Almost exactly one year ago, EW first broke the news that Captain America was now an agent of Hydra. Writer Nick Spencer introduced the twist at the end of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 to much controversy and fanfare. But even as fans flipped out watching Marvel’s most beloved superhero become a ruthless villain, the story took its course. In the pages of Marvel comics, even as the universe’s superheroes split apart amidst the in-fighting of Civil War II, this HydraCap remained in the background, plotting and scheming. In next month’s big crossover event, Secret Empire, HydraCap’s plans finally come to fruition — with devastating consequences for the Marvel Universe.
The nine-issue series will be written by Spencer and feature a rotating cast of artists, full of Marvel luminaries like Steve McNiven, Andrea Sorrentino, Daniel Acuna, and Leinil Yu. Like other recent Marvel events (Secret Wars, Civil War II), Secret Empire shares its name with a previous Marvel event, a ’70s Captain America storyline by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema in which a mysterious evil organization infiltrated the highest levels of American government. Written in the wake of Watergate, the story had high political resonance, but Spencer and Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso insist that this Secret Empire has little to do with contemporary political parallels. It’s an age-old battle of good vs. evil, with the top superhero in Marvel history on one side, and all his friends and teammates on the other.
EW talked to Spencer and Alonso about Hydra’s big plan and what they’ve learned about Captain America over the course of this story. Check that out below, along with a preview of Secret Empire #1 (in stores May 3).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Marvel heroes are no strangers to in-fighting, but this seems like a major increase in stakes. What is it like for the Marvel Universe to have one of its main stars become the major villain of a big event like this?
SPENCER: This isn’t a heroes vs. heroes conflict, it is very much Steve is a villain. Because of what happened with the Cosmic Cube, he is very much on the side of evil in this story. It’s not an honest disagreement between heroes who want to do something differently. Steve has very bad intentions, he is 100% Hydra thanks to what the Cube has done. Within the universe, Steve Rogers is the most trusted and most looked up to and admired figure in the universe. Especially with where our heroes are at this point in this story, they’re divided, they’re fragmented, they’re at each others’ throats in the fallout of what’s come before. Rather than try to come together and work through these things, they’ve been giving Steve more and more power. They’ve decided to just cede it to him, to let him handle these things, and that obviously puts them in a dangerous predicament.
ALONSO: This is a rallying point for the Marvel Universe. This is Hydra taking over, this is bad guys taking over, and this is the Marvel Universe facing this and looking at hero they trust most and saying, how could he have done this? One of the things we want readers asking is not just how are they gonna defeat this evil, but what’s the Cap story in this? How is it possible for there to be a redemptive arc for Cap? Is that Marvel’s intention? That’s what we’re looking at for the next months.
In this preview, we see a kid being saved from Hydra by mostly young heroes like Miles Morales and Viv Vision and the rest of their Champions team that emerged from Civil War II. How have recent Marvel events paved the way for this?
SPENCER: Our youngest characters, and in particular the Champions, are gonna have a really central role in the event. They seem to be in a perfect position to pick up the torch here when a lot of the other heroes maybe weren’t in the best shape. They would really be the ones to keep up the fight, who wouldn’t want to give up in the face of this.
ALONSO: I want to stress though that it is a universe-wide event that involves all of the heroes. There’s Avengers, Spider-Man, Deadpool, X-Men. Everyone’s got a role in this. This is very much a point where the heroes have to rally, get past minor differences, and deal with a real relevant threat. It’s all black and white, no shades of gray.
Between Captain America: Winter Soldier and even the current season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we keep seeing these storylines about Hydra taking over the universe. What is so uniquely scary and threatening about this situation of Hydra infiltrating and taking over?
SPENCER: I think one of the appeals of Hydra as a villain generally is this idea that they have tentacles everywhere, that they’re always lurking in the shadows and always a hair’s breath away from taking over. As long as Hydra’s been around, that’s been the idea: Someone is secretly Hydra, or Hydra is secretly trying to take over. Along with that is this idea that if they did take over, things would get really bad. If you finally show that, if you finally get to the moment where Hydra wins, it’s a big thing to finally have the reader see.
I think there is maybe some general confusion about what Hydra is. Since they fought Captain America in World War II they’re usually associated with Nazis, but they’ve also got their own thing going as an ancient evil organization with a big interest in advanced technology. What is their general ideology and plan?
SPENCER: Hydra is a secret society that’s thousands of years old bent on world domination. In terms of their ideology, they are very much driven by the idea of strength at all costs. It’s a very Darwinian belief set. They believe everyone and everything exists to serve the glory of Hydra, so if you don’t fall in line with that, you’re in a very dangerous spot. It’s this idea of how quickly the world can change. The fact the battle seems over before it even starts is a major scarring moment for the Marvel Universe.
What’s been so eerie about HydraCap is how much he acts like normal Cap. He still talks the same, he still believes in some version of justice and order, but now it’s all tuned to the wrong frequency. How do you strike that balance with this villainous Cap?
SPENCER: This is a great writing challenge for me. The best Marvel villains always have that human core. In Steve’s case, what’s especially troubling for the reader is exactly how familiar he feels. He will say things that just sound exactly like the old Steve Rogers that you knew and love. He is clearly fighting for what he believes is a better world, he believes that doing these things will result in a better life for everyone. He’s wrong of course, but I think villains with conviction are the best. Steve is still Steve. If he was courageous and inspiring before the Cube did this to him, then all those things still apply. In the same way, Steve as a hero was nearly impossible to defeat and usually came out ahead, that same thing is true now. That’s stuff I’ve tried to keep in mind at every step of this story.
What feel do the rotating artists add to the story?
SPENCER: The various artists really are telling distinct stories within the event. I think we viewed the rotating cast as a strength. I’ve seen pages from everyone at this point. Daniel Acuna blew the doors off the zero issue. Andrea Sorrentino will be a household name after this hits. Leinil Yu is someone I’ve dreamed about working with for ages and his work here is stunning. That’s a talented collection of artists and they’re all putting their stamp on the event, it’s all flowing together nicely. I couldn’t be happier with how this thing looks.
This has clearly been a controversial storyline. What have you learned about Captain America and fans’ relationships to this character over the course of this storyline?
SPENCER: I think it’s a funny thing. Obviously, we knew going into this story that turning Steve Rogers into a Hydra agent was a controversial thing, that it would upset folks, and it should. It’s a horrible thing that’s happened to Steve here. But at the same time, you can never totally appreciate until you’re in it the intensity of feeling people have for this character and what he represents. It’s really an incredible thing. The reaction is very much a testament to that. What I would say is not terribly different from what I said back then, which is that at its core, the story is very much about what makes Steve Rogers such a great character, and what can happen if he was pointed in the wrong direction. It now is one of the biggest contests between good and evil that we’ve seen in Marvel Universe. It tries the heroes in ways that they never have been before. Now we’re at the point we’ve been building to from the start.
ALONSO: Bluntly put, when you decide to have Cap say, “Hail Hydra,” you better have a plan. And we have one! It’s a huge story, there are some incredible reveals in the story and an amazingly stirring third act and climax.