***Major spoilers for Secret Empire #2***

Secret Empire #2 knocked us all off our feet earlier this week because it has a doozy of a last page. While the issue gives us plenty to think about, it seems like most commentators have spent their time speculating about what the last page means. Is it really Steve Rogers? Which one? Is it the Cap from the Ultimate Universe? Is this more shenanigans caused by Kobik? I’ll admit that the last image in the book left me stunned, and for the next hour it’s all I could think about. Here was exactly what I’d been waiting for: the return of Steve Rogers. I just hoped that it wasn’t a gimmick or a trick. We’ve been tricked several times since Captain America: Steve Rogers was announced last year, after all. Is this another one?

The last page of the book certainly raises intriguing (and maddening) questions, but SE #2 is an important issue for more than just the last image. Hope is the main theme of the issue, and pretty much everything that happens in it (including the last page) needs to be interpreted in light of that theme.

Like the other books in the series so far, SE #2 has a pretty dire tone throughout. Characters grasp desperately at hope, clinging to what little light is there, while others despair of everything.

The Defenders are still stuck inside the Darkforce Dimension that has swallowed up New York City, their only light provided by Dagger. She shines from the top of the Empire State Building, her light protecting everyone in the city from demons that inhabit the Darkforce, a small beacon of hope in a place of despair. But the strain of it is killing her, and as Claire Temple puts it, “It’s only a matter of time before she breaks.”

A group of civilians have gathered at a local church with the parish priest, huddling for safety in a city of despair. When a group of thugs show up to demand medicine from them (medicine that they don’t have), all seems lost. But “hope” shows up in the form of Wilson Fisk, who kills the thugs threatening the church and asks only that the priest and the people remember “that it was Wilson Fisk who kept you safe.”

The Underground finds out the truth about Steve Rogers––that his history has been rewritten by Kobik and the Red Skull––from a recording and files sent by Rick Jones. This gives Hawkeye, the Tony Stark A.I., and others a renewed hope for finding a way out of the darkness, but Black Widow thinks that it’s probably a trick. And even if it isn’t, she doesn’t think that it is worth it to try to reverse Kobik’s effects. Rather than chase a hope, she’s determined to pursue the more practical route of killing Steve Rogers: “If that man knew that he was being used like this––if he knew his life was costing even one person theirs, let alone millions––then he would beg us to kill him, and if you don’t get that? Then you didn’t know him at all.”

Hawkeye and Tony, however, still cling to the hope that they can save Steve and beat Hydra. So Tony gets to work on a way to locate the fragments of the Cube. But for help, they have to find the man who has perhaps more reason than anyone to despair: Sam Wilson.

Meanwhile, Black Widow goes after Steve, and though she wants to go it alone, she gets some help in the form of the Spider-Man (Miles Morales) and the Champions. Like Black Widow, Spidey seems to have given up on hope because he thinks that the future is already set, and in Civil War II, Ulysses saw a vision of Miles killing Steve on the steps of the U.S. Capitol: “All I know is I’m tired of trying to run away from this. Whatever is going to happen, let’s just get it over with.”

All of this seems to reinforce the opening lines of the book. There is no real hope. There are just a few people who cling to it as it dies, and there are those who live more pragmatically, who accept the reality of the situation––a pretty bleak outlook in keeping with what fans of Captain America have felt since CA:SR #1 came out almost exactly a year ago.

At first, the last scene in the issue seems like it will drive the last nail into hope’s coffin: a young girl alone in the woods runs away from Serpent Society––a seemingly hopeless scene. But the tone of the unnamed narrator has changed: “That’s the thing about hope. Just when you’re at your end––sometimes you find it in the strangest places.” And when all hope looks lost for the girl, a heroic figure emerges from the shadows and easily defeats the Society. That figure turns out to be a bearded man in military fatigues who claims to be Steve Rogers: “I’m just trying to get home.”

As I said before, commentators have speculated about how this can be Steve Rogers. What’s just as interesting to me is how we’re supposed to interpret the last scene in light of the issue’s major theme and the earlier scenes. Over and over again, the book warns us not to trust hope, that it is better to follow a more pragmatic or “realistic” path. Is the appearance of “Steve Rogers” at the end supposed to represent the promise of real hope (as the narrator suggests)? That’s the most obvious interpretation, but ever since CA:SR #1, Spencer and co. have seemed determined to undermine any hope that we might have for the return of the true Steve Rogers. Could this be a trick? A proverbial rug that’s going to get pulled out from under us in a future issue?

Spencer’s track record with Cap suggests that he might indeed pull the rug out from under us, but what we know about Marvel’s future suggests otherwise. Even as we read Secret Empire, we know that Generations and the Legacy are coming, and that to some extent undermines the suspense of Secret Empire.

There is hope, then. As I’ve said several times, though, we don’t know how much it’s going to hurt getting to it.