“Ultimatum” was designed to affect an extraordinary culling of super-folks from Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, a somewhat-ailing if still successful component of the companies multiverse. Like “Crisis” and “Onslaught”, it was a project designed to remove a swathe of characters from a superhero universe’s continuity, many of which had been stalwarts of its status quo. In short, it was an attempt to remove the taint of familiarity from the Ultimate Universe, the narrative of which was felt by some to be far too close to events previously detailed over in the mainstream Marvel Universe. Unlike “Crisis” and “Onslaught”, however, the Ultimate Universe was never apparently intended to be fundamentally changed at what might be called its conceptual core by “Ultimatum”. Worlds weren’t living and dying here, despite any expectations that might have been raised by the playfully deliberate tag-line of “Heroes Will Rise. Heroes Will Fall”. And despite a curtain-raiser to the series which saw environmental disasters one after another assault Ultimate-Earth, there was never thereafter a sense that anything more than the lives of a few dozen superfolks were at stake. (New York City, for example, does get buried by the Atlantic Ocean in chapter 1, but it’s also emptied of water remarkably quickly too.) Instead, “Ultimatum” was the comic book creator’s equivalent of a drive-by shooting undertaken because there seemed to be nothing much else to do that promised to be quite as much fun. (Mr Loeb admitted that he was shocked when Marvel gave him the OK to write the series from what he’d presumed was a too-radical proposal.) The effect of this seemingly random slaughter was to of course deliberately create radical divergences from the Marvel Universe’s own timeline, character-absences which might then cause the Ultimate Universe to veer off into new and unexpected directions, returning a greater sense of spontaneity where ennui had begun to settle.
It was undoubtedly a laudable intent, for the Ultimate Universe had been conceptually hamstrung from its very beginning. Starting the major Marvel properties off again from scratch while following remarkably similar story-arcs was inevitably going to cause something very familiar to develop all over again, and if a mutiverse is going to function effectively, its various much-visited Earths do need to be quite distinct from each other. Otherwise, why have them in the marketplace at all?
It might be argued that modern-day readers were presented with a far less pressing case for “Ultimatum” existence than that offered for her sister crossovers considered earlier in this piece. For “Crisis” was held to be saving DC Comics by making it fit for purpose where competing with Marvel in 1986 was concerned, and “Onslaught” provided the readers of the Marvel Universe with a dramatic and hopefully-satisfying explanation for the loss of so many of major characters to a newly-created alternative Earth. But “Ultimatum” was merely concerned with the thinning out of the ranks on Ultimate-Earth, and the question that hung over the project from the start, and particularly after its first chapter appeared, was that of why another less gratuitous way couldn’t have been found to kill off so many established characters. For “Ultimatum” is a strangely formless and unsatisfying book, where death occurs over and over in ways which are usually absurd and often essentially unconnected with any wider story being told. Faced with such a situation, the reader would surely be forgiven for wondering whether a new status quo for the Ultimate Universe couldn’t have been created simply by telling different stories from those told in the “parent” Marvel Universe. Why kill off so many super-people when they might more productively be recast in the fashion that Mark Millar so successfully did with the “Ultimates”, and which he so markedly didn’t in the far more faithful-to-source “Ultimate X-Men”?
Put simply, was it necessary to kill so many characters in the particularly gruesome and explicit ways that “Ultimatum” did when what was gained in return seemed so slight and unmemorable? For “Crisis” and “Onslaught” carried with them a sense that theirs were stories which had to be told, whereas “Ultimatum” often appears to be a tale that is an indulgence, a formless confection which has the effect of capriciously and graphically killing off more than 30 of the Ultimate Universes super-people, let alone millions and millions of nameless other folks. Worse yet, it did so without providing any kind of significant payoff to justify either the bloody-handed culling or the bleak and unenticing world which it’s events created.
I. But the truth of the matter is that “Ultimatum” isn’t just a story in which characters are killed off. “Ultimatum” is a story solely concerned with killing off characters. Death, and the many ways in which it can be entertainingly portrayed, is the very reason for the structure created for the narrative of “Ultimatum”. What was previously buried in the sub-text, albeit remarkably shallowly, in “Crisis” and “Onslaught”, and symbolised in the form of their major villains, namely an overwhelming and apparently irresistible threat to the way things have always been, is here shown in a form that replaces story with the spectacle of slaughter. The threat to be faced has been reduced in “Ultimatum” to the often random and always unpleasant one of crowd-pleasing death scenes. And it helps the story not a whit, for example, for the reader to work their way through the scene in which the body of The Wasp is shown being eaten by The Blob, for in terms of the plot, the whole cannibalistic scene seems to have occurred completely by chance. The Wasp has been washed away by chance, the Blob has come across her body by chance, his decision to eat her is quite unexplained, and the only role the scene has in terms of the narrative is to cause Henry Pym to bite off the Blob’s head before sacrificing himself nonsensically in a terrorist attack on the Triskelion. One death triggers another, yes, but they’re not linked to, or essential to, the main narrative in any way that affects how it is to be resolved. And so the killing of Janet and Henry and the Blob don’t in any coherent fashion serve to increase the power of the story’s main villain or help to create any intensifying measure of dread which might make later valiant sacrifices by brave superheroes more meaningful. Instead, super-folks stumble around killing each other and being killed by each other while the main plot is rarely advanced or even affected by their actions, while Magneto, the tale’s protagonist, meanders on with his plans without being at all directly involved in the detail of many of the events at hand. He drops a tidal wave on New York City, for example, and then disappears from what follows, leaving a great Magneto-shaped hole in the centre of the story, where minor characters can eat each other and bomb each other without any of the blood-shedding actually counting for much. In “Onslaught”, by way of comparison, the titular villain is always in charge of events and constantly and aggressively takes the offensive against his specific opponents, while in “Crisis”, the Anti-Monitors’ troops, from the possessed Harbringer to the Psycho Pirate and the Shadow Demons, all act according to his plans. But the Blob just stumbles into conflict, and the bomb-carrying duplicates of the Multiple Man have the most ridiculous task to carry out of all; they’re supposed to destroy the Ultimates homebase by swimming out to it and exploding themselves individually when within it, an assault which gives a great deal of warning, a tremendous opportunity to resist, and, given the presence of flying superheroes and helicopters, every chance of escaping.
Why not drop an asteroid on it all and be done with it?
But then, why does Magneto even need a plan to bomb that island, given that he’d intended to drop a tidal wave on it along with NYC? (He obviously didn’t foresee his tsunami being pushed away by Sue Storm, or he’d have dealt with her before hand.) Isn’t that a touch unnecessary, rather like planning to nuke a city and then hiring lots of snipers to go in afterwards and kill off the survivors at ground zero?
Either this Magneto’s stupid, or insane, or both. Whichever it is, he’s immediately cast as something far less impressive and central to the well-functioning of the crossover than either the Anti-Monitor or Onslaught ever were.
II. In truth, there’s no purpose beyond shock and spectacle for the plot’s constant digressions into the likes of sea-striding Giants being blown up by mutant terrorists, and indeed these odd and disconnected scenes don’t even make sense in their own terms. Why, to take but one example, do the Multiple Man’s incarnations all choose to climb on Henry Pym’s body instead of continuing to attack their primary target? Because Pym told them to do so? Why do they only explode when he’s managed to get away from the Triskelion? Why do they all detonate at the same time? Why attack on foot when their opponents can fly away?
It makes no sense. Death hasn’t been embedded into this story in order to drive the plot and increase the stakes so that the tale’s closure will feel satisfying despite the story’s many losses. Instead, dead superheroes and the gory details of their passing have been purposefully scattered through the five chapters of “Ultimatum” as if the very show of death is in itself the story rather than any meaningful component of it.
But then, that’s obviously the writerly choice that Mr Leob followed with this book. In “Ultimatum”, he’s given us a comic book that’s solely about comic book people being shown dying in comic-book ways. There’s been too much talk of his work on “Ultimatum” being randomly exploitative, being shocking for its own sake, as if this story was the creation of a sick or low-thinking writer working without a plan beyond a willingness if not an enthusiasm for pandering to the lowest common denominator. But, quite obviously, there’s a clear purpose and plan to his scripts here, as we would expect for a man whose Batman tales with Tim Sale, for example, are meticulously, if more traditionally, structured. For Mr Loeb has surely decided to make his work in “Ultimatum” about nothing other than the killing off of a large number of super-folks reflect the very fact of its purpose. There’s no hiding away from what he’s doing here. If the Ultimate Universe is to be culled of superfolks, then his story is concerned with that and nothing else. He’s placed the excesses of modern superhero books, and the iconography of superhero death scenes, right at the front of his scripts and effectively declared right from the sixth page that “Ultimatum” is to be effectively a collaboration with his death-obsessed audience. If superhero deaths sell, and they do, and if death is therefore a staple of comic book entertainment, which it is, then why not a celebration as well as a satire of fictional deaths, and of all the comic-book traditions which accompany them?
And Mr Loeb has knowingly laced “Ultimatum” with endless opportunities for superhero fans to laugh at themselves and the genre which has always made such a play of the imminence of death and such a fetish of the way in which death is sentimentally indulged in before being quickly and nonsensically reversed.
“Ultimatum”, therefore, is surely in part a satire upon, and yet also a celebration of, the very tradition of the line-wide, universe-changing crossover to which “Crisis On Infinite Earths” and “Onslaught” belong so prominently to. It’s not satire in the purest sense of censuring its audience, but rather satire in the fashion of making its audience just that little bit more conscious of the enterprise they’ve for years been supporting through their pockets and their close attention. And if Mr Loeb is also daring enough to push this to the front of his work, to sign up that this is a killing field and our business here is to enjoy watching people die, then nobody can find that too offensive. It’s not as if he’s trying to smuggle in anything that’s morally corrupt into the narrative, for there’s nothing being hidden in this work at all. After all, any man who writes a scene where the Blob is tearing off spaghetti-like intestines from the carcass of a might-be-dead super-heroine while declaring that it tastes “like chicken” isn’t hiding anything.
This is the superhero comic book as an exploitation movie, and neither Mr Loeb nor Mr Finch make any attempt to pretend that anything other than that is the point of the whole enterprise. “Ultimatum” is, if you like, a “Not Brand Echh” for 2009, and it could be argued that it shouldn’t be engaged with on any other terms where all those vile and unnecessary deaths are concerned, for that’s actually, and rather obviously, the point of the book.
The problem with “Ultimatum” doesn’t lie in the bloody and meaningless deaths per se. No, the problem is that these deaths exist outside of any meaning in a traditional narrative sense, and so the tale is little but one snapshot of horror followed by another. The failings of “Ultimatum” are, therefore, not moral, but practical. It’s an experiment in subject matter that forgot to harness all that playful exploitation to an efficient and effective story. And so, when the tale closes, there’s little sense on the reader’s part that all this mayhem and suffering has been for a purpose, and that the Ultimate Universe is, as the post-Crisis DCU and the post-Onslaught Marvel-multiverse were before it, a precious and more meaningful place worth the reader’s while to engage with. Catharsis doesn’t occur at the close of “Ultimatum” because, as we’ll discuss in a line or two, the book’s structure defuses any possibility of reader satisfaction. “Ultimatum”, therefore, is nothing more than one damn death after another, and it undermines the very universe it sets out to strengthen by making it a place where superheroes are both callous murderers, as with Magneto’s execution party, and yet also hapless pawns of fate. Why would a reader want to immerse themselves in a new Universe if the emergent fictional rules applying to it are that the superhero is both often utterly helpless and yet gratuitously immoral too?
Why read a story if death can just strike with the bite of a fat man’s jaws for no reason other than death is of itself supposedly entertaining? Why care about a universe where the traditions of reader engagement have been reduced to the statement that, in effect, anything horrible might happen, and without an apparent narrative purpose too, and for no end beyond the suspicion that the creators simply felt like killing off somebody at that particular moment.
For though there’s no doubt that Mr Loeb was also working to establish a much darker tone to the Ultimate Universe as part of the process of differentiating it from the Marvel Universe, he in truth created not a darker tone, but a meaningless one. A refreshingly grim and nihilistic approach, one might imagine, but of itself, not one which fits well with the tradition of the superhero, or indeed of popular serial fiction itself. The very act of placing characters into costumes and giving them codenames surely already indicates, after all, that the reader is knowingly experiencing a universe where artifice is the rule. To then swamp that artifice with an utterly depraved take on how such a universe might function seems to me to be presenting a fictional option where the brutality neutralises the appeal of the superhero, while the superhero makes the brutality seem absurd.
As a consequence, I’d be astonished if the Ultimate Universe’s titles received anything of a substantial and lasting sales boost as a result of the “Ultimatum” “event, for this isn’t a book to re-establish a fictional universe so much as one to inadvertently negate the very meaning of it.
The lack of control in “Ultimatum” over the traditional form of the line-wide crossover that we’ve been discussing can be seen in the portrayal of Magneto, who serves as the anti-Monitor or the Onslaught of the event. Yet Magneto himself is portrayed as a curiously ineffective and unimpressive protagonist. His first appearance, in a throne-room of his own making with Thor’s hammer lying beside him, presents him not as some characterless force-of-nature, as the narrative demands, but instead as a standard-issue super-villain acting according to a narrow, if catastrophically murderous, agenda. And the more we see Magneto on his floating secret base, the more the impression is given that this is an exceptionally unimpressive antagonist to be so threatening this Universe, especially where Mr Finch gives him a ham-madman’s rolling eyes and the kind of teeth-baring grimace which we’d expect from a Saturday morning pictures villain. Where Onslaught and the Anti-Monitor always seemed beyond bargaining with or resisting, this Magneto, despite what he’s done to the Earth’s eco-system, seems more deserving of a contemptuous slap around the cheeks and an early bed until he just grows up a little bit more.
It’s not as if even his own underlings seem very impressed by him. Whereas the Psycho Pirate shivered with terror at his master’s presence, Magneto, in the apparent safety of his own secret base, is mocked by the likes of Mystique, while in response he seems to struggle to keep his will together, face marked by stubble and his hands clasped around Thor’s hammer for reassurance. Even a copy of the Multiple Man rebels against him, an act of defiance which only demeans both the faux-Maddox and Magneto himself, for the would-be assassin is so ignorant and pathetic that he simply keeps talking and talking until Magneto with some ease throws him out of a window. In essence, Magneto can’t even inspire his own troops or cause his would-be executioner to kill him without babbling. Certainly his motley gang of bad gals and guys prove to be remarkably useless when the superhero execution squad comes a-calling for their boss. In fact, even Magneto’s “citidal” is as unimpressive as any villains secret HQ from the Sixties Batman series, and his gang are as woeful as any led by King Tut or the Riddler in that programme.
He’s barely a threat to the superheroes at the beginning, despite transforming the world’s magnetic field and killing millions of people. He’s not got the discipline to micro-manage his assault and so leaves far too many of the Ultimate-Earth’s superheroes alive to track him down. It seems obvious that anybody of power who gets close to him will kill him, for Mr Loeb’s story and Mr Finch’s art establish him as a weak character, an ineffectual leader, and a quite useless strategist for the nusiness of conquering the Earth. After all, who’d advertise their existence and power in such a superheroic universe and not make sure that the likes of Thor and the rest of the Ultimates were purposefully taken down? And yet, Magneto doesn’t just indiscriminately flood New York City, but he then assumes that opposition are defeated and actually ceases his campaign to conquer the Earth and impose his agenda upon it. In effect, he assumes that the war is over before the first serious counter-strike upon him has even been considered.
If he’s a mastervillain, it’s only in the power that he carries. His disordered thinking leaves him as nonthreatening as his actions prove him contemptible. It’s a fateful mixture of qualities, because rather than the reader fearing for the fate of the world and its people, they’re left struggling to raise the will to want Magneto dealt with at all. As a consequence, the story has lost its momentum, despite the spiralling death rate, before the first chapter of the book has ended. The end of world was threatened, but then it stopped. The arch-villain was patently a self-glorifying cretin who couldn’t even get Mystique to be fearful of him.
The Anti-Monitor has the multiverse to destroy and time itself to conquer and control. Onslaught was to the very end bent on wiping the face of the Earth clear of all six million human beings, as well as a number of rebellious mutants too. And yet”Ultimatum” was dead in the water before it began, with Magneto becalmed from the murder of Professor X onwards, although “Ultimatum” still had to roll onwards, for how otherwise were all those characters to be killed?
In “Crisis” and, less successfully, “Onslaught”, the stakes are constantly raised and the tension intensified until the very end of the tale, where the destruction of the villain serves as the climax of the story and the point at which some measure of catharsis can be achieved. Yet in Book Three of “Ultimatum”, Magneto declares that his campaign has in fact seemingly reached its end. He’s not going to go on to destroy everything or pretty much everyone. Instead, he declares that “Now, I will choose who lives and dies. Those that remain will be grateful for they will find themselves in heaven on earth”. Any tension that might be maintained by an intensification of his campaign of environmental destruction is immediately punctured. For though Magneto still carries the power to devastate everything, his agenda is now revealed as relatively limited where world-ending protagonists are concerned. He’s not out to destroy the world, or even homo homo sapien. He’s just moving a great deal of the furniture about, and all the time he’s ignoring the obvious threat that the Ultimate Universe’s super-heroes pose to him.
It’s an unimpressive business.
And when the superheroes do finally attack his citidal, Magneto is so much of a throwback to the Silver Age that he’s vainglorious enough to allow the Valkyrie close enough to chop his arm off. (It’s never really mentioned, that sliced-off arm, and it doesn’t seem to affect him very badly, but I’d imagine that it’d be at the very least an inconvenience.) Given that he could have thrown the hammer that that arm was holding onto at her before she severed it, as he already had at the Multiple Man’s clone who was threatening and threatening and threatening to kill him, the result is once again to reduce Magneto to a laughing stock. In fact, this is the least world-threatening super-villain ever. He quotes the Bible at a mass of superheroes about to attack him rather than assaulting them, he allows lethally dangerous characters to live just for the thrill of playing them off one against the other, and it’s as if a narrative based on creating a sense of danger in the Ultimate Universe had been deliberately constructed to counter that menace with an idiotic and cliched cape-wearing fool at the centre of events.
But the worst indignity for Magneto, and the last of the narrative’s self-destructive set-pieces, is that he’s shown at the end repenting of his actions, thereby bringing a story which has involved so much death to the most stupefying and counter-dramatic climax imaginable; Magneto is sorry. Where the Anti-Monitor had be desperately punched into oblivion by the Earth-2 Superman after endless deaths and sacrifices, and where Onslaught was only stopped at the very moment of his victory by the willing immolation of the “Heroes Reborn” cast, Magneto has it shown to him that mutant’s are an artificial creation by Nick Fury, and decides to make things better again.
Finally, just to undermine the sense that this has all been for nothing, the clearly mentally disordered Magneto is then heroically executed by Cyclops, while Reed Richards, Jean Grey and a host of less-traditionally restrained heroes look on impassively, as if such a murder was unquestionably the right thing to do.
And in the end, the villain was revealed as pathetic, and the heroes vile, and this reader at least didn’t think that all that loss had been for something, but rather, that it’d all been a great exploitative waste of time. Certainly, it was impossible to feel any sense of catharsis when Magneto was convinced to undo the damage to the Earth, because there’d never been any hint that that was the plan of the attacking superheroes in the first place. It came quite out of the blue as a solution, it required a remarkably unconvincing volte-face by Magneto, and returning the world to its previous state all revolved around the protagonist responding to Nick Fury with sorrow rather than a defiant “Artificial or not, humans have still been vile to we mutants and I’m not helping a single one of you”.
I know which response I’d read as being more characteristic.
I. It’s only to be expected that a gentle-in-intent satire such as this, regardless of its actually rather gruesome content, should be delivered to its readers in a form which reflects that of the least-literary, most-sensationalist books in the market-place. It should therefore have come as no surprise to any reader after the first chapter of “Ultimatum” that this was going to be a comic characterised by sparse text, narrative illogic, a mass of full-page posing splash pages, and a love of spectacle that far exceeded any fidelity to the ideal of transparent story-telling. That is, after all, what much of the audience for superheroes have shown a taste for since the heyday of Image Comics, and the fact that there was never less than an audience of 70 000 readers for “Ultimatum” shows how commercially valid such a Liefeld-esque form still is. Yet for a story which often bears the mark of a fiercely-focused creative hand from beginning to end, regardless of how the results of such might be judged beyond its target audience, it’s remarkable how neither Mr Finch or Mr Loeb seem conscious of the fact that the way they tell their story quite undermines it. For, in short, there’s too much much story in “Ultimatum” for so few panels, and all those full page shots destroy the capacity of the narrative to explain itself. In the end, it’s as if Mr Loeb’s script is a “greatest hits” version of the story, the most colourful and attention-grabbing sections of a far longer and far more easily comprehendable version of the tale.
The best example of this can be found in chapter five, “The Ugly Truth”, where the assassination squad of superheroes who’ve sent themselves in to kill Magneto embark on the traditional end-of-crossover showdown with the arch-nemesis of the piece. Much of this punch-up is told through full-page slash shots, which of itself means nothing. After all, Mark Millar’s “Ultimates” and Brian Michael Bendis’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” have both often featured a far higher number of single-panel pages than traditionalists might prefer, and yet both these books have been critical as well as commercial success. But the problem here is not the fact that 9 out of 27 pages here are effectively pin-ups, but rather that those splash pages quite sabotage any dramatic tension, and that they eventually reduce the story to such absurdity through the brevity of the information conveyed that it’s quite impossible to feel anything other than, at the very best, nonchalance at what should be an intimidatingly intense and overwhelmingly exciting experience.
We’ve already discussed the fact, for example, that Magneto, despite losing an arm, seems quite happy to engage his enemies from a distance of a few inches away. Luckily for him, and alienatingly for the reader, those heroes who could pummel him from further away, or indeed from close by if they’d just step forward a touch, inexplicably choose not to. Storm, Cyclops, Iron Man, Jean Grey and so on simply fail to attack him. Even less comprehendable than that is the fact that none of the assassination squad have thought about what fighting Magneto involves, as the very presence of Iron Man indicates. It’s no shock, therefore, that our heroes should find their powers turned against their own ranks. (Yes, Tony Stark’s weaponry is indeed turned against his own, because iron is, shockingly enough, a metal.) What’s telling is that the ridiculously ill-thought-out showdown from the perspective of Mr Loeb’s script is compounded by the most opaque story-telling within Mr Finch’s art. In a key sequence of 5 pages, 4 of which are effectively single-panel splashes, the creators of “Ultimatum” combine to ensure that the following either serioulsy odd or simply quite unexplained events occur;
- Wolverine is blasted by Cyclops’ eye-beams and Iron Man’s repulsers, his muscles being graphically blasted off of his skeleton. Storm, Haweye and Jean Grey look on in horror, not taking the lead themselves, though Storm and Jean, being girls, do get to cry. (Splash-page, with a few tiny floating panels containing tearful faces.)
- Hawkeye attacks Cyclops rather than Magneto, arguing with Jean Grey who is telepathically assaulting him in return. (They might both be attacking Magneto as a way of breaking his control over the comrades, but, well, they’re not.) Storm, meanwhile, takes Iron Man out, which raises the question of why she’s not fired a few lightning bolts against her team’s stated target. And with all his enemies turned against other, Magneto does nothing at all except stand, pose and speak inappropriately Nazi rhetoric. (“Despite his mongrel instinct to survive, it’s too late.” he says of Wolverine.) You’d think he could’ve wiped out these distracted superheroes without blinking, but he obviously doesn’t care to, or maybe his arm-stump is stinging.
- With the heroes now simply loitering around listening to Magneto, the skeleton of Wolverine, coated with nothing but the odd stray muscle-tendril, stabs Magneto through the chest with his handy adamantium claws. (Splash-page)
- Magneto, now sporting Wolverine’s hand and claws embedded in him, blasts Wolverine into dust. “Then die now!” reads the speech balloon. (Splash-page.)
- the heroes stop still to mourn Wolverine’s passing. Tony Stark even has time to drop to one knee beside the remains of Logan’s corpse. Again, they’re paying no attention to Magneto, who has just murdered their colleague, but then Magneto is paying no attention to them either. In fact, he seems to have suddenly disappeared. The idea that Hawkeye and Iron Man, after all we know they’ve been through in “Ultimates”, would be so shocked and upset by Wolverine’s death that they’d stop trying to take Magneto out in favour of a quiet sniffle is of course ludicrous. But worse still, the body language of Mr Finch’s characters is incredibly passive. You’d think that Jean Grey was asking what time the next bus was due, and you’d never imagine that Magneto was about three foot away from all of them, albeit with three very sharp claws buried in him. Why a strategic genius such as Cyclops doesn’t regard that as an appropriate moment to finish off their opponent, I can’t say, and I can’t do so because the pages of “Ultimatum” don’t give the slightest clue of whatever’s going on beyond the shallow pin-up snapshots that’ve been placed before the reader. (Splash page)
II. When next we see the claw-punctured Magneto, he’s managed to crawl, leaving an incredibly bloody trail behind him, to his throne room. Given that he’s so weak that he can’t raise himself to its seat, any explanation for his ability to out-crawl the five super-heroes who were, when we last saw them, standing directly in front of him with all their powers intact, is, once again, inexplicable. The story simply can’t be made to make sense in terms of the information on the page. Luckily, the reason why Mr Loeb is so keen to have Magneto make it to his throne room is soon made plain; Reed Richards, Dr Doom, Shadowcat (?) and Nick Fury are either waiting there for him or have been following close behind him. (Again, neither the art nor the words are clear, but if Fury and his fellows have been following Magneto, they’ve must have been both very quiet and walking very slowly.) In effect, Magneto’s not arrived beside his throne because of anything he or his fellow characters have done or chosen not to. He’s there because Mr Loeb wants him there for another big showy scene, and a throne room is an appropriately impressive set to place a dying would-be Emperor in for his final bow on-stage.
But the problem is that many readers of comics aren’t so passively uninvolved in the pages of the books that they read; indeed, a great number of them would rather read a story which simply made sense. Yet “Ultimatum” is a surely a tale based on the premise that comic book readers don’t care about the logic of the story they’re reading as long as it’s got lots of gory full-page fan-boy moments. How ironic that is, for it stands in direct opposition to the assumption which underpinned the books produced by Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics in the early Sixties, where the belief was that even hardcore fans wanted more of depth and content from their comic books, and indeed the “no-prize” was devised by Mr Lee to recognise the fact that creators made mistakes and fans enjoyed making sense of them from the evidence they’d been given. But earning a no-prize from Ultimatum would be damn hard work, because there’s so little that can be deduced from the paltry information on the page.
If Nick Fury and company, for example, were waiting for Magneto in his throne room, how did they know he’d arrive there, rather than crawl to an escape vehicle or, indeed, anywhere else? If they were following him, why did they let him continue hauling himself on when the need to neutralise his threat and restore the Earth was so pressing? More than that, how did Fury know that Magneto was so weak that he wouldn’t be able to strike back at all at him or at least kill himself when trapped? (Fury does parade himself before Magneto while being quite defenceless himself.) And if the plot was always to trap Magneto and use Jean Grey’s telepathy to show him the error of his deluded, mass-killing ways, then why were the other team of heroes so obviously happy to see Wolverine try to kill him? (Jean Grey notes that Logan’s going to kill Magneto, but makes no mention of any plan to save the world reliant on Magneto staying alive.)
And so on and so on, and on and on and on.
III. Things happen in “Ultimatum” because they are presumed in themselves to be interesting quite in isolation from common sense or the mirage of a story around them. Indeed, a “story”, in Mr Loeb and Mr Finch’s terms as applied to “Ultimatum”, is any series of supposedly interesting events assembled in most any order and described with any degree of logic by the creative team involved. It’s a post-modern approach to tale-telling which, as I’ve written above, many tens of thousands of readers are perfectly happy with, and, as an approach, it can’t be faulted in its own terms, for nobody is forcing anybody not pleased with its results to either buy or even merely read Mr Loeb’s commercially-successful comics. But the approach just doesn’t sit with the type of line-wide crossover that the creators were trying to tell here. For Mr Loeb and Mr Finch’s responsibilities with “Ultimatum” went far beyond thrilling a particularly impressionable niche market of comic book readers. Rather, they’d been commissioned to provide a “fresh-start” for the Ultimate Universe, and the means to achieve this included the opportunities presented by the chance to kill-off a large number of familiar characters.
And yet, in the end, the story they produced didn’t make enough sense, their villain wasn’t frightening enough, the stakes too low for the scale of the losses, the necessary sense of impending doom and increasing jeopardy was absent, and the very structure of “Ultimatum” ill-advisably cast in the form of a sequence of jump-cuts and supposedly dramatic superhero moments which were as unmoving as they were strangely over-familiar to the well-read comic book fan.
“Ultimatum” wasn’t a book to make a mass audience look forward to the new world that it created. Instead, it made what had come before, for all its faults, seem far more appealing by comparison than it ever previously had, a sure sign that the successes of “Crisis On Infinite Earths” and “Onslaught” hadn’t been paid enough attention to before the whole project of “Ultimatum” was begun.