Sometimes there are ideas that you'd just assume no-one in their right mind would ever be stupid enough to try, even in the world of comics. But this is What Were They Thinking, where we look at all of the stupidest and most ill-advised things in all of comic book history, so we've covered most of them, from a racist vampire who spread AIDS instead of vampirism to a man who attached a cannon to his crotch to make up for certain inadequecies. And the storyline we're going to talk about today certainly falls into that category. And I'm sure everyone knows what is coming next...
So, Secret Empire. The story that sees Captain America become an agent of Hydra and take over America. Now there are a lot of problems with the storyline its self. It doesn't know if it wants to be a political thriller, a heroic quest or an all-out slugfest and often times tries to do all 3 at the same time which doesn't quite work. It tried to build up characters (such as Sam Wilson) but did it in the most stupid way possible. Then of course you had the fact that they made other heroes (such as Thor (Odinson), Vision, Scarlet Witch, Punisher and Deadpool) join forces with Hydra. And of course the story has the usual Marvel crossover problems of too many tie-ins with vital plot points that should have been in the main series and, of course, in the end nothing changed. Sure a few characters died (the only one of note being Black Widow) but they'll be back in 5 minutes. We all knew how it was going to end from the start as well, because Marvel are Marvel, they do huge "world changing" events and then change nothing. We did a WWTT about it before. But hey, at least it looks good right (because most modern comics look amazing, lets be honest).
However, there are two problems that far outweigh any of those problems that I have brought up. And let's start with the obvious one shall we:
This series made Captain America a Nazi.
Now, before I go any further, Marvel and Nick Spencer (who wrote the series) have gone on record multiple times to claim that Hydra aren't a Nazi organisation. So I thought I'd take the time to do a quick breakdown of that assertion. Ok, Hydra first appeared in comics in Strange Tales #135 as the evil counterpart to Nick Fury's SHIELD organisation. Originally, the organisation was founded by an American businessman called Arnold Brown, but it would be retconned around a year later to Brown being a fake figurehead and the true leader of Hydra being Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker. Von Strucker had previously been introduced in January 1964's edition of Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos #5 as the head of the Nazi Death-Head Squad. And right there is where all debate on this issue should stop, but I can keep going so I shall. In this revised origin, Von Strucker founded Hydra on the orders of the Red Skull, in Marvel continuity Hitlers' right hand man and most evil proponent of National Socialism imaginable, who wanted a way to keep Nazi ideaology alive when it became apparent that Germany was going to lose the Second World War. The comics have also shown Hydra including Nazi aspects such as incorperating the Thule Society (which were an occultist group that were the main sponsors of the early Nazi party), being funded by hidden Nazi gold and their aim being to bring about a Neo-Facist world order. And when the group's ideology got watered down by decades of continuity and storylines, Marvel rebooted the group by having Red Skull take power and refocus Hydra on his original Nazi ideology. This is the continuity that the comics have stuck to since the 60's, but what about the movies. Well, in the MCU, Hydra is founded by the Red Skull, who is the head of the Nazi's deep science division and creates Hydra because he doesn't think Hitler is going far enough. So, to say that Hydra isn't a Nazi organisation would only be true IF you were talking about Strange Tales #135 of 1965, because in every other incarnation is has been. Oh and if you need any more evidence that Hydra Cap is a Nazi, he was brainwashed by Kobik (the cosmic cube given sentience) on the orders of a clone of the Red Skull. You know, Hitlers' right hand man.
So, this storyline unequivocally made Captain America a Nazi. There are many ways to break down how wrong that is, first and foremost being; Did Marvel forget that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (the creators of Captain America) were both a) WW2 Veterans and b) JEWISH! Do I really need to explain America's contribution to World War 2 and the effects of the Holocaust to Marvel? Then you have the fact that Captain America is supposed to be the literal embodiment of American idealism and fighting for democracy against totalitarianism. Now, this really could have been an amazing plot point, with the thread being how intollerance can warp idealism and pervert peoples veiws on what is right and what is wrong. That would have been an especially potent thing in the current climate. And, to his miniscule credit, Nick Spencer does have Hydra Cap ruminate on his role at various times throughout the storyline. However, the biggest problem with that is that it comes to nothing. Not only do they not go deep enough down the rabbit hole when it comes to really good plot ideas, but they can't even be bothered to pay it off properly. Hydra Cap doesn't change his mind and fight Hydra, they just make a clone Cap to replace him. And then they end it in the worst way possible, but we'll get to that. And then you have both the timing and the symbolism. By not following through on the potential of the storyline and giving a proper commentary, Marvel found precisely the wrong time to do a storyline that sees America go Nazi, because it actually happened in real-life. Whilst this storyline was being published, you had white-nationalists parading out on the streets waving nazi flags, shouting Nazi slogans and assaulting and murdering people who disagreed with them. Meanwhile in Marvel's comics, you had the man who symbolises America and all that is good about the country, condoning this sort of behaviour and doing the exact same. It obviously was not Marvel's intention (although full disclosure, because I'm sure not many people know this, but the Chairman of Marvel Entertainment Isaac Perlmutter is a Trump supporter and donor with some very unpleasent views on Muslims and Black people), but showing Captain America as a Nazi when there are actually Americans waving Nazi flags in pride is effectively a show of support, which should horrify Marvel (and, as I said, I'm sure it wasn't Marvel's intent and they couldn't possibly have known that neo-Nazism would make a comeback at a time when America elected a president who spent the entire campaign race-baiting and playing up right-wing conspiracies). Oh, and then we come to the fact that Nazi-Cap lifted Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. Ooooooo dear. Now, we all know lifting Mjolnir means that you are worthy of it. Though it was later revealled (in a blink and you'll miss it scene right near the end of the series I might add) that this was a hoax, that is another image that gives off support (however unintentional) to these fringe right-wing groups. Nazi's and Neo-Nazi's already love their Norse imagary enough already, you dont need to give them Nazi-Captain American weilding Thor's hammer that can only be lifted by those who are worthy of it.
So, the first big problem with this storyline is that they made Captain America a Nazi. That alone should be enough to make it a WWTT subject. But what was the other big problem with this storyline, the one that really ruined any chance it had of being even half decent?
They ballsed up the ending.
You know what people like? Endings that satisfyingly wrap up all of the plot points of a story and conclude in a way that has been built to throughout the story. You know what people don't like? Deux Ex Machina's, plot devices that are barely alluded to throughout the story or that the audience have no idea about that suddenly pop up to solve all of the problems. Deux Ex Machina's are deeply unsatisfying ways to conclude a story. Guess what Marvel did?
So, the ending of Secret Empire sees the combined might of basically every superhero fighting against Hydra. This comes down to a fight between Hydra-Cap and a new Cap who has just been wandering around for most of the story without explaination. Hydra-Cap is using a armour-suit powered by fragments of the cosmic cube and is basically overpowered as hell. But then Kobik turns up and puts everything back to the way it was. It is also revealled late in the story that Kobik created the new Cap from her memories of him from before she turned him evil. This in its self is problematic because Kobik didn't actually know Cap before she messed his head up, which is what makes this a Deux Ex Machina, because that don't make sense. But the real problem here is the fact that, we all knew that the cosmic cube would be used to fix everything. Marvel knew we all knew that the cosmic cube would fix everything. So what did Marvel do? They lied. They said that the cosmic cube wouldn't be used to fix everything and then did it anyway. It wasn't bad enough that they couldn't be bothered to give the story a proper ending, they had to lie about it as well. And here's the real problem. That means no other character in this story mattered. Miles Morales, pointless. Black Widow, useless. Hawkeye, does not matter. Falcon, couldn't give a damn. They all got beat. The only characters who matter are Hydra-Cap, New-Cap and Kobik (with Bucky and Ant-Man being bit parters who helped find and rebuild the cube). Just a click of your fingers and nothing that happened in this story was worth anything. The only take away is, "if you want to fight facism make sure you have some sort of reality warping cosmic object. Don't bother with re-education or standing up to them, just change reality."
A good alegory for this storyline would be if you imagined Marvel were trying to build a house. There are good blueprints with a few glaring flaws that could be easily fixed, but they started work anyway. They built a good enough foundations, but they still hadn't adressed all of the problems that were clear from the planning stage. Then they started to build the structure, but left out some crucial building pieces during the process and either put them in much later than they should or put them in a small attachment they were building next to the house. Then they put up some facades to make it look pretty and to cover up all of the problems and covered those facades with unfortunate Nazi imagary. And then something out of their control happens and the whole thing falls apart.
At least when DC made Superman a Soviet they had the common sense to make it a non-canon Elseworlds story (btw Red Son is actually pretty good).
And with that