The bright lights of New York City's Times Square below him, Captain America jumps anonymously from a S.H.I.E.L.D. designated military helicopter. In a single panel writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch offer a compelling argument for the necessary but also unnerving confluence of military and superhuman prowess in the media-saturated reality of the 21st-century.
Could it ever have been any other way?
In The Ultimates, writer Mark Millar offers a radical inversion of a popular Marvel theme; superheroes and the media. Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four and even mainstream Marvel Avengers have never been strangers to media scrutiny, but with The Ultimates, Millar provides something of a reversal in a team that relish media attention. The media often being cast as an antagonist in Marvel stories, always seemed to foreshadow a moment when a superhero, or group of superheroes, would actively embrace media attention. The other side of visual equation, the collaboration between superheroes and military intelligence has similarly been a Marvel mainstay, with such heroes as The Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man and even Captain America himself either confounding or aiding in military operations.
The power of this Millar-Hitch image comes by way of a number of vectors, not least of which is the image's resilience at imbricating the reader in the act of storytelling. Does Captain America somehow belong among the bright lights of Times Square? Is his joining the vibrant bustle of NYC nightlife a foregone conclusion? And if that reading is imposed, does it signal the presence of the military as somehow sinister? Or could an entirely different narrative arise from the panel? Is the bustle of city life at night somehow unsafe? Is the encroachment of advertising the means to subliminal control of the populace? Is the government, in an effort to intervene and protect the lives and property of its citizens, correct in enlisting the aid of superhumans?
Does the true danger lie with the military sworn to protect citizens, or with the city that despotically organizes the minds of civilians? The true power of this panel lies not in its search for an answer to this question, nor in the visual of the superhuman dwarfed by both military and media, but in Millar and Hitch's skill in posing the question.