A year ago, the world learned that Captain America was an agent of Hydra. The decision to make Captain America a Hydra sleeper agent was controversial, to say the least. Fans vocalized their feelings of betrayal by a hero created by Jewish men in the wake of World War II; and with the political parallels Hydra carries, it’s difficult to denounce the implications of Captain America’s new allegiance.

Since the first issues of SECRET EMPIRE, Marvel released a statement asking fans to be patient, ensuring readers that Steve’s “core values [will] save the day against Hydra and prove that our heroes will always stand against oppression and show that good will always triumph over evil.”

In the year since Captain America’s heel turn and in the wake of SECRET EMPIRE, what can we garner from this development? How much can creators alter the image of beloved characters while still maintaining their audience? How far can stories go, and what are the merits of this kind of storytelling? We gathered four writers to answer these questions and more.

While acknowledging the negative implications of this character development, we also address the positive impacts that readers can take away from this shake-up. In part one of our roundtable, we cover our reaction to Captain America becoming an agent of Hydra, what it means for his characterization, and how it affects and contributes to Cap’s story.

READ: Catch up on Hydra Cap with our review of CAPTAIN AMERICA: STEVE ROGERS VOL. 2!

The writers participating in this roundtable are Jordan Parrish (JP), Mara Danoff (MD), Eric Nierstedt (EN), and Nadia Shammas (NS). The moderator is Kat Vendetti (KV). This roundtable occurred before SECRET EMPIRE #1 and #2. This is an edited transcript for the purposes of clarity.

captain america hydra
Image from SECRET EMPIRE #0, courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Captain America as a Hydra Agent: Which Side are You On?

KV: Are you for or against Captain America as an agent of Hydra?

JP: Definitely against it. I grew up as a huge Captain America fan and loved and supported him standing up for the underdogs and the “good guys,” if you will. He always promoted overcoming difficulties, so to see him suddenly switch to the side of Hydra, who is bound and determined to take over and rule with an iron fist, was a huge, alarming shock to me.

MD: Personally I’m pretty strongly against Captain America being a Hydra agent. To me, it exists to be shock for shock’s sake, going against why the character was created in the first place in lieu of trying to sell comics. He’s always stood for what America has ideally stood for: the exact opposite of Hydra.

EN: I was shocked by the initial news, but as time’s gone on, I find myself for it. I feel it’s just a more interesting story to see him in an opposing light. There’s certainly shock value to it, but all stories need a shake up, so we [can] question characters and what they mean. Plus, as a long time comic fan, I’ve seen enough swerves like this to know one rule: characters change so they can change right back. But if he was Hydra full time, THEN I’d have issues.

NS: I was really thrilled and excited from the very beginning when I first heard about the Captain America-Hydra story. I often support any storyline that seeks to change a major aspect of a character. For example, I was a fan of SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN for a similar reason. I think these stories are important and interesting because they allow fans to re-evaluate the defining traits of that character and why they became fans [of that character] in the first place. For Steve Rogers, what’s more shocking and interesting than having comics’ golden boy turn out to be working against the greater “good” the entire time? This opens such exciting opportunities to explore his character and the way other characters will react to this betrayal. It also allows for great satire and commentary. I’m pro-Hydra Cap, for sure.

EN: That’s exactly how I feel. If the character never has a shake up, we just lose interest as readers.

MD: Nadia, I definitely see your point. I guess my concern is that I’m all for characters growing and being more complex, as long as it’s still within character. This feels, again to me, like a complete 180. But I see your point, for sure.

JP: While I understand where you’re coming from in the sense of it making the story more interesting, I can’t help but have a negative reaction to Captain America, who was created by two Jewish men at a time when the Nazis were persecuting the Jews, becoming an agent for a group that typically is thought of as equivalent to the Nazis.

MD: I completely agree.

EN: Totally valid point, but at the same time, this whole thing isn’t Cap’s choice. He’s acting under false memories that were implanted on him. He didn’t join of his own free will. He was essentially brainwashed into becoming Hydra.

NS: Jordan, I definitely understand that sentiment, but like Eric said, I’ve also been around long enough to know that somehow this will be resolved. I think it’s okay to step outside what we know or love about a character in order to further explore the core of that character[…]I have no doubt that this will end with a return to traditional Captain America values in a way that strengthens the fans’ appreciation for them.

MD: That’s true. Exploring parts of Captain America that haven’t been explored before is extremely important […] for any good writer to do. It just feels like, since his character first came [out] at such a dark time in American history (right before we had to go to war), it seems to me that his essence of bringing about national pride in the face of hate and intolerance [is a] core principle of his character. Also, to me, brainwashing him takes away agency of his character, which makes me sad on a more personal level.

NS: That’s very true. The origins of the character shouldn’t be forgotten, but I think that this is clever in that it calls into question our idea of national pride, and how justified it is. We [Americans] long have imagined ourselves as the “hero” or “world police” in history, but as the internet age has allowed for more narratives and history to be more accessible, we call into question whether our actions were really done for the “good” of something or for our personal benefit.

READ: SECRET EMPIRE isn’t the only story to get political. Here are more times Marvel mirrored real politics!

JP: The brainwashing makes it harder for me to fully read this story, as it partly reminds me of Bucky Barnes and his brainwashing and all of those emotions.

EN: The brainwashing is definitely a back-door exit for them. But going back to what Mara said, there’s a kind of arrogance to not letting Cap be corrupted too. If he’s the symbol of America, doesn’t making him incorruptible mean that America is inherently perfect? That all the racism and greed and problems in our history were the right thing because we did them and we always act in the right?

JP: I don’t think Cap is perfect since he makes mistakes too and does things that don’t always end up like we/he want(s) them to. So, in that sense, I think they show that America isn’t perfect. Granted, we do have a lot of problems that haven’t been addressed, but it doesn’t feel like it’s arrogant having Cap portray the good, ideal values of America.

MD: Back in the 70s, wasn’t he Nomad for a hot sec? A man without a nation due to the disillusionment he had with the government? But I guess for me, again, he’s always stood for the values. No matter what nation he’s tied to, or not tied to, he’s stood for what’s right. Which isn’t always the American way as it was intended (which wasn’t always practiced in the Founding Fathers’ time but that’s a whole other story.) We should call into question our actions, but to me, this character should be more than that. He should be hopeful. There’s already so much darkness out there: it’s nice seeing one character you can rely on. There’s darkness in our history. But that doesn’t mean there’s isn’t some light too. And I guess given the way things are, it’s nice to have some concept of objectively good out there.

NS: Certainly, this isn’t the first time Cap has struggled with America, but in this arc, it’s not Cap struggling. It’s us, the readers. And yes, of course, we have some very proud moments in our history. But Cap has always been a representation of that. In some ways, he’s been a narrative crutch. He’s always been the touchstone of “good.” What’s more exciting than subverting that? That’s why I support a change which brings forth such significant discussion and considerations about the character and what he represents.

secret empire hydra
Image from SECRET EMPIRE #0, courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Keeping Up with Captain America

KV: Have you kept up with Captain America since the reveal?

EN: Not too much. I didn’t read Cap on a regular basis before, and I figured that this would come to a head in a big way later on. I did keep an ear to the ground, though.

JP: Honestly, no. Or at least not to the extent I used to. I’ve kept up with the overall idea behind the plot, and am planning on reading all of the SECRET EMPIRE issues, but I still find it difficult to assimilate the Cap I grew up with Hydra Cap. The emotional connection isn’t really there for me.

MD: No. I have to admit, at the time, I was really only informed of Captain America through the cinematic universe and some research done around that time. Not because I disliked the character but because I had school work and such.

NS: I kept up for a good while but then had to take a comic book hiatus for purely financial reasons. Cap was always a little humdrum for me. This book, however, made me look into the character’s past and present because I found it so conceptually interesting. This would have worked for me, but I limited the number of comics I read, and this didn’t make the cut, especially since, like Eric, I suspected a bigger clash coming on that I could read.

EN: That’s interesting to hear the same response from all of us, since Marvel surely thought this would sell books.

MD: And now we are talking about the character. Giving credit where credit is due.

JP: But maybe that was the idea? Seeing everyone’s initial reaction to Hydra Cap (good or bad) got people talking, and they’re still talking about it today.

MD: I guess, for me, I really loved Chris Evans’ portrayal of the character. Someone who was objectively good-hearted. Okay, and I’m a sap for period dramas, so I was going to like that, plus superheroes regardless. It was just really hopeful and fun and nice. That sounds very sentimental but hey, I was 15.

JP: I mean, on my side of it, I’m desperately waiting for “normal” Cap to come back. I think the fallout from this is more interesting and relatable than seeing him as a Hydra agent. But, as we mentioned earlier, that is so similar to the Bucky storyline.

MD: Chris Evans did a good job capturing the spirit of the character, in my opinion. I guess that’s why I’m more up [in] arms with this plot twist. Because there’s an actual face and cadence to put to the name.

EN: Jordan is right, though: the fallout is really what we’re all waiting for. It’s just the question of, “How does it end/go back to normal?”

JP: I do think that Chris’ portrayal has done a lot for the character, but I’m biased because I love that portrayal.

MD: I liked how it was a good person doing good things. I’m sorry! I know that’s not super interesting storytelling but it helps!

NS: I really enjoyed Chris’s portrayal too, but I saw it only as that — as the cinematic Captain America. Before this Cap Hydra thing, I wasn’t really interested in delving into the comics deeply because the movies were really good. But now, because of this twist, I was pulled in and fascinated, and I wanted to research the comics character so I can better understand the depth of this twist.

EN: Cap’s always been a sort of throwback. There’s a lot of appeal to a more simple way of doing good.

MD: Nadia, that’s really awesome! But again, for me, we’ve seen a darker side when he’s gone jingoistic, etc. Gone way too far in the nationalistic pride, and we’ve seen the violence and mayhem that that’s cause. And Eric, I couldn’t agree more. He’s not a perfect representation of the past, he’s what we want the past to be. If that makes sense.

NS: Mara, I definitely see that, but I also definitely see the value of examining that romanticization of […] the character, the Marvel Universe, and ourselves. I’m a sucker for introspection, though.

MD: Introspection is awesome! I guess I’m leaning more towards “we get that with everyone nowadays.” It seems kinda frustrating here.

EN: There’s a fine line between Cap and Nuke. But yeah, Cap’s this ideal, and that means a lot of details get left out of what he actually had to do. Cap is generally the “good” version of America, while Nuke is the “bad” version.

JP: Plus, I appreciate seeing this guy, who existed in the past, trying to cope with a lot of the modern problems we have now.

MD: I completely agree with that. It’s so fun and endearing.

EN: Yeah, Cap is great for social commentary. He makes us look at how far we’ve come and also what we’ve lost.

captain america hydra
Image from SECRET EMPIRE #1, courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Captain America’s Characterization: How Does it Hold Up?

KV: Has Captain America as a Hydra Agent changed your view of him as a character?

MD: It’s kind of hard for me to see how he’s changed as a character since it’s not really his actions — he’s being controlled. It really does seem, again for me, to be shock value for shock’s sake.

EN: I don’t really feel any different about him. I know he’s being controlled, so he’s not really doing this. Plus, enough of the old Cap is shining through — he regrets some of his actions in SECRET EMPIRE #0, and I know he’s gonna turn back eventually.

JP: I find it harder to relate to him right now, but I think that’s because I’ve always rooted for him as the underdog getting the chance to set things right to the best of his ability. So, for me, that emotional draw is gone. But yeah, the brainwashing makes Cap himself mostly the same. He’s just being controlled.

NS: Well, I think that we all kind of expect a resolution to this, especially since his reality has been re-written, and it’s not just his character acting naturally. Also, again, I think it’s important to see how this affects the other characters in the Marvel Universe. They were betrayed. How would they respond? It makes us not only look at how Cap has changed, but also how the other characters change because of this. I’m the most excited about the reactions of the other characters, if I’m being completely honest. It will tell us a lot about those characters as well.

EN: I think that’s really the big draw with this. We’re waiting to see how the Marvel Universe reacts; we know enough to not be panicked.

MD: That will be interesting, seeing how the characters react. But yeah, no surprise here, but I agree with Jordan. It’s harder to want him to succeed, even before he betrays everyone, because you just know it’s coming. I also feel bad for everyone. They’re all going to need a hug and some tea after this.

JP: Nadia, I love your point. I am so interested in how this arc will allow other characters to change in reaction to this. We already got a super small taste of this in SECRET EMPIRE #0 and I’m so ready for more.

READ: Get started on SECRET EMPIRE with our review of SECRET EMPIRE #0!

EN: Is it strange though that I kinda wanna gloat over Captain Marvel? “How come your little psychic didn’t predict THIS?”

NS: Yeah, I’m really excited because now this opens us to see more about these other characters. Will they be spiteful, understanding, sympathetic or violent? How will their reactions to this change our views of them, more so than that of Steve Rogers?

MD: I’m pretty worried about how they’re going to go back to normal after this. Will he even be trusted anymore?

JP: I mean, I feel like someone will still trust him. Cap’s always going to have his band of supporters, even if it takes a few issues for them to resurface.

EN: I think there will be a big sense of betrayal from everyone, but yeah, they will all think differently. I think people like Tony will try to defend him and say there’s something wrong with him, and others will think he’s a traitor.

MD: I just hope they won’t have to do another huge, convoluted event to set things right.

EN: “OK, we need the Infinity Gauntlet, the Cosmic Cube, and Odin’s Eye, then we can reset time!”

NS: Well, Captain America regaining their trust is also going to be part of that character building. Who will forgive him, who won’t, how will he do it, what does it say about all them? That’s why this is conceptually good storytelling! It all hinders on how it’s done.

MD: That’s an amazing point. It just feels like to me they’re breaking a potted plant to like grow some grass. That’s not a great metaphor, but you catch my drift, hopefully.

NS: So, assuming they treat it with nuance, this can really expand our understanding of the characters and their interactions. I do hope they don’t reset time or make everyone forget though. That would undermine the whole point!

EN: Plus, if they know he was basically brainwashed, I’d think more of them might be sympathetic.  At this rate, what hero hasn’t been mind-controlled?

JP: As much as I dislike Hydra Cap, I hope he stays in everyone’s remembrance. It’ll make it more of a draw to read.

NS: I think there’s a really clever thing that’s happening, too, in the idea that it makes you imagine that he’s been a Hydra agent since childhood. Therefore, everything he’s done thus far has been deep undercover as a Hydra Agent, and not just for the “good” of the world. If that narrative is given out to the other characters, the betrayal would have been perceived as life-long. That kind of sting can be a lot harder to overcome, even if at the end it’s revealed as a lie. It still places doubt.

EN: That could be a really interesting ending — like, Cap finds out what happened to him, but no one else does. And then maybe Cap disappears until, I don’t know, 2020, then emerges to save the world in its darkest hour?

JP: “Sorry Cap, back into the ice.”

MD: Capsicle.

EN: “I’ll sleep this off just like that parking ticket in 1948.”

NS: Even if it was revealed to everyone he was brainwashed, if for a while they thought he was a Hydra Agent since the beginning, it can be hard to unlearn that, especially since he’s taking real actions against them. It also allows us, the readers, to think about how heroic actions can be done for bad reasons.

See the second half of our roundtable discussion: The Political Implications of Captain America as an Agent of Hydra.

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