This week’s Secret Empire #9 from writer Nick Spencer and artists Leinil Yu, Joe Bennett, and Rod Reis presents the penultimate chapter of the saga, with a reunion of heroes, the seeming beginnings of a rebirth of a classic Marvel character, and Hydra’s final weapon being activated, all setting the stage for next week’s big finale.
Spoilers ahead for Secret Empire #9.
Right off the bat, the mystery of Second Steve is finally solved as it’s revealed he’s nothing more than Kobik’s memory of Steve Rogers, the man she knew before Red Skull manipulated her into altering his timeline. As Second Steve has this realization himself, Kobik becomes frightened of someone she says is “too scary” - perhaps the Red Skull - and runs off.
Meanwhile, as the Avengers battle Hydra’s forces, the mainstream universe Hydra-fied Captain America’s inner circle all return from their respective missions with Zemo and Faustus escorting a defiant Black Panther in chains, and Emma Frost arriving with a contingent from New Tian.
As Emma attempts to make peace with Steve by handing over the Cosmic Cube fragment, Steve tells her it’s too little, too late, and that she must surrender. Refusing, Emma signals Magneto who begins pulling down Hydra Helicarriers – and begins turning the tide against Hydra.
Sensing his moment, Odinson turns against Hydra, rejoining his former allies and changing the odds of the battle. One by one, all the subverted heroes are restored, with Viv Vision transferring the virus that has been plaguing her father to Hydra robots, and Doctor Strange performing an exorcism to expel Chthon from Scarlet Witch’s mind.
As Odinson turns the tide of the battle, Thor is separated from Mjolnir, reverting to her frail, cancer-afflicted mortal Jane Foster form, possibly setting up the well-foreshadowed return of the original Thor later on.
Inside the Hydra flagship, Black Ant and Taskmaster realize they are on the losing side, and decide to free the Champions so long as they tell the other heroes that the pair of mercenaries treated them well. At the same time, Winter Soldier and Black Panther ambush Zemo, defeating and capturing him as leverage against Steve and Sharon Carter takes down Faustus by pretending to be under his mind control.
But Hydra still has one weapon left – the Cosmic Cube. Zola brings Captain America to his lab where he reveals that he’s built something for Steve, based on designs stolen from Tony Stark’s lab – a suit of 'Captain Hydra' armor powered by the cube.
With the Avengers almost entirely assembled, Hydra’s forces begin to fall. But in the last moments of the conflict, the newly armored Steve emerges to stand alone against nearly every hero in the Marvel Universe.
One major question that some might miss comes after finishing this issue: who has been narrating this issue? The captions are retrospective, so perhaps it's a post-Secret Empire Captain America, given that upcoming series writer Mark Waid said Marvel's plans are to "restore his tarnished reputation."
The story concludes in Secret Empire #10, on shelves August 30.