Thor is Not a God, He’s a Lunatic:

Realism in Ultimate Marvel

I'm actually going to live through this.

As the Ultimate Marvel Universe is reaching it’s conclusion it is worth looking back at the magnificent alternate universe. So much of the Ultimate Marvel Universe has helped to define both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the mainstream Marvel Universe. Some of the lasting influences of Ultimate Marvel would be cosmetic, such as Captain America’s and Hawkeye’s costumes. More significant would be unique characterizations such as the Ultimate-version of Nick Fury, who would become the cinematic Nick Fury as portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. The Ultimate Marvel Universe brought in new readers to comics and it’s legacy should always be remembered positively. Part of what defined the Ultimate Marvel Universe would be an emphasis on realism. Realism was a broad goal that applied not only to the costumes the characters wore, but their powers, the political backdrop and the scope of their stories.

Attempting to bring realism in superpowers is somewhat pointless. No matter what one must accept that a person is capable of doing anything beyond what is possible for ordinary humans in a story. Even so, the younger audiences of the ‘00s craved for a science fiction explanation for the superheroes around them. Merely relying on “radiation” as the cause of superpowers would not be satisfactory to younger readers. Johnny Storm was revealed to have his powers based off of a mutation where he would convert his fat into the burning solution of the Human Torch. Because of the scientific explanation it also made the Human Torch and other characters more vulnerable. Blade while very talented is nearly killed by Iron Man who mistakenly believed the half-vampire could endure much more. Perhaps the most famous instance of realism applied to superpowers would be in the character of Wolverine, who was shown to be vulnerable to being torn apart in Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk. Ironically, however, in the twisted logic of Wolverine’s healing factor, he was capable of surviving limbless, and only as a head.

Realism did not automatically weaken the power of some characters. Magneto was even more powerful than his mainstream version, as the master of magnetism single-handedly defeated Captain America and Thor. Similarly Quicksilver was now capable of running at speeds above Mach 10 by the time he reached puberty. Spider-Man and Captain America even had gained an accelerated healing factor and an immunity to vampirism. Above all the Ultimate Marvel Universe was firmly rooted in a science-fiction world. Magic was rarely if ever accepted, and when genuine magic was on display it was immediately met with skepticism. The Phoenix Force was dismissed as a genuine intergalactic alien-parasite and instead revealed to be Jean Grey’s higher-level telekinetic abilities coupled with deep rooted insecurities.

The most significant plot related element towards the realism of superpowers would be in the Ultimate Universe’s portrayal of Thor. Unlike the mainstream version of Thor, there was no separate persona for Thor, with almost all denying his godhood. The Ultimates 2 emphasizing their commitment to realism revealed a scientific explanation for everything about Thor. Thor was no god, but a deluded man who stole super-soldier technology in order to support his madness. While Thor, warns that the claims are the mischeif of his evil brother Loki, they are dismissed as vindications of his psychosis. Only at the very conclusion of the story is Thor indisputibly proven to be the God of Thunder, and Gunnar Golmen revealed to be the God of Mischief.

The world of Ultimate Marvel was resistant to all mystical elements. Even as Spider-Man, mutants and alien invasions were accepted by the people, vampires would be rejected as farcical. A defensive Blade remarks at one point, “You don’t believe in porphyria?” Later in Millar’s Ultimate Comics: Avengers, the characters of the series refuse to believe that Ghost Rider is genuinely a warrior from Hell. Instead the characters quickly embrace the more science-fiction explanation that Ghost Rider is a mutant. Even when there is conclusive evidence of the mystical and magical in the Ultimate Marvel Universe most of the characters rely on a grounded realistic universe where superpowers must only be explicable through scientific terms.

The commitment to realism in Ultimate Marvel would be most impactful in the portrayal of mutants. Seven years into the run of Ultimate Marvel, everything that had been accepted about mutants would be undone with the series Ultimate Origin. The mutants of Ultimate Marvel suffered the wrath of the Sentinels attack any mutant detected and Weapon X enslaving any mutant it found. Yet the sole vindication that mutants always clung to was the fact that they were the natural step in human evolution. But that all changed when Brian Michael Bendis revealed that mutants were not the product of natural selection but a scientific experiment that attempted to replicate the Super Soldier Serum. From a scientific standpoint the mutant retcon was logical. All evolution is gradual, and a sudden change in humans that would give the mutants a variety of superpowers would be beyond logical. Both Xavier and Magneto were proven wrong, as their dream of a utopian mutant society was impossible. Mutants in the Ultimate Marvel Universe were a chilling reminder of a mad scientist and a dead end. Mutants were the “freaks” of society and not so much a stand-in for the race. Ultimate Marvel made mutants be synonymous with the fringe youth. The Ultimate mutants had to cope with an angry world of adults that blamed the sins of a few on an entire population.

What was key in the realism of the Ultimate Marvel Universe was that all superpowers were derivative from the first superhero Captain America. Unlike mainstream Marvel or DC in which superpowers dates back to thousands of years, superpowers had a clear date of inception in the world of Ultimate Marvel. The Ultimate Universe begins with the story of skinny Steve Rogers being transformed into a “person of mass destruction” with the super-soldier serum in the midst of World War II. Much like the idea of Superman would foster thousands of superheroes, the idea of Captain America inspired the in-universe minds to try and replicate the hero. For good and ill all nations attempt to replicate Captain America, creating thousands of super-powered beings, the majority of whom abuse these powers for their own personal gain. The attempts to replicate the super-powered beings resulted in outright disasters such as Bruce Banner’s Hulk, who unlike mainstream Marvel is less of a martyr and more of a threat to friend and foe. Spider-Man similarly is in the Ultimate Universe a product of the super-soldier experiments, yet Norman Osborn’s attempts to directly mutate himself with his Oz formula result in the creation of the Green Goblin. The Marvel Cinematic Universe taking inspiration from Ultimate Marvel had the majority of superpowers be the product of Captain America. The cinematic Hulk (and the Abomination) were the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to replicate the super-soldier serum. The Ultimate Marvel Universe was a gripping and thrilling new take on many familiar characters. Part of the charm of the line of comics came from a more realistic approach to superpowers. Superpowers were grounded in science-fiction rather than magic. Unlike the mainstream Marvel Universe, superpowers and superheroes were a new and shocking phenomenon to the world.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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1 Comment

  1. Brad Sawyer says:

    “Unlike the mainstream Marvel Universe, superpowers and superheroes were a new and shocking phenomenon to the world.”

    Maybe almost “the world outside your window” maybe?

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