After the first six issues of Millar’s The Ultimates had established the team as a group of celebrity soldiers with little ethical or moral backbone (except for Thor who is considered insane by the others), the series stepped into more familiar territory with the team battling an alien invasion. Still, as traditional as this story may seem, Millar throws in some twists to make the threat a little unconventional and our heroes a little less than heroic, at times.
Even though issue #7 is supposed to be the beginning of Act II, it is basically just an epilogue to the events of #6. The issue begins with two events that establish the Ultimates as being more than a little shady in their actions. First, Captain America delivers the eulogy for a memorial service for all of those who were killed in the Hulk’s rampage. We later learn that this was part of the public relations that Betty Ross had set up in order to raise the profile of the Ultimates. Also, Bruce Banner sits in his prison cell worried what the public’s perception of him must be, but he learns that there is a massive cover up regarding the identity of the Hulk so the Ultimates wouldn’t be implicated.
These two events show the importance of image to the super-hero. All actions that can be blamed on the heroes are covered up, and PR stunts are arranged so the public perception of the heroes is always positive. Combine this with the fact that with the exception of the first issue where Captain America battled the Nazis, that the team has fought amongst itself in every issue, we can see that the Ultimates aren’t heroic, effective, or necessary.
Janet is in the hospital and Betty reveals to Cap and Tony that Hank has a history of abusing Janet.
Black Widow makes her first appearance in a conversation with Nick Fury where she mentions 528 sleeper agents of some sort that she and Hawkeye are going to take care of them. They are apparently part of a black ops team along with mutants on standby.
The issue ends with Captain America searching for Hank Pym.
Most of issue #8 has Hawkeye and Black Widow blatantly ripping off of the Matrix as they murder sleeper agents in office buildings. While some could argue that this is the first issue to feature a traditional super-hero battle that didn’t have team members fighting one another since the debut of the series, upon closer inspection, it’s far from traditional.
We know little about these sleeper agents except that they must be the enemy because Fury has ordered Hawkeye and Black Widow to take them out. This isn’t a team defending the status quo, this is a team that is actively fighting a war with a superior enemy. Unfortunately, the importance of these sleeper agents is never fully explained, and it seems more like the Black Ops division of the Ultimates has simply entered two office buildings and started murdering innocents. For all we know, they could very well be innocents, so the images of arrows slamming into the foreheads of office workers is actually quite disturbing to behold.
When juxtaposed with the Ultimates field team battling the Hulk, this action sequence is downright frightening and shows the dual nature of The Ultimates teams. Cap’s team is for PR and for show. They exist in order to generate funding for the real team which consists of Hawkeye, Black Widow, and we soon learn that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (the public views both of them as terrorists as they once worked for Magneto) are part of this team as well.
Eventually, Nick Fury addresses both teams and debriefs them on the existence of aliens. He says that there are eleven known alien races living amongst them and the Chitauri are the biggest threat. They worked with the Nazis and they can assume human form.
It’s interesting that Fury gives his justification for the attack on the office buildings after they occur and to further ensure that the aliens are a threat, it is established that they allied themselves with the Nazis during WWII. This is a connection back to the first issue where Captain America tells Bucky that there are more sides in the war.
The issue ends with Captain America finding Hank Pym in a bar.
Issue #9 features an all-out slugfest between Captain America and Giant Man and is reflective not just of the continued in-fighting between team members, but also of Act II’s preference for action scenes. While most of the first Act featured dialogue to establish the characters, the second Act really shows off Hitch’s abilities as an artist.
Betty and Bruce talk about the Chitauri and she mentions the rumors concerning the Chitauri’s plans. Apparently, they could be involved with anything from sabotaging nuclear programs to artificial sweeteners to planting worrisome news stories. All of this leads to an interesting conceit; how does this elite military superhero fighting force battle an unseen enemy like this? What if the system itself is working against us and has been for some time now? So, even though Millar has crafted a group of villains worthy of the Ultimates, they are somewhat nontraditional in that they could be anyone. Sure, the Skrulls were created decades prior to the Chitauri, but Millar uses the shape-shifting ability to full effect here, preferring stealth and espionage to full out invasion.
Tony has a conversation with Black Widow and makes an Elton John reference just in case we forgot that Stark is the celebrity of this universe.
Nick readies his strike force for Micronesia and notes that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch will be absent even though they just officially joined the team the issue before.
Issue #10 feels like mostly filler with a flashback of Captain America battling the aliens in WWII to further build their relationship with one another and mostly a lot of Nick Fury preparing the troops and landing in Micronesia. Janet is captured by the Chitauri and a nuclear bomb seemingly destroys the entire Ultimates team.
Issue #11 begins with the leader of the Chitauri putting Wasp in a test tube. Someone asks if they have taken over the entire base, and he responds that the weakness of SHIELD is that no one knows where their orders come from. It’s a short moment, but one that seems to establish the disconnect of the military. Even though it’s one line, Millar is able to severely critique America’s fighting forces more severely than anywhere else in the series so far. Up until this point, the Ultimates have had a great PR team to make them look good, but the Chitauri prove that looks aren’t everything as they are able to dismantle the Ultimates organization with ease.
We finally learn the Chitauri’s plan isn’t invasion, but in eradicating individual thought. It’s revealed that across the universe, the Chitauri have orchestrated other such events. They declare themselves the universe’s immune system because they keep everything in harmony. It makes one wonder if the Ultimates really should win. If these aliens are simply trying to maintain a balance and a peace in the universe, then maybe they aren’t evil after all. Furthermore, is human free will really more important than the fate of the entire universe?Such questions are never debated and all sense of grey area for the aliens is completely obliterated once it is revealed that they eat people and they forgive the Nazis.
It seems that Millar was no longer interested in exploring how wrong our heroes can be, and more interested in telling a traditional story.
Chitauri ships appear and it’s revealed that they are being defeated all around the universe which is apparently supposed to tell the reader that they really are evil and they must be stopped, but one can’t help but wonder if it just proves them more right?
Their final plan is to destroy the solar system and then disappear into the lower fourth dimension.
Of course, the Ultimates reappear and Cap commands the armed forces.
Issues #12 and #13 feature an incredible battle with the Chitauri which feature lots of really cool action sequences and one-liners, but this has little to do with the overall themes of celebrity and military power that Millar has established to this point. One excellent character moment comes from Tony Stark as he saves a city from being destroyed by a crashing space ship. He is emotionally distraught and claims that he can’t go on any longer and some asks him, “If you won’t, then who will?” With new found resolve, Tony returns to the skies to defend the innocent.
In this moment, Tony transitions from celebrity to hero and it’s a nice character moment in a series that is otherwise more obsessed with fame than with being a good guy.
The last issue ends with Janet and Cap kissing at a party at the White House. The ending to this first volume is particularly interesting because it is almost exactly like the end of every story that Millar had written in The Authority — the heroes win, so they throw a huge party and everyone is invited. A typical celebrity affair.
Alien attacks are a common motif for in super-hero team comics, but in the defeat of the Chitauri, Millar establishes the power of the Ultimates. The battle with the Chitauri completely obliterates any doubt in the minds of the public (and the readers) that the Ultimates are necessary to defend America. Season 2 of The Ultimates will return to the themes celebrity and military power from Act I of this season, but for now, the purpose of the team seems to be justified.
But it seems to have taken a LOT for this justification. After many issues of team members battling one another, it takes cannibalistic Nazi aliens invading for the heroes to join forces.
Let that sink in for a minute.
The only thing that could have made them more evil would have been if they had crucified orphans upside-down because they also worshipped Satan.
The villains are so over-the-top-capital-”E”-for-Evil that it can be construed as Millar making a commentary about the state of cooperation in general. The only other true villains were the Nazis in the first issue which were connected to the aliens, and we can see that it takes great evil for mankind to rise up together and fight for a common cause. Our problems are small compared to what true Evil is, and it’s beautiful to think that we can do so.
Season 2 of The Ultimates eventually rejects such silver age notions, and returns the series to the complexity of the first Act, but here in the last half of the first season, readers were treated to the closest idea of the Avengers that Millar could produce.