When Marvel announced that Captain America would be revealed to be a sleeper agent for Hydra, thus kicking off its “Secret Empire” story arc, the comic book company received a significant amount of criticism. In fact, I was among those critics who pushed back on the premise, as at the time I believed that because of everything that was taking place in the American political landscape, Captain America should remain a symbol of what is good about our nation.
In troubling times the American people need the symbols that represent our nation’s values and ideals, such as Captain America, to remain pure. We need these beacons of light and hope to remain steadfast. After all, it is these symbols that remind us that despite all the turmoil, America remains true to its core values and principles. If we allow these symbols to be corrupted, then we allow the corruption to slowly seep into our lives and become normalized.
Normal becomes upside down, and we lose our moral compass.
What I have come to realize, as many Americans like me have realized, is that although these values and ideals we hold dear are still present, there is a subversive force aiming to change, corrupt, and ultimately destroy those values of justice and equality. Much like the Marvel Universe, our nation is under siege from an insidious force that has caused many to distrust and becomes fearful of the government, and chaos to seemingly openly challenge the rule of law. In many ways, we are experiencing the anxiety and fear that the residents of the fictitious world are experiencing, this is why the story not only needs to be told but is exactly the story we need Marvel to tell at this moment.
Corruption of Captain America/American Presidency
Ever since our 45th president took office in January of 2017, an unprecedented amount of chaos started shaping the lives of Americans everywhere. Whether it is through his tweets, speeches, executive orders, or his general behavior, our incumbent president has sullied the image of the traditionally revered office that is generally recognized as not only the presidency of our great land but the leader of the free world.
Much like the Marvel Universe’s current Captain America, our current president prefers the company of world leaders that have long been the enemy of freedom, to the company of America’s long-time allies. He continually attempts to sabotage our nation’s rule of law by bullying judges, courts, and the intelligence community (i.e. FBI) either though his tweets or through speeches. In typical authoritarian style, our 45th president has declared the free press to be an enemy of the state, and persistently attacks news outlets that report on his transgressions as fake news.
It is not only our current sitting president that holds similarities to the corruption of the once revered Captain America, but his administration’s ideas are very similar to Hydra’s policies in the books. Our current president seems to enjoy scapegoating different races and religions that he, and his administration, deem as “dangerous.”
As we see in the Secret Empire storyline, Hydra establishes a registry for Inhumans and corner off a section of California as a sort of reservation for all Mutants to reside. These are two concepts that the television show Agents of SHIELD deftly portrayed in the last season.
The Agents of SHIELD episodes were very effective in demonstrating the parallels of the propaganda employed by our current administration and the propaganda utilized by Hydra.
It is not just the corruption of Captain America in the fictitious Marvel Universe and the corruption of the presidency in our real world, but the betrayal of the values these two things represent that I believe affect us most deeply. Captain America and the President of the United States have traditionally represented protector roles against the tyranny of authoritarianism. Now both seem to be fighting not to defend against dictatorships, but instead to establish an autocracy in the U.S.
In the Secret Empire storyline, part of the assault conducted by Captain America and Hydra includes the use of the Darkforce to trap all of Manhattan’s inhabitants in a gloomy, topsy-turvy, anxiety-inducing world devoid of hope. Both heroes and citizens alike are trapped under the Darkforce with no foreseeable way out. The denizens of Manhattan, both heroes, and ordinary occupants, are under attack on a daily basis.
They have to constantly fight off these attacks brought on by Hydra and the Darkforce while looking for a way out of the situation.
Needless to say, this leaves the heroes of the story fatigued, depressed, and on the brink of hopelessness. This is the way that many Americans feel under the current administration’s constant attack on our civil rights and liberties. Many Americans complain about feeling fatigued and anxious over the quick turnaround of today’s news cycle which reports on new scandals of corruption on a seemingly daily basis. Whether it’s possible collusion with Russia over the tampering of the 2016 election, obstruction of justice related to the Russia allegations, controversies related to the president’s potential conflict of interests, or other possible constitutional crisis associated with the actions of our incumbent president, the uncertainty of today’s times has cast a wide net of anxiety and fear across our nation. This invisible net of anxiety and fear acts serve the very same purpose in our world as the Darkforce does in the Marvel world; to leave its inhabitants confused, fatigued, and devoid of hope.
Luckily for the inhabitants of the Marvel Universe, they have heroes that don’t tend to roll over and play dead so easily. A small band of heroes forms a resistance movement to fight off Captain America and Hydra. The heroes include the likes of Doctor Strange, the Defenders, and Hawkeye among others. What is notable is that the main group of the resistance has two women in leadership roles, Black Widow and Maria Hill. An interesting parallel is that today’s resistance against our current administration’s policies has been led mostly by women.
In fact, the very first march in defiance of our current administration took place a day after our current president’s inauguration and was named the Women’s March. The Women’s March did not just take place across the U.S. but was a worldwide protest to advocate for women’s rights and human rights in general. These protests were aimed at our current president due to his disparaging remarks against women, minorities, and individuals with disabilities during his run for office.
Like the heroes in the Marvel Universe fighting against an oppressive dictatorship established by Hydra, many other heroes have stepped up in our universe to resist repressive policies that the current administration has attempted to establish. The ACLU has fought against the proposed Muslim ban since day one of the president’s signing of the executive order, the disability rights group ADAPT joined the fray and organized important protests against proposed cuts to Medicaid, and scientists across the nation organized a March for Science that protested proposed cuts to organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
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The above leads to my most important conclusion as to why Secret Empire story is important at this point in time; it gives the readers hope.
Despite what side of the aisle you take your perspective from, it is hard to deny that America is in the midst of dark, and uncertain times. Anxiety, fear, and to some degree hatred seem to permeate our lives. This did not start with the inauguration of our sitting president but with the election cycle of 2016. However, since his taking office, this administration’s constant attacks on America’s rule of law, civil rights, and democratic values have compounded these issues.
These constant attacks lead one to feel like they are living in a shared universe with these Marvel characters under the oppressive influence of the Darkforce.
Despite these constant attacks, Secret Empire reveals the heroism of a few that stand up against the would-be autocratic rulers. Much like the Democratic Senators who aligned with Republican Senators Murkowski, Collins, and McCain to defeat the skinny repeal of the ACA—that was voted under the cover of night—those heroes instill hope in us.
Ultimately, we know that despite the odds that these heroes in the Marvel Universe face, that at the conclusion of the story the good guys will triumph. This provides readers with hope, that the good guys representing the democratic values and principles of America will be victorious over our wannabe authoritarian regime. It gives us hope to continue to resist, that’s why this story is so important.
Thank you, Marvel, for telling it.