At its heart, The Ultimates has always been a ridiculous book, its tales always centering on ludicrous conflicts: bickering spanky-clad beefcakes, spousal abuse as delivered by ants, mystical thunder gods/aliens having to prove whether or not they're actually mental patients, etc. In the current over-the-top storyline, states are seceding from the Union, Texas wants to set off nuclear strikes, and giant robots called Sentinels have taken over the government. What can be done to stop this chaos?! As Marvel's Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso pointed out, "Who better than a guy dressed in red, white, and blue to come back and try to sew America back together?" Silly me, I was thinking a vigilante might be the exact wrong thing to stem national trouble, especially when diplomacy might be essential in the wake of Texas becoming a whole other country.
Given its editorial history, asking for a realistic problem-solving from The Ultimates is a tall order. I'm actually surprised Marvel is treating this story like it's tied into the upcoming presidential election somehow. In an IGN interview published today, brand-new Ultimates scribe Sam Humphries touted that Cap's presidency would be a story for our time -- a reflection of our nation's need to examine the demands of leadership and analyze our ever-evolving (or disintegrating) relationship with the highest office in the land. However, Humphries also reassured fans that, "There’s nothing Democratic or Republican about [Cap's] position or what he stands for. In fact, I would think that both candidates – Romney and Obama – would both seek to emulate what Cap stands for." And what is it he stands for, exactly, if not a set of beliefs? Don't we want our candidates to be clear about their stance on any given issue? Well, in some cases, maybe they shouldn't speak out, but overall, how can you tell a story about a president without digging into real-world politics? Isn't that a case of having your cake and eating it, too?
Humphries dodges that question in The Ultimates' preview pages by having Cap announce America will be his White House. Hear that, nation? He'll be in your towns, kicking robot ass and taking names (presumably from angry Texans)! But don't expect him to deal with Congress or the budget crisis -- he's a soldier first! Honestly, keeping him out of the Oval Office is a clever, character-driven way of making sure Cap appeals to both sides of the aisle. After all, Marvel wouldn't want one of its most popular properties to commit himself as right- or left-wing, and thus lose numerous collectors and movie goers hungry for the Cap sequel. (Of course, Ultimates Cap started out as a generational racist and has antiquated views about women in power -- he was frozen in ice for the better part of the twentieth century, so I guess that creator Mark Millar's excuse for his belief system.) And Marvel got into trouble not too long ago for referencing political beliefs within a fantasy world, so it makes sense the company wouldn't want Cap to do much more than fight things.
But Humphries claims he wants us to look at our highest political office in a different way. "There are very compelling fictions about the presidency through the lens of realism, but this is not one of them," he says. "This is a story told through the lens of super heroic fantasy, and it won't resemble any presidency we've seen before, fact or fiction." He later adds, "We saw an opportunity to tell a very different type of story about the presidency; about the pact between the American people and its leader, what it means – the fact that it’s a two-way street."
So, which is it? Are we examining what the POTUS means in this day and age, through the lens of superheroes? Or are we watching the president blow stuff up in the name of entertainment and comic book insanity? To my mind, an opportunity could be missed in this run on The Ultimates, largely because it sounds like Marvel wants Cap's presidency to resonate with readers without touching on the actual political wheeling, dealing, and stumping that affects readers' everyday lives. Without broaching very real issues of conflict and philosophy, how can Humphries' "two-way street" be brought to light? By having a president who's all action, Marvel gets a free pass to ignore his daily duties, such as representing the American people's economic, social, and international interests. Which is no big deal if you're fine with Cap punching his way to diplomacy. "But," says Alonso, "ultimately [Cap], Thor, and Iron Man will learn that not all problems can be punched." And if that's the only lesson to be taken from this story, how useful can it be to our daily lives, as Marvel claims it will be?
In the end, I feel this arc, as proposed, smacks of laziness and simplicity. I don't think icons need to be cut and dry, either vigilantes or politicians, either all-powerful and misunderstood, or cheerful and meaningless. That's what's gotten us into trouble, in this season of conflicted images, grandstanding, and ultimatums. Icons like Captain America grew from a political place, there's no denying that; Cap is not just a representation of the American Dream, he fought for America in World War II. He's propaganda! To act as if he doesn't storm through the pages of a comic book without a political edge is naive at best, unimaginative at worst. In the mainstream books, Ed Brubaker's spent the last several years telling relevant stories about a post-911 Cap, and he's done it to critical acclaim and amazing sales. Impressive, for a story that started with Captain America's death. Marvel should think about that as they transition the hero into his most powerful role yet. After all these years and iterations, Cap can still reflect our culture, if only Marvel would give him the chance.