Image by Nivrata Bharwani.
In May of 2016, Marvel comics revealed that Captain America, AKA Steve Rogers, is a secret agent of Hydra. Now, in the comic arc “Secret Empire,” the once honorable character’s new Nazi identity comes to fruition.
Hydra has existed in the Marvel comic universe since 1965 as a fictional terrorist organization intent on world domination. Although not technically a part of the Nazi regime, the two organizations share similar genocidal goals and are frequently associated together, making them nearly indistinguishable.
In the new release written by Nick Spencer and illustrated on rotation by various Marvel artists, we see Steve rise to leadership in Hydra due to an alteration of his childhood memories. This manipulation has caused him to believe he has been a part of the genocidal fascist regime since birth.
“With Marvel Comics’ ‘Secret Empire,’ the forces of Hydra have taken over and, due to the villainous actions of the Red Skull, have manipulated Marvel’s greatest hero, Captain America, and forced him to adopt their cause,” Marvel said in a statement to ABC News.
Under this Hydra identity, Steve has been waiting in the shadows and has formed a secret team of Hydra Avengers, one of whom is Scarlet Witch, AKA Wanda Maximoff, the Jewish and Romani daughter of Magneto, a Holocaust survivor. Before this, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wanda volunteers to work with Hydra and is played by Elizabeth Olsen, a white non-Jewish woman. The continued disservice toward Wanda in both the MCU and comics shows the current Marvel creators’ incompetence at handling Jewish characters.
A new variant cover suggests Magneto himself is colluding with Hydra. Throughout Magneto’s long reign as the infamous X-Men villain, his escape from Auschwitz has driven his decision to never join Professor X’s league of heroes, as he can never reconcile the atrocities he’s seen with the heroic mission statement of the X-Men. His identity as a Jewish Holocaust survivor is central to his character. In suggesting Magento would align himself with Hydra, an organization intimately linked to the Nazi party that killed and tortured his family and fellow Jews, Marvel has crossed a line.
Spencer stated in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that he knew exactly the kind of outrage Steve’s Hydra status would bring, but chose to still write the arc in order for audiences to understand “what makes Steve Rogers such a great character, and what can happen if he was pointed in the wrong direction.”
Becoming a Nazi is not merely walking down the wrong path—it is willingly becoming an advocate for mass genocide. Spencer clearly lacks understanding of the comic world he has full control over.
The most plausible explanation for Marvel’s decision to make Captain America a member of Hydra is that it is a manipulative ploy to gain attention and sales, revealing that their desire to make money far outweighs any responsibility the multimillion dollar company might feel toward influencing the greater good.
Captain America’s Hydra journey has understandably gained a lot of attention, as fans are upset over seeing their favorite character who stands for peace, freedom, and honor take such a dramatic turn toward evil, fascism, and chaos. Marvel understood that fans would turn to the comics to try and understand this transformation. Thus, as an easy way to gain readers, the company sought the biggest scandal in order to score the highest amount of revenue, revealing a troubling entanglement of capitalism and moral degeneration.
At a convention in 2016, former Marvel president Stan Lee said of Hydra Cap, “I don’t know that I would ever have thought of it for him to be a double agent, but it’s going to make you curious, it’s going to make you want to read the books, they’ll probably do a movie based on it.”
“Secret Empire” is also a part of Marvel’s ongoing romanticization of Hydra. Alongside the release of “Secret Empire,” Marvel is encouraging comic book stores to have employees wear Hydra merchandise.
The glorification of comic book villains is nothing new—just look at fans’ extreme adoration of the MCU’s Loki or DC’s The Joker. But seeing fans gleefully repeat “Hail Hydra” is deeply unsettling when its Nazi roots and the current political climate are taken into consideration.
If Captain America symbolizes the epitome of the American ideal, perhaps this transition to be a part of Hydra only serves to represent the degradation of American democratic ideals since the election of President Trump, which has seen a number of hate fueled legislation, including the likes of the Muslim ban, defunding of Planned Parenthood, and an increase in ICE raids.
Not only is this cash grab a betrayal of the character of Captain America himself (a character co-created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, two Jewish men), it is a manifestation of the nation’s current hateful climate created and nurtured by the Trump administration and its supporters.
Since 2010, there has been a rising of the Alt-right—white supremacist neo-Nazis, who support the rise of white nationalism with the elimination of people of color, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and the queer community. The Alt-right notoriously supported the election of President Donald Trump, who has created a platform of hate on which bigots feel they can now vocally express their toxic opinions, if only because their president is out there spewing his own vitriol. Since Trump’s inauguration in January, there has been an increase in anti-semitic hate crimes, including accounts of destruction of Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, as well as an increase in sightings of Swastika graffiti.
I fear that Steve Roger’s membership in Hydra can only serve to further breed this sort of hate. Under his Hydra roots, he would align with much of the Alt-Right’s platform, and it would not be that much of a leap of logic for the community as a whole to adopt Captain America as a symbol for their cause, much like they did with another popular figure, Pepe the meme.
Captain America was created during WWII as a call to action for Americans to join the war. Since his creation, he has been the star of countless comic series, all featuring the hero fighting fascism and evil. The very first cover of the comic features Captain America punching Hitler, a now iconic image. How could Marvel have gone from writing Captain America as a hero who punches Nazis to him literally becoming one?
Perhaps the answer can be found in Spencer, who took to Twitter in January to condemn the internet’s comparisons between the viral punch aimed at Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to the iconic image of Captain America punching Hitler, stating that “cheering violence against speech, even of the most detestable, disgusting variety, is not a look that will age well.”
The argument that free speech is protected under the first amendment, no matter the hate it might inspire, is not acceptable in today’s tense times. Spencer’s inability to recognize the importance of a Black man standing up to a Neo-Nazi is reflective of his inability to recognize the repercussions of “Secret Empire.”
Since the Hydra Cap announcement, Spencer has gone to great lengths to distinguish Hydra from Nazis, tweeting “They are very, very bad people, and unquestionably villains. But Hydra’s goals, beliefs, and membership criteria simply aren’t the same.”
Cue eyeroll. Yes, Spencer is correct in stating the two organizations are not the same, but there is no doubt that Hydra’s comic creators intended for Hydra to mimic the Nazi party.
Steve’s Hydra membership hits a personal chord for me, as ever since I first saw “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Steve Rogers has been my idol and source of strength in my life. I quickly fell in love with Steve’s sense of humanity, kindness, and pure heart. I gave the name Stevie to my dog in recognition of my favorite character. Whenever she misbehaves, I tell her, “that’s not the way your namesake would act,” but now I have to live with the fact that Steve Rogers no longer represents the qualities I want her or anyone else to possess. Although the comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe are two separate entities, there is no denying that the image of Captain America has been indubitably tarnished.
As a Jewish woman, reading Steve Rogers, the “Star Spangled Man with a Plan,” utter the words “Hail Hydra” is extremely traumatizing. Growing up, my mother instilled in me a strong pride for my religion, but also taught me to be aware of the dangers of anti-Semitism. She taught me to always embrace the spirit of a superhero and stand up for my religion if I ever heard a classmate make anti-Semitic comments. How do I embrace that Captain American spirit to stand up to bullies when the bully is Captain America himself?
Marvel has an obligation to produce content that will not further perpetuate hate and anti-Semitism. Instead, they have chosen to create a big controversial splash.
After all, Marvel is simply another cog in the neoliberal machine. Perhaps the answer lies instead in independent comic book creators. I hope that there’s a young comic book developer out there now, fueled by anger at Marvel’s rising Nazi problem, furiously developing the most radical, feminist, Nazi-punching superhero ever.