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Ultimate Origins (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Ultimatum effectively brought an end to the first stage of life for Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. To be fair, Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four had both cycled through multiple creative teams by that point, but Ultimatum was the book that effectively drew a line under a certain era of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic four were all cancelled in the wake of the massive end, marking it as the end of an era.

As such, it made sense to go back to the start of the line – to task writer Brian Michael Bendis to craft an origin for this shared spin-off universe. With Ultimatum killing off so many characters and so radically altering the status quo, it made sense to go back to the beginning and offer a glimpse at the formative moments of this alternate universe. The Ultimate Universe had been built from the ground up, so it made sense that the continuity all fit together.

A Magnetic personality...

A Magnetic personality…

While Ultimate Origins offered a series of insights and revelations that radically altered (or expanded) the back story of almost every corner of the Ultimate publishing line, Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Origins undoubtedly had the most profound implications for the characters of Ultimate X-Men. While the characters from Ultimate Spider-Man or The Ultimates could go back to something approximating business as usual, those characters would never be the same again.

Offering an explanation for the mutant genome that would alter the context of mutants and play into the climax of Ultimatum, Ultimate Origins represents something radical and distinct from mainstream Marvel publishing. In a way, it feels like it is playing into the mission statement of Ultimatum – redefining the Ultimate line so as to distinguish the Ultimate Universe from its mainstream counterpart. This is no long a streamlined and cleaned up alternative; it is something radically different.

Carry on...

Carry on…

“Listen, it’s all connected,” Bruce Banner tells Spider-Man – and us – in the opening panel of Ultimate Origins. “That’s it. That’s the secret.” He’s right. The Ultimate publishing line was about a decade old when editorial decided to radically change everything with Ultimatum. While there had been a number of continuity-related issues over the course of various series, particularly in the early years, the tight editorial control and finite number of comics meant that everything fit together reasonably well.

As such, it’s interesting to ponder just how much of Ultimate Origins was planned from the outset – who knew what when. Brian Michael Bendis has been involved with the line since it began, but his own long-running comic book series – Ultimate Spider-Man – is arguably the comic least directly affected by the revelations in Ultimate Origins. Sure, Richard Parker is part of Fury’s think tank, and there’s a pretty major reveal about the death of Peter’s parents, but there’s very little focus on Peter’s world.

Closing the file on this one...

Closing the file on this one…

(For example, it would likely have been easy to shoe-horn somebody like Norman Osborn or Otto Octavius into the story somewhere – particularly in the context of a genetic war that may or may not be brewing. Instead, the only characters exclusively related to Ultimate Spider-Man to play a major role in Ultimate Origins are parents. Peter Parker’s parents work in a lab on the super soldier project; Wilson Fisk’s father is encountered briefly during the Second World War.)

In contrast, Bendis is playing with characters associated with Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates. While Bendis wrote on Ultimate X-Men for a year, he was hardly the most formative influence on it. (Indeed, his big “moment” – the death of Beast – was subsequently reversed by Robert Kirkman.) Instead, Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates were both created by writer Mark Millar, and both crossed over and tied into one another quite heavily in those early issues.

The all-seeing eye...

The all-seeing eye…

It’s curious to wonder just own much of Ultimate Origins was rooted in the early collaboration between Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar in shaping this other superhero universe, and just how much was retroactively added by Brian Michael Bendis to fit with the desire to make the Ultimate Universe a more unique and distinct storytelling experience. It’s tempting to believe that the reveals about mutant kind were all purely retroactive, but Millar established quite early on that his versions Magneto and Xavier were very much full of it and that their own narratives were decidedly self-serving and aggrandising.

In short, it’s not too hard to believe that Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis had always intended for a big reveal about the true nature of mutant kind. Certainly, the fact that there were no historical mutants introduced over the course of the Ultimate Universe suggests that this was a possibility. Bendis’ revelation fits quite comfortably with the idea that the Ultimate Universe is rooted in the Second World War.

It's all connected...

It’s all connected…

This makes a great deal of sense on a meta-fictional level, given that the concept of the superhero – while invented a year earlier – really established itself on the popular consciousness during the Second World War. Given the importance of the Second World War in charting and defining America’s self-image, it’s logical that this alternate universe would tie the idea of superheroes into that. After all, the Ultimate line has been very eager to embrace superheroes as anchored in some decidedly American pop political concepts.

In the Ultimate Universe, the political implications of superheroes are obvious. Captain America is a living super-weapon. Mark Millar’s Ultimates engaged with the idea of superheroes as an instrument of American foreign policy. This is really just articulating something that had been part of superheroes since their inception – characters like Captain America and Superman had no problem socking it to Hitler during the forties. They embody a particularly American set of ideals and aspirations. The Ultimate Universe just makes those connections explicit.

Washed up...

Washed up…

So while the origin of the X-Men in this story is radically different from the origin in the mainstream Marvel Universe, it makes a great deal of sense. After all, even the early Stan Lee and Jack Kirby stories made the connection between the X-Men and the atomic bomb. These characters are affectionately known as “the Children of the Atom.” It’s not a difficult connection to make – and explicitly linking these characters to the scientific legacy of the Second World War makes a great deal of sense.

After all, as Bendis alludes to repeatedly over the course of Ultimate Origins, America has some pretty scary skeletons in its closet when it comes to scientific morality in the wake of the Second World War. Doctor Erskine, the old scientist responsible for creating Captain America, is shown to be a wilfully participant in non-consensual scientific experiments on African-American prisoners. While mainstream continuity typically portrays Erskine as a well-meaning patriot, Ultimate Origins is downright cynical in how it approaches the character – his research is clearly meant to evoke the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.

A not-so-super soldier...

A not-so-super soldier…

When Nick Fury discovers a Canadian lab that has been running top secret military experiments on people, he is horrified. However, the scientist operating the lab doesn’t seem particularly nervous. “I’m going to enjoy watching you try to figure out what has happened to your career as I am embraced by your government’s science community,” he boasts. “If you think they are going to toss me in a prison then you don’t know your history, my friend…” And history has taught us that he is most likely right. After all, Nick Fury is stunned to discover that he was being experimented on in a lab in New York City.

As such, framing mutants as an unintended consequence of this research makes a great deal of sense. From a storytelling point of view, it keeps continuity relatively streamlined – the Ultimate Universe isn’t the result of countless coincidences heaped on top of each other, just a few scientific discoveries and accidents stemming from understandable decisions. Even if Ultimatum was about to break the continuity of the shared Ultimate Universe, it’s still a nice touch on a purely conceptual level.

The man with the plan...

The man with the plan…

On a more practical level, one specific to Ultimate X-Men, it is a concept that breaks the book. The X-Men no longer represent an evolutionary leap forward; they are a dead-end. These aren’t the children of tomorrow, they are the ghosts of yesterday. Rather than a utopian comic about a bunch of people trying to find their way in the world and establish peaceful coexistence, it becomes a story about a bunch of people who exist as accidents and mistakes. It evokes the sort of approach that Marvel took the X-Men line in the wake of House of M.

To be fair, at least it distinguishes the Ultimate version of the X-Men from their mainstream counterparts. And it does lead to some interesting storytelling from Nick Spencer and Brian Wood. At the same time, however, it is very hard to figure out the direction for the Ultimate version of the X-Men in the wake of Ultimate Origins. These aren’t the next generation of mankind, but a haunting legacy of a mistake made decades early – they are a representation of collective guilt and shame, a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle.

A Storm is coming...

A Storm is coming…

It does also twist the metaphor at the heart of the X-Men franchise, which is a bold move. No longer do the Ultimate X-Men exist as a metaphor for persecuted minorities and oppressed citizens. Instead, they seem to serve as a metaphor for the consequences of Allied political policy that inevitably come back to haunt later administrations. (Although Bendis does try to hedge the bet by making the mutants a result of Canadian experiments.) It is a very twenty-first century take on the mythos and the characters.

At the same time, Bendis makes a point that superheroes are still inherently optimistic creations. Even if they are occasionally tied to (or anchored in) disturbing concepts, they do represent the very highest ideals. After all, even if Captain America is a weapon of mass destruction, he’s a weapon of mass destruction that has a conscience. He is distinct from Erskine’s cynicism and abuses, even if he was spawned from them.

It likes to Watch...

It likes to Watch…

Explaining why Steve Rogers must become Captain America, Franklin Roosevelt states, “You have to wear our flag and win this war. Because without you out there, the next thing we’ll be forced to do is drop a bomb on a country… a bomb that kills… everything in it. Every woman and child.” Superheroes represent a more a optimistic ideal – the sense that things are not as bad as they could be. Captain America is better than a nuclear warhead, because he means that a nuclear warhead isn’t necessary.

(Indeed, Ultimate Origins makes much of the basic goodness of Steve Rogers, despite his somewhat dated – and politically incorrect – views. Trying to account for how the serum worked so dramatically on the young recruit, the best Erskine can suggest is that perhaps the formula is responding to Rogers’ enthusiasm and excitement. In short, Rogers’ needed his idealism and optimism in order to become a superhero in the first place.)

A Spike in interest...

A Spike in interest…

This can arguably be seen in the character of Nick Fury, as presented by Brian Michael Bendis. While Mark Millar’s Ultimate Comics: Avengers may disagree, Bendis seems to suggest that Fury is fundamentally a decent guy. He rules out human testing as part of the super-soldier research. He seems to take care of Peter Parker after the death of his parents. He continues to serve his country, despite all that has been done to him in the name of patriotism.

Ultimate Origins paints Nick Fury as the typical Bendis-ian protagonist. He’s a character who really should be a villain. He has every excuse to be bitter and angry, every reason to turn against the world and try to claim a little piece of it as his own. But he doesn’t. “I blamed everyone for what happened,” he reflects at one point. “White people, German people, the President, Captain America, Albert Einstein. You name it, I blamed ’em. And you walk around the world long enough, you suddenly realise things…”

Reeding it like a book...

Reeding it like a book…

There’s something quite endearing about that – even amid all of the cynicism and scepticism of Ultimate Origins. It’s telling that the comic offers an account of human (and super-human) cruelty and abuse while still finding time for optimism. The Watchers are fascinated by mankind – and offer to protect mankind – despite our capacity for brutality and violence. The comic ends with the appearance of a new and young hero who is promised to try to save the world – to offer the best chance of survival.

Ultimate Origins is a fascinating metaphorical exploration of the legacy of the Second World War. It is a period of history that tends to get reduced to a simple heroic narrative, disguising the moral ambiguity surrounding the conflict – and the consequences stemming from it. In a way, Ultimate Origins plays like a secret metaphorical history in the style of The X-Files. “It is time for you to rediscover this history,” Uatu informs the Fantastic Four.

Injecting a little excitement...

Injecting a little excitement…

As such, the revelations about the mutants make a great deal of sense, even if they do raise questions for the merry mutants going forwards.

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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Jessie Spencer's Blogspot.

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