OK, here we go. If you've been reading my posts as we built to this event, you know that I'm not as vehemently opposed to Captain Nazi as some other fans are. I think it's mostly because Spencer isn't out there swearing to God that Steve will be Captain Nazi forever, as Steve Wacker and Dan Slott did when they subjected us to Spider-Ock. Spencer is telling a story that feels limited in its ambition; after 75+ years, it was probably time for Cap to have his heel turn. If you come to the issue that way (and I totally understand why you wouldn't), then Spencer has to be judged by whether it's actually a good story. A lot of cross-over events have started as great ideas only for the execution to rob it of all greatness. ("Age of Ultron" is probably the best example to me of a cross-over event with an awesome premise that rapidly devolved.) As such, let's see how Spencer does.
Secret Empire #0: I inadvertently read this issue first, even though it eventually became clear I should've read "Captain America: Steve Rogers," "Thunderbolts," and "U.S.Avengers" first. Oh, well.
As widely discussed in the media at this point, Spencer implies the "true" story is the one we've seen unfold over the course of the last few issues: a mystically powered Elisa Sinclair identified Steve as the agent of change HYDRA needed to take over the world. In this issue, starting in 1945, Kraken has revealed himself to be alive as Steve arrives at the "source of all HYDRA's powers" in Japan. It's the remains of Ashomia, "a lost city of the wicked and the abandoned." Steve is introduced to a mysterious figure, and Kraken informs us he's the man who "birthed HYDRA from the spear" and made him Kraken. Let's call him Father HYDRA. Father HYDRA tells Steve that the Allies' Cosmic Cube will allow them to re-write history so they win the war; in other words, the history we used to think was the "true" story. As the Cube begins to do exactly that, Father HYDRA has Steve enter a pool so his memories are preserved; we see him fade into the block of ice where the Avengers will find him in the now "fake" story. As he escorts Steve into the pool, Father HYDRA warns Steve the Cube will eventually become Kobik and the Skull (called the "usurper" here) will use Kobik to rekindle Steve's memory of the "true" story. This part answers one of my main questions, namely why no one else remembers the now "true" history. Spencer has sent conflicting messages on this front, but at least he comes down firmly here on one side (some evidence in previous issues to the contrary).
In the present, we are at a moment of crisis as three separate events happen at once: the Chitauri horde arrives; Baron Zemo is leading the villains imprisoned at Pleasant Hill on a rampage o' revenge in New York city; and the Crescent, the Helicarrier Sharon sent to Sokovia in "Captain America: Steve Rogers" #15, has gone missing. In terms of the Chitauri invasion, a HYDRA suicide bomber has apparently blown up the Shield. Ironheart (a.k.a. Riri Williams) and Iron Man (who's apparently alive again) are frantically trying to fix the Shield as Alpha Flight, Quasar, and the Ultimates hold off the Chitauri. In New York, Luke Cage leads an expanded Defenders line-up to protect civilians; meanwhile, Sharon and Steve are heading to Sokovia on the Iliad to try to find out what happened to the Crescent. Spencer makes it immediately clear Steve has orchestrated these events so the President will put into action the S.H.I.E.L.D. Act. With Steve now able to rule the United States by fiat, he activates his plan. Ironheart realizes the Shield is somehow not as damaged as she thought it was; they're able to activate it, and the world watches as the Chitauri are unable to cross it. Eventually, Ironheart and Iron Man discover the damage to the Shield's hardware was superficial; it was lowered not because of the bomb but because someone at command used the software to do so. Meanwhile, Sharon and Steve come upon the Crescent, which rams into the Iliad. As mind-controlled S.H.I.E.L.D. agents rush aboard. Steve reveals himself to Sharon; Dr. Faustus' voice is broadcast throughout the Iliad, bringing more S.H.I.E.L.D. agents fully under Steve's control. Steve then tells Carol he's locking her outside the planet (with the Chitauri horde). Finally, Baron Zemo uses Blackout to plunge New York into the Darkforce Dimension, taking all New York's heroes off the board. Steve then heads to Washington to complete his coup.
All in all, it's not terrible. Again, if you go into it assuming Cap won't be evil forever, then it's easier to enjoy the story. After all, it's clearly Spencer has carefully constructed this story; the only weakness I can identify is some ambiguity in previous issues about why people didn't remember the new "true" history. At this stage, I think the question for me is how far we really go here. As I mention below, "U.S.Avengers" #5 shows us where I hope we won't go, with Steve being reduced to a mentally unstable cliché of a super-villain. This event will be scarier if Steve is just as calculating and strategic as we know he can be. If he is, then it could even be great.
Thunderbolts #12: Reading this issue after "Secret Empire" #0, it feels like Zub had to rush the ending so he could make sure the Masters of Evil (with Atlas) could be in place for Baron Zemo's attack on New York. Events move more quickly than they probably should have as Zub is forced to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. For example, I was surprised the main drama in this issue is Kobik apparently throwing such a temper tantrum that she threatened reality. I get she's upset about Bucky not believing in HYDRA, but it feels like she's gone a little too far here, even for a child. It would've helped to see more of Erik trying to calm her, since it would've established why she's so upset. But, we move almost immediately to Fixer developing a device to strip Kobik of her personality (I think); instead, it shatters her into many pieces. Zemo recruits Moonstone (easily) and Fixer to help him track down the pieces. He also convinces Atlas to join them, a wink to Zub's characterization of Atlas as a follow at his core. In the aftermath, Jolt is unconscious after Kobik's explosion (inexplicably) drained off her energy, and the Ghost swipes her. (For some reason, she's also miniaturized by the blast, allowing Ghost to drop her into his pocket.) After the team's now-abandoned headquarters collapses on them, Melissa emerges from the rubble, but Mach-X is missing. Melissa trudges into the snow, and the series concludes behind her. I have a feeling Marvel will revisit the team after "Secret Empire" concludes. They had grown on me, and they deserve a better ending than they get here.
U.S.Avengers #5: In terms of plot, this issue is solid. Cap visit Roberto to remind him that he works for him, making sure Roberto is willing to follow orders he initially finds questionable. Meanwhile, a HYDRA agent within A.I.M. convinces Red Hulk to allow him to override his safety protocol after he express frustration when he de-Hulks during a fight; Steve clearly plans to use a berserk Hulk at some point. The most important development, though, seems to be Steve learning that Roberto has trained A.I.M. agents in Xavier's techniques to block telepathic incursions, meaning Dr. Faustus' mind-control techniques won't work on them. (I know why that's important after reading "Secret Empire" #0.) But, it's the characterization that leaves you scratching your head. Steve acts like a cut-rate villain here, adopting various personas during his talk with Roberto. First he's obsessed with people getting him coffee then he's berating Roberto for being elitist. He seems totally insane; if his goal was not tipping off Roberto that something was wrong with him, it seems unlikely it worked.
Captain America: Steve Rogers #16: This issue completes setting up "Secret Empire" #0 in a number of ways. First, the Masters of Evil (unexpectedly, to me) complete the search for the last fragment of Kobik. I had initially thought their search for the Cube was going to occur throughout "Secret Empire;" after all, its reunification would clearly set up someone using it to rewrite history. However, Spencer cleverly finds a way to delay this moment and take a major player off the board. Dr. Selvig is disturbed by Zemo's insistence on reassembling the Cube and not letting Kobik pull herself together. (Zemo wisely would rather a non-sentient Cube since it's easier to control.) As such, Selvig sends the fragments to an unidentified place before killing himself. Steve is furious when Zemo eventually tells him, since his plan was not only to conquer the world for HYDRA but use the Cube to "right" history. However, Zemo is now free to lead the Masters of Evil on the assault of New York in "Secret Empire" #0. Meanwhile, Maria Hill breaks into Taskmaster's computer and discovers the video of Steve saying "Hail HYDRA." She tells Rick Jones Steve is an agent of HYDRA just before HYDRA captures her, but Cap calls Rick just in time, after Taskmaster alerted him to Maria's actions. He tells Rick that Maria is off the reservation; in his story, she's going to use the override codes for the Shield as leverage to get back her old job. Rick believes him and sends Steve the codes to the Shield. Black Ant than knocks him unconscious, and we see the HYDRA suicide bomber seemingly blow up the Shield. (However, we know from "Secret Empire" #0 that Steve uses the codes to take down the Shield; the damage to the Shield was purposefully superficial.) Finally, Steve laments the loss of Xavier's brain to Elisa, but she reminds him of Dr. Faustus' powers; he takes control of the Cresent here. The other big development is Steve allowing Zemo seemingly to kill Bucky in the same way his father died. It seems unlikely Bucky is dead, but it's yet another player off the board for a while. At this stage, the only people who know of Cap's treachery are Carol, who's stranded outside Earth, and Maria, Rick (to a certain extent), and Sharon, all of whom are in Steve's custody.
At this stage, Spencer has set up two main storylines. We're going to have the struggle against Steve as he tries to impose his will on the United States. But, I also imagine we're going to have the quest for the Cube, as both sides try to "right" history. It feels like the story I thought we were going to get in "Age of Ultron," and I'll be a happy camper if Spencer accomplishes that.