Marvel really wants fans to show some patience with its current, highly controversial Captain America story.
The company is more or less publicly begging fans to wait until the end of the just launched Secret Empire summer event before passing judgment on a story many think shouldn’t exist. Steve Rogers as a super-secret operative of Hydra is, indeed, a plot concept difficult to wrap one’s brain around.
Since that plot twist broke about a year ago, fans have not been happy. Internet comment boards are flooded with contempt for the idea that the paragon of morality in the Marvel Universe has somehow always been a sleeper agent for the evil organization he’s been fighting for decades. Worse, many fans feel that making Steve Rogers a member of a Nazi-linked group of villains is an insult to the character’s Jewish creators.
There are many good reasons to dislike this plot turn. The common hope is that the whole thing turns out to be a bit of reality-warping thanks to the Cosmic Cube, that ever-dependable deus ex machina. And yet.
While Marvel’s public plea betokens a certain desperation at the alarming level of fan anger about this story, the publisher does have something of a point. The story isn’t over yet. While it’s difficult to see how this shakes out so that the character fans love comes out of it with his heroism untarnished, it’s not impossible. Talented writer Nick Spencer has done a lot of good work before this. He should have earned enough credibility with previous assignments to leave open the possibility that he could stick the landing.
The “Captain Hydra” story represents two tricky facets of long-running franchises. Neither is unique to the comic book medium, though comic books do provide an illuminating example of each.
First is the pitfall of long-form plotting. Creators know where they’re going. They have an end point planned and know what it takes to get there. Unfortunately, some of the stops along the way don’t always play well in a vacuum. Viewed in context of a whole story, certain elements that might not work on first blush often make more sense once readers get to the end of an epic.
Of course, some are so offended by the mere notion of Steve Rogers as a Hydra agent, that the finished tale could make perfect sense and they’d still hate it. Long-term serialized storytelling really requires the faith of the fans. When you lose that, your ultimate goal may not matter. The fans are too angry to go with you.
The other thing this situation illustrates is the difficulty of coming up with new ideas for concepts that have been around for a long time. Captain America debuted back in 1941 and has been in regular publication for most of the time since. For any character that’s had that long a run, all the major plots that one sees in a medium will all have happened, some multiple times. As the comic book audience has skewed older and more jaded, it’s harder to surprise readers.
One can understand why Marvel might have viewed “Captain Hydra” as a risk worth taking. It’s a radically different path for the character, one that’s generated a ton of attention, including mainstream media coverage. If fans have been angry, at least they’re paying attention. It’s the old “there’s no such thing as bad press” ethos.
It remains to be seen how this plot resolves itself. The fan anger surrounding it is entirely understandable. Marvel’s making some big promises about the outcome. If they don’t nail the climax, the company runs the real risk of badly alienating the fans whose support they need the most.