Okay, I notice that a lot of my posts have been following a pattern where I build up my opinion to make it seem more controversial than it actually is by pretending to be the brave hero who drops truth bombs on everybody and then levels two barrels of bad ass commentary with an in your face attitude.
This will not be the case today. Instead, today I am going to join a small but vocal mob as we happily pull down the statue of a hated tyrant who made our lives hell.
I’m talking about the “Ultimate Marvel” line.
Way back in 2000, things at Marvel were still a little up in the air. The company was shaking off the effects from it’s bankruptcy and the many creative missteps of the 90s had taken their toll on the company’s reputation among it’s fans. Marvel needed something to get the bitter taste of 1996 through 1998 out of the mouth of their fans. Sure there were signs of life at the company: Blade and the first X-Men movie were still fresh on everybody’s minds and people were starting to wonder “hey, maybe you CAN make a decent Marvel movie.”
But Marvel’s core readership had changed a lot over the years and as readers grew out of the flashy, “X-Treme” era of the 1990s, people were starting to want a little more substance from their sequential art. Then there was Marvel’s continuity problems…which by the turn of the century were tremendous. Things were especially bad in the X-Men Books where a couple of time travel stories that probably should never have been made part of the regular continuity found their way into the main Marvel universe and made everyone’s comic shop pull list go bananas. Check this out: Remember Rachel Summers? She was introduced in a time travel story from 1981, she’s been a regular member of various Excalibur teams ever since. She’s the daughter of Jean and Scott from an alternate timeline, which also makes her the niece of Havok and the granddaughter of Corsair, from the Starjammers.
Her “half brother” Cable was introduced in the early 90s in a series of stories about Jean and Scott traveling into the far future in alternate bodies to raise their son, who defeated Apocalypse in the far future. Cable then traveled back in time as an old man to join the X-Men of today. (I am unsure of how he’s a half brother if Rachel is also a daughter of…no, never mind).
Cable’s clone, the villain Stryfe, also traveled back in time and due to his genetic relationship to Cyclops and co is technically the clone of a biological son of Jean and Scott, from an alternate time line…in the future.
Oh and Cable had a son, Genesis, the grandson of Jean and Scott Summers, who traveled to our world from an alternate timeline…in the future.
It gets worse, Xavier’s son, Legion, went back in time and accidentally created an alternate timeline called Age of Apocalypse. This series introduced a character named “Nate Grey”, that timeline’s version of Cable, who eventually escaped into the main universe.
So at one point in the Marvel universe, there was one character, who had his own book, who had an origin story that sounded like this: He was a mutant who was the son of Jean and Scott Summers, who had a half sister, from an alternate timeline, who was also the alternate reality duplicate of another character, who had a clone and a son, from an alternate reality…in the future.
Exactly. And that was just the X-Books, don’t even get me started on the Spider Man Clone Saga.
Some of these stories were good, some were terrible, all of them were part of continuity and thus had to be dealt with in ongoing story lines with plots and stuff needed to be rewritten. It was kind of a mess and there was really only one, honest to god solution:
Yeah, exactly, a reboot.
Way back in the 80s, DC had already suffered through it’s own bogged down, inaccessible continuity thanks to the multi-verse baloney that drove everybody crazy for three decades and in an effort to clean up their universe and make DC more accessible to new fans.
It was actually a good idea. Oh sure, it lead to a series of really dumb ideas that lead to the worst idea ever. But as much as DC’s eventual reboot overload annoys me, I can’t say it isn’t at least a good idea. Comics get big, they get unwieldy, and if no one is willing to kill off a character with old age then at a certain point you have to grow up and accept that new generations of fans like new things. Once a generation, a reboot is needed.
But Marvel has always been cagey with reboots. They’re a younger company and they have always been a little more nimble story wise so to just throw in the towel is akin to admitting what DC has always been kind of open about: That they’re old. Post 1990s, Marvel has always felt like that one, tragically unhip 45 year old who has a piercing and a Porsche. They keep trying to recapture that 60s heyday when Marvel was “the ground breaker” in the comics industry. They aren’t anymore, haven’t been for a long time. They definitely aren’t today in 2015 where I argue they are a movie company that publish comics occasionally. They certainly aren’t making the “best stuff in the industry”. Especially not when Azzarello and Snyder are busting down doors at DC and Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga is being published at Image.
Marvel needed to do something drastic, that wasn’t a reboot, to stay in the game. Well, something even MORE drastic this time because the last time they tried something drastic, things got…well…
So in late 2000, Marvel’s top three writers: Brian Micheal Bendis, Mark Millar, and Warren Ellis teamed up for a bold new idea: create an alternate universe where Marvel would be free to restart everything from the ground up and bring the whole Marvel Universe into a place where new readers could jump on board. It was called “Ultimate Marvel” because the characters were meant to be the ultimate, updated version of Marvel’s most classic characters. These were meant to the new Icons. The version everybody talked about for years.
Honestly at first it was pretty good. Bendis was at the top of his game back then and Millar can write a mean book when he wants to. The dumbest aspects of Marvel’s main continuity were smoothed over and new ideas were introduced that kind of worked. Spider Man became fun again, the X-Men got streamlined and cool, even the Fantastic Four, the boring Oldsmobile of comics, got a fresh new take on their origin and some much needed new life breathed into them. And the experimental new technique known as “Decompression”, a bold new artistic style borrowed from Manga, blossomed into a new artistic
After about, oh I’d say, after the first year or so…the wheels started to come off.
Spiderman, the book that was oh so sweet and charming, began show the cracks first. Norman Osborn, Spider Man’s greatest foe, has always been kind of a goofy character but at his core he was meant to be human. Seriously, the story just works better when there’s a human face behind that goblin mask, because for YEARS people didn’t KNOW Norman Osborn was the Goblin, the final reveal of the Green Goblin storyline was that the worst villain in Spider Man’s life wasn’t some inhuman beast, it was just a corrupt broken little man. Other stuff started to go a little crazy too, Bendis began to indulge himself on his favorite parts of the Spiderman storyline and not the best parts of the Spiderman retelling. What started out as an attempt to polish an iconic became kind of an indulgent mess, which was not supposed to be the point really. It’s hard to blame Bendis really because thanks to the creative shrink at the Big Two, Bendis was suddenly the main creative force behind the Main Marvel universe as well as the Ultimate side. Suddenly Marvel consisted of like five guys running the whole game by themselves. Powerful to be sure and at a certain point, Bendis must’ve just said “Eff it, let’s go nuts in the Ultimate Universe because it never matters anyway.”
To make matters worse (or better) the writing on the so called “616 Marvel” universe (the real Marvel universe) was getting a lot better and the Ultimate line’s edge started to look more like decay.
But okay, like I said, different generations like things differently and at this point nothing was truly bad about the Ultimate line. No reason to-
What is that? What the hell is Ultimates 2?
For some reason, after a critically acclaimed run on Ultmates, Marvel made the bold move of giving the book the “Ultimates 2” designation to really drive home the Widescreen, cinematic appeal from the first book. It essentially turned the book into a big budget sequel to the summer blockbuster that was the original Ultimates story line. It was the natural extension of the Decompression era where you had 22 pages of story that lead only to the next issue and big set pieces full of sound and fury, signifying very little. Ultimates had become a movie and the book had about as much (or as little) soul as one of those same megablockbuster movies it was copying.
Mark Millar’s writing also slipped as well. At times, Millar let his past work on Authority started to bleed through. But instead of an on the nose send up of Neocon America, Ultimates was nothing more than the pot infused ravings of a liberal Poli-sci student, where the Masters of Evil were really just global responses to American foreign policy and the book became an excuse to show Dick Cheney in chains. Which is a genuine shame because honest to god, Ultimates 2 is the best illustrated comic I have ever seen. Bryan Hitch knocked the entire run out of the park and at a certain point, even as the writing took a nose dive the art redeemed an otherwise annoying book.
But Ultimates 2 was also the place where the Ultimates line started the slow descent into insanity that would characterize the book’s later years. What started as a chance to show the “ultimate version” of classic characters became a chance to show the WORST version of those same characters. Ultimate Black Widow was a slutty traitor who murders Hawkeye’s entire family and then gets killed herself, Ultimate Jarvis gets murdered, Ultimate Ultron was a love sick pussy, Magneto was less conflicted activist and more imperious terrorist (which is something the main universe outgrew), Ultimate Hank Pym is a whiny loser who was hooked on drugs and then becomes a tabloid joke. Other Ultimate books had this problem too as Ultimate Doom became some kind of weird, goat legged cyber terrorist, Reed Richards was a megalomaniac proto super villain, Nick Fury became a bloodthirsty fascist schemer, and the entire X-Men team somehow morphed into…well unlikable a**holes.
The Ultimates line also seemed to have a magical power to turn great comic book writers into terrible comic book writers. Warren Ellis’ Ultimate Galactus story became an exercise in all the ways Warren Ellis can phone in a book and the whole story kind of went nowhere as Galactus became Gah Lak Tus (enunciation makes it scarier apparently). Then Ultimates 2 was symbolically “cancelled” (yes, they seriously did that) and Ultimates 3 was born in it’s place, the book came back with Jeph Loeb at it’s helm. Jeph was at the peak of his craft at this point and arrived with two of the best Batman stories of all time under his belt (Long Halloween and Dark Victory). By the time he arrived on the Ultimates, it should’ve been a sign of pure magic on it’s way.
Yeah, the two creepiest panels of the early 2000s. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch became twincestous freaks, and then Scarlet Witch was murdered and then Ultron was really Doom…look it was bad, take my word for it and the entire universe got worse from there. Squadron Supreme, Ultimate Power, the whole thing started to go nuts. The worst was Ultimatum, a huge story line where almost every major character in the Ultimate Marvel universe is either killed, betrayed, turned evil, or made stupid.
The dead characters were replaced with new characters but a lot of people started to wonder what the point of Original Characters in an alternate timeline were really supposed to accomplish. If Marvel wanted to introduce new characters into the Marvel line, why are they doing it in an alternate universe that they have already established “doesn’t count”? And if the Ultimates was supposed to be the “Ultimate version of classic characters” why is everyone now dead? Suddenly Ultimate Marvel was at best a dark parody and at worst a vestigial limb, where the whole exercise was utterly pointless and easy to ignore. It was just, kind of…there. Sitting in the background as the real Marvel universe had the Civil War, the Secret Invasion, and dozens of other critically acclaimed REAL storylines.
Suddenly Marvel was forced to “reboot” it’s own reboot by taking the Spider Man book to it’s back to basics…and killing Peter Parker and replacing him with Miles Morales.
It was a bold move and I will one day write a very concise article about my complex feelings regarding race and replacing classic characters but in this article I will simply say that Miles Morales worked, and he worked well. He was a great character, is a great character and he quickly became the only redeeming part of a troubled universe that shrank down from seven big selling books to now just three weak selling ones.
Now apparently something is going on over at Marvel where, and I quote, “two universes smash together and stuff falls off and some stuff sticks to other… whatever. Take that however you want but most people agree that the end of the Ultimate line is likely in the works, according to Marvel it’s not really a reboot, just a story where the universe ends.
Look, ignore that marketing nonsense. It’s a reboot. Secret Wars is going to be the first real Marvel reboot and Marvel is most likely going to fix it’s ugly continuity snarl (which has only gotten worse by the way) and probably to also give 20th Century Fox and Sony the finger. Neither of those companies are willing to give back their movie rights and it seems more and more that Marvel would be perfectly okay with cutting off their Spider Noses to spite their Fantastic Faces.
Ending the Ultimates line in such a way that they lift the BEST part of that line (Miles Morales) and drop him into the main universe where he could then replace Spider Man is honestly the only good way to get rid of such a terrible line. I could also imagine a really gutsy movie where Marvel deliberately lifts the Ultimate X-Men and Fantastic Four and then makes a claim in court that Marvel Entertainment has the movie rights to those ALTERNATE VERSIONS of those characters and that Fox is stuck with the REGULAR VERSION movie rights. It’s all kind of up in the air but the point is that the Ultimates line is definitely coming to some kind of ending.
That would close the door on a long, strange chapter in the book that is the House of Ideas and it could, in my mind, finally be the end of the Decompression Era and the end of “Widscreen” storytelling. In a way, this would be kind of bitter sweet because the end of Movies as Comics Era means that the Comics as Movies Age is now the only thing left. By ending Ultimates, as much as I hated that universe, Marvel’s last connection to the old way of doing business is dead. Now Marvel has truly shed it’s former life as an old school comic book company and looks towards it’s future as…whatever the hell it is now.
I don’t give a damn, actually. I’m just glad someone put it out of it’s misery.