A word of advice before going into this series: ignore the “Death of Spider-Man” banner at the top and you’ll be just fine.
Mark Millar’s final story in the Ultimate Universe was marketed as a crossover with Ultimate Spider-Man that would see the death of the wall-crawler, but it’s an exceptionally curious crossover, as Spider-Man doesn’t actually make an appearance until the last three pages of issue three and then only appears for six pages in issue four. Spider-Man swings in, he’s shot accidentally by the Punisher, and then he somehow survives a bridge collapsing, but it’s unclear how. That is the extent of his appearance in the “Death of Spider-Man” issues of Avengers Vs. New Ultimates: 14 panels over the course of six issues, with little to no narrative common sense behind the appearance.
Despite the little narrative sense that the Spider-Man appearance holds, Avengers Vs. New Ultimates is the perfect conclusion to Mark Millar’s tenure in the Ultimate Universe because the writer returns to the ideas that made the very first series so popular: complex espionage, heroes fighting heroes, and the real-world application of super-heroes.
Before delving into the specifics of this final series, perhaps it would be best to turn to Mark Millar’s Newsarama interview before the first volume of Ultimate Avengers launched. In that interview, Millar states that the goal of the series was to “reinvent the superhero versus super-villain kind of stories in much the same way as we did a very different kind of superhero origin story.”
It’s curious to go back and read this interview and then think back through all of the series and pick apart just how far off Millar was from his intended mission. The first volume of Ultimate Avengers certainly follows this idea by reinventing the Red Skull into a truly wonderful characters with great pathos. But the second and third volumes were anything but a reinvention of the “superhero versus super-villain kind of stories.” Volume 2 was a mess and while volume 3 presented the vampire story in a different light, it was mostly the same story we’ve seen over and over again.
Perhaps further disconcerting is the last paragraph of the interview with Millar states, “Ultimate Avengers is going to be a monster, though. Where else are you going to get Ultimate Doom teaming up with Ultimate Red Skull and Ultimate Kang?” That’s the thing: Ultimate Avengers never delivers on any team-ups of the sort. It really wasn’t at all the dramatic redefining of super-villains that Millar claimed he wanted it to be. It wasn’t a monster of a book at all, but instead, it was a rather traditional super-hero team book. One can’t really blame Millar for not delivering on the promise – after all, editors have different demands for what is necessary for a book and writers themselves change their minds to suit whatever interests them. It’s all part of the process and it’s always fun to see what should have been and compare it to what actually was and in this instance, what was promised and what was delivered are two very separate things.
That is, until Avengers Vs. New Ultimates.
When last we left the Ultimates, Captain America had teleported the Triskelion to Iran to eliminate the invading vampire army and Tony Stark had apparently died. The Triskelion problem exists in the background of the series that is mentioned in passing from time to time, but the Stark storyline is simply a convenient way to remove Tony from the board so that Tony’s brother Gregory can be placed into a more prominent position.
The first issue revolves around the main Ultimates team investigating a train containing super-soldier prototypes to be sold to the highest bidding country. Once again, the weaponization of super-heroes is the central focus on the narrative – which is acceptable because this is by far the most compelling theme and certainly one that can be revisited again and again. This time, however, there is the implication that Nick Fury is the grand manipulator behind it all.
Issue 2 does Fury no favors as he manipulates the Punisher, War Machine, Blade, and Tyrone Cash to work for him. The Black Ops intrigues escalates as Cash has been apparently contracted to sell superpowers to foreign countries by the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., Carol Danvers.
Given that diversity is a concern for many readers today, it’s interesting that few have acknowledged that the Ultimate Avengers team consists of four black males (Fury, Blade, Cash, and Rhodey) as the stars. Perhaps the lack of acknowledgment of the book’s diversity stems from the less than heroic personalities of the stars (Fury is manipulative, Cash is a criminal, and Rhodey has baggage from his time with Tony Stark) when compared to the main team.
Millar returns to the idea that Thor is the only true hero on the Ultimates team at the beginning of issue three, when Valkyrie asks, “How can you work with these people Thor? How can you even be in the same room as them?”, and he responds, “Someone has to keep an eye on what they’re up to” showing readers once again that with all the in-fighting and politics between the various players, the god of thunder is still above it all and the true protector of the world. It’s a message that bears repeating especially considering the rest of the issue revolves around the assembled ultimate teams battling it out because they both think the other’s leader is responsible for selling secrets to foreign governments.
It seems like something else happens at the end of issue three, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what. It seems like someone dies or something. Oh well, it probably doesn’t matter and it probably won’t effect the narrative in the long run. It’s best to forget it and move on.
While most of the fourth issue in the series deals with wrapping up the battle between the teams, all of the story elements that have been established so far are finally intertwine. As it turns out (hopefully to no one’s surprise) the mastermind behind the selling of super-soldier prototypes is Gregory Stark.
Ignoring the fact that Gregory Stark being Tony’s twin brother logically makes absolutely no sense, given that he is never mentioned in Orson Scott Card’s Ultimate Iron Man — a series that begins with Tony Stark in his mother’s womb without a sign of a twin brother — he really is a wonderful character. (I suppose in all fairness, there are other elements in that story that don’t appear in the regular Ultimate titles, and Gregory’s birth could be overlooked, but it’s a pretty huge plot hole to overlook nonetheless.) His very existence makes the reader ponder at his true motivations and if he really is everything that was advertised. Could he be a Skrull? Is he really Loki in disguise? Could he be the result of magic rewriting history?
He’s Tony Stark’s twin brother and nothing more.
But being Tony’s brother actually gives Gregory quite a bit of depth. After revealing to Nick Fury that he is the mastermind behind all of the espionage, Gregory explains that his motivation is a complex game where the Stark brothers constantly try to outdo one another. ”He designs a car, so I design a rocket. He becomes a millionaire, so I become a billionaire. He buys his way into the super-hero community and so I have to be the man who tells the super heroes what to do.”
If Gregory Stark had orchestrated all of this simply because he was jealous of his brother and somehow that jealousy made him evil, then he would be an exceptionally one-dimensional character and barely worth mentioning. But then he drops the following bombshell:
I’m smuggling these forces into rogue states to help arm the rebels, you idiot. The super-soldiers are going to help the pro-democracy forces.
The remaining two issues of Ultimate Avengers Vs. New Ultimates revolves around the teams joining forces to stop an super-human uprising in North Korea which is strangely lead by the Spider-Man from Ultimate Avengers. It’s unfortunate that the clone Spider-Man is such a let-down, because Millar had established a good mystery around the character. In his first appearance, Nick asks, “Who the hell is this?” To which the Spider-man responds, “Trust me, Nicky-boy… you do not want to know” — which is intriguing and leads the reader to begin a guessing-game. In the next volume, he acts as a Hannibal Lecter-type character only to disappear until this volume.
It turns out that the clone Spider-Man is Korean. That’s the big mystery. So I suppose the rule I set before about forgetting about Spider-Man is best applied here as well. Just don’t ever think about Spider-Man when reading this comic.
Despite the disappointing conclusion to the clone Spider-Man, it’s at this point that Millar finally accomplishes his intended goal before the launch of Ultimate Avengers: he has finally created a new kind of villain in Gregory Stark.
During the battle in North Korea, Gregory says, “Can none of you people see what I’m doing? Will nobody stand back and take a look at the big picture? I’m not one of your ridiculous super villains. This has all been planned for the best of reasons. I’m changing the rules of the game here.”
Gregory isn’t trying to rule the world even if that’s what it might look like. His goal is to save the world by unifying it. Gregory’s plan is to bring democracy to countries without it… which sounds eerily similar to George W. Bush’s 2005 inaugural speech when the president said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Once again, Millar is using the foreign policies of the United States to fuel the central conflict of his narrative. In Ultimates 2, the team disarmed other nations of their Persons of Mass Destruction, and now Gregory Stark wants to save the world by forcing democracy on nations. Unlike Fury’s disarmament plans in Ultimates 2, Gregory’s plan seems relatively justified. While it may take away the sovereignty of nations for him to enact his plan, he seems to be an exceptionally intelligent man and so his plan seems sound.
Of course, if we thought about it realistically, turning every nation into a democracy would be impossible and would create more problems than it actually solves, but these are super-heroes we’re dealing with and we don’t have to view them realistically. We can presume that their fantastic powers and amazing abilities would be enough to overcome whatever problems would arise from a world democracy because their powers and abilities are able to overcome pretty much everything else that has come their way.
In a sense, Gregory Stark is like Ozymandius from Watchmen: both men are the smartest characters in their respective narratives, and the other characters in the books aren’t ready to accept their ideologies. The difference between Stark and Adrian Veidt is that Stark’s plan doesn’t hinge upon a secret that would spoil everything. While he didn’t want the teams to know at first because he had to place himself as leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to enact his plan, he is really quite forward with revealing himself as the mastermind behind everything. Perhaps Stark is so forward because of the standard sense of super-villain pride, but it seems more likely that he is this way because he honestly believes that he can convert the Ultimates to his way of thinking. Adrian Veidt made a horrible but necessary decision to kill half of New York to save the world and he knew that no one would agree with him so he had to craft an elaborate ruse. Gregory had to craft an elaborate ruse to get in a position of power but once he had that power, he was ready to convert.
And really, Gregory’s ideology isn’t all that far off from Nick Fury’s. Both men make the tough choices to better the world, but for some reason, the Ultimates don’t see it that way this time. Considering that The Ultimates 2 was about changing the world, one would think that they would be on-board with Stark’s plan especially since they had survived the events of Ultimatum and the need for a stronger world government is apparent. These once progressive super-heroes reacted to Gregory Stark’s plan the way anyone in the regular Marvel 616 universe would — by defending the status quo.
It doesn’t matter that Stark is right and that he can save the world by doing something radical – the fact that the status quo will be changed so radically is frightening to the Ultimates and they have to stop him. It’s a little bothersome that the story ends with Stark’s plan failing and everything going back to normal again because when Millar jumped back into the Ultimate Universe, he states:
The Marvel U in many ways has become Ultimatized. You’ve had the militarization of the superheroes under SHIELD, the X-Men revealing having public identities, even Spider-Man being unmarried and more like Ultimate Peter and so on.
The Marvel U essentially caught up with the Ultimate U, but I can smell things shifting again and our mission here is to put the Ultimate line five years ahead of the regular Marvel U just like it was a few years back.
Since the Ultimate Universe should be set apart from the normal Marvel Universe, it would only make logical sense to give it something radical to set it apart. Gregory Stark establishing a new world order would be enough of a distinction and would have allowed for stories that would never have been told before. By hitting the reset button at the end of Millar’s run is simply unfair and washes the Ultimate line of any consequence from that run. It would be like if at the end of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, he put the world in a utopia and then Neil Gaiman came along and told the same kinds of stories that Moore had been writing or worse, decided to tell classic ’50s Marvelman stories all over again.
Nevertheless, this series perfectly concludes Mark Millar’s tenure in the Ultimate Universe, but it also holds the distinction of concluding his tenure of working for Marvel. Millar is now enjoying a successful career in writing creator-owned books and turning them into movies. And considering that he seemed stifled at times in the Ultimate Avengers series, it’s probably for the best.