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Ultimate Marvel Team-Up (Review/Retrospective)

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up occupies a strange place in Marvel canon. Written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by a rake of top-tier talent, it was essentially a series designed to showcase these impressive artists while adding a bit of depth and breadth to the then-fledgeling Ultimate Marvel Universe. Essentially a continuity that had been launched from scratch, with the goal of attracting new fans put off by decades of back story in the regular shared universe, Brian Michael Bendis had pioneered the line with his superb Ultimate Spider-Man, a book that he is still writing today (albeit in a slightly different form). Due to its nature, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up is a somewhat disjointed effort, where quality varies almost from issue-to-issue, but it’s still worth a look for anybody with any interest in Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man work.

Who says there aren’t crocodiles in the sewer?

I’ll confess that I’m quite fond of Marvel’s Ultimate imprint. Part of the reason is the reason that the line was created – it’s easily accessible and easy to follow. Virtually every story featuring an ultimate version of a particular character or set of characters is still in print. It’s easier to follow because the line is a handful of books, as opposed to several books starring the same characters, all entangled in their own internal continuity. While there have been line-wide events like the dire Ultimatum, they’ve been far more limited than in regular continuity, where an event seems to occur every ten minutes to change the direction of a given book.

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up takes place in the early years of the imprint, and you get a sense that Bendis is still developing this shared universe. In fact, some of the events depicted here directly contradict later stories (particularly Ultimate Fantastic Four), but I’ve never been one to get too stuck on comic book continuity. If it’s a good story, tell it. Everything else should be secondary. However, I do like the fact that the Ultimate line does maintain somewhat casual cohesion between books, arguably in the style of the Marvel movies like Thor or Captain America.

A smashing success?

You can see Bendis joining the first dots here – suggesting that the books are connected by threads that won’t necessarily suffocate storytelling opportunities. They just acknowledge that the events unfold within the same fictional universe. We have, for example, Spider-Man wondering if he’s a mutant, acknowledging that he lives in the same world as the X-Men and that must be a possibility. “Listen,” Bruce Banner tells him briefly, “it’s all connected. That’s it. That’s the secret.” It seems like Bendis is teasing fans, but it turns out the continuity is rather tightly constructed, something Mark Millar would execute fantastically well during his run on The Ultimates.

The stories here are mostly fairly throw-away. They’re relatively short – the longest story reaching a massive three issues. Instead of offering one single gigantic meta-narrative, Bendis instead constructs a set of light and easily-accessible stand-alone tales. You can read this collection with little or no knowledge of Marvel or Spider-Man and it would still be an enjoyable experience. Instead of a single story, Bendis treats these issues as a whirlwind tour of the Ultimate Universe, introducing us to characters like the Hulk, Black Widow, Tony Stark and even Man-Thing. There’s a sense that the foundation of this shared universe is rapidly expanding.

Of course Wolverine is the first guest-star…

There’s a sense that the world isn’t quite used to the concept of superheroes and supervillains yet, that Bendis is writing a universe where they are still a new development. Certainly, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up takes place in a universe where dressing up in tights hasn’t exactly become normalised behaviour. One cop, for example, refuses to refer to Frank Castle by his “superhero” title. “Man, don’t –don’t call him that! It’s so stupid. ‘The Punisher.’ It’s Frank. Frank! His name is Frank!”

It also gives Bendis the opportunity to write characters he wouldn’t normally write. For example, the second story is an enjoyable account of the first encounter between Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. It’s nothing more complex than that, but Bendis crafts and entertaining story – evoking the classic Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut story from regular continuity. The idea is that Spider-Man will do whatever it takes to protect innocent people, no matter how much harm he might come to in the process. While all versions of Peter Parker are remarkably heroic, there’s something more sweet and moving about Bendis’ teenage version of the character, who seems to take more than is humanly possible.

The contrast between art styles is Stark…

We also get a chance to meet Brian Bendis’ Tony Stark, who is remarkably similar to the version he’d write when he took of New Avengers, an arrogant and condescending genius who has no patience for those he deems fools. At one point, he explains to a guest the White House asked him to meet, “So, I am saying, I met with you because I don’t want to lose my bowling privileges.”

Bendis actually makes a point to firmly set Tony’s origin in the eighties – even including a cameo from Ronald Reagan. It’s interesting, if only because regular continuity has been reluctant to date the origin of late in stories like Extremis. That would suggest that Bendis’ Ultimate books might eschew the “sliding time scale.” For the less nerdy out there, the “sliding time scale” suggests that all comic book heroes debuted within the last five years, and that all their adventures fell within that timeframe, even those published forty-odd years ago. That explains why Spider-Man isn’t collecting his social security.

He is Iron Man…

That’s why modern Iron Man origins tend to be ambiguous about the conflict where Tony was injured. By setting a firm date on Tony Stark’s origin, Bendis seems to suggest he might firmly date the Ultimate universe, to allow time to unfold in something approaching real time. Of course, this would later turn out not to be the case, with Bendis suggesting that all of his Ultimate Spider-Man run unfolded within a year, rather than over ten. It’s a small note, but an interesting one for the nerdier individuals amongst us.

I do think that Mike Allred’s art on the Iron Man story makes it perhaps my favourite of the entire collection. It feels deliciously retro, despite the fact it unfolds in the present day and only references as far back as the eighties. It casts Tony as something like a lead from Mad Men, with a consciously and decidedly chic appearance. Sure, the character even wears a turtleneck at one point. Man, I would love a retro Iron Man run with Mike Allred illustrating.

Gun to me head, it might not be Bendis’ strongest work…

Other highlights include Bendis’ crossover between the Punisher and Daredevil. It’s almost done in the style of Frank Miller’s iconic Daredevil run from way back, reducing Spider-Man to the role of a guest-star in his own book. It looks and feels absolutely superb, and feels like an appropriate homage to the master. The fact that he brings in Miller collaborator Bill Sienkiewicz to illustrate it is just icing on the proverbial cake.

I do like Bendis’ version of Frank Castle, a relatively unambiguous monster. You can understand why he does what he does, but Bendis allows us to sympathise rather than empathise with the man. I do like the fact that Bendis portrays Frank as something close to a religious zealot, even before his transformation into the murderous vigilante. “I know you think I’ve betrayed you but I’ve set you free,” he tells a cop he just ratted out to Internal Affairs. “You’re going to confess. And you’re going to be able to look your daughter in the eye and she’ll know that her father is repentant and good.” Naturally, the dirty cops don’t quite see it that way.

A not-so-lean green fighting machine…

Bendis’ Castle sees things in black-and-white. Acknowledging that Castle isn’t bound to the law (after all, the law dictates not only crime, but also method of prosecution and consequences), Bendis explicitly ties him to more spiritual ideals. Castle doesn’t necessarily see the world in terms of ‘crime.’ Rather, he sees it in terms of ‘sin.’ He explains to one victim, “I know why man sins. Do you know why man sins? Because he wants to.” The portrayal makes a lot of sense.

Also worth noting is the finale, which sees Bendis acknowledging the tragedy of 9/11 in a surprisingly heartfelt way – acknowledging the heroic spirit of New York as represented through character like Spider-Man. It’s actually remarkably affecting despite its simplicity, and it makes an infinitely more fitting contemplation of events than contemporaneous comics like John Ney Rieber’s misjudged Captain America run.

They’ll Iron out their differences…

I will note the the collection has that same irritating problem that same Marvel books had at around the same time. It collects the covers at the back of the book, rather than placing them in the book like chapter stops. While one might argue it’s really all one story, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up features artwork from a variety of artist using palpably different styles – it’s quite off-putting to turn pages and find a new story page with a unique art style and no warning.

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up isn’t quite classic Bendis. I still think that those looking to sample his work would be better with Ultimate Spider-Man or his Daredevil run. However, it is an interesting exploration of a young alternate continuity that allows Bendis to stretch his wings and tell stories he wouldn’t normally tell featuring character he wouldn’t normally use. It features a selection of fantastic artwork, and is an enjoyable – if rather light – read.

We have reviews up for all of Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man, in case you’re interested in checking it out, the rest can be found here:

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4 Responses

  1. Another great review, Darren. I discovered your blog through your Ultimate X-Men review a few weeks back, and your commentaries on the Ultimate Universe have made great reading as I reread most of these Ultimate titles.

    Side note: I\’m eagerly awaiting you\’re next Ultimate Spider-man review. Any idea when that will be around?

    Side-side note: Any chance of an Ultimatum or Ultimates 3 review? I know those are absolute garbage (ranked as the very worst by some people http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-worst-moments-in-marvel-comics.php) but scathing reviews are always a joy to read coming from a great writer such as yourself.

    • Thanks!

      I think that I’ll be looking at the twelfth hardcover next week. And then hopefully both Spider-Men and The Death of Spider-Man sometime late this year or early next year. Very excited about those collections. Keep in mind I need to go back and expand some of my Ultimate reviews. Particularly Mark Miller’s Ultimate X-Men, which I still don’t really like, but I certainly appreciate a bit more.

      With regards to Ultimates 3, I’m in a bind. I buy all my comics. So the money I spend pretty much encourages Marvel to lean a particular direction. I’d rather selectively spend my money on titles that are (or could be) good, rather than rewarding them for something regarded as one of the worst things ever to happen to mankind. On the other hand, if it encouraged a collection of Hickman’s Ultimates or Spencer’s Ultimate X-Men, I would be all over it.

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