More than any other Marvel Comics event in recent history, Secret Empire and its lead-up have been heavily scrutinized by fans thanks to its controversial premise of making Steve Rogers a fascist dictator and Hydra agent, coupled with Marvel’s insistence that there is no backdoor deus ex machina to explain away Captain America's villain turn and that the consequences of Secret Empire will ring true.
That throughline – that this Hydra-fied Captain America is “not a clone, not an imposter, not mind control” - combined with Marvel’s later promise that the ending of Secret Empire will redeem Steve Rogers seems to have painted Marvel and writer Nick Spencer into a narrative corner as to how to deliver that redemption. It’s not a stretch to say that the entirety of Secret Empire’s legacy may be defined by whether Spencer sticks the landing on the return of the Steve Rogers we all know and love.
With some fans still anticipating a deus ex machina to save the day anyway (like the reality-altering Cosmic Cube that made Steve a Hydra sleeper agent in the first place), Marvel has proactively gone out of its way to offer assurances that the slate won’t simply be wiped clean when all is said and done. But without that kind of random interference - and taking for granted that Marvel is being straightforward that Hydra Steve isn’t a clone or from an alternate reality - what options does that leave?
Spoilers ahead for Secret Empire #2.
The final page of this week’s Secret Empire #2, from writer Nick Spencer and unsolicited guest artist Rod Reis, revealed that somewhere in the Marvel Universe is a second Steve Rogers who is not apparently a Hydra agent - and seems to resemble the heroic Steve that existed prior to Red Skull’s use of a Cosmic Cube to subvert him to Hydra. And it’s this moment that may directly explain exactly how Marvel is planning to get the "real" Steve Rogers back.
This second Steve was unshaven, unkempt, and clothed in battered army fatigues, claiming that he simply wants to “get home.” The image of the haggard, bearded Steve desperately searching for a way back to the Marvel Universe immediately brought to mind another recent Captain America story – Rick Remender and John Romita Jr.’s “Castaway In Dimension Z” from 2013.
In “Castaway from Dimension Z,” Steve is transported to an alternate dimension created and ruled from its capital city Zolandia by Steve’s old nemesis (and current Secret Empire Hydra underling) Arnim Zola. In this realm, Zola is attempting to rapidly grow a mutant army which he then plans to transport to the real world. Steve rescues and adopts a baby boy who is a genetic duplicate of Zola, raising him in the wilds of Dimension Z while searching for a way home.
During this arc, a clone of Steve Rogers is introduced - Captain Zolandia. Zola conceives him (and several other clones, allegedly), then mutates him further using negatively-charged gamma rays. He becomes a rival to Rogers during his Dimension Z stay, but briefly mentions that he has the World War II vet's memories. Rogers beats Zolandia with the mutated clone's own shield. When Steve finally returns to the Marvel Universe himself he finds that despite spending 12 years in Dimension Z, he’s only been gone 30 minutes in “real world” time.
Captain Zolandia resurfaced in the mainstream 616 a few months later for a return bout leading a team of Avengers clones - the Unvengers - but they were similiarly dispatched.
Given all of this – the resemblance of the duplicate Steve to his scruffy Dimension Z look, Zola’s genetic experiments and Hydra allegiance, and the Cosmic Cube’s reality warping nature – could it be possible that this new Steve is in fact from Dimension Z? Could one of these two Steve Rogers be a clone created prior to his run in with Kobik, or perhaps a duplicate created by a reality-altering event and a diverging timeline?
If that sounds far-fetched, consider that the idea which became Secret Empire was originally a story Remender had in mind during his Captain America run. Remender is the writer who removed Steve’s Super Soldier Serum and promoted Sam Wilson, the former Falcon, to the rank of Captain America. And, it was Remender, in an early issue of Sam Wilson’s first Captain America series, who established the idea that Hydra had a mole or moles in the Marvel Universe.
Spencer has said many times that it was these few story elements that led him to conceive of Secret Empire when he took over the title somewhat abruptly after Secret Wars. Spencer picked up many of Remender's ongoing story-threads as his Captain America run began, creating Secret Empire, and, as he and Marvel have claimed many times, that initial story has remained relatively unchanged since Spencer pitched it. Spencer has even joked that fans can “blame Rick Remender” for the events of the crossover.
So if two proverbial roads diverged in the snowy wood of “Castaway from Dimension Z,” what would this mean for Secret Empire? Again both Spencer and Marvel Executive Editor (and series editor) Tom Brevoort made it clear at the onset of the story that the Steve Rogers which Kobik altered, whose history she rewrote to turn him to Hydra, was “not a clone” - a fact which Spencer seemed to double down on Wednesday by tweeting that the appearance of this second Steve Rogers was “always the plan,” and that Marvel “didn’t lie” to readers about its earlier story promises.
But if that’s the case, is the presence of a duplicate Steve an implication that “not a clone” is a matter of semantics? And if so, how will Marvel find the silver bullet ending that fits the criteria they’ve laid out? Having also ruled out a true alternate reality Steve (like Ultimate Captain America), that leaves a pair of possibilities for Marvel to wrap up Steve’s Hydra allegiance: did the original Steve return to the Marvel Universe only to encounter the Iron Nail, lose his Super Soldier Serum, and have his history rewritten, and if so, does that mean this second Steve is the imposter Captain America? Or, if the new Steve is the original, does this mean the one that’s been subverted by Hydra is his doppelganger (but also "not a clone")?
One way or another, the Steve Rogers that's left when the smoke clears must be the Steve Rogers (remember: Marvel said so, distinctly), and he has to arrive at his fate through the strength of what Marvel has called his "core values." So will Marvel have to split hairs to make that happen? And, moreover, will fans accept the idea that whichever Steve is left when the dust settles is the same Steve Rogers whose adventures have been told since the 40s?
It all hinges on Marvel's explanation for which of the two Steves seen in Secret Empire is the so-called "original" Steve. Would the optics of diverging timelines, with one version of Steve effectively offering a reset on what happened with the Cosmic Cube be enough to fulfill Marvel's promises that the entire storyline wasn't continuity sleight of hand?
If Secret Empire is going to stick that landing – and get fans to accept that the one, true Steve Rogers is back in action, especially if there are some Dimension Z duplicate shenanigans occurring – it’s going to have to answer these questions.
Editor's note - a previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the title "Secret Empire" to Rick Remender.