Last summer in “The Dark Knight,” the Joker stated in one of his home-made videos that “People will die. I’m a man of my word.” At some point this year, both of the top two comic publishers, DC and Marvel, took that to heart; DC, with its long teased, recently started “Blackest Night” mini-series, and Marvel, with the recently wrapped “Ultimatum” mini-series. This post is about “Ultimatum” (though there will be a post in the near future about “Blackest Night”).
Here is a little background on the series. In 2000, publisher Bill Jemas and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada (along with the help of writers Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis) felt that the standard Marvel universe, the one that houses Spider-Man, Thor, Iron-Man, Captain America, the X-Men and Wolverine, had become a bit convoluted. To a comic book fan, the use of the word “convoluted” seems like an understatement. They decided that they should clean house. But instead of doing what DC tends to do and launch a sweeping mini-series that reboots the whole universe, they began a new line of books that existed side-by-side with the original stories of the primary Marvel universe. This line was dubbed the “Ultimate” line. The basic premise is a “What if the original characters of the Marvel universe were re-launched today?” More than just changing the original situations around, the whole premise of the characters were re-imagined. The first book out was “Ultimate Spider-Man” written by Bendis expanded the original 11 page story into seven full length issues. Peter Parker, who graduated high school in “Amazing Spider-Man” #28, three years after the original series started, has yet to celebrate his 16th birthday after 130+ issues in the “Ultimate” line. Words like “terrorist” and “weapon of mass destruction” are now a part of the hero/villain dialogue just as much as they are a part of our vocabulary today and the Ultimates, the Ultimate counter-part of the Avengers even went as far as to intervene in the Middle East in ways similar to the Bush administration (except with super-powers). The reason Samuel L. Jackson played Nick Fury in “Iron Man” is that his likeness was used in “The Ultimates” series. This is a modern Marvel line of books and as a result, it gets a modern event book in “Ultimatum,” written by Jeph Loeb (one-time producer of the show “Heroes”) with art by David Finch and Danny Miki and which just finished its shock-and-awe filled five issue run.
Thanks to Ian McKellan’s work in the “X-Men” films, the world is aware of the deeds of Magneto. But turning people into mutants and using Jean Grey to disintegrate people don’t compare to what ultimate Magneto has done in this book. Issue #1 opens with New York City, the central hub of most heroes, being flooded with a tidal wave caused by Magneto. To let the reader know that this is business time, a lot of the X-Men (including mainstays and fan-favorites Beast and Nightcrawler) are killed. The remaining heroes spend the remaining four issues collecting themselves in this tragedy and go after Magneto. More heroes fall and tragedy remains prominent through the whole book.
The greatness of the Ultimate line is the realism that has gone into it. This is definitely a modern line of books. Spider-Man’s dialogue sounds exactly how a 15 would sound in the situations he has been put in. The love lives of the X-Men, who are mostly all teenagers like they were when the original launched in the 60s, is similar to that of the high school love lives of teens today.
Because of the limited number of books (with four on-going titles being the peak number during the nine years of publication), there is a consistence and a belief that this is a coherent universe. This also means that the characters have a consistent voice in these books. There is no radical change in voice if the mutant Cyclops appears in “Ultimate X-Men” one month and the “Ultimates” in another month. Up until Loeb hopped onto “The Ultimates”, no one had written a single bit of dialogue for ultimate Peter Parker besides Bendis.
But also, there has been a long, on-going sub-plot that finally comes to a head in this mini-series. Especially surprising since it is put out by Marvel, there haven’t been many false deliveries in the Ultimate line. The one that was a cheap trick was the beginning of Millar’s run on “Ultimate Fantastic Four” which teased the ultimate FF meeting their primary Marvel counter-parts. It turned out that they met zombie versions of themselves. But “Ultimatum” delivers, especially on its main sub-plot.
The through line of these books has been something called the Super Soldier Serum. This is the serum that gave Captain America his strength during World War II. The serum was even mentioned in last summer’s “Incredible Hulk.” Its failed replication turned Tim Roth into the ugly Abomination. But the thing with the Super Soldier Serum is that it has never been recreated. It was a one shot deal that had great results. The problem is, even though the serum hasn’t been re-created since Cap, that hasn’t stopped the rest of the world from trying and that is what caused most of the heroes in the Ultimate line to get their powers. The spider that bit Peter Parker was filled with something called OZ, which was part of Norman Osborn trying to recreate the serum. Osborn also used OZ to turn himself into the Green Goblin (the failed experiment also led to the birth of ultimate Doctor Octopus). Bruce Banner turned himself into the Hulk with his failed recreation of the serum. These failed attempts come to a head in the final issue with a reveal about the X-Men and mutantkind.
This mini-series is deemed “The End of the Ultimate Universe.” With all the death and destruction found in “Ultimatum”, there is actually only some truth in this statement. All of the on-goings have been canceled but Spider-Man and the Ultimates are coming back this month with new books that begin a new chapter in this universe, written by the original writers (Bendis on “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” and Millar on “Ultimate Comics Avengers”) While the history and cultural impact of the original Marvel universe will never let the Ultimate line surpass it, it has led to some of the best stories put out by Marvel in decades. The freedom to re-create the world, to make what has become cliché into something new has led the writers and artist on this line to put out amazing books. “Ultimatum” might not be the strong note delivered by the line, but it is a fine cap on the first chapter of some great work.
“Ultimatum” Issues 1 – 5 are available in most comic book stores
All art is copyright of Marvel