Volume 2 of The Ultimates (sometimes referred to as Season 2) is not only vastly superior to the first, but I would argue that it is the best work of Millar’s career. It’s a fascinating meditation on the two most powerful themes in the first volume: military industrialization and the self-perpetuating super-hero. The theme of celebrity is still present in this volume, but it is far more foreboding and focused on the consequences of fame rather than the relatively simplistic theme of fame being a corrupting force.
Volume 2 begins with Captain America invading Iraq. He saves American tourists who were held captive. Symbolically, this connects to the first issue of the first season. In that issue, Captain America battled Nazis and it was clear which side was good and which was evil. Millar begins season 2 in a manner that is both patriotic and critical of the situation. Cap is shown as being heroic, but he is illegally in Iraq. Nick Fury openly admits that The Ultimates were designed to protect America, and further admits that he lied. With their resources being used in a foreign country, Cap isn’t a hero, but an invading force.
Tony Stark is talking with Larry King where he uses the term “Person of Mass Destruction” for the first time. Meanwhile, Thor quits the Ultimates because of Cap’s involvement in Iraq and Tony accuses Thor of being insane.
Cap and Janet are on a date. Cap complains about the modern world and he’s tired of paparazzi. This is one of the few instances of the consequences of fame.
Hank Pym meets with Banner. Banner has the Hulk under control after psychic sessions with Xavier and drugs. Realizing that his return as Giant Man would be a PR nightmare, Pym becomes Ant-man so he can be on the team again. His thirst for fame consumes him so that he will do anything to return to the spotlight.
Thor meets with fellow Asgardian Volstagg in a restaurant and Volstagg warns Thor that Loki has escaped and will turn everyone against him. A waiter informs Thor that he has been talking to himself and that Volstagg doesn’t exist which suggests that Tony is correct in his accusation that Thor is crazy.
The issue ends with Bruce Banner being revealed as the Hulk on the national news.
Issue 2 begins with Tony helping the European Super Soldier Initiative. This is the beginning of a super-hero arms race and the fact that America and England are so willing to work together in creating an arms race is damning to both countries. Millar is now implying that America isn’t the only one to blame for this crisis.
We also learn that he and Black Widow are dating.
The team discusses the security breach that has exposed Bruce Banner as the Hulk. This is the first time they have gotten together to discuss the implications of Banner’s decisions and Fury justifies the cover-up as necessary to keep the team together. In effect, he is saying that the Ultimates are worth justifying the deaths of over 800 people (it was over 300 in the volume 1, but the number jumped for some reason) which is an absurd notion especially since the Chitauri are never mentioned as an excuse for the team to continue to exist. Simply put, the team exists simply to exist. They are nuclear proliferation personified.
Captain America confronts Thor in a nightclub and accuses him of leaking information. The nightclub is filled with Thor’s followers and they stand up for him. Of all the heroes on the team, Thor is the only one with an actual following which is a testament to his godhood and further suggests that he is the only true super-hero on the team. He suggests it is Loki, but Cap doesn’t believe him.
Banner has a therapy session with Xavier and talks with Pym afterward. Pym hints that there are other soldiers joining the team.
The third issue finds Matt Murdock defending Banner in court and Thor goes on TV to trash the Ultimates.
Banner is found guilty and he is left on the U.S.S. Constellation as it is bombed.
Cap reads Banner’s last words and Banner’s funeral ends with rain compared to the sunshine after the funeral for the deaths in New York by the Hulk.
If we are to interpret comic book villains as ideological opposites to their heroic counterparts, we can see how difficult it is to develop villains for the Ultimates team. In a series of ideological grey areas where the heroes aren’t really heroes, it isn’t any wonder that the book spins its wheels when looking for antagonists. In issue 3, perhaps in an attempt to give him something to do, Millar has Captain America punching out a guy with a bomb. Meanwhile, Jan goes on talk shows to provide some much-needed PR to the team (a role that she is relegated to for the majority of this volume).
Tony has given Black Widow armor of her own and continues to remind the reader that he is the embodiment of celebrity by referencing “Christina” and “Paris” (their last names conspicuously absent perhaps in an attempt to avoid the series from becoming too dated too quickly). Tony has paid everyone in Black Widow’s old village to stand in the snow and spell out “Will you marry me?”
Thor continues to show his heroism by attacking the Italian police for firing on peaceful protesters. It’s the first example of a heroic act that isn’t politically motivated and of course, it will have political repercussions as the Ultimates have decided that Thor has gone rogue and most be brought in. Yes, doing the right thing and being heroic is considered politically incorrect in this world.
The Ultimates meet with the European initiative. Gunnar Golman is introduced. He designed Thor’s weapons. Thor is Gunnar’s brother and Thor stole the tech. Now both teams will go after him.
Thor’s followers are there to support him, but he orders them to leave as both the Ultimates and the European initiative approach.
Issue #5 is the epic battle between Thor and everyone else that attempts to eclipse the magnitude of the battle with the Hulk in the first volume (which was also issue #5), but while it is certainly beautiful, the stakes are a little different because there isn’t a sense of danger. With the Hulk, the Ultimates had to win or people would die. In the battle with Thor, there is a small chance that his followers could get harmed in the midst of the battle, but it isn’t enough to ratchet up the dramatic tension.
The result is a battle that appears superfluous and trite, but that’s the point. These “Persons of Mass Destruction” are so powerful that when Captain America defeats a mad bomber in the previous issue, it almost seems unfair or overkill. The only challenge is to battle other PMDs and when there is the Ultimates use the slightest hint of trouble from Thor as reason enough to battle him. When the news of the Hulk’s identity is leaked to the media, it is automatically assumed that Thor leaked the information even though there is no proof of this. Furthermore, once he attacks the Italian police, that becomes the last straw and even though the Ultimates have no jurisdiction to bring him in when he is in Italy, but they do it anyway because the Ultimates are their own worst enemy.
There is a sense of ambiguity in this fight because it has been established that Thor is the only real hero in this book, because he quit the team when he didn’t agree with their politics. Individually, Cap, Tony, and Jan are all good people, but together, they justify each other’s existence
After Thor is defeated, he is thrown in prison and he talks with Loki (who is Gunnar Golman with the European initiative) and it is still never clear whether or not Thor is crazy.
At the beginning of issue #6, a team of Giant Men clean up Manhattan. Desperate for attention, Hank decides to join a pathetic group of heroes known as the Defenders which consists of Nighthawk, Valkyrie (whom he sleeps with), Son of Satan, Black Knight, and Hellcat. He assumes the identity of Ant-Man and the team is impressed because this makes him the only member with powers.
The symbolism of Hank Pym’s identity change is overt. As Giant-Man, he is craves the spotlight and demands to be noticed. He even goes so far as to beat Janet because she made him “feel small.” Now that he has lost everything, he has become Ant-Man. He is small and ashamed of who he is. He was a star as Giant man and a loser as Ant-man.
Hank tries to sell robots to Fury, but he isn’t buying. Jan and Hank talk, and Cap kicks Hank out.
This issue is a thematic precursor to Kick-Ass. A group of super-hero inspired nobodies goes out to fight crime and they mess up miserably. They are comically aloof failures – wannabes who are caught up in the fame of super-heroics. If super-heroes are celebrities, then these are the posers.
Perhaps the most important moment comes when a photographer from the Daily Bugle takes a picture of Hank Pym naked butt when he is in Giant-Man form during a failed attempt at heroism with the Defenders. It’s a visual connection to the mini-series Marvels. That book looks at what super-heroes would be like in the real world, but views them in a positive light. One of the most iconic images is of Giant Man towering above a photographer in a heroic pose. This is the opposite of that with Hank looking ashamed rather than god-like.
Finally, Hank Pym betrays the team along with a person wearing black gloves. He tells the person, “I just wouldn’t have pegged you as a traitor” and while this line makes the reader wonder who the traitor could be, it rings a bit hollow after it is revealed to be the Black Widow much later in the series. In fact, most readers assumed it was her from the start.
The fact that there is a traitor and Hank becomes a traitor as well just furthers the theme that the Ultimates are their own worst enemies, but as much as this theme is played out, it’s really the only one that makes sense within the context of the book. This isn’t the Avengers where wild super-hero action permeates each and every panel. When the Avengers traveled back in time to Camelot during the Busiek/Perez relaunch years ago, it made sense. If Millar’s team were to the same, it would be ridiculous, so the in-fighting and backstabbing works within this context . . . it’s just not particularly heroic.
The shocking conclusion is that the Ultimates have disarmed some countries of nuclear weaponry.
In between issues 6 and 7 was The Ultimates Annual #1 which serves as an absolutely essential part of the series because it densely packs all of the ideas and themes that Millar has worked towards into one issue. Nick Fury narrates the beginning by saying, “We didn’t stop the atomic bomb with Robert Oppenheimer, so why stop super-soldiers with the Ultimates? The truth is that the reserves have been in the cards right from the beginning.”
Cut to the team stopping a terrorist hijacking and a new Iron Man unit is revealed. Fury reveals, “Phase One had only nine super-soldiers, but that was just to get people used to the idea. The President and I want to increase this to a full twenty six for phase two.”
Fury gets into it with a General in the military about their foreign actions and he accuses the military of making their own Super-Soldiers. The arms race for Persons of Mass Destruction has taken a dark turn even within our own government.
We learn that someone has hired a hitman out of retirement to kill Fury and that the Hulk has appeared in the Himalayas.
The Defenders have begged corporations to give them money to protect the city. They buy a Pontiac Firebird with the money. They recruited a paraplegic named Whiz Kid on the team. Son of Satan says, “Somebody’s going to die for putting me on this assignment.” But the Defenders are never heard from again. They don’t make another appearance anywhere in this run which is very unfortunate because they were a fun group worth exploring. Also, Son of Satan’s comments are vague and curious. Who put him on assignment? Who does he work for? We never learn this information.
Then, seemingly out of no where, a giant monster is on a rampage to eat a nuclear reactor. It feels out of place considering the villains are typically just the members of the Ultimates. Everything seemed normal until this scene, but with so many new recruits, the team needed something to hit other than each other.
In the end, it turns out that Fury hired his own assassin to kill him, so he could murder the assassin first. The reader doesn’t know anything about the assassin other than he seemed happy with his retirement as he played babysitter to his grandchildren. The fact that Fury hired his own assassin just so that he could kill him, tells us everything we need to know about Nick Fury; he is a ruthless, merciless chess master that is willing to ruin someone’s life just so that he can feel more powerful.