In the comic Captain America: Steve Rogers, writer Nick Spencer aims to achieve two seemingly incompatible goals:
- Reboot Steve Rogers as a secret agent of Hydra, the Nazi-affiliated villains he fought during WWII.
- Separate Hydra from their Nazi backstory, portraying them as an evil but apolitical organization.
The comic takes place over two time periods: flashbacks to Steve Rogers as a young Hydra recruit in the 1930s and ’40s, and a present-day storyline where he’s still Captain America, but was secretly a Hydra agent all along.
Steve Rogers began as an anti-fascist hero, so this storyline is pretty controversial. Many fans believe it mishandles a sensitive topic, and were doubly annoyed when Marvel hinted that Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, is a member of Hydra as well. In response, the comic’s supporters argue that Hydra aren’t technically Nazis. There’s even a scene in issue #12 where a Hydra villain pops up like a Twitter egg to explain that “Actually, Hydra isn’t racist.”
Canonically, Hydra existed long before WWII. They’re an ancient cult who temporarily worked with the Nazis, branching off into various terrorist groups and corporate secret societies. They have a similar arc in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Spencer has spent months grappling with this distinction. On Wednesday he posted a string of tweets arguing that Hydra are evil but apolitical, and people should stop calling Captain America a Nazi.
Spencer says that while Hydra are evil, they’re not racist and they don’t have an ideological agenda. This is canonically accurate, but it doesn’t hold water as a political argument. You can’t frame “Hydra aren’t Nazis” as a detached philosophical concept, especially in the context of a WWII-era Captain America story. The Holocaust shaped the lives of real, living people, and Hydra’s fictional backstory is inextricably linked with those events. Hydra may not share Hitler’s beliefs, but they still sided with the Nazis.
In fact, Captain America: Steve Rogers includes flashbacks to Steve as a Hydra agent in WWII. His mission was to assassinate a Jewish German refugee who worked as a scientist for the U.S. Army. So while he wasn’t ideologically a Nazi, he fought on their side of the war, which doesn’t sit well with fans who know Captain America as the guy who punched Hitler in the face on the iconic cover of Captain America Comics #1 published in 1941.
We also have to remember that the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced Hydra as Nazi supervillains, and the MCU has a much bigger audience than the comics. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. even includes a scene explaining why a modern Hydra agent is still a Nazi. So in the minds of most potential readers, it’s hard to separate the two.
Captain America: Steve Rogers began in May 2016, overlapping with election season and notions of white supremacy associated with the alt-right. This made Hydra’s Nazi backstory a more sensitive issue than before, and the controversy snowballed when Marvel announced its next crossover event. Written by Spencer, Secret Empire will expand the Steve Rogers/Hydra storyline. Marvel is promoting it with Hydra-themed teasers, including a variant cover with Hydra Magneto.
As a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Magneto has a long history of hating the Nazis and Hydra. Kotaku points out that this could just be a piece of promotional art, but Marvel still decided to use it to advertise Secret Empire, in the midst of a fraught political controversy.
It’s hard to imagine this backlash dying down once Secret Empire begins. Captain America: Steve Rogers spawned a conflict that boils down to fans saying, “Hey, this comic seems insensitive to the painful reality of Nazism,” and Marvel replying, “Actually, these characters aren’t Nazis, and you’d understand if you just read more of our comics.” This response focuses on a hair-splitting technical detail, rather than tackling the emotional and political impact of the comic itself.
Captain America: Steve Rogers wants to tell a political story about Hydra, while depicting Hydra as a kind of neutral evil with no connection to real-world politics. Nick Spencer carefully excised the distasteful antisemitism and genocide of Hydra’s backstory, and replaced it with a (supposedly) non-ideological vision of fascist power. And in the foreground we have Steve Rogers as a true believer: a buff blond warrior who wants to bring “peace through strength” as the new leader of Hydra. Just not in a racist way.