Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, Part 5:

The Return

After Ultimates 2, Millar stepped away from the Ultimate universe for a couple of years. During his absence, Jeph Loeb took over forUltimates 3 and while it was a more traditional super-hero story, it still had some elements of super-hero mistakes coming back to bite the team.

During Ultimate Power, the Supreme Power universe crossed over into the Ultimate Universe. Nick Fury had been partially responsible for unleashing a powerful alien organism that nearly wiped out their planet and he was sentenced to prison in that universe. It seems a little ridiculous that this mini-series about alternate dimensions exists given the gritty and real nature of the original series of The Ultimates was during Millar’s tenure. 

Then, Jeph Loeb’s Ultimatum struck and wiped out most of the Ultimate Universe. Characters from Millar’s run that were killed included; Captain Britain, Hank Pym, Thor, and Wasp.

Many fans considered Loeb’s Ultimatum to ruin the universe, but Millar was happy to accept the challenge of the new Ultimate Universe and to turn it into something great. Ultimate Comics: Avengers was his return.

But Millar had changed as well since his time away. Civil War had been critically acclaimed and with it, Millar shifted from super-hero political intrigue to action-packed stories with a little less political allegory. Both his Old Man Logan storyline and his Fantastic Fourrun had been action-packed and these were the types of stories that he was more interested in telling.

Before his return to the Ultimate universe, Millar stated that the mission was to tell giant crossover events in the span of six issues. He wanted over-the-top super-hero stories for his Ultimate book and that is what he delivered.

Ultimate Comics: Avengers #1 begins with Nick Fury’s return to the the Ultimates after being in the Supreme Power universe. Hawkeye says that Carol Danvers (leader of SHIELD) wants Fury to lead a black ops team to stop a rogue Captain America.

Flashback to Hawkeye and Cap taking on AIM terrorists who have robbed the Baxter Building. Tony is supposed to be on the mission, but he is drunk after the events of Ultimatum. Cap fights the Red Skull and learns that the Skull is his son.

This first issue is fast-paced and action-packed; completely devoid of the themes of celebrity or military industrialization and escalation. This is Mark Millar trying to just write a fun, action-oriented story.

Issue #2 opens with a flashback to 1945. Cap is home from the front and visiting Gail. Four months later, it’s revealed that she is pregnant and he is thought dead after the events of the very first issue ofUltimates. She is forced to give her baby up for adoption.

Modern day and Cap and Hawkeye discuss Tony letting them down. During Ultimatum, Magneto took control of Tony’s armor and caused him to incinerate Wolverine and since that time, Tony has been drinking more out of guilt. Cap snaps for reasons that are never clearly defined (other than he wants to take down the Red Skull, but that’s what SHIELD was going to do anyway) and breaks out to investigate the Red Skull.

Fury explains the Red Skull’s origin. He was raised on a secret military base and lashes out at the age of 17 by killing 247 people. He then uses a butcher knife to cut up his face so he doesn’t look like Cap anymore. The theme of super-hero sins comes back in this issue. In an attempt to create another Captain America, SHIELD had created their own worst enemy. Red Skull has been a mercenary ever since.

The issue ends with Fury beginning to assemble a team including Tony Stark’s older brother, Gregory.

The third issue begins with two soldiers captured by insurgents in Afghanistan. War Machine shows up and kills everyone. One soldier shouts, “Rhodes! What the hell are you doing? These people were unarmed civilians!” Rhodes replies, “Aw, gimme a break! Five minutes ago they were prepping you for Youtube!” If our heroes were morally ambiguous before, they are even worse now. While Cap was wrong for kicking people out of their homes in Ultimates 2, he never murdered innocents, unlike Rhodey.

Gregory Stark makes his first full appearance here. Fury describes him as “ten times smarter than tony and completely amoral.” He is blonde and wears white suits. Despite the fact that he has never been mentioned before, nor does he appear in Ultimate Iron Man, the reader is just supposed to accept this character and move along. Millar will use this character to great comedic effect, but also to show that even though Tony isn’t the best guy in the world, he’s at least not his brother.

Red Wasp/Insect Queen debuts. She was Swarm from the Liberators, but she has been rebuilt with an obedience chip. This is a somewhat strange conceit given that nearly all of the other Liberators were murdered so viciously in the last series.

Hulk has been cloned with a smart brain. His name is Nerd Hulk. That’s about it, for that one.

A Spider-man sits in a containment cell. Stark warns them not to talk to the Spider-man. Nick asks, “Who the hell is this?” To which the Spider-man responds, “Trust me, Nicky-boy . . . you do not want to know.”

The last member of the team is the new Black widow who is Fury’s ex-wife. In an echo to their battle with the Hulk in the first season and Thor in the second, the team has to take down Cap.

Issue #4 has Cap continue his fight against the Ultimates. In a moment that could be interpreted as cowardice, Cap uses a kindergarten class as a meat shield against War Machine.

The team beats Cap and they discover that AIM stole plans to build a cosmic cube from Reed Richards. AIM plans on rebuilding the world to however they see fit. Even though the Red Skull is a product of the government’s failure, the real threat is from the Cosmic Cube and even though it was designed by the heroic Reed Richards, it’s at least not a weapon designed by one of the Ultimates which is a bit of a change of pace.

In AIM HQ, their leader explains that they are going to rebuild the world as a cross between Islam and Libertarian Marxism. The Red Skull kills him and says, “My contact promised me something special if I came out of retirement. He wasn’t kidding.” This line leaves the reader wondering who would bring the Red Skull out of retirement.

Fury shares more of the Red Skull’s background in issue #5 and we learn that he had previously forced a scientist’s wife to choose to murder her husband or let her baby die. She killed her husband with old scissors, and the Skull killed her baby. It is then alluded to that she was raped. Also, the Red Skull was apparently the man who murdered Kennedy.

While the Red Skull’s revenge tacitly is involved with some of the themes of Season 1 and 2, it’s clear that Millar isn’t interested with these ideas any longer. Nor is he interested in traditional super-heroes,  either. Ultimate Comics: Avengers is an amalgam of traditional super-hero book, grim-and-gritty black ops, and political intrigue. In short, Millar wants to tell a big action book, but is struggling to add some weight to the product and instead forces some half-hearted attempts at ideas that he had already gone through years before.

The team teleports to Alaska to battle the Skull and we learn that the scientist’s wife was actually Red Wasp.

Cap breaks out and is on his way to save the day.

Most of issue #6 is a fight between the team and the Red Skull. Perhaps a commentary on the state of the Ultimates Universe afterUltimatum, the team is shown is mostly shown as ineffective. They are a group of all-new characters that have borrowed their identities from their more famous counterparts and they can’t seem to save the day, so Captain America must arrive to do so for them.

On his death bed, Red Skull admits that he didn’t want to rule the world. He wanted to change things so that Cap came home and he had a happy childhood. It’s a nice twist on an otherwise conventional story, but Red Wasp doesn’t care as she puts a bullet in his head.

Gregory Stark accuses Fury of bringing the Skull out of retirement to manipulate him so that Fury would be back in power again. Fury doesn’t deny this allegation proving that he might be the biggest villain of the Ultimate universe.

For a much-anticipated return, Ultimate Comics: Avengers is somewhat of a disappointment. Gone is the political intrigue and the well-defined personalities and replaced with edgy characters that lacked substance. Millar stated that he wanted summer events in six issues, and that’s more or less what he delivered except that summer events feel grander in scope. Everything this story did had already been done and better by Millar and Hitch years before.

But this was only the start of the disappointment.

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Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website and the co-creator of the crime comic . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

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