Marvel Comics’ 15-year experiment known as its Ultimate Comics line died a quiet, uneventful death this week with the publication of “Ultimate End No. 5.”
I’m not here to tell you to read the comic. It was crap. But, while it was a misguided effort destined to fail, Marvel’s Ultimate Comics did put out a few good comics, even some great ones, and it had a definite influence on the movie end which is all anyone cares about anymore, so it deserves some kind of obituary.
By the year 2000 the Marvel Universe had been around roughly 40 years (longer if you count the Golden Age stuff). Some people at Marvel felt that was too old. Marvel’s characters had been around so long and were so mired in back story and convoluted continuity that it was off-putting to kids and potential new readers.
How do we attract the kids and that vast, untapped audience? The decision came down to create a second line of comics — the Ultimate line — with all the familiar faces but starting from scratch with brand new origin stories. And we’ll put all our top talent on the books.
Like I said, a misguided idea destined to fail. Sure, starting fresh sounds good for now, but what happens five years from now? Or more? It wouldn’t take long for the new universe to get just as convoluted as the old one. And the problem with using top talent? Well, they have the attention span of a puppy. Six issues and they usually move on.
The Ultimate line launched with — you guessed it — Ultimate Spider-Man. The creative team took six issues to tell Spidey’s origin — a story Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did in one. Welcome to the new world. Still, it was a big hit. They followed with Ultimate X-Men.
I didn’t bother with either title. I wasn’t reading regular “Spider-Man” so why would I care about New Spidey? And I was already so enmeshed in 40 years of X-Men continuity I wasn’t about to try to keep track of more mutant madness.
The third book in the series was “The Ultimates,” which should’ve been called “Ultimate Avengers” but who knows why Marvel does what Marvel does. In the hands of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, “The Ultimates” was the best comic Marvel published during this time and still holds up as one of the best comics Marvel ever published. The Millar/Hitch “Ultimates” single-handed justified the existence of the Ultimate line.
But as I mentioned earlier, top talent tends to move on. While Ult. Spidey’s team had a long run, Millar/Hitch left “Ultimates” after 2 storylines, and the “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” books had frequent talent turnovers. And, as expected, while the books were on fire in the early years, eventually everyone lost interest. Marvel tried to shake up interest in the line with a horrible event comic called “Ultimatum” which killed off several characters and probably signaled the beginning of the end for the line. It was that bad.
The books limped along for the last few years until someone finally had the sense to pull the plug. And its influence — good and bad — won’t be forgotten in some instances:
Samuel L. Jackson, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. In the regular Marvel Universe, Nick Fury is a white guy — so white he was once played by David Hasselhoff in a TV movie. With the Ultimate line, Marvel had a chance to bring some diversity to the line when recreating their classic characters. They didn’t follow through very much, with the notable exception of the director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
When Fury first appears he isn’t designed after anyone in particular. But when he turns up in “The Ultimates” it’s clear that artist Bryan Hitch has patterned the character after Jackson. So when it came time to cast the character for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who else could they turn to?
Assembling the Avengers. In the original comics, the Avengers came together pretty much by accident thanks to the manipulations of Loki. In “The Ultimates,” and the MCU, Nick Fury brings the team together as part of a super S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative.
Cool Exec with a Heart of Steel. It’s probably fair to say that Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark was more based on the Ultimate version of the character than the traditional Marvel version.
The Dynamic Duo. While it’s true that Hawkeye and the Black Widow started out as a couple in the early Marvel days, they weren’t S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. And they weren’t together very long and didn’t have much to do with each other once they broke up. “The Ultimates” brought them back together as teammates and friends and that carried over to the films, the cartoon and the comics.
Clint Barton, Family Man. If you were surprised when Hawkeye turned up with a wife and family in “Age of Ultron,” you clearly hadn’t been reading “The Ultimates.” The movie version of Hawkeye is probably the character most influenced by the Ultimate comics. The costume, the family, and his role as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent all come from the Ultimates.
(It should be noted that not everything from “The Ultimates” transferred to the movies. Captain America, Thor and HULK stayed true to their original Marvel version, which is just as well.)
Fantastic Fail. While “The Ultimates” was a positive influence on its movie counterpart, the same cannot be said for Marvel’s first family. Taking the family dynamic and turning it into a quartet of young adults was the idea behind “Ultimate Fantastic Four.” It was the least successful of the Ultimate line but that didn’t stop Fox from taking the idea and running with it. Straight into the ground.
Lone Survivor. When the dust cleared (and it hasn’t fully cleared yet), the one hero to make it out of the Ultimate universe alive was Miles Morales — the UU’s Spider-Man. Miles replaced Peter Parker, who died a while back. Don’t worry, the real Peter Parker is alive and web-slinging in the real Marvel U. So now we’ve got two Spider-Men running around but that’s OK, we also have about a half-dozen Spider-Women running around.
Oh, and Ultimate Reed Richards made the move as well, but he’s evil now. There will probably be others who survived that will be revealed later. I’m hoping Ultimate Nick Fury is still out there somewhere.