Several weeks ago, I did a piece for my blog & Blogcritics, discussing some of my favorite ongoing genre comics. I received several responses (not to mention, a nice plug in Journalista!), but the most insistent comments came from a reader who thought I should’ve included Marvel’s The Ultimates in my personal survey.
I hadn’t read the book at the time and said so. I’d gone through some trade reprints of Ultimate titles featuring Spider-Man & X-Men – and as handsome as they looked, there wasn’t much in ’em to prod me into digging more deeply into the Ultimate Marvel Universe. I know it’s standard to re-tell and reinvent comic book characters for a new generation – how many reboots has Superman seen, for instance? – but neither parallel universe series seemed sufficiently different to justify a whole line o’ Ultimates.
Dude, I was told, after I’d made this point to my interlocutor, the Ultimates are nothing like Marvel’s old Avengers series! So I acquiesced and picked up a copy of the recent trade reprinting the book’s first six issues. My reader was right. This is a major revisionist job on Marvel’s longstanding Lee-&-Kirby superhero creation, The Avengers.
The book starts out promisingly: in the European Theatre, circa 1945, super soldier hero Captain America is on a mission alongside a group of convincingly tough-talking grunts, including journalist Bucky Barnes. The soldiers are understandably skeptical about Cap, (“Dressing some clown in a circus costume. . .” one of ’em says. “What age do you think we are?”) But their skepticism vanishes when they all venture into battle.
Scripter Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch establish a strong tone at the outset: hard-bitten, gritty, w./ lots of obscure rain-drenched battle imagery. Hitch (who’s also worked on The Authority & Justice League of America) has a flair for big group battle scenes, so he’s in his element here. The whole first chapter/issue leads to a moment that long-term Avengers readers know is coming: Cap’s struggle to disarm a launched rocket that’ll wind up in his getting dumped & frozen in the cold Atlantic waters. So far, so good.
Unlike Marvel’s original Avengers – which only took one issue back in 1963 to establish its basic team (though Cap America didn’t appear ’til issue #4) – Millar’s Ultimates are a bit slower getting out of the gate. For one thing, where the original series was built around characters who already had their own established titles (Ant/Giant-Man & Wasp, Hulk, Iron Man plus Thor), the core cast of Ultimates is introduced as the series progresses. Next three chapters in the book are primarily devoted to presenting this crew in presentday surroundings – it isn’t ’til the series’ fifth issue that we see ’em fight as a team. This makes the bulk of the book more character-driven, even if the characterization is more than a bit dubious at times.
Among the changes in these Ultimate Incarnations:
- Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, is still an industrialist playboy (though a much more irritating one: barely a chapter goes by when he doesn’t rub his wealth & sexual successes in someone else’s nose); in place of the heart condition that originally spurred his invention of that shiny suit of armor, Version Ultimate has a brain tumor;
- Bruce Banner, The Hulk, is presented as a pathetic pimply nerd, whose transformation into the jolly green giant comes from his unsuccessful attempts at replicating the Captain America super soldier formula – not the act of heroism that originally resulted in his getting bathed by gamma rays; as the story begins, he supposedly has his Hulk self buried & controlled, but as soon as we read this, we know that won’t be the case for long;
- Banner’s love, the formerly mousy Betty Brant, is a bitchy p.r. flak who never misses an opportunity to snipe a malicious comment at Bruce’s expense;
- Hank Pym, Giant-Man, is a prozac-popping depressive, jealous of everyone else around him (including, seemingly, the Crumb-like Banner!);
- Janet Pym, The Wasp, is an Oriental American hiding the fact that she’s a mutant; she’s almost as prone to emasculating put-downs as Betty (reads like Millar’s working on some is-sues here), which’ll spark a devastating domestic confrontation in the book’s last chapter;
- Thor is an ex-nurse who “discovered” he was the God of Thunder after a severe nervous breakdown; the full nature of his powers is unclear, but he still has that big nasty hammer; an anti-globalist, Thor resists officially joining the Ultimates because he doesn’t want to be a slave to the military-industrial complex;
- Jarvis, the loyal British butler long a fixture at Avengers Mansion, is a sardonic poofter (well, of course he is: he’s British, isn’t he?); at one point, he gives up a gathering of other butlers (“Aren’t you supposed to be going to the club tonight with Alfred and all those other old degenerates?” Stark asks) for the opportunity to surreptitiously ogle Cap & Thor;
- Nick Fury, head of the ultra-secret intelligence outfit S.H.I.E.L.D., is black, though that doesn’t seem to have made any difference to the character.
As for the full-blown Ultimates, the group’s been bankrolled by S.H.I.E.L.D. to assuage public anxiety arising after two assaults by the Hulk & X-Men nemesis Magneto occurred in earlier Ultimate titles. (Like the original Marvel Universe, this series strives to maintain a sense of internal consistency & connectedness.) They’re presented to the public w./ all the pomp of a new Windows Operating System (in this, Millar’s take on superhero groups & publicity is comparable to Peter Milligan’s X-Statix). They even get to hobnob w./ George W. (standing in the background: an extra holding an oversized pretzel), who asks a recently revived Captain America his verdict of the twenty-first century. “Cool or uncool?” the pres says. Saluting, the red-white-&-blue patriot states that it’s definitely cool.
That somewhat dorky exchange aside, Steve Rogers’ Cap can be an affecting figure. He’s always been one of the more interesting Marvel characters: a man reflecting square-jawed democratic values he knows are out of time (even his contemporary peers don’t always get what he’s going on about), who always is aware of how much he’s lost. In one scene, Steve visits the home of his friend Bucky & former fiance – the former is dying of lung cancer, and the latter is too aware of how old she looks to let him see her – while later we learn that he’s moved back into his old New York neighborhood, which is now a drug-riddled slum. Though unsaddled w./ the broad doubts & neuroses of his fellow Ultimates, he remains an isolated figure.
By the end of Chapter Four, we’re told there’s already public doubt about the need for this new super-group. So Doc Banner does what we’ve all been waiting for him to do: unleash the Hulk to give the gang a real menace to battle. Learning that ex-lover Betty is dining w./ Freddy Prinze Jr. (does Sarah Michelle know?), Banner/Hulk rampages through Manhattan, screaming for the head of the Scooby Doo star.
Which finally brings us to Chapter/Issue Five’s climactic battle scene: the monstrously horny (bet we don’t get that in the Ang Lee movie!) Hulk screaming for Betty – so he can give her what ol’ puny Banner apparently can’t – and brutally killing civilians along the way. (At one point, we’re told, he slays a fat man just so he can steal his pants.) This is no childlike tantruming Hulk, but an ugly brutal monster: smashing into Giant-Man, he bellows that he’s gonna tear off his head and use his skull like a toilet bowl. (Sure don’t imagine TV’s Lou Ferigno delivering that line, but then how many lines could he deliver?) The whole crew comes out in force, and Wasp displays a startling use of her powers by flashing her breasts before the Hulk to distract him.
It also rains a lot, thanks to Thor’s hammer. I can see the reason for doing big FX-laden battles in the rain & dark in movies – where you can use both to mask wires, etc. – but after viewing two rain-blurred fights in this book, I really started missing day-lit primary colors. It’s a comic book, guys: you can show us anything you want!
Our team prevails by chapter’s end, changing the monster back into his weedy Banner self (where he’s promptly straitjacketed), then hushing up the scientist’s involvement in the Hulk rampage. But despite – or perhaps because of – this victory, we don’t end Book One on a happy note. In the final chapter, we get a depressing glimpse into the married life of Hank & Janet Pym.
Still sulking over the fact that he got his ass kicked in the Big Green Fight, Hank holds up in his lab. When wife Janet attempts to pull him out to a dinner at Tony Stark’s, he snaps back jealously, and things escalate into a full-blown physical fight between the two. The panel where Hank first hauls off and hits his wife is even more dismaying than the scenes where Hulk threatens to rape Betty (if only because we know that the good guys are gonna prevent that appalling act from happening), and are about as far from the original characters as you can get. But does the scene make any sense?
As it plays, the moment works. Millar & Hitch do a decent job building their scene (we’re given a hint that this is not the first time the two have come to blows) and even capture such subtleties as the moment where, mid-fight, Janet apologizes for starting a conflict that really is more Hank’s fault than hers. The fight also ends on an ambiguous note: Janet being overwhelmed by ants that have attacked her on Hank’s command (as he tells her in an ominous full-face close-up, “You shouldn’t have made me look small, Jan!”), then a full-page scene of Pym seated in the wreckage of lab, bemoaning what he has done. Very effective.
And yet – and yet . . . for the first time since I started this series, I suddenly find myself growing all fanboyish. A bit that I would’ve accepted in a newish superhero title like The Authority can’t help but feel off when it’s built around characters who’ve been around for ages, even if they are supposed to be the new-&-improved Ultimate versions. It’s not like I have any great love for the first Hank Pym. Truth be the told, the original version was a stiff. But I’m even less enamored w./ the idea of making the guy a wife beater. Call me old-fashioned.
In the end, the issue ultimately comes down to this: when does revisionism cross over into shock value contrariness? It’s a dividing line that probably varies from reader to reader, but we all recognize when it’s been crossed. It’s that moment when you suddenly feel a sinking sense of betrayal by the actions of a bunch of featherweight figures on glossy paper.
Aside from its success as a marketing gimmick (“This ain’t your Daddy’s Ant-Man, that’s for damn sure!”), I remain unconvinced about the viability of the Ultimate books. “Why not simply write good versions of the original characters?” think I. Isn’t that what the company’s been trying with, to name one example, its current Marvel Knights Daredevil series?
But what do I know? The past few months have seen more Ultimate titles – Ultimate Adventures & Ultimate War (that last now puts the line in the same league as Troma Films) – along w./ an Ultimate Daredevil/Elektra mini-series, clearly demonstrating their comic shoppe cachet. Me, I’m just a cranky ol’ critic who, on finishing this book, felt the need to cleanse my mental palate w./ a simple Lee-&-Kirby komic.
Okay, now I’ve read The Ultimates.