Recently I mentioned that I’d been reading Marvel’s New Universe comics from the ’80s, which proved to be a fascinating failed experiment: The New Coke of comics, if you will. Well, I never managed to finish off the series. The second half of the New Universe – the post-Pitt books – abandoned the few things I found interesting about the New Universe to become this sort of grim, dreary slog. On the plus side, it also marked the point at which Marvel editorial culled most of the genuinely awful books (except, for some reason, Justice), but the shift to a more martial tone and away from the “strange people trying to make their way in the world” theme felt too contrived… not to mention cliché.
So, after I dropped those books, I decided to move along to Marvel’s second attempt to create a new universe, the Ultimate Marvel books. I’m not sure why they didn’t just do the Ultimate thing in the first place. Most New Universe books were thinly veiled knockoffs of existing Marvel franchises anyway, so Ultimate’s approach of rebooting those franchises feels more honest.
I finally finished reading through Ultimatum last night, and I have to say: What a terrible, terrible way to end a large-scale shared universe. I mean, yeah, I guess that continuity is still going, but I have no interest in keeping up with it beyond Ultimatum for exactly the same reason I dropped New Universe after The Pitt. “Let’s kill everyone and make things, like, super dark and violent” is such a lazy form of writing. Ultimatum took a long-running narrative thread that spanned across seven or eight years of a shared universe – Magneto’s determination to spark a war between humans and mutants – and ran with it. Ran with it right off the rails and into the ground.
The premise behind Ultimatum was great; Magneto finally went all in on his decades of threats by changing the Earth’s magnetic polarity, intending to extinguish the entire human race and repopulate the world with his mutant exile population hidden safely above the Savage Land. But the execution of that plot completely sucked; for some stupid reason, Magneto’s global cataclysm only amounted to the flooding of New York. Because, hey, that’s the only city on the planet, if Ultimate Marvel is anything to go by.
Dozens of characters died in the flood. Realistic, I guess. But… in a universe where death rarely gives mulligans, the mass extermination of characters whose lives had been developed over the course of years of stories in a gimmicky mass event with little to no closure just feels cheap.
(Ultimates Vol. 3, which led into Ultimatum, was also pretty wretched and made almost zero sense. Did Joe Madureira learn the art of visual storytelling from Alex Ross or something? Because, like Ross, he has no idea how to construct a narrative through pictures.)
But much more damning was just how cynical the whole thing felt. The characters who weren’t slaughtered pretty much all became instant murderers despite years of preaching their high-minded ideals. The book’s asinine attempts at shock value – like The Blob eating Wasp’s corpse, provoking Giant-Man to bite his head off – weren’t clever or interesting or even gritty, merely childish, and they spoiled nearly a decade’s worth of frequently excellent storytelling. And even if those plot beats could have been handled well, their inane dialogue (“Tastes like chicken”) merit nothing but vast contempt. By the time noble, hardcore peace advocate Cyclops blasted Magneto’s head clean off his shoulders only to be gunned down by an assassin a few days later, I had long since ceased to care. Murder, murder, murder. Oh, look, Magneto just snapped Xavier’s neck. Oh, hey, The Thing crushed Doom’s head like a grape. Ah, and there’s Dormammu squeezing Dr. Strange until his body explodes in a bloody mess. Cool. Murder. Who cares about telling a good story in an interesting way when you can just rack up a graphic body count and make good guys all edgy and stuff?
Writer Jeph Loeb’s atrocious handling of the whole thing made me pine for the comparative maturity and subtlety of Mark Millar’s writing, which is really saying something. The real capper, though, was Loeb’s dedication at the end of Ultimatum, thanking all the people who had labored to create the Ultimate universe over the years – because nothing says “thanks for all the hard work” like flushing their efforts right down the toilet, I guess? Pathetic. But in fairness, this was clearly a large-scale business decision that many people signed off on, so it’s not like Loeb is exclusively to blame. Lots of people deserve contempt for managing to run an entire line of books into the ground.
Ultimatum truly disappointed me, because there was a lot to like about Ultimate Marvel up until that point. Collectively, the books did a fantastic job of recasting classic Marvel tales in a contemporary context. It helps that top-tier talent like Warren Ellis help pilot the thing in the early days, and while it wasn’t always subtle about its overarching narrative theme of “superheroes reimagined for a post-9/11 world,” that ethos made Marvel’s books feel timely in a way that they hadn’t since, well, the days when Timely had recently become Marvel. SHIELD took on a major role in all the books, perhaps well-intended but often amounting to an indiscriminate blunt instrument of America as a militarized surveillance and police state. The fact that everything in the Ultimate universe wound back around to Captain America and the world’s desperate attempts to recreate that single success of the World War II super-soldier program turned that character into an anchor for the entire line, Ultimate Marvel’s Superman — the calm center of the universe, even when he was being really poorly written by certain authors. That being said, I very much appreciated the way later writers made fun of Millar’s self-congratulatory handling of Cap’s idiotic posturing and dumbass lines like “This A doesn’t stand for France.”
Up until Ultimatum, Ultimate Marvel even handled events and crossovers well – a true rarity in comics. The “Galactus” story was a thread that ran throughout the entire line for something like a year, building up to a world-shaking event that had lingering aftereffects. Ultimate X-Men wasn’t necessarily my favorite book in the line – Ultimate Fantastic Four was, Greg Lands’ infamous habit of tracing porn when drawing Susan Richards notwithstanding…
…because as a fan of old John Byrne/Walt Simonson-era Fantastic Four, the Ultimate rendition of the team hit all the right buttons for me (up until Ultimatum turned everyone into assholes, that is). Nevertheless, Ultimate X-Men did a phenomenal job of reworking decades’ worth of X-Men concepts into a more grounded reality. Although certain plot lines felt underdeveloped and too reliant on familiarity with standard Marvel continuity (e.g. the Hellfire Club/Phoenix story), seeing outlandish Chris Claremont concepts like Mojo and Majestrix Lilandra reworked into more down-to-earth renditions kept things surprising and fun despite their familiarity. I genuinely enjoyed the new spins on the big ’90s X-crossovers like X-cutioner’s Song (Stryfe as a home-grown terrorist with a skill for causing turmoil in those around him) and especially Age of Apocalypse (which put an interesting spin on Cable, built on a long-running thread involving a much less take ridiculous take on Mr. Sinister, and culminated with a cheeky, and mercifully small, nod to Onslaught).
By and large, Ultimate Marvel managed to tread a careful line between fan fiction and grand reimagining, and I’m glad I finally took the time to read the books.
But the way it went off the rails, in such a juvenile and pandering fashion, reminds me why I stopped reading mainstream comics so long ago. Most of them are terrible, and the relatively few good ideas that sneak through will eventually be destroyed by less capable people, because corporations care less about creative integrity or the talent of individuals than about milking a brand for all it’s worth. It’s nice that Marvel can learn from its mistakes to some degree, though; I’ve been picking up the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye trade paperbacks, the first super hero comics I’ve bought in years, and that run really is about the creative team. It doesn’t make me want to read any other Marvel books or follow any other heroes, but that standalone feel is a big part of why I enjoy it. I just hope to god they keep Jeph Loeb far, far away from it.