With the ten-year anniversary of Mark Millar’s The Ultimates coming up next year, and with an all new line up of Ultimate books coming from Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer later this year, there’s no time like the present to look back at the biggest hit of the Ultimate line of comics.
When Mark Millar’s The Ultimates was announced, it was advertised as being the Ultimate Universe’s version of the Avengers. Millar had already made his mark on the Ultimate version of the X-Men by telling relatively traditional X-Men stories with edgier, more modern sensibilities. Fans expected Millar to do much of the same with his run on The Ultimates, but while the characters may have remained the same for the most part, the first six issues are far from an ordinary super-hero comic book. In fact, the differences are so stark in contrast to what a team book was supposed to be, it could easily be considered an “anti-comic book.”
The series begins with Captain America’s last mission in World War II, where he sacrifices himself to disable a warhead and save the world. This issue is notable for a number of reasons. First is the art of Bryan Hitch, who crafts an absolutely stunning war scene that is thrilling to behold. Hitch had made his name working with Warren Ellis on Stormwatch and Authority, but never had his art felt as kinetic as it does here. The story almost takes a back seat to Hitch’s art, but the story is still very much important.
When Bucky notes that the missile is far beyond the technology that the American’s have, Cap mentions, “there’s more sides fighting in this war than anyone will ever know.” This plot thread won’t be resolved into much later in the series. For now, this is Cap’s origin story and a way to establish him as the soldier he is. While the normal Marvel 616 Captain America is a shining beacon of hope, the Ultimate Captain America is a soldier that barks orders and seems far more reckless (evidence of this comes from Cap smashing a plane into the enemy base before leaping out).
This issue is perhaps most important because it’s the only traditional “good vs. evil” battle that occurs until issue ten. Any fights between issue one and issue ten feature the Ultimates battling one another rather than a common enemy (I suppose a case could be made for Hawkeye and Black Widow’s infiltration of the Chitauri sleeper agents, but I’ll defend it being non-traditional next time).
Issue #2 is mostly just an introduction of characters and putting them into place, but it establishes the three most important themes that really make this an anti-comic: 1) the military implications of super-heroes 2) super-heroes self-perpetuating their existance 3) the super-hero as celebrity.
The issue begins with a conversation between Bruce Banner and Nick Fury where it’s revealed that President Bush wanted to militarize super-heroes to battle super-crime and Banner was to recreate the Super Soldier Serum and make a new Captain America. Excited to be needed, Banner agrees without considering that there really isn’t any super-crime to be had.
Hank and Janet Pym are introduced. Hank notes that he has tons of ideas for super-heroes (a nod to the different identities he has had over the years) while Jan reveals that their lab had been struggling and this initiative would revitalize them. While there isn’t much evidence of it yet, Hank will become the perfect metaphor for the problems with celebrity.
While Tony Stark had appeared at the end of the first issue, this is the first appearance in the series where he is wearing his Iron Man armor. Millar presents Stark as the pinnacle of celebrity in this world and each scene with him is filled with cringe-worthy references to celebrities that become all the more cringe-worthy as the years pass. In his first appearance, he makes a reference to Bridget Fonda and also that he has a date with Cameron Diaz.
Banner arrives at the Ultimates base, the Triskelion, and Janet degrades him (a common problem for Banner that will cause problems for the team in the future). Hank Pym activates his Giant Man powers for the first time and the issue ends with Captain America being found.
Issue #3 begins with Hank Pym showing off as Giant Man which shows that celebrity is beginning to affect him. Janet remarks that he shouldn’t eat before he shrinks or things could get messy which is part of a minor theme of applying science to super-heroes. While these moments of real-world thinking make for some humorous quips, they further the idea of the anti-comic by questioning the logical inconsistencies of comics from the past. In a sense, Millar is injecting real-world fan speculation into his comics by way of science.
There is a small action scene where Cap tries to break out of the hospital but, again, this is untraditional because it is fighting between team members. Afterward, he visits Bucky and his old flame, Gail, in an attempt to reconnect with his past.
Finally, there is a party to reveal the Ultimates for the first time. The theme of celebrity is almost frightening when considered in conjunction with the idea of a paramilitary fighting force. Here is a team that has been formed by President George W. Bush (who makes a guest appearance in this issue in a not-so-flattering, comical way) to battle super-crime and they are being unveiled in a way that is not unlike a Hollywood premiere (a point emphasized by Stark’s mention of bringing Jennifer Tilly as a date).
Perhaps I’m just getting ahead of myself, however. After all, at this point in the series, the reader expectation is that this is merely the debut of the Avengers and in typical super-hero comics, there is always much fanfare when a team gets together for the first time. But, when considered next to the rest of the series (especially volume 2), this scene has some darkness to it. It has the taste of an empire showing off its military might rather than the smiling, sunshine of traditional super-hero comics.
Issue #4 begins with a synthesis of all three of the major themes into a conversation between Tony Stark and Larry King. Stark is on a date in space with Shannon Elizabeth (a reference that won’t have cultural relevance very much longer . . . and I suppose didn’t have much cultural relevance at the time, either) when King asks, “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? What if it’s another ten years before someone like Magneto comes along? Supposing it never even happens again?”
Tony makes some comment to justify the government’s actions, but it’s clear that the point has been made; the Ultimates seem to exist for their own sake. Furthermore, the point could be made that super-hero comics in general seem to be a self-perpetuating machine. While there is no doubt that super-heroes are inspirational and part of our American mythology, when considered in any sort of real-world significance, we can see through Millar’s entire run on the Ultimates that the existance of super-heroes would only be justified if they had things to fight and with a lack of crime to battle, this team’s creation seems little more than political posing and when King’s comment solidifies the logistics it would take to fund such an organization, it becomes clear that the team is much more than a commentary on comics and steps into the realm of discussing the real world issues of military industrialization.
The rest of the issue is relatively uneventful. Steve and Janet go shopping. Head of PR, Betty Ross, has organized a training exercise that no one shows up for except for Giant Man who furthers the image that his character is a glory hog.
Perhaps the most interesting interaction is between Nick Fury and Thor. Millar’s Thor is fascinating because he is what a super-hero would really be in the real world. While Tony is the super-hero celebrity, Cap is the man-made super-hero, and Janet and Hank are the average scientists turned into celebrity super-heroes, Thor is authentic. He has power and chooses to use it to benefit others. He refuses to be part of the Ultimates because he doesn’t want to be a soldier in Bush’s army and he wants the U.S. to increase its foreign aid.
And, of course, Thor is ridiculed by everyone else. He is labeled a hippie, and everyone thinks he may be crazy, and no one really takes him seriously, but they want to use his immense power. The very idea of heroism is defined by Thor and rejected by everyone else showing that the Ultimate Universe rejects heroism itself.
Weeks pass and the team sits around and Janet laments that there is “not even the merest hint of a super-villain for us to hit, gentlemen.” They sit and eat pizza while casting the movie of themselves. Brad Pitt’s name is thrown out as a possibility for Cap, Sam Jackson for Fury (of course), “From Hell’s Johnny Depp” for Tony Stark, Matthew McConnaughey for Hank Pym, Lucy Liu for Janet (much to her dismay), and Pym mentions that Steve Buscemi for Banner. The issue ends with Betty on a date with Freddie Prinze jr (yet another dated reference) when Bruce calls to tell her that he has injected himself with Hulk serum and is freaking out. He says that he injected himself to give the Ultimates something to fight.
Issue #5 is the fight with the Hulk and while it is a glorious and beautiful fight to behold, when one considers that the fight occurred because of the team members picking on one of their own, it is less heroic and more of covering their own mistakes. Also, since Banner acknowledged in the previous issue that the Ultimates needed something to hit, it furthers the theme of super-hero comics justifying their own existence through senseless (albeit, beautifully drawn) slugfests.
Odds are that if you ask most people what their favorite issue of The Ultimates is, they will name the fight with the Hulk as being their favorite which is interesting when we consider that the heroes aren’t acting heroically, and that the issue itself is a meta-commentary on the nature of super-hero comics.
Issue #6 is the final part of Act I, and it focuses on the fallout from the battle with the Hulk. The team members appear on various talk shows in order to create good PR for the Ultimates. Stark, Cap, and Thor have dinner together and Tony reveals that the DVDs made of the battle with the Hulk have sold 15 million copies. Not only are the Ultimates celebrity/military figures, but they are making money off of their battles.
No one seems to question the legitimacy of their actions. No one is horrified that they are making money off of DVD sales that chronicle a tragedy (imagine if the government released DVDs of 9-11 or the Oklahoma City bombing in order to profit from those tragedies) or that the deaths of 300 people are because they were cruel to Bruce Banner. Instead, we’re supposed to feel sorry for Tony Stark because he has a brain tumor instead of focus on the fact that this team of heroes is relatively corrupt.
Again, Thor seems to be the voice of reason when he states, “I’m not interested in the money, the glossy magazines or the shallow superstar lifestyle you’ve been offered to risk your lives for a corrupt ruling class.”
In the end, Hank and Janet get into a fight and its revealed that she is a mutant and that he developed his Giant Man powers by studying her DNA. She angers him and he proceeds to beat her and spray her with bug spray saying “You shouldn’t have made me feel small” – which completes his transformation into someone obsessed with fame and feeling important. His giant powers are just an extension of his ego.
And so, the first act of The Ultimates ends on a less than heroic note. The heroes haven’t really justified why a team needs to exist except as a PR boost for the party in power. While their cruelty and lack of threats caused Banner to become the Hulk, the worst is yet to come for the team.
Read part two here.