April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”
Read our review of The Avengers here. And because it’s release day in the rest of the world, here’s a second Avengers-related review. And it’s a long one.
They say you can’t go home again. The Ultimates was easily one of the best comics of the past decade, and perhaps the comic that really got me into the medium. A clever, timely, astute and well-considered exploration of the superhero in the twenty-first century, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch undoubtedly had a massive influence on everything that followed. Of course, all this would seem to be for nothing when Jeph Loeb took over the franchise for Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum, two stories that were very poorly received and damaged the franchise quite considerably. So Millar’s return to write four six-issue miniseries of Ultimate Comics: Avengers seemed like a breath of fresh air. Critical and fan reaction to his twenty-four issue run has been somewhat muted, and there’s no denying that a lot of the magic from that origin story was lost. That said, I’ll concede to finding it an interesting, complex and occasionally compelling examination of Millar’s views on superheroes.
Millar has become something of a controversial figure in comic books. The writer has that rare skill for working both inside the established mainstream, writing for both DC and Marvel, and yet remains remarkably successful as an independent writer. His stories, after all, were behind Wanted and Kick-Ass, two of the most successful movie adaptations of independent comic books. He’s written for Ultimate X-Men, Superman, Spider-Man and Wolverine among others, and it’s often quite hard to find a consensus on his work. Those fond of him will suggest he has a high-energy in-your-face approach to these icons that helps make them fresh and new, while cynics would argue that he peddles vacuous teenage power fantasies that serve as storyboards for blockbusters.
Truth be told, I can see both sides to the argument. I think that Red Son is perhaps the best Superman story ever told, and The Ultimates is a brutal and clever piece of accessible comic book literature. On the other hand, Kick-Ass feels pointlessly nihilistic and Nemesis is just an excuse for absurdly grotesque violence. I do think, however, that Millar is a shrewd operator and perhaps one of the smartest writers working in comic books, often subversively trying to get one over on his audience. While he might not signpost his meta-fictional observations on the nature of the super hero genre as clearly as Grant Morrison, I think that Ultimate Comics: Avengers reads best as a criticism of modern superhero comics books, but without the excessive cynicism that clouds out some of his other work.
The Ultimates was about deconstructing the idea of a superhero team-up. What happens when you get all these alpha-male personalities in the same room? What type of personality has the arrogance to believe they can save the world? If they did try to save the world, what moral authority would they have? As an expression of a shared American mythology, what do superheroes say about the United States in the early twenty-first century? Millar’s work was clever and critical, notable for daring to push the concept as far as it would go, while not outright condemning it.
It’s worth noting that The Ultimates ends with Thor’s version of reality somewhat vindicated. In a series that had been relatively grounded, with science and rationality playing out behind realpolitik, Millar ended with the idea that myths and legends could be real, that Asgard could exist, that there was something more to these people than vapid celebrity gossip, macho posturing and cynical manipulation. It felt, towards the end of The Ultimates, that Millar’s characters had almost evolved into actual heroes, rather than actors playing the role of heroes.
That was, of course, then. And this is now. Millar himself has noted in interviews, especially around the launch Ultimate Comics: Avengers, that the regular Marvel Universe has, in many ways, sought to emulate his initial run on The Ultimates. Millar’s Civil War undoubtedly played a large part of that, but one can also see the influence of The Ultimates in books like Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers, which was similarly preoccupied with the relationship between superheroes and the establishment. It’s no coincidence that Leinel Yu was a regular artist on Bendis’ Avengers books (including Secret Invasion) and was the only artist to contribute to more than one of the four miniseries collected here.
Indeed, in their hurry to emulate Millar’s success, it seems almost as if mainstream Marvel ignored the end of Millar’s run, where the writer reaffirmed the classic superhero. Instead, the company became preoccupied with the cynicism and deconstruction that dominated the run. It’s against this background that Millar returned to the characters to write Ultimate Comics: Avengers, and he almost concedes so himself:
The Ultimates was really a twenty-six issue origin story. Ultimate Avengers is where the shit hits the fan every month. Bryan and I had the best experience of our professional careers on that book, but you didn’t see Ultimate Kang or Ultimate Red Skull or any updates of the classic Marvel villains. Ultimates 1 and 2 gave The Avengers a 21st Century facelift, but this is where the stories kick into high gear. That world is about to get much bigger as we hopefully reinvent the superhero versus super-villain kind of stories in much the same way as we did a very different kind of superhero origin story.
Of course, Millar is notoriously unreliable in interviews, even claiming that we’d see Ultimate Kang or Ultimate Doom, neither of whom appeared, but he makes a telling observation. The Ultimates was an unconventional comic book in that it didn’t really feature too many villains. Sure, there were the Skrulls or the Liberators, but Millar’s team spent most of their time in conflict with one another, and the villains that Millar ultimately ended up using often felt like window-dressing.
While The Ultimates felt like a strange sort of superhero comic, the four miniseries here feel much more conventional. I dare say they are undoubtedly intended as such. Each adventure has a clear antagonist, as opposed to The Ultimates, where the characters wandered around for issues at a time without a clear and urgent threat. Avengers 1 features the Red Skull. Avengers 2 features the devil himself. Avengers 3 features a horde of undead vampires. Ultimate Comics: Avengers vs. New Ultimates features a character’s evil twin. You really couldn’t find a bunch of more obviously evil generic bad guys if you tried.
But that’s entirely the point, I suspect. While The Ultimates very consciously grounded its superheroes, rationalising everything and using Bryan Hitch’s ultra-realistic artwork, Ultimate Comics: Avengers seems almost consciously comic-book-y. I mean, look at the artists. Carlos Pacheco and Steve Dillon are remarkable artists, but them draw something close to cartoons. Leinel Yu has a distinctive style that doesn’t strive for any sort of realism. Even before you get to the subject matter, it seems like Millar is consciously drawing our attention to the fact that this is a comic book, not a bible or a tome of lore.
In contrast to his buttoned-down appearance in The Ultimates, the first few pages open with Hawkeye wearing a distinctively superhero-esque costume and mask. Captain America seems to be wearing brighter colours. In the opening issue, the Red Skull even refers to “Mister Fantastic” rather than “Reed Richards”, without a hint of irony at the use of a codename. (“I’m told this was going to be Mister Fantastic’s masterpiece,” he boasts.) Hell, Millar even gives us a green Hulk, with purple pants. In case that doesn’t sound comic book-y enough, he’s a clone and is introduced receiving a brain transplant.
In these four stories, Millar piles on the superhero conventions and clichés that he so nimbly subverted in his original work on the characters. We are, for example, introduced to Tony Stark’s evil twin brother Gregory. Conceding the hokey nature of the premise, Millar makes sure Hawkeye draws attention to it. “Strange to think in all these years I’ve never actually met Tony’s brother,” he confesses.
Millar grafts unnecessary back story on to previously independent characters as if to evoke the “comic book retcon”, that unnatural habit some writers have of grafting their own theories on to the work of early writers, creating ridiculous levels of confusion around what were once simple stories. He offers the secret history of “the first hulk” who was “the genius who taught Bruce Banner everything he knows.” Millar even gives us a retroactive origin for Daredevil, a character deceased, telling us that he was trained to fight vampires. It doesn’t matter that we never saw anything to support it, or that it makes his cameo as the Hulk’s lawyer look a little ridiculous, that seems to be the point.
Millar is rather subversively mocking genre conventions here, playing out tried-and-tested comic book clichés with a healthy dose of irony, as if to point out how the potential of those early Ultimates issues was squandored as Jeph Loeb tried to write them like the regular characters (Millar cracks a joke about Ultimate Thor speaking “faux Shakespearean”) and how the comic book company opted for the easy decision to try to emulate Millar’s success on their regular line of books. Both lines suffered from that attempt to ape the success of The Ultimates, and Millar seems to be using Ultimate Comics: Avengers as a meta-criticism of mainstream superhero comics.
Whenever characters die or are lost, there’s a handy replacement near by. Millar gives us a replacement version of Daredevil, who has a suspiciously similar origin “to fulfill Matt Murdock’s destiny”, right down to red hair and the fact that he wears the red-and-yellow outfit that the mainstream Daredevil wore. The character never has any life of his own, he’s just used to fill a gap left by the death of a character in a big “event” comic book. After all, it seems that readers don’t want new characters, they want the familiar old characters again and again and again.
Millar makes a point of avoiding many of the old characters he used on The Ultimates, and yet goes out of his way to create surrogates and copies, as if to stress how creatively bankrupt a lot of mainstream comic books are. He replaces Tony Stark with his evil twin brother and with War Machine. He creates a new Black Widow. He dresses up the Punisher as Captain America in a suit that conveniently gives the psychopath a lot of Cap’s super powers. Adam Lang is the new Giant Man. He uses two different substitutes for the Hulk. Hell, the Americans even co-opt two former villains to fill the roles of Wasp and Thor.
When Nick Fury considers what to do with Perun, Greg notes, “Actually, let’s keep the hammer. The Avengers could have our very own little Thunder God here.” There’s no attempt to give Perun his own identity, although Millar actually does a very good job of making him seem sympathetic within a relatively small space. Even the Hulk labels the former supervillain as nothing more than “a lame Thor knock-off.”
Indeed, Millar consciously pushes the stories here into the realm of full-blown fantasy. There’s a bit of insecurity among superhero comic book fans about the more ridiculous fantasy constructs, as if concerned that they might make the readers seem juvenile. The Ultimates strived on a sense of verisimilitude, and it’s hard to argue that such an approach didn’t inspire a more grounded approach to superheroics in the years that followed. However, as noted above, many forget that Millar’s story ended with confirmation that Asgard existed and with a battle between gods and demons in Washington D.C.
Ultimate Comics: Avengers seems to continue from there, as Millar draws in various outlandish genre constructs, to shatter the illusion of “pseudo-reality.” When the vampire-hunter Blade is challenged about his claims about killing vampires, he replies, “The hell you talking about? We live in a world with Norse gods and mutants and Spider-Men and Hulks. But you don’t believe in porphyria?” It seems almost as if Millar were directly addressing fans laughing at the audacity of including vampires in a book like this.
At one point during Avengers 2, Hawkeye denounces Ghost Rider, refusing to believe the guy is a divine spirit of retribution. “The guy’s a mutant, man,” Hawkeye tries to convince Frank Castle. “He’s strong, he rides a bike and he’s got a head like the Human Torch. I don’t see anything supernatural about that.” Of course, Millar makes the argument seem wonderfully illogical, as Hawkeye uses other fantastical constructs to assert that this one can’t be real.
Millar regularly falls back on the tropes and clichés that one expects in superhero comics, especially during Avengers 3, which seems to be written as satire of these sorts of cliché-ridden narratives. At one point, the vampire-killer Blade even has an overly elaborate death trap set up so that he can kill a vampire informant in a highly impractical and yet very stylish manner. Millar draws attention to this, as the victim notes, “All I’m saying is it seems like a lot of unnecessary organisation.”
In fact, Ultimate Comics: Avengers is peppered with overhyped reveals that mean absolutely nothing. Early on, Millar makes a big deal about the identity of the Spider, Greg’s evil Spider-Man clone. In Avengers 3, we’re teased about the identity of the man behind the helmet of the stolen Iron Man costume. He ultimately turns out to be a new character, but such a big deal is made of it that Millar must have been having a hell of a time. “And you know who he is of course?” a vampire informant taunts Blade, “Behind that big, dumb helmet?” As Carol weighs up the situation, she asks, “Is he really what they’re saying he is?” It might be possible that she’s referring to the fact he’s a vampire, but it seems funny to focus on one individual vampire when a bunch of them ambushed the team.
Hell, I’m not entirely sure that Millar didn’t include vampires in his work here as something of a jab at Marvel. Vampires are arguably the only fictional group more clichéd and more archetypal than superheroes. However, I wonder if Millar isn’t echoing Marvel Zombies, the cash-cow franchise that Millar introduced in Ultimate Fantastic Four as a bit of gleefully hokey plotting, only to see Marvel turn it into a massive fictional universe. It was a disposable concept, and maybe Millar was surprised at how relentlessly Marvel milked it.
Perhaps pitting the team against vampires seems to be a jab at that sort of cheap idea, as if waiting for Marvel to launch a Marvel Vampires line. He even makes the vampires superheroes and gives one of them Iron Man’s armour. Still, Millar can’t resist a somewhat easy jab at the other popular vampire franchise, with a sequence set at “Twilight Falls.” It’s not the most innovative or creative idea Millar ever had, but I’ll concede that some of it worked. (“Stare at me, Edgar.” “Intensely?” “As intensely as you dare.”)
Still, there’s a little too much cliché here, even if it is intentional. At one point later in the story, the vampires have our heroes surrounded and out-numbered, and yet they seem to retreat for some contrived reason. Avengers 3 is undoubtedly the weakest of Millar’s work here, if only because it’s hard to get excited about watching an author play through so many clichés, even while brutally mocking them. I think a lot of people would argue that Millar wasn’t being as subversive as all that, and was simply telling a clichéd and hackneyed story, but I have a hard time believing that.
Throughout the collection, Millar seems to repeatedly draw attention to the nature of Ultimate Comics: Avengers as a comic book, in sharp contrast to how he tried to set The Ultimates in something like the real world by use of constant pop culture references. There are repeated and forced references to comic books in these stories, as if to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that this is a comic book.
In Avengers 3, Stick didn’t know what to get the new Daredevil after the boy lost his sight. “I figured funny books would be useless,” he remarks. At the airport, Satan offers a comic to traumatised kid, asking, “Would you like to read the funnies?” At one point, Hulk attends a signing at “Midtown Comics.” Indeed, the signing would appear to be by Millar himself, signing his oft-overlooked Trouble, emulating the old Marvel practice of authors writing themselves into the book in various self-deprecating ways. It draws attention to the fact that this is a comic book, and comic book things are liable to happen.
Millar even pushes the story consciously away from the grounding in reality that he gave The Ultimates. Those two series were based in a world that wasn’t too dissimilar to our own, with many real-world figures like Larry King and Shannon Elizabeth making appearances. Here, at least initially, Millar seems to distance himself from that. The U.S. administration, for example, is entirely fictional. There’s Vice-President Blackthorne, who is a Marvel supervillain. While Nick Fury references “our nice, new president”, it seems like he’s talking about Barack Obama, but the President is eventually revealed to be a blonde-haired white man. It seems that Millar has radically divorced Ultimate Comics: Avengers from the real world.
There is, however, one reference to a real-world politician, coming late in the series, in Avengers vs. New Ultimates. “Cameron’s been desperate for a little chance to shine on the world stage,” Carol Danvers notes of the Iranian crisis. “I guess this is his Tony Blair moment, huh?” In fact, the final sequence of Avengers vs. New Ultimates seems to consciously take place in something a lot closer to our own world than the previous three stories, but I suspect that this might be as a result of Millar’s deliberate attempt to homage his finale to The Ultimates, and to make one final serious criticism about the nature of comic books.
More than the cliché villains or the lame plotting contrivances, super hero comics repeat themselves. They are trapped in a perpetual cycle, playing out the same conflicts now as they did half a century ago. Millar seems to reference this self-cannibalism by positioning Avengers vs. New Ultimates as something of a remake of his own original Ultimates story, hitting on many of the same beats and using many of the same archetypes.
Greg Stark, the big bad of the piece, pretty much is Loki from The Ultimates. Like Loki, he’s the evil brother of a member of the team causing havok simply to outclass his sibling. When Nick Fury demands to know why this is happening, Greg explains, “Because Tony and I are playing a far grander game than you could ever understand: he designs a car, so I design a rocket. He becomes a millionaire, so I become a billionaire. He buys his way into the super-hero community and so I have to be the man who tells the super heroes what to do.” It seems quite similar to Loki’s motivations, which involved toppling the United States just to get back at his brother.
That isn’t the only point where Millar seems to borrow heavily from his earlier work. Once again, he acknowledges outright that Greg’s plan to defeat the heroes was pretty much taken from the Loki playbook. “Isn’t that how villains used to demolish teams in all the old comic books? By falsifying evidence and pitting them against one another?” he asks Nick Fury, after planting fake evidence of treachery like the Black Widow did about Captain America. As if aware of his nature as a two-dimensional villain, he even disappears promising, “to be continued…”
However, Millar seems to have borrowed from more than just his earlier series, as if to make a point about the perpetual self-cannibalisation of mainstream American superhero comics, where the same ideas are recycled and reused time and time again. For example, Mark Millar pitted the team against vampires in Avengers 3 at the same time as the mainstream Marvel Universe did the same thing to the X-Men. (Millar did claim to be upset, but it makes his point for him.) Similarly, Nick Fury’s plan to attack Greg Stark seems to conscious emulate World War Hulks, published a few months earlier. Hell, even the notion of Captain America going rogue in mid-flight seems like it could be a reference to Civil War, where Cap escaped the helicarrier in mid-flight.
That said, there are some interesting ideas suggested by contrasting The Ultimates and Avengers vs. New Ultimates. Although Greg borrows Loki’s methodology and motivations, his plans aren’t too different from the proactive policies enforced by Fury and the characters in The Ultimates. He boasts of forcing pro-active change into foreign dictatorships. When Fury discovers he’s smuggling super soldiers around the world, he explains, “I’m smuggling these forces into rogue states to help arm the rebels, you idiot. The super-soldiers are going to help the pro-democracy forces.” It doesn’t sound too different from Fury’s attempts to use Captain America as an instrument of regime change back in The Ultimates.
Here, however, Millar seems to be making another criticism – the idea that no matter how idealistic his characters might have started out, with aspirations of changing the world, eventually they become agents and enforcers of the status quo. Avengers vs. New Ultimates sees the team defending the status quo against Greg’s proactive intervention in foreign affairs and his attempts to actually change the world to a better place.
“I’m changing the rules of the game here,” Greg tells Thor. “I actually expected a little more from you. Even Tony always does what he’s told. But you’re supposed to be the radical on the team. I thought you might have a little bit more perspective on all this.” Even Thor has been domesticated by this stage in the game. Perhaps it’s Millar outlining his ideas on the limitations of the genre – the fact that superheroes can’t really change the world, and that the need to keep a fictional universe recognisable means that superheroes will never truly become proactive forces for good. It’s a cynical viewpoint, and many might argue he makes a good case – after all, Ultimate Comics: Avengers represents the author’s last mainstream comic book superhero work to date.
However, I think there’s something more to it than that. Notwithstanding that Jonathan Hickman would radically re-shape the world in his following run on Ultimates, Millar does afford his team a small victory, so it isn’t a complete loss. The status quo is maintained in North Korea, but Millar allows Greg to bring democracy to Iran. It’s a pretty significant difference between our own world and that presented in Ultimate Comics: Avengers, and it seems to suggest the possibility that perhaps superheroes can – despite the criticism Millar levels at them – do some small measure of good, and expand a little tiny bit outside the rigid conventions the genre sets for them.
By the way, if anyone at Marvel is reading this, I would love a nice oversized collection of Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimates. If you want to throw in Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye and Ultimate Comics: Thor, I won’t object at all. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening, and I’d like a collection I can put beside my existing Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four hardcovers. This is really just a tangent, but I just want you to know that my money is here, waiting for that book.
It’s interesting to look at how Millar treats his cast. In The Ultimates, most of the cast were seriously flawed individuals. Here, however, almost everybody is a psychopath. None of the sinister bureaucracy is concealed or merely hinted at. When Carol asks for advice on how to deal with the Red Skull, Fury responds, “You reopen Project Avengers and let me reassemble one of my old death squads.” He doesn’t use a euphemism, he actually calls his team a “death squad.”
Fury himself gets a major upgrade to douche-bag. Millar always presented the character as a morally compromised individual ready to do whatever was necessary for the greater good. However, here Fury just seems like a selfish dick. Asked to explain why she divorced him, his ex-wife suggests that he simply slept with every woman in her life whenever she went away. It’s possible she’s lying, but there’s no evidence. It just makes Fury look like a sexist pig, literally checking off conquests in his wife’s phone book.
Even discounting that, Ultimate Comics: Avengers reads like the story of Fury getting his old job back. The first page has him arriving as a guest at the Triskelion, while the finalé has him taking back his old job. (Another nod, perhaps to how superhero comics tend to gravitate towards the status quo.) He manipulates a situation so that his successor is made to appear incompetent and gets her fired. “Oh, please,” Gregory remarks at the end of the first adventure. “Like you didn’t engineer this entire drama.” Nick Fury responds, “I’m getting my old job back, Gregory. Whatever it takes.”
Giving a mass-murdering psychopath the ability to warp reality itself might be justifiable as a stratagem to save the world, but Fury gives the Red Skull the Cosmic Cube as a means to advance his career. You could argue the world is safer with Fury in charge, as Danvers was shown as struggling under the weight in Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man, but it still seems a remarkably selfish and risky way to satisfy Fury’s lust for power.
Hell, even the “heroes” themselves aren’t much better. The moral pillar of the Avengers team seems to be Rhodey, and it’s easy to forget that Millar introduces the character committing an atrocity to rescue some hostages. “These people were unarmed civilians!” one survivor insists. Rhodey replies, “Aw, gimme a break! Five minutes ago they were prepping you for Youtube.” Fury later describes Gregory as “the man who broke Jim Rhodes”, suggesting that Rhodey’s disconnected and ambivalent attitude is a result of government and big business, rather than a comment on his character.
After all, The Ultimates ended with the team divorcing itself from the United States government, and one of Millar’s core points was how little he trusted the state with that sort of power. So, returning to the theme, Millar seems to turn the volume way up. He plays out similar themes, but with much darker undertones. If The Ultimates covered the sinister behind-the-scenes operations of the public team, the government’s black ops force is something grimmer. Hell, the Punisher is treated as viable substitute for Captain America.
Early on we’re introduced to the Red Wasp, an obvious replacement for Janet Van Dyne. She is a former terrorist like Quicksilver or Scarlet Witch. However, her story is more sinister. She was captured at the end of The Ultimates, and seems to be something of a slave, controlled by an “obedience chip” rather than trusted to do her best. Even after he agrees to help, Frank Castle is controlled through a “neural-implant hidden deep inside [his] head.”
The Thor stand-in, Perun, was captured just like the Red Wasp. He rationalises his situation when his girlfriend protests. “But we invaded their country, Petra. Set fire to the White House. I don’t mind being their little soldier boy as long as they keep me alive. Can you imagine if it had been the other way round? Lord only knows what we’d have done to them.” Of course, we already know – they did schedule public executions of the superheroes and the politicians on conquering the country.
Compared to this, perhaps, allowing Perun to live seems like mercy, but there’s something decidedly sinister about how the relationship is portrayed. Perun is not allowed to retain his identity, but treated as a substitute for Thor. It is suggested that the government controls him by keeping him medicated using pills and alcohol. Although the real control method is the promise of possible promotion to the day team – the idea that Perun could become a celebrity.
It almost seems like Millar is criticising the American Dream, and the way that the ideal of social mobility is used by the government to leverage control over those ruled. Go to America and be something – but work for less than minimum wage, give up your own cultural identity, pretend to be like us and behave yourself. It’s a small touch, but it’s a clever one, and I think the way Perun is handled is one of the redeeming features of Avengers 3.
That’s the irony of this sort of conditioning, Millar seems to suggest. Sooner or later, you like it. Here, Millar confirms that Hawkeye originated as a robber. He seems to thank Nick Fury for turning him into a cold and detached killing machine. Trying to get through to Frank, Hawkeye tells the vigilante, “I wasn’t always a very nice person, Frank. But they trained me to be nice and they can train you too. You just have to submit.” Frank replies, somewhat cuttingly, “Like a dog?”
In case you didn’t get the subtle cynicism, Millar hammers the point home. While the above conversation is taking place, Vice-President Blackthorn is submitting to Satan, selling that little spark of individuality more personal than a soul, so he can become a weapon. Even the afterlife in the Ultimate Universe is similar to Fury’s Avengers. In fact, Millar suggests, it is a very special, very military version of hell.
Quite cleverly, Millar casts Ghost Rider as hell’s super soldier, keeping up the recurring theme of superheroes as living weapons. The Spider explains, “They spent twenty years preparing him for this. Washing away his Christian Baptism. Burning anything soft inside.” It doesn’t sound too dissimilar to what Fury must have done to Hawkeye to turn him into the remorseless killing machine that he is today.
Millar makes his position on state authority clear when he allows the soldier Jim Rhodes to recruit the brutal gangster Tyrone Cash. Looking at the proto!Hulk’s crime empire, Rhodey muses, “All those powers and this was the best you could do… You became a friggin’ gangster?” Cash responds, “At least I’m honest about being scum.” Rhodey’s deal with Cash is the very height of cynicism, and betrays the cynical exploitation of force to maintain a corrupt status quo. Dealing with a murderous kingpin, Rhodey promises, “As long as you stay away from American soil, nobody’s even messing with your livelihood. My employers don’t mind turning a blind eye to foreign tyrants when they’re tactically useful.”
Indeed, Avengers vs. New Ultimates seems to criticise the modern portrayal of superheroes as an arrogant over-class concerned with nothing but enforcing their will on others, with little regard for the consequences. Adam Lang, the new Ant-Man, observes the carnage after one brawl with nothing but horror. “This is a disaster,” he remarks. “You see them fighting on TV, it looks like they’re professionals. But they aren’t. They just make it up as they go along. It’s terrifying.”
Tony Stark doesn’t take into account his own strength when combating Blade. His ignorance almost kills the guy, as it doesn’t even occur to Tony that his opponent might not be super-powered. “Oh, my God,” he confesses, seeming genuinely upset at what he accidentally did. “I thought Blade was supposed to be super-powered. I didn’t realise he could get hurt this easily. We’re going to need some medics, control. I think I’ve messed him up pretty bad.”
Of course, the most poignant overlap comes with the crossover between Avengers vs. New Ultimates and The Death of Spider-Man, which I’m hoping will get a nice oversized hardcover soon. Here the consequences of thoughtless self-serving violence become abundantly clear. The Punisher wings Spider-Man, the most idealistic of the Ultimate heroes. “Where the %&*# did he come from?!” The Punisher demands, perhaps echoing most readers – but that’s entirely the point. These characters were so caught up in their own selfish little worlds that it never occurred to them the cost their actions could have. It’s also interesting that Carol Danvers takes the fall for the death of Spider-Man, when one of Nick Fury’s guys pulled the trigger.
At this point, it would be easy to fall back on the tried and tested argument that Mark Millar is a cynical nihilist who absolutely hates everything from the comic books he writes to the people who read them. Such an argument is, I would suggest, pure nonsense. I’ll freely concede that Millar can be both cynical and nihilistic, but also that he is capable of a great humanism and warmth when the mood takes him. As much as he may enjoy deconstructing superheroes, he also respects and enjoys them for what they are.
Part of this can be seen in his portrayal of Spider-Man. In Marvel Knights: Spider-Man, his brother suggested Millar holds a special affection for the webcrawler, and it shines through here. Even nearly mortally wounded, Spider-Man is still more of a hero than anybody on Nick Fury’s team. “I can hear all the sirens and gunshots back there,” he remarks. “Why are you wasting time with me when there’s people who really need you help?” Cradling the teenager’s body, Cap remarks, “When you grow up, you’re going to be the best of all of us.”
Spider-Man is an innocent, and the Punisher and Nick Fury are responsible for his death through their own indifference. However, he’s not the only virtuous hero that Millar uses in these pages. While the black ops Avengers team is made of killers and psychopaths, it’s nice to see Millar write the main team again in Avengers vs. New Ultimates. At one point, the team manage to deal with a failed super-soldier merely by showing him compassion. There’s no knock-down brawl, no posturing, no kill-shots. They just talk and listen to the poor guy.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Thor assures the wounded super soldier. “My name is Thor and I’m here with the Ultimates.” It might be the most heroic Millar has ever written the team. “You won’t remember,” the kid tells Cap, “but you visited our base when my old unit was in Afghanistan. You brought us all those Thanksgiving Turkeys and w-we thought it was so cool that you just hung out and talked to all the guys.”Along with the scene where Spider-Man is shot, it’s easily the most human moment in the collection, and seems to reaffirm a bit of Millar’s faith in superheroes. Hell, even Tony doesn’t want to kill his brother, and the team resort to it as a last-ditch effort.
A far wiser man than myself once made a compelling case for the role of family in Mark Millar’s writing, reaffirming its moral centre. Even a small sequence with the Red Skull affirms this view. The villain didn’t want to use the Cosmic Cube to conquer the world or enslave mankind. “I wanted my father to come home from the war and marry my mother. I wanted us to be a family. I wanted to have a different life. Be something better… Is that really too much to ask? To be happy for once?” It’s almost tragic. If I didn’t know better, I’d think Mark Millar was a big softie who only wrote Nemesis and Wanted to throw us off the scent.
Indeed, even the pyschopathic gangster Tyrone Cash is coerced not through force or violence, but by threatening to reveal his true nature to his family. Mark Millar’s Ultimate Ghost Rider sold his soul in order to be sure that the woman he loved might live a long and happy life, even if it is without him. Even Tony is saddened at the idea that his brother Gregory has to die, despite all that Gregory has done. Family does seem important to Millar’s work.
So that’s it. Ultimate Comics: Avengers is a very different beast than The Ultimates, even if it is something of a thematic companion piece. I don’t think I could argue it is anywhere near as good, if only because Millar seems to use one too many bad-comic-writing devices while writing about using bad-comic-writing devices. It’s very uneven, and seems quite strange, with relatively little long-form foreshadowing, development and pay-off. A lot of The Ultimates was carefully seeded, while Ultimates vs. New Avengers just sort of pops up because Millar’s run is nearly over.
Still, Avengers 1 and Avengers 2 are actually both good fun, if they aren’t groundbreaking. They’re clever without being intrusively so, and they actually read as good old fashioned superhero fun, albeit with a hint more self-awareness than usual. Avengers 3 is really the weak link of the set, because that’s where Millar’s criticism of the genre seems a little bit too much like emulation than deconstruction. It’s sometimes hard to tell parody from the real deal, and that’s the heart of the problem with Avengers 3.
As a side note, I do love how the series is structured as four six-issue series rather than one twenty-four-issue series. It reminds me a lot of how Marvel published Venom during the nineties. I don’t know if Millar was part of the decision to publish like this, but it seems like a clever meta-gag, given how heavily the series features Ghost Rider and the Punisher, two popular characters from that era. After all, if Millar is using the series as a somewhat gentle criticism of mainstream comic books, it only seems fair to reserve a little direct scorn for the nineties, the decade that taste forgot in mainstream comics.
There are other fun moments, particularly when Millar seems to have fun at the expense of other writers who worked on these characters. In particular, the comic opens with Millar reacting to Ultimatum through the proxy of Nick Fury. “What the %@#&?” Nick demands. “I disappear for ten minutes and the whole place goes to hell.” He writes out Loeb’s decision to make Thor speak in faux Shakespearean dialogue, and reduces Orson Scott Card’s Ultimate Iron Man to the status of an in-universe cartoon. It actually seems (mostly) good natured, and a great deal of it is perfectly valid.
In conclusion, there’s a nice, honest moment in Avengers vs. New Ultimates, as Nick Fury reflects on life with Gregory Stark. Discussing the early years of his career and the ultimate universe, Fury suggests, “Those were crazy days, Greg. Anything seemed possible when I first got this job.” It’s hard not to believe that Millar is speaking through Fury to an extent. The Ultimates allowed him completely free reign to do what he wanted to create from something approaching scratch. Ultimate Comics: Avengers is a different beast entirely. While we, Nick and Millar might look back fondly on it, we can’t ever go back – and part of me suspects that Millar was right not to try.
They say you can’t go home again.
You might be interested in our other Ultimates-related reviews:
- Mark Millar’s Ultimates
- The Ultimates
- Ultimate Comics: Avengers
- Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimates
- Sam Humphries’ Ultimates
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