The Ultimates got me into comics. I’d read a couple beforehand, of course, and picked up a stray issue in the nineties, but it was The Ultimates that convinced me that superhero comic books could be something bold and innovative and clever, rather than generic and plain. Looking back, I think that The Ultimates stands as one of Marvel’s crowning accomplishments of the last decade, with only New X-Men and Daredevil ever really coming close. A lot of people argue that it’s the cynical world view that sets Mark Millar’s origin story apart, and gives it a broad appeal, but I’d disagree.
I think that Millar’s story doesn’t work because it dismantles the conventional superhero narrative through glib nihilism and cool apathy, but rather because it vindicates that ideal by passing it through a crucible. In many ways, The Ultimates is perhaps the most optimistic superhero story I’ve ever read, if only because the idealism is truly earned.
In the early years of the last decade, Marvel had an idea that was quite clever at the time. Looking at a history of comic book mythology stretching back decades, the company wondered if this backlog of past issues was scaring away new readers. I’ll freely concede that this weight of continuity scared me when I started reading comics. It still does. There’s always so much to read, so many references to stories by so many different authors so many different years apart. There are revisions and reworkings and retoolings that try to create the illusion of a seamless narrative, and it can be quite uncomfortable to try to navigate for those new to the medium.
So Marvel came up with a plan to create a line of books that new readers could pick up without feeling excluded or alienated from the lengthy shared mythology. That was the Ultimate line, launched with Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis, it would develop to include Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four. The idea was that readers with no familiarity with the long and shared history of the characters could effectively “jump in” and join the narratives. Cynics will tell you that it attracted very few new readers, and maybe they’re right. I know that it was through that line that I managed to work my way into Marvel’s tangled shared universe, so I am fond of it.
I think Ultimate Spider-Man is the best Spider-Man story I’ve ever read, even a decade later. I’ll freely concede that I can take or leave Ultimate X-Men or Ultimate Fantastic Four. However, The Ultimates dwarves all these other titles in terms of wit and ambition. Perhaps reflecting that mindset that led to the release of The Avengers, it seemed that Marvel decided to push their super-team to the fore. The Ultimates was the centre-piece of the line, two epic thirteen-issue miniseries drawing together some of the more iconic Marvel characters to update the origin story for the twenty-first century. And Mark Millar does a hell of a job.
Back in the day, it was enough for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create a gigantic threat and have a kid call together a bunch of heroes to fight evil. These superheroes could pick the unlikely name “The Avengers” and hang around together… just because. It was the sixties. The genre was young, as was the audience. Even as the counter-culture movement was growing, the sixties were a much more innocent time, and people were able to accept ideas like a bunch of superheroes just teaming up for the sake of it (and the rest of the world being okay with it) at face value.
Obviously, it is no longer the sixties. We live in an age where people are more skeptical about power. Post-Watergate America has become increasingly cynical about the people who hold positions of authority, a mistrust only amplified over decades of very public and very embarrassing scandals. The world is a very different place. If a team of super-humans just showed up and decided to act like “heroes”, we’d eat them alive. Concepts like “moral relativism” and “state-sanctioned violence” were only entering the public lexicon at the time these original characters emerged – now they are all but watch words.
Far from a bunch of superheroes operating independently for the greater good, Millar theorises that any team assembled like that today would need government approval. After all, the state exorcises something close to the monopoly on the use of legitimate force. In the post-nuclear age, an era concerned about chemical and biological warfare, living bombs and global positioning, Millar proposes that these heroes wouldn’t necessarily be superheroes. They’d be “persons of mass destruction”, a term that pops up from time to time in the two thirteen-issue miniseries collected here.
Stan Lee is noted for introducing characters with notable flaws and with more distinguished personalities. However, I think it’s fair to say that he was limited by the time when he was writing. Millar makes a very astute observation about the team assembled here, and one that sounds like a considered reading of the comic’s long history. Thor is a god. Captain America is a soldier. Hulk is a monster. Hank Pym is a scientist. Iron Man is a playboy indulging his own ego. Hawkeye and Black Widow are assassins.
“We’re not a team,” Bruce Banner comments during Joss Whedon’s adaptation of The Avengers, heavily influenced by Millar’s work here. “We’re a time bomb.” They’re a group of radically different individuals, comprised mainly of ambitious individualistic “type A” personalities with their unique set of ideologies. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby might have given the team a little bit of friction, but they did gloss over that inherent conflict at the heart of a group, with so many people pulling in so many different directions. Millar’s Ultimates works so very well because it actually focuses on that internal dynamic and smooths the characters into heroes.
After all, it seems that most of them want to be heroes, even for the wrong reasons. Millar’s cast seem to be mostly selfish and arrogant, although there are varying degrees of sincerity to be found amongst them. Even Steve Rogers, the moral conscience of the team, is accused of hubris by his former fiancé. “I told him they were going to destroy us the minute they started pumping chemicals into his body,” Gail Richards observes, painting Rogers’ decision to volunteer for trials as inherently selfish. “But he wanted to look like a movie star. Oh no, being an ordinary person was never enough for him.”
The team’s resident nerds, Hank Pym and Bruce Banner, both aspire to be heroes not to contribute to some greater good, but as a means of personal vindication – a way of proving themselves better than anybody who ever mocked or derided them. “God, can you really believe we’re going to be super heroes?” Hank asks his wife. “I mean, you and me: the two biggest science nerds on the planet out there fighting for truth, justice and the American Way. How much does this make up for all those years of never getting picked to play for the High School sports teams?”
In a rare moment of introspection, reflecting on how he became the bloodthirsty Hulk, Bruce Banner observes that he wanted to be something more. “I wanted to be Captain America, man,” he explains. “Haven’t you read my file? Skinney Steve Rogers enrolls in the program and suddenly he’s transformed into The Living Legend of World War Two. That’s what I wanted.” It wasn’t about making the world a better place. It was about making himself feel better.
Indeed, Banner and Pym prove quite adept at self-justification, attempting to paint their selfish actions in heroic lights. Banner takes the Hulk serum because his girlfriend rejected him, but claims to have taken it as a means to galvinise the team together. Hank Pym betrays the team and joins the invading forces during the second miniseries, but tries to retroactively claim that he was bringing down the enemy from the inside. Everybody sees through these lies, and Banner’s realisation seems to come when he dares to accept responsibility for his own actions, rather than projecting the blame on to Betty.
Even the two most optimistic members of the team seem more than a little bit selfish when we get to know them. Tony Stark and Thor are perhaps the characters who grow the most over the course of the series – although, in Thor’s case, it’s simply that we learn more about him. It’s Tony’s decision to join the team that really ties the group together. Asked to explain to Fury why he suddenly changed his mind, he pleads altruism. “I guess I hit a point in my life when I wondered what things could be like if all the billionaires and government spooks tried to save the world instead of bleeding it dry,” Tony muses. Of course, we later learn that Tony has a fatal brain tumour and is trying to secure his legacy.
Thor is frequently pointed to as the most heroic of the team, but I don’t think that’s fair. Thor might espouse martial pacifism and other appealing moral philosophies, but he’s also immensely arrogant and judgmental. When the Hulk attacks Manhattan, killing hundreds of people, Thor sits on the sidelines until his demands are met. Sure, he wants to raise the international aid budget… but people are dying. The team are ultimately forced to reign him in when he interferes with Italian police officers dispersing a peaceful protest, an act that doesn’t seem too different in theory (if not in scale) from Captain America meddling in Middle Eastern politics. Thor assumes his position is right and uses force against what he deems to be an oppressive state. Captain America does the same, and yet Thor judges him for it.
Indeed, over the course of The Ultimates, it seems almost like this a deconstruction of a superhero team book. In fact, Millar spends quite a bit of time meditating on how little they actually do. In a plot point that wouldn’t have worked fifty years ago, Nick Fury even comes under fire for the team’s budget, with many claiming the team is just a waste of money. “Can you seriously justify a fifty billion dollar headquarters off the coast of Manhattan when there’s only been one notable super-villain attack in American history?” Larry King asks.
Letterman launches a much more critical attack on the team’s actions. “Drug busts?” he asks. “Hostage situations? House fires? This is just the stuff the emergency crews have been doing for years, Mrs. Pym. Are the Ultimates really worth that extra eighty-seven billion dollars Nick Fury just secured from Congress?” Nick Fury at one point concedes that his team is the “most under-worked and over-funded department in Untied States history”, and that’s after they foil an alien invasion of the planet. One wonders what the politicians were saying beforehand.
It doesn’t help that the team seems to spend most of their time fighting each other. When a fight breaks out, it’s more than likely that it’s internal to the team. The group actually spends remarkably little time fighting genuine threats to the world’s security, only at the climax of each of the two miniseries. Any other time, it seems that one or more members of the team are knocking the stuffing out of somebody who they work with.
Through pure fluke, Nick Fury is able to paint the fight against the Hulk as a true example of heroism, neglecting to share that Bruce Banner was employed by S.H.I.E.L.D. “We lied, Nick,” Rogers remarks when the news breaks. “We told them we were heroes when all we were doing was cleaning up our own mess.”You might be forgiven, at this point, for wondering whether Mark Millar likes superheroes at all.
In fact, the team seems woefully under-qualified for the work at hand and the actual business of superheroism. Asked to lift a plane over his head, Hank Pym whines, “What if I do something to my back?” Before a mission, a conversation between Tony Stark and Natascha Romanoff reveals just how inexperienced the team actually is. “So tell me, Natascha — you’re an old hand at this game,” Tony begins. “How do you fancy our chances of coming back from this thing and still being able to hold a tequila?”
Asked if he’s ever done anything similar, Tony can come up with, “Well, I ballooned across the Atlantic for charity once, but I’m almost embarrassed to make the comparison here.” Tony betrays his inexperience when he remarks on Hawkeye’s ritual of phoning home to talk to his girlfriend. “A tad morbid, don’t you think?” Tony asks. The Widow cuts him down with a frank and honest answer, cutting through Tony’s snark and cynicism. “No,” she remarks simply, “because one day it will be his last, comrade.”It’s a reality that Tony simply doesn’t take into account.
Even during the alien invasion, the team seems more than a little out of their depth. Hawkeye is nearly killed by falling debris dispatched by careless superheroes. “What are you doing up there, you idiot?!” he yells at Stark. “You just took out a team of my men!” Tony explains that it was Thor, as Thor prepares to make another attack. At this point, Thor is more concerned about Tony than he ever was about any of the anonymous soldiers on the ground. “Tony! Lose altitude! Now!” he yells. “I don’t want you to get singed here.” It’s something close to chaos, and Millar seems to imply that the team only barely wins because the evil alien invaders were run down by other failed campaigns across the universe.
Millar repeatedly suggests that Fury isn’t too interested in his team of superheroes, that he’s just using them to manipulate the public and to provide a legitimate front for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s actual activities. “Nobody in S.H.I.E.L.D. has a spotless record,” Hank tells Janet, “but I think Fury was being serious when he said he wanted to drag us out of the shadows. This super hero thing is supposed to be getting the biggest public relations push in human history and the fact that Tony Stark’s involved can only be a good sign, right?”It is a public relations effort.
Fury notes that the launch party is pure showmanship. “Right now it feels more like a Hollywood event than the launch of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defense initiative,” Fury tells Betty. When hank brutalises his wife, Fury is primarily concerned about the damage to the team’s image. “Man, this is a nightmare,” he complains. “We designed Giant Man to be an action figure, for God’s sake.” The team seems to exist to sell figures and to justify funding. Banner implies that Fury sells his superheroes on the Hill in order to maintain funding. “Fury’s sitting on another big chunk of federal cash and he’s desperate for us to come up with something nice and bright to sell to the public,” he tells Pym at one point.
While the team exists for photo opportunities and charity gigs, Fury clearly keeps them out of the loop on his day-to-day operations. In fact, he seems closer to his black ops agents, becoming godfather to Hawkeye’s child. “Nick, sweatheart,” Black Widow tells him as she prepares for an operation. “No offense to your photogenic, little media darlings, but I think we should leave these extra-terrestrial threats to the big boys, don’t you?”It seems that, when Nick Fury wants something done, he relies on professionals rather than celebrities.
Indeed, it seems like the superheroes only exist to be used by Fury to legitimise his own military ambitions. “I think we all got used to making this terrifying military force they put together seem nice and friendly for a while,” Pym remarks towards the start of the second volume. “Y’know, playboy billionaires and eccentric geniuses to pave the way for all the big, crazy soldiers they’re going to have in costumes by the end of the year?” Given Mark Millar would follow that train of thought into Ultimate Comics: Avengers, it seems weirdly prophetic.
There’s a healthy suspicion about state authority to be found here. Millar suggests that, if super-humans existed, the state would want control of them. However, he also suggests that this would be a very bad thing. Millar offers some fairly rudimentary political commentary on the American “Empire” in the aftermath of what has been described as “the American Century.” While most of his observations are fairly blunt, there is a nice image as we see an alternate”Captain America” rise in a different country, but under similar circumstances.
Steve Rogers was created in response to the tyranny of a mighty nation forcing its will upon its neighbouring countries, and Millar actually has the guts to wonder if the situation isn’t reversed. Of course, it’s nuts to make a comparison based on World War Two, the conflict that produced the character of Captain America, but one wonders if various Middle Eastern nations might not have not craft their own myths in response to American foreign policy. “Why is nobody standing up to them?” Abdul asks about the American forces imposing their will on his country, a question Steve Rogers must have asked himself before volunteering.
The comparison does, admittedly, feel quite cheap. There is, after all, a world of difference between the Nazi regime that sparked the Second World War and the current American foreign policy. The use of Captain America, a character famed for punching Hitler in the face, does prevent Millar from straying into the realm of Godwin’s Law, as it is a relevant comparison, but it still feels somewhat forced.
Still, it seems oddly appropriate, even if it lacks nuance. After all, a lot has changed since the sixties. Millar cleverly taps into a rich vein of mistrust and paranoia, festering in the American psyche since Watergate, expressed through media like The X-Files and through an increasingly cynical attitude towards politics. Stan Lee and other comic creators crafted works populated with government scientists accidentally creating heroes, but never questioned the morality of such work.
At one point, Janet implies that Bruce Banner’s super soldier work might have involved covert human experimentation. “It’s just those rumours about where his funding was coming from during the departmental lean years,” Janet notes. “Do you really think he was involved in those secret superhuman trials on civilians?” This is, appropriately enough, the superhero origin story filtered through the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment and MK ULTRA. (Which would seem oddly appropriate when Brian Bendis evoked the Tuskegee experiment again when elaborating on Nick Fury’s origins in Ultimate Origins.) But enough about politics.
However, as blunt as some of the commentary might be, it works quite well in explaining why superheroes need to be divorced from them. Of course, if superheroes represent a modern American mythology, divorcing them from American military ambition becomes quite difficult, but Millar ultimately vindicates his heroes. A lot of people focus on the deconstruction of traditional team superheroics in The Ultimates, and – as you can see – there’s a lot of evidence that Millar was picking apart the conventions of the genre. However, people ultimately forget that he also puts almost all of the pieces back together again.
Despite fluking their way through the battle at the end of the first miniseries, the second miniseries ultimately proves the team to be genuine heroes. They work together, overcoming their individual problems, to defeat an invasion. Janet and Steve might be breaking up, but they still have absolute faith in one another. The drunken, inexperienced Tony survives an intimate betrayal by the woman he loves, but he doesn’t fall back into depression (we learned that he has attempted suicide before). Instead, he’s proactive. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little immature to indulge in such childish conventions?” Abdul goads Captain America at one point during their final confrontation, but Millar’s finalé practically revels in superhero conventions. He pits the team against their more evolved and balanced opposite numbers, but each member of the original team emerges triumphant ahead of the “new and improved” alternative. The Hulk is downright heroic, pounding a smarter version into the ground. “You think too much!” he yells, as if rejecting over-analysis of superhero comics. The European superheroes infiltrate the country using the classic superhero secret identity, a trope that has itself been deconstructed and examined a lot in recent years. Hell, Captain Britain even concedes he learned it from a comic book.
The team truly comes together. Even Quicksilver, the arrogant and selfish terrorist who initially seems to have signed up purely to earn political capital, seems converted to the cause of genuine heroism. As he rips his doppelganger to shreds, he yells, “That’s what happens when you threaten my friends!”Not allies, not acquaintances, but friends. The team finally drops their internal squabbling and work together for the greater good. They truly become heroes.
More than that, though, the second minsieries ends with confirmation that Asgard exists and that Thor is not a delusional weirdo. Suddenly the very grounded and realistic world of the comic fades away, replaced with the giddy wonder one expects from comic books. It feels like Millar is truly broadening the horizon of the book. “The universe is putty in my hands to be shaped and fashioned any way I please,” Loki boasts. He rhymes of the more fantastic trappings of the Thor mythos. “Bring on Surtur! Bring on Ymir! Bring on the trolls, the dragons and the giants! You have no idea how liberating this feels!” In the aftermath, Janet muses, “This is insane.”
All my favourite Mark Millar works include that element of reconstruction. The author has a tendency to go too cynical or nihilistic, but I think that he’s also capable of embracing classic comic book concepts as well as anybody else. I think that’s what separates The Ultimatesfrom a lot of the imitators out there, and a lot of the books that followed. Sure, Millar picked the team apart, but he also put them back together again. It felt like the happy ending – with the team independent and magic affirmed as part of the shared universe – was truly earned.
The Ultimates starts out with the cynical notion that such heroes could not exist in anything approaching the real world today, and examines at how these personalities and the realpolitick would impede the operation of such a group. However, Millar slowly justifies the tropes and conventions over twenty-six issues. We learn how these people came to work as a team, and why they have to operate independent of the government. Hell, like Red Son, he even shows us why trying to insert superhero characters into real-world situations simply doesn’t work, as if justifying the general disconnected nature of superhero narratives.
And all this doesn’t even get into how much of a joy Millar’s story is to simply read. It’s a great superhero story, all this deconstruction and reconstruction not withstanding. It seems that Millar has a great read on each of the characters, and an innate understanding – being willing to push ideas and notions to their logical conclusions rather than treating these characters as national monuments to be preserved. What would it really be like if Captain America had been frozen and woken up in the present day? What social values would he bring with him? What if Tony Stark were reallythat arrogant and selfish?
Several portrayals on the team stand out. I’m especially fond of Millar’s dysfunctional Bruce Banner and the Hulk, presenting Banner as a truly pathetic creature wracked by insecurities and low self-esteem. He’s bitter and passive-aggressive, and… to be honest, nobody likes him. The team’s bullying provokes his isolation and his transformation, and I love that Millar takes two really interesting ideas, picking apart the notion that (a.) no civilians ever get hurt by the Hulk, and (b.) the other heroes are relatively fine with his transformation, and most rational people seem to easily divorce Banner from the blame for his alter ego’s actions.
Millar’s Thor is also an absolutely ingenious twist on an established concept. Writing comcis during the sixties, it was relatively easy to avoid the relgious implications of a Norse diety walking among us. Millar examines that concept, first by creating a mystery as to whether Thor is really mythological and then by portraying the character as something akin to a twenty-first century Jesus, prone to talking about doing his “father’s mission.” Hell, the chapter where the team finally decides to act against Thor is called The Passion, with Thor claiming, “I came here to save the world and all you’ve done is try to crucify me.” Later on, he laments, “Father, father, why have you foresaken me?”(Indeed, Odin is conspicuously absent, represented only through a bright light – similar to Christian conceptions of God.)
It’s a fascinating way of filtering the superhero stories as an expansive twenty-first century mythology blending Christian and pagan elements to create a new whole. Indeed, when Steve Rogers rejects Thor’s explanations, Thor points out that Captain America’s Christian beliefs are no more or less ridiculous than anything that he is saying. Belief systems are important in what they say about us, and Millar makes the point that Thor’s humanism isn’t incompatible with Christian archetypes just because he’s a member of the Norse pantheon. Or maybe he’s making a point about how legends and myths reinvent themselves, similar to comic book stories – with this new origin serving as a reinvention of an older story.
And then there’s Nick Fury, arguably Millar’s central character. In fact, while the character’s portrayal owes a lot to the original version, it’s hard to overstate just how influential Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch were in their portrayal of the manipulative super-spy. Obviously it’s highly unlikely Joss Whedon would be working with Samuel L. Jackson on the character without the comic, but Millar makes the character wonderfully ambiguous and almost impossible to read. In fact, it’s fascinating to revisit the story only to re-evaluate Fury’s action and conduct, wondering whether he always had the endgame mapped out.
One of my favourite aspects, in particular, is how Fury manages Bruce Banner, the team’s truly risky property. Arranging meet the scientist for lunch, he feigns upset at the fact that they’ve been seated overlooking the site of Banner’s recent outrage. “Listen, I’m sorry about the view, Doctor Banner,” he explains. “All those little geniuses who organise my schedule and no one even stops to think about where they’re sitting us for lunch.” Of course, he reveals that half the diners are spies, so it couldn’t be too difficult to re-seat the pair of them so as to minimise Bruce’s discomfort, rather than sitting at the window.
It seems that Fury is calculating and trying to provoke Bruce, as if to be sure that he is entirely cured. Depending on how cynical you are, Fury’s decision to assign Banner to work under Pym could be a form of humiliation. If he is as big a douche-bag as Ultimate Comics: Avengers seems to suggest, it’s entirely possible that Fury’s flirtation with Betty Ross is another way of needling Banner. Of course, this could be reading too much into it – but it’s a credit to the depth of Millar’s portrayal.
That said, The Ultimates wouldn’t look half as good without Bryan Hitch on board. The series was plagued by delays, but I think it’s worth it to have Hitch’s photo-realistic work for all twenty-six issues. Indeed, the pair design a comic as if pitching a movie, a smart decision that helps make it accessible to new readers. You could hand the book to somebody without any familiarity with the medium and they’d have no bother following it. It’s things as simple as the use of “widescreen panels”, the full-page splashes to establish scale, subtitling an alien language instead of translating it in caption boxes, and even opening each chapter with a single wide shot. It’s quite clever how comic book conventions like narrative captions with monologues and translated speech bubbles creep into the second miniseries. Millar and Hitch aren’t just reintroducing the more fantastic constructs, they’re reaffirming classic storytelling tools as well.
Indeed, it’s no wonder that so many concepts and images have carried over from this series into the Marvel movies over the past few years. While not nearly as cynical, the movies are peppered with familiar iconography. Captain America: The First Avenger features a costume similar to the more grounded one seen here, and also features an action sequence on a train cruising through the alps. The Hulk containment unit makes an appearance in The Avengers, while The Incredible Hulk borrowed the idea of forcing a transformation in a cured “Banner” by ejecting him from a helicopter. While Millar’s clever high concepts are appealing, I imagine the fact that Hitch’s dynamic artwork offered compelling proof that these could work in live action.
It’s amazing how dense the comic actually is – I’m still picking up little threads and suggestions on re-read. For example, the fact that the Hulk’s cannibalism seems to be a rejection of Banner’s decision to go vegetarian, or the numerous cameos from Loki before he even emerges as Gunner. I love the tiny shot of Fury and Betty clasping hands as the helicarriers collapse around them, or the fact that Natascha is actively checking her watch while frolicking with Tony. Numerous small moments that occasionally get overshadowed by the bombast, but show how fully formed this world is, as crafted by Millar and Hitch.
Hitch’s artwork is phenomenal, and I think he’s honestly one of the best pencillers working in the business today. His sensibilities fuse effortlessly with Millar’s, and there are any number of pages that I would love to just hang up on my wall. His figures seem realistic, but never ridiculous, and his action is chaotic but never confusing. Despite the sense of apocalyptic stakes and a world on fire, it’s always easy to follow and never unclear.
The Ultimates is, without a doubt, one of the very best comics to give a new reader. It’s accessible, it’s smart, it’s easy to read and it’s thoughtful. It makes a variety of clever observations about the genre without relying on inside knowledge. It’s carefully constructed, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. If you’re looking for one comic to pick up after seeing The Avengers, this is the one.
You might be interested in our review of Mark Millar’s other work on The Ultimates:
- The Ultimates
- Ultimate Comics: Avengers
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