If Ultimate Comics Avengers was a departure from Millar’s previous Ultimates work, then its sequel goes completely off the rails. Gone are the themes of political allegory (ironic considering the villain of this volume is the vice-president), celebrity, and the self-perpetuating super-hero. Instead, these ideas are replaced with an action-packed tour-de-force with little room for subtext.
This is Millar at his most action-packed and over-the-top nature. This is what happens when he lets loose.
The first issue begins with page after page after page of the Punisher killing a lot of crime lords. Though the nature of his killings aren’t as graphic as say, Garth Ennis’s Punisher, the body count is absolutely absurd and it isn’t until Punisher is taken down by Captain America in disguise that the reader realizes just how much of the page count has been dedicated to these killings.
He’s taken into custody by Fury where it is revealed that Punisher will be the Captain America for the Black Ops team. Fury mentions that he’s dressed in a costume that looks part Cap/part Punisher so the public won’t recognize that a known sociopath works for the government. This begs the question: If they are a Black Ops team, why would the public ever know they even existed? Furthermore, how would his bright costume make their team “Black Ops”? And finally, even if we can get past these two logical missteps, and they needed to mask the Punisher, then why did they make the Captain America costume look like the Punisher’s costume? Wouldn’t the public just recognize him as the Punisher, but a slightly more patriotic Punisher?
None of these questions are meant to matter, however. In this one issue, Millar has set the tone and shown that it is completely different than his initial run on The Ultimates. Where his original ideas were centered around a realistic look at super-heroes, this volume is so unapologetically absurd that the reader has to simply accept this and move along.
In the second issue, the Avengers team heads off to South America to recruit Tyrone Cash.
Cash was formally known as Leonard Williams and we learn that not only was he Bruce Banner’s mentor, but he was also the first Hulk. While he super strong and invulnerable, he still maintains his intelligence and he doesn’t like as monstrous as the Hulk.
Cash has killed mob bosses in South America and has taken over. War Machine tries to recruit him and (of course) the two fight it out until War Machine makes it clear that they aren’t going to arrest him. Cash then agrees to join.
Back at their home base, Fury establishes that the Black Ops team are known as the Avengers and they are a death squad not at all like the very public Ultimates team. They have orders from the White House to take down Ghost Rider.
The introduction of Tyrone Cash is an interesting retcon that takes away from what makes Bruce Banner special. Banner has always been presented as being brilliant, yet Cash not only has a Hulk formula, but it is actually a better made formula than Banner’s. Still, he has some emotional depth as he joins the team because War Machine has threatened to reveal to Cash’s wife and child that he is still alive. Not wanting to torment them emotionally, Cash agrees to join the team.
In the third issue, it’s revealed that Ghost Rider is murdering rich people and the Avengers must murder him. Frank doesn’t want to because he doesn’t care about rich people (even though his character typically hates murder in general, so one would think he would be interested in stopping Ghost Rider, but it’s just a story excuse to show the new electroshocks the team will use to keep him in line).
It turns out that the Ghost Rider seems to be targeting the White House Biker Corps – a group of rich men who do charity bike rides. They protect one target and the Ghost Rider suddenly appears in order to kill him.
In a strange aside, a man sits doing a crossword puzzle in Chicago O’Hare airport.
Issue four is their battle with Ghost Rider. The Punisher attacks Ghost Rider and in their battle, Ghost Rider whispers something to him and disappears after killing his target.
Meanwhile, the strange man is still doing his crossword puzzle.
In an attempt to locate Ghost Rider’s next target, the team turns to the Spider to provide them with psychic intel. Carol Danvers was unaware that he was psychic and Gregory Stark says, “Of course he’s psychic He’s the love child of Spider-man and Charles Xavier back from the future with a warning for humanity.”
Danvers replies “Seriously?” and Gregory laughs saying, “Unbelievable. She really is as stupid as you said she was, Nick.”
The Spider agrees to give Widow the information she needs, but first he wants to know about why she split from Nick. Turns out he slept with every woman in her life and she still loves him.
Satisfied, the Spider explains that Johnny Blaze and his girlfriend were killed by a biker gang in a deal with Satan. The gang sacrificed Blaze and his girlfriend so they would have power, but Blaze made a deal with the devil (who happens to be the mysterious man doing crossword puzzles at Chicago O’Hare airport) to be an agent of vengeance if Satan would allow his girlfriend to live and be happy.
And on the final page, the leader of the gang is revealed to be the vice-president.
If all of this seems absurd and bizarre, that’s because it is. At one time, Millar’s characterization of the Ultimates was subtle and interesting, but with this volume, it appears as if the author is simply throwing out ideas and seeing what sticks. His use of the Spider in a Hannibal Lecter role is odd and confusing given that the character only appeared once in the previous volume and is never seen again after this.
And the information that the Widow gives about her marriage with Fury is completely superfluous and unnecessary. The two characters barely interact with one another and never in a meaningful way. In fact, none of the characters interact in any meaningful way at all, which is interesting given how powerful Millar was able to craft their interactions in the initial series. There was a genuine relationship between Cap and Wasp. There was friendship between Cap, Tony, and Thor. There was hatred and animosity towards Banner. Hank Pym’s obsession with fame was captured perfectly into the metaphor of Giant Man and Ant Man.
These characters were perfectly written and to compare them to the team of the Avengers is just a stunning contrast and a perfect example of how disinterested Millar had become with metaphor at this point in his career.
The inclusion of the vice-president as the central villain is a further contrast between his initial run and his return. Where the first two volumes of The Ultimates featured real-life celebrities and politicians making appearances, this one uses a fictional vice-president as its villain. George W. Bush was appearing at Captain America’s unveiling and Larry King was chatting with Tony Stark, and now fictional Vice-President Blackthorne was part of a Satanic cult. The contrast is absolutely unsettling to fans of the original series.
In issue five, the Vice-President is transformed into a creature like Ghost Rider and he battles the Avengers. In the end, the real Ghost Rider appears.
Issue six is the battle between the Vice-President and Ghost Rider. Punisher shoots the Vice-President and lets Ghost Rider live because their mission is the same.
Satan tells Blaze that he must continue sending souls to hell and that his mission will never end.
Hawkeye allows the Punisher to escape and Frank goes off to kill the mob boss from the first issue. We learn that the message that Ghost Rider gave the Punisher from beyond was to “keep up the good work.”
Frank ponders who sent the message from beyond – whether it was his dead family or perhaps God, but considering that Ghost Rider works for Satan and that it was established earlier in the issue that he and Frank have the same mission, it seems like Satan was the one delivering the message.
While the state of Frank Castle’s soul is an interesting plot thread, it’s never pondered on any further. It is an end to a relatively standard and run of the mill story. The formula behind this volume is one we’ve seen numerous times:
Heroes recruit new heroes. New and old heroes fight. They come together to battle a bigger threat. The bigger threat is only trying to fight an even bigger threat. Evil is defeated and life goes on.
While Millar can never be considered to be “boring,” this arc is a bit of a mess. It’s ambitious in its action, but beyond that, it doesn’t have much else to say. It’s relatively clear at this point that Millar’s interest in mainstream super-hero books is waning and that the end is near.