It’s hard to believe it’s been over ten years since Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada launched their ambitious Ultimate line at Marvel with the help of then up-and-coming writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar. It was a time when a big gamble was exactly what the House of Ideas needed. The bottom had fallen out of the comic market, but things were looking up thanks in no small part to the new Marvel Knights line and the success of books like Daredevil and The Punisher. The Marvel Knights titles were proof that there was room for something beyond the cookie cutter superhero comics of old and that fans were ready to embrace something a little different.
The idea was simple: boil down iconic characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men (and a little later, the Avengers and Fantastic Four) to their core and redefine them for a new audience without the shackles of 30+ years of continuity. What’s more, the stories would be imbued with a modern sensibility, trading on the science of the times much like the original stories did in an age when radioactivity was all the rage. Oh, and why should Hank Pym settle on a single open-hand slap to his wife when he can attack her with a can of RAID? It’s the 21st century, after all. Despite some crying on the internet about raping childhoods and the like, the line sold like gangbusters. Marvel had a hit on their hands.
The problem in 2013 is that the Ultimate line has gone too long. I’ll be the first to admit that Ultimate Spider-Man was instrumental in getting me back into comics and it’s one of my favorite series of all time. Even so, it’s time for it to go. The Ultimate books have done their job and now they’re spinning their wheels and it’s all by design. The mentality that “it’s a new universe, so the rules don’t apply” was all too sweet to pass up. We were treated to some fantastic stories in the early days (and indeed the not so early days). There’s no denying that. At some point, the temptation to really go into weird places became too strong to pass up, and that’s where it all went wrong.
Cable is Wolverine from the future. So what? That’s fine. That was a pretty cool reveal, actually. Bendis had the balls to make the Ultimate version of the Clone Saga a fantastic read. Proteus as Xavier’s son was a great twist. Doctor Doom had weird horse feet and a creepy metal face, but then he started to look like regular 616 Doctor Doom for no reason other than “Greg Land can’t draw horse feet and creepy metal faces.” Okay, so that last one doesn’t exactly fall in the “win” column. The point is that there were some really cool takes on existing characters and stories that made the Ultimate line feel fresh and different. Then it got too different.
If any moment can be singled out as the one where the worm turned, it has to be Ultimatum. It was the line’s first big crossover event book. All of the ongoing titles got pulled into it and some of them could have used the bump (looking at you, Ultimate Fantastic Four). By the time the dust settled (or the water receded, as it were), the landscape of the Ultimate Universe was vastly different in ways the 616 events only dream of, but not in an entirely good way. Ultimate Origins had gone a long way towards discrediting a lot of the established continuity in the line by just not making any sense. Ultimatum made sure that kind of stink went forward by running with that same revised continuity nonsense and by killing off everyone.
Seriously, this is the list of characters that died in Ultimatum: Angel, Beast, Blob, Cannonball, Captain Britain, Cypher, Clyclops, Daredevil, Dazzler, Detonator, Doctor Doom (his former horse legs are assumed to be alive somewhere (not really)), Doctor Strange, Emma Frost, Forge, Franklin Storm, Hard Drive, Hank Pym, Juggernaut, Longshot, Lorelei, Madrox, Magneto, Nightcrawler, Polaris, Professor X, Psylocke, Sunspot, Syndicate, Toad, Wasp and Wolverine. Thor died, too, but he came back. They also tried for like 10 minutes to make us think Spider-Man was dead, but he was okay.
Basically, Ultimatum completely decimated this version of the X-Men and they never fully recovered. Kitty Pryde and Bobby Drake would go on to become supporting characters in Ultimate Spider-Man and that’s the best thing that could have happened to them. Those stories were great. It also served as a means to dismantle the Fantastic Four (Reed Richards became a super villain not long after that) and as a loose reason to launch another Ultimates book. Since Ultimatum, it’s like the Ultimate line has been trying to out-Ultimate itself and a lot of it just feels hollow. That’s nothing against the creative teams on those books. They had an incredibly unenviable task. Building a house is hard. Building a house kind of like a house that was completely blown away on top of the same foundation is damn-near impossible.
The exception to that rule was Ultimate Spider-Man. Even its worst issue was pretty great (except maybe Geldoff and Deadpool… I’ll give you that). Then they killed Peter Parker and with him the heart of the Ultimate line. Peter’s death was written beautifully, but it took something greater away from the universe he lived in. Without Peter to ground the rest of the world around him, it seems empty. With all due respect to Brian Michael Bendis and with all due fictional respect to Miles Morales, Miles Morales is no Peter Parker.
“No rules” meant they broke too many rules. The excitement surrounding Ultimate Marvel is gone, but it did exactly what it was meant to do. Thanks to its success, Marvel bounced back in a big way and even DC was able to reap some of those rewards. It could be argued that the Ultimate line is largely responsible for comics being what they are today. The legacy of these books lives on in the 616 and now in TV and film. It’s safe to say that if there was no Ultimates, there would be no Avengers movie. The realistic and more mature tone and style shifted from the “other” comics into the main line and helped pave the way for stories like Civil War.
The whole point of the exercise was to tell stories that would be immediately accessible and recognizable to new readers without having to bring in some sort of knowledge of all the continuity of the 616. Ten years in, I’d say the 616 is more accessible to a new reader than any Ultimate comic. Captain America might have 60+ years of stories under his belt, but they’re collectively a lot less batshit crazy than the ten years of stories Ultimate Cap has been through. He watched the Hulk eat a guy.
It’s time to close the door on Ultimate Marvel, not because it’s a failure, but because it’s been a rousing success. It did exactly what it was always meant to do. History will look back fondly on what was one of the riskiest launches not associated with an arbitrary two-digit number. Today, however, Ultimate Comics are running the risk of overstaying their welcome. There’s no hook anymore beyond being the “other” books and quite frankly, Marvel is publishing more than enough comics these days. We don’t need these anymore. We’ll always have the good times, Ultimate Marvel. Thanks for the ride. Now, let’s take a walk behind the tool shed. I want to tell you about this great farm upstate where Malibu, MC², 2099 and Epic live.