|Synopsis||The living legend of World War II. An eccentric billionaire. A rampaging monster. A Norse god. An assassin. An archer. The Ultimate Universe counterparts of the Avengers join forces in this limited series for the first time, fighting global threats under the auspices of Nick Fury. If this super-powered yarn sounds familiar, readers are not far off... but maybe they’re not as close as they’d like to think.|
|Release Date||June 2002-April 2004|
When you’ve produced stories about the same characters for decades, your comic book continuity becomes a little muddled. Retcons, plot twists, and reboots lead to a whole host of intertwined story arcs and a mountain of references. For the uninitiated, diving into comics can be a major hassle. In the 1980s, DC Comics used Crisis on Infinite Earths to streamline their multiverse and create a more coalesced vision of the DC Universe. They’d later adopt other methods of further disentangling themselves from a web of continuity.
In the early 2000s, Marvel did something similar yet simpler – they created a brand new universe. The Ultimate Universe.
Marvel’s experiment was, for a while, a runaway success. This new world spawned multiple titles and eventually produced crossover events, just like its primary universe counterpart. Alternate versions of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four popped onto the scene, offering readers the opportunity to explore the characters as if they were untouched by history. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch invented the Ultimates, this world’s version of the Avengers. A team of superpowered misfits, the Ultimates combined forces to save the planet from problems they couldn’t face alone… and caused some pretty big issues along the way.
Violence: Several individuals are burned, shot, or blown up in a World War II flashback. Various hand-to-hand scrapes leave people beaten and bloodied. Several characters are shot with bullets or arrows. A character rampages through a city, causing havoc and devastation that, we’re told, kills three hundred people. The subsequent fight to bring him down involves additional bloody blows. Superhuman altercations destroy several buildings, a train, and multiple warships. A nuclear bomb seemingly kills a whole host of soldiers. A final confrontation sees multiple characters shot, beaten, electrocuted, and stabbed; one character is brutally thrashed before his head is forcibly removed. A character is eaten. It’s implied someone is shot in the head. A husband and wife have a domestic squabble that leaves both injured.
Sexual Content: Several comments are laced with innuendo. A few characters with size-changing abilities often tear through their clothes, though anything inappropriate is obscured. A woman flashes a man. Someone is propositioned. A few characters kiss. Someone lies about having an affair. Someone jokes about an alien race’s ability to reproduce. Another character sexually threatens someone. A man dates a married woman. A relationship is hinted at between two related characters.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Several characters drink. One character is addicted to painkillers. Another character’s abilities rely on a synthetic formula which we’re told was secretly tested on people.
Spiritual Content: Someone says that God is good and that heaven and hell won’t keep them from a loved one’s side. Thor is considered the Norse God of Thunder. Someone mentions praying. A funeral is held at a cathedral. The main antagonists seek to eradicate mankind’s free will.
Language/Crude Humor: Over 80 uses of God’s name in vain, including twice in German. H**l, a**, and d*** pop up, as well as a single bleeped-out curse and an unfinished “son of a…”. Someone says “Sweet Mother of Mercy.”
Other Negative Content: Characters lie to each other. A character makes fun of someone else’s learning difficulties. Someone utilizes a satellite to hunt down another character.
Positive Content: One character seemingly sacrifices his life for the sake of his fellow soldiers. Other characters deliberately put themselves in harm’s way to keep the general public safe.
Similarities between the Ultimates and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers exist, if you squint. You’ll discover the film and comic both revolve around spectacular groups of people pulled together to fend off an oncoming extraterrestrial invasion. Both worlds feature a Triskelion as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s main headquarters. Both stories see a revived Captain America struggling to find himself in a time unlike the era he left behind. The Ultimate version of Nick Fury was based specifically on Samuel L. Jackson years before the actor played the MCU’s top S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. It’s clear, in some respects, that Joss Whedon’s first Avengers film specifically drew inspiration from this series. But like I said, you have to squint. The comparisons are largely cosmetic.
The differences, however, make for interesting analysis.
These Aren’t the Heroes You’re Looking For
Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, in this thirteen-issue limited series, create a world where the heroes you love on the screen are nowhere to be found. Thor’s not the pompous son of Odin who learns humility. He’s a New Age eco-terrorist who promises to help the Ultimates only if the president doubles the United States’ international aid budget. Captain America isn’t the dedicated follower of his own moral compass. He’s a jack-booted thug, brutally kicking the snot out of Hank Pym after Pym abuses his wife Janet (who Steve Rogers happens to be kinda-sorta dating even as she struggles with marital difficulties). Bruce Banner isn’t some lost scientist afraid of hurting other people as his green-skinned alter ego. He’s a disgruntled government employee who intentionally takes a Super Soldier formula because he’s tired of being a nobody. His decision leads to the deaths of three hundred people and an epic battle costing however many millions in property damage.
One could argue the MCU took Marvel’s classic characters and polished them up a bit for families and younger audience members. By the same token, one could also argue Millar and Hitch do the opposite. They break their characters down, twisting and molding them to the contours of a more realistic world set in the very early 21st century. Their Ultimates aren’t superheroes, they’re soldiers. The team is touted as celebrities even before their first mission, played to the public as protectors with the backing of the military-industrial complex.
In a way, the view is fascinating, realistic, and more dramatic. A post-9/11 aura permeates the comic, as if Millar is asking how a team of superhumans would defend American interests if they actually existed in our world today. The glamorous notion that someone could get doused in radiation, develop fantastic abilities, and toss on a bright costume to fight crime is obliterated. Here, superhumans are fashioned through science and technology, governed by military leaders. Whereas the original Avengers may have banded together through pure coincidence, the Ultimates are intentionally selected to serve a greater cause. They are bullets in a gun to be pointed and fired on command. They aren’t the heroes America wants but the weapons America needs.
Millar could play up the grandeur of such a notion – who doesn’t get excited seeing Captain America sling a shield at his enemies? – but he chooses to muss it up instead. Bullets they may be, but the Ultimates are still human. “Persons of mass destruction,” as one issue’s title touts them. Millar’s characters are deeply, deeply flawed. Some of these blemishes are holdovers from mainstream comics, like Hank Pym’s abusive treatment of his wife; other alterations are of Millar’s own design. Thor, as far as I know, has never been depicted elsewhere as an anti-American hippie protestor.
Mark Millar Presents “The Marvel Universe by Zack Snyder”
In doses, these characters work. Via Millar’s depiction, Thor is either an actual god or a man suffering from an identity disorder; the mystery as to his “true identity” is bobbled around during the whole series, making Thor a complex, interesting character. Tony Stark chooses to become Iron Man for some very personal reasons, different from his Earth-616 and even on-screen counterparts. Even Bruce Banner voluntarily transforms into the Hulk because of an overwhelming sense of disappointment in life. To an extent, you certainly feel for these characters and their situations.
Unfortunately, Millar also really wants his version of the Avengers to be dark, gritty, and edgy. He mistakes “violent,” “mature,” and “angry” for “realistic,” setting up scenarios where our occasionally relatable heroes cross certain moral lines. The Hulk eats a guy, at one point. Black Widow openly admits to having an affair with Tony Stark. Later stories will more directly pick up on an incestuous relationship Millar vaguely hints at in this series. The rules which governed what was acceptable content in the mainstream Marvel Universe, circa 2002, don’t apply here. Captain America and Giant Man fighting because a comic book narrative demands hero-vs-hero fisticuffs may be goofy and coincidental, but the notion is harmless. Cap taking down the abusive husband of the woman Cap is dating behind Giant Man’s back feels more mired in moral compromise. Readers shouldn’t be surprised, honestly. Millar’s track record indicates he loves graphic violence and darker narratives. Still, the world feels off, especially if your perception of a guy like Iron Man is based on Robert Downey Jr. snapping his fingers to save the universe.
Flawed heroes make for fascinating characters. Their weaknesses give them obstacles to tackle, their darker edges allow us to reflect on our own personalities and tendencies. With the Ultimates, Millar hones in on those weaknesses, but instead of having his heroes overcome their flaws, he makes those areas their centers. You don’t like Captain America openly dating a married woman because it makes him “mature”? Too bad. Go watch Chris Evans if you want a more wholesome Steve Rogers.
Crafty Conflict and Faulty Philosophy
Morally malformed as his protagonists are, Millar certainly uses the story’s scope wonderfully. It’s easy to see how Joss Whedon was inspired by the Ultimates, especially if you look at Millar’s action sequences. Each fight feels cinematic, with Bryan Hitch firing on all cylinders for the series’ final climactic showdown featuring the Ultimates versus a horde of invading aliens. Hitch presents each action fluidly and with excessive (but not unnecessary) drama. Thor and Iron Man soar through the sky, tearing alien ships apart, while Black Widow and the Wasp hold off invaders on the ground. Hitch flawlessly blends military warfare with extraterrestrial technology and superhuman feats of heroism.
Even the smaller conflicts carry a big impact – the fight between Steve and Hank is visceral, with Cap’s athletic prowess matched against Hank’s size-changing abilities, dramatizing a shift in the characters’ relationship. In every battle presented – from the Hulk tearing down skyscrapers to Janet slapping Hank – Millar and Hitch focus on the personal stakes. The Ultimates are here to save the world while simultaneously proving themselves to… well, themselves, as well as the world at large. Can the often overlooked Wasp be accepted as a true member of the Ultimates? Can Hank Pym redeem himself? Can the Hulk?
When the creators focus on these questions, the story soars. When the characters work beyond their faults, they prove themselves as heroic. But when Millar and Hitch get messy for the sake of the mess, this series suffers. It looks cool –Hitch’s artwork is seamlessly dynamic, painting a narrative that could’ve been adapted to a nifty action movie shot-for-shot. It sometimes even sounds cool – Millar’s rhetoric weaves in larger themes of heroism and American politics that nestle in with his story of a government-operated super-team. But it’s messy.
In discussing stories recently, my father indicated that narratives painting a particular message must be careful. A story that weaves in a message – say, political commentary – is stronger when it incorporates its rhetoric within the story. A tale that makes rhetoric or commentary its main focus, however, is often weaker. The creators hammer their point, bludgeoning the reader with blunt, obvious imagery. For the most part, Millar’s political commentary feels harmless, grafted nicely into the series. But his characters… they like violence for the sake of violence, swearing for the sake of swearing, crudity for the sake of crudity. Millar doesn’t paint a mess and ask readers to grapple with it; he paints a mess and simply wants readers to accept it. Storytellers bear a responsibility to their readers, whether they’re crafting comics, novels, or films – tell a story, insert a message, but allow audiences to discover actual truth rather than what the writer asserts as true. Instead of asking nicely if he can play, Millar makes a tight-fisted demand, wielding your favorite Avengers like a kid who enjoys busting up other people’s action figures and telling you to be happy with however he chooses to behave.
+ Cinematic action sequences
+ Grounded narrative
+ Interesting influences on the MCU
- Unnecessarily mature elements
- Poorly written characters
The Bottom Line
Millar and Hitch's vision of an alternate Avengers looks cinematic and feels relatable yet is burdened by an over-reliance on mature themes and strange characterization.