The Captain America that we knew was a lie.
This week's inaugural issue of Steve Rogers: Captain America opens up with an unexplored bit of the character's origin story and closes with a dramatic revelation that has some comic book fans enraged: Captain America has been a member of Hydra all along.
Hydra, you'll remember, is the sprawling terrorist organization that Captain America and the Avengers have spent the better part of the past 75 years trying to dismantle, to varying degrees of success. While on a mission to track down Baron Zemo, a high-profile Hydra operative, Captain America suddenly murders Jack Flag, his own sidekick, before uttering two fateful words: "Hail Hydra."
While narrative twists like this are par for the course in the world of comic books, the reaction to #CaptainHydra among longtime followers of Cap's adventures was largely negative.
As far as comic book shakeups go, making Captain America a Hydra agent is up there with the time the Joker shot and permanently paralyzed Batgirl in terms of shock value. But when you look back at who Captain America has been and what he's represented over the years, the news that he's been a sleeper agent all along doesn't just become less surprising. It makes perfect sense.
When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two Jewish men, first created Captain America in 1940, they were making an explicit political statement in opposition to Nazi Germany a year before the United States even became involved in World War II. The cover of Captain America Comics #1 featured the series' titular character punching the living daylights out of Hitler as other Nazis looked on in horror.
Captain America was an instant success for Marvel (then Timely Comics), selling more than 1 million copies in its first month of printing and holding strong as one of the publisher's most popular titles throughout the rest of WWII. When he wasn't clocking Nazis with his kid sidekick Bucky, Cap implored the children of America to do their part in assisting with the wartime effort by collecting scrap metal and spending their allowances on savings stamps.
According to comics historian Brad Wright, there was a vocal contingent of Nazi sympathizers and American isolationists who took issue with the star-spangled hero. Though Simon and Kirby, both the sons of Jewish immigrants, were inundated with threatening hate mail, they were resolute in their dedication to what Captain America stood for.
"The opponents to the war were all quite well organized," Simon told Wright. "We wanted to have our say too."
It's Cap's origins as the consummate anti-Nazi that's caused many fans to balk at the revelation of his allegiance to Hydra. Nearly 20 years after Captain America fought soldiers of the real Third Reich, Stan Lee collaborated with Kirby to introduce this dangerous organization of what are effectively genocidal super-Nazis hellbent on taking over the world.
Hydra firmly established Cap's first two real super-nemeses in the forms of the Red Skull, a cunning political strategist, and Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, an immortal Nazi. Over the years, Captain America would battle the Skull and Strucker as Hydra repeatedly attempted to usher in a series of new world orders deeply rooted in their supremacist ideology.
But according to Steve Rogers: Captain America writer Nick Spencer, pretty much all of that was for show. Steve Rogers has always been a Hydra agent, he explained to The Daily Beast, and this "change" to the character won't be going away any time soon.
"…what I think I can say with confidence is that with this story, our intention and our hope is that in its own unique way, it reinforces what everybody already knows about Captain America, which is his power as a symbol and what that means," Spencer said. "We are approaching it from a different angle, but I think it illuminates the character in a way that we’ve never seen before."
In this telling, Steve is introduced to Hydra in the late 1920s as a child (Steve ages very slowly) after a mysterious woman from the organization saves his mother Sarah from the abuse of his drunken father. After the woman takes Steve and his mother out for dinner, she hands Sarah a pamphlet for a secret organization of concerned citizens interested in bettering the lives of others.
As the story progresses to the modern day, we see that Hydra still appeals to people looking to improve their station, but now they're using language and tactics that have become all too commonplace here in the real world.
Hydra, Steve narrates, has taken to recruiting disaffected youngsters around the globe to participate in their terrorist activities with the promise of hefty paychecks and a return to the days when they felt more important. In one scene in particular, the Red Skull preaches to a packed room full of white American men about how their religious liberties are being trampled upon by an overreaching government.
His speech convinces one man, an ex-con named Robbie who struggled to find steady work, to become a suicide bomber.
The Red Skull's rhetoric uncannily echoes many of the sentiments currently being espoused by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, which the Republican party as a whole has done little to distance itself from.
"We’ve obviously seen a lot of growth in white supremacist organizations and extreme nationalist groups in the U.S., certainly over the last eight years," writer Nick Spencer told The Daily Beast. "And so I had to do the ugly research of what’s drawing folks into those groups. What’s driving recruitment?"
Now, more than ever, white people feel as if they are more discriminated against and that they're gradually being edged out of the workforce by people of color. Marvel probably isn't trying to invite direct comparisons between Donald Trump and a Nazi supervillain, but their characterization of young, listless white men getting caught up in the idea that the Other has somehow made their lives objectively worse has roots in reality.
It's for that reason, then, that Steve Rogers' reveal as a Hydra agent makes a fair amount of sense. Captain America isn't just a person: He's the literal embodiment of the American social and political zeitgeist. In the '40s, he fought Nazis, and in the '50s, he fought Communists. He's taken on corrupt businessmen and radicalized terrorists all in the name of the U.S.A., but now he's become a reflection of the country's darker side, which clings to the past in hopes of—to paraphrase another polarizing public figure—"making America great again."
This Captain America might not be the one we grew up with, the one we recognize from the movies. He's definitely not the Captain America most fans want. Right now, though, he's the Captain America we deserve.