These stories diverge from the events of Marvel's Civil War limited series. The superhero community is divided over a Federal law that mandates that they disclose their identities to the U.S. government and be properly trained in the use of their power or face prosecution. Iron Man led the move to support the law, thinking it's the responsible approach, Captain America became the leader of the resistance movement, who believes that the law is a violation of human rights.
Captain America ultimately surrendered in Civil War #7 when he realized that they were no longer fighting for a cause; they were just fighting. He was arrested and faced trial. He was killed by an assassin in Captain America (Vol. 5) #25.
This story takes place in the normal reality during Captain America (Vol. 5) #26 after Cap was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Iron Man visits Cap's grave in Arlington. It's raining heavily. Tony stands in front of the statue of his friend in a heavy rain without an umbrella. He's thinking to himself, "They buried Captain America today. That's what most of them think, at least".
Before he can finish his thought, a mysterious stranger in an overcoat and umbrella appears. His face is obscured by the umbrella and an inexplicable shadow that conceals the rest. He vocalizes some of Tony's thoughts: "... they buried a symbol. All that rests here ... is a memory". He begins to engage Tony in a discussion about his (Tony's) part in the death of his friend. Tony admits that he didn't expect it to end like this. He prides himself on being able to see possible eventualities based on current trends. He is extremely disappointed with himself in this circumstance.
The stranger begins to describe an alternate worlds in which Tony does not lead the pro-registration camp. In this world, Tony's exposure to Extremis killed him. The superhero community mourned his passing and continued on in his name.
At this point, events on this alternate Earth converge with that of his world. The Hulk had an all-out battle with The Thing and the Human Torch in Las Vegas. This was responsible for the initial senate hearings about superhuman registration. Captain America is asked to speak on behalf on the superhuman community. The senators make the same essential argument as in the real world: super-humans are living weapons and must be controlled. Cap reminds them that this legislation is based on fear and will never work. Although he understands their intentions, he states his belief that this bill will ultimately put those that register at risk. Allowing even one person to possess all the heroes' secret identities will inevitably lead to corruption.
The chairman cites the need to protect the American people as a reason for this legislation. Cap fires back with some well-known instances in which the government failed to protect it's citizens: Namor's invasion of New York, the arrival of Galactus, the Kree-Skrull War, Onslaught, and the Kang invasion. The superhuman population stepped in and defended Earth when no other force on the planet could have. The senator replies, "But the people are afraid of you". Cap responds "Are they? Or is it you who are afraid?".
Cap argument was sound and convinced the committee to drop the bill - temporarily. As in Tony's world, the Stamford incident with Nitro and the New Warriors occurred. At this point he was unable to prevent them from passing the Superhuman Registration Act. He is warned that within 72 hours, this will become law; every hero will be required to register or face the consequences. Cap leaves in disgust, stating that this "is no longer the America that I knew", refusing to answer questions from either the senate or the reporters.
With Nick Fury in hiding, Peter Gyrich is appointed Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Maria Hill is appointed as presidential liaison. Gyrich immediately introduces sweeping changes to the organization, bordering on fanatical. One of which involves restarting Project: Wide Awake - a Sentinel program.
Cap arranges a meeting with the heroes and offers them a simple choice: join the resistance or acquiesce to the government demands. He bears no malice to those that choose the later. Sides are quickly chosen: Spider-Man, Falcon, Wolverine, Cable, Luke Cage, Daredevil, Ms. Marvel, Invisible Woman, Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch, Thing, Hercules, Spider-Woman, Patriot, Wonder Man, She-Hulk, Namor and Wasp join Cap's resistance movement.
At midnight the SHRA goes into effect. They are immediately attacked by a squad of Sentinels. Spider-Man is the first casualty quickly followed by the Invisible Woman and Daredevil. To his credit, Gyrich is furious at the results of the first strike. He specifically told them to capture the outlaws, not to kill them. As they pass the body of Spider-Man, Gyrich has the decency to ask who he was; his subordinate scoffs and replies "... some guy. Nobody important".
Gyrich restructures his task force to utilize Sentinel-like exoskeletons piloted by humans: the Sentinel O.N.E. Strikeforce. This group is lead by Jim Rhodes aka War Machine. He agreed to this position only because – in this reality – Tony can't do it.
At the new safe house, the heroes try to regroup after their loss. Namor attempts to express his condolences to Reed. Reed stops him and flatly states that "Death is the price of freedom" and looks directly to Captain America.
Cap is greatly affected by Reed's words and discusses his conflicts about their movement with Ms. Marvel. He admits that while he and Tony didn't agree on everything, he feels that Tony would have sided with him on this issue. Ms. Marvel reminds him that this isn't an easy decision for anyone; even he would have difficulty making it.
Symbolically Cap pulls out some armor that Tony had built for him prior to his death. He had originally constructed an exoskeleton for mobility when the super-soldier serum was killing him. Once he was able to overcome that, Tony upgraded the the exoskeleton to full armor. He gave it to him to allow him to continue on his worthwhile struggles should the need arise again. He feels that now is the time. Their next battle finds Cap wearing a red, white, and blue variant of the Iron Man armor. This continues through several more battles, all of which are successful.
During one battle with the Sentinel O.N.E. Squad, Cap realizes that the pilots for the squad are barely over 18. Expecting older, more seasoned soldiers, he is unable to continue knowing that they too are doing what they think is right. Once they are safe, he orders his troops to return to the safe house. It is there he explains that they can't continue down this path. It leads to the superheros assuming the powers of the government. He advises all of them to separate and go underground, operating only when necessary.
A world without heroes provides the super villains – who never intended to comply with the SHRA – an opportunity to run wild. The Sentinel O.N.E. Squad is unable to match the power and ruthlessness of villains like the Radioactive Man and the Beetle. The heroes appear from the shadows when necessary and save their lives, as has been their intention from the beginning.
Jim Rhodes goes out on patrol and is injured. When he is brought back, he demands that Gyrich call the president and have him rescind the SHRA, allowing the heroes to help them regain control of their cities. There has to be an alternative to this; they are at the mercy of the villains, who show no mercy. Gyrich initiates Project: Thunderstrike – an army of Thor clones. This army manages to get the villain population under control. He then directs them to capture the outlaw heroes.
Rhodes finally tires of Gyrich's disregard for the heroes and public safety. He speaks privately to Maria Hill, convincing her to talk to the president about the possibility of a cease-fire agreement with the heroes. As he goes to a secret meeting with Cap, Gyrich appears with a small complement of Thor clones. One of them incinerates Cap with a thunderbolt. A tearful Jim looks around and sees that he was betrayed by Hill, who shoots him through the head. When the remaining squad arrives, Gyrich informs them that Captain America killed Rhodes and is still at large.
His hunting of "Captain America" helps Gyrich create a power base as a savior of the people. He eventually uses this leverage to run for – and win – the presidency of the United States. During a meeting with Maria Hill, he stares out the window in the Oval Office. Gyrich wishes aloud that the conflict hadn't reached this point. Hill reminds him that the country can move forward in peace because of the choices he's made. She suggests that when the next conflict arises, they "can afford to listen".
This had one of the creepier endings out of the What If stories I've read recently. The idea of Gyrich as president gives me chills. He's portrayed as a morally flexible individual given absolute power. And we have a strong case here that illustrates what happens with absolute power.
4 webs. Overall this is a very well written and illustrated issue. Couple minor points that detract from the story a bit.
Cap's armor seems a bit pointless. Symbolic? Maybe. I just don't buy it.
There's also a bit of disconnect between the event that triggers Cap's epiphany during the final battle with his resistance movement and his decision to disband. Seeing a kid fighting for his country is one thing, but the rationale afterward doesn't seem to come from that.
I think my biggest complaint is that Spider-Man went out like an Ensign on Star Trek. That doesn't sit well with me. Then there's the brush off in the morgue. That's insult to injury.