work go do the thing, because I’d give my left arm just to listen to her personal headcanons about Captain Marvel or Black Widow.

I brought my concerns up at the C2E2 Secret Empire panel. Everyone hurried to reassure me that that wasn’t the intent. Nick Lowe, who is a sunshiney dude you could easily picture hanging out with on Read Comics In Public Day, told me his grandfather was a Vietnam veteran. Margaret Stohl explained at length about how offending veterans wasn’t the point and how it was about the growth of the character that mattered. Everyone swore the payoff in the end is worth it. Nick Spencer came in with a pointed statement along the lines of, “This isn’t Cap’s fault. There was nothing he could to do prevent this, he had no choice, it wasn’t his fault.”

That last part, spoken what felt like directly to me, actually made me feel better for a few minutes… until I sat on it for a while and realized that didn’t answer my problem. It was my problem. What Marvel meant to do doesn’t matter. What matters is that Captain America doesn’t have a choice. He’s a pawn, available for whoever wants to play with him and easily manipulated to do even the worst things in the name of his chief virtues. He is without autonomy in this arc. This is how people see soldiers – wind them up and they do whatever you want.

And honestly, f–k that.

I would have felt ten times better if, upon hearing that question, the panel had reacted more along the lines of, “Oh no, oh my gods, we did not think of that angle and yeah, I get that. We’re already doing the story and we have to play it out but guys, we’re so sorry, we just didn’t get it.” You know, some validation or an admission that they hadn’t seen that angle. All I wanted to know was that my favorite comic producer hadn’t weighed the pain they were about to cause a socially vulnerable population and decided it was worth it.

Did they? Who knows? It’s unlikely. These people aren’t monsters, however mad I am about this. Probably they didn’t think it through and aren’t willing to admit it, which is a jerk move but whatever.

Where do we go from here? Honestly, I’m not sure. Will my profound love of Captain America survive if I read more of this story? Do I trust that Marvel will have some kind of climax that makes me not want to jump off a bridge in self loathing? Can I indulge in a little magical thinking and decide that Captain America is being held hostage by a foreign force in the form of his alternate self?

One thing is certain. Captain America will never – can never – be as pure as he was.

Apparently I’m the only person who thinks that’s a bad thing.

How do you feel about Captain America’s heel turn? Am I full of it, or do you see where I’m coming from on this angle? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Author: Khai

Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and game enthusiast. She can talk fandom in five languages, and her proudest nerd moment so far was presenting original research titled “Gender, Sex, and Werewolves” at an international anthropological conference. Her first game, None For Me, is due out from Calico Games early next year.

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