Today I read Marvel’s The Ultimates, written by Mark Millar and pencils by Bryan Hitch. This hardcover omnibus contains the first 13 issues of the Ultimates series and an introduction by Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers movie.
The world is getting more dangerous, and Nick Fury, director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division has decided it’s time to put together a special response team, made up of very special people: Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, the World War 2 super soldier, recently found alive after being frozen in the Arctic Ocean for 52 years, who returns to life to discover that his family is long-since dead and his fiancée married his best friend. Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, the billionaire scientist and head of Stark International, who created the most advanced flying suit of armour in the world but cannot cure the brain tumour that is killing him. The Hulk, known by a select few as Dr. Bruce Banner, the nerdy geneticist with serious anger issues, desperate to recreate the super soldier serum that created Captain America in his quest to rid himself of his green, rage-filled alter ego. Giant Man and Wasp, Drs. Henry and Janet Pym, who can change size from tiny to enormous, and who have a terrific marriage other than the occasional spot of domestic violence. And Thor, Norse God of Thunder and Odinson, who will help fight after the American president doubles his international aid budget. Together they will save the world, if they don’t destroy each themselves first.
I’ve heard of The Ultimates before as a version of the Avengers, but I’d never read the original series until now. This is a gritty, modern, realistic take on superheroes, deeply flawed and troubled people with remarkable abilities that they don’t always use wisely. The Ultimates will be jarring to anyone who’s mainly familiar with the Marvel MovieVerse–Banner deliberately becomes the Hulk to attack (and eat) civilians, while Betty Ross wavers between airhead and manipulative media specialist. Cap is extremely violent and angry about losing his life in the ocean, and not quite as much the paragon of virtue he is in the movies. Henry beats Janet into the hospital after using her mutant blood in ‘his’ growing formula. Thor is a hippie activist and possibly a demented former mental patient won’t help save the world from an alien invasion until he gets his way. And Tony Stark is actually a little more stable than he is in the Iron Man movies, though still an alcoholic and a womanizer, and a highly respected businessman with a fairly good relationship with Fury.
In general, I’m not a huge fan of making superheroes all dark and gritty and ‘modern’ (yes, I realize I just complained that Kevin Keller was too shiny and perfect–he’s not a superhero, hush). People who wear brightly-coloured spandex, answer to silly names, and do things like fly and shape shift and shoot lasers from their hands? There is a little bit of inherent silliness in them, and a lot of larger-than-life characteristics–I don’t want them to be too dragged down into the grime of ordinary people. And on the other hand (what am I up to, three?), many of them are ordinary people given extraordinary and not always welcome gifts, and thrust circumstances and by fate into extraordinary situations. People aren’t perfect–it’s what they do when they have to that makes them heroes, or not. Sometimes it’s easier to fight aliens than say “I’m angry” or “I’m afraid” or “I’ m sorry”. That said, The Ultimates is an incredible piece of storytelling. The commentary with Millar and Hitch in the back of the volume explains some of their thought processes and memories of creating The Ultimates, and of course as a devoted Whedonite of long standing I love Joss’ introduction and the anecdote about his wanting to buy a piece of the original art for Sarah Michelle Geller and Freddie Prinze Jr.’s wedding. The casting scene is also interesting, since The Ultimates predates the Phase One movies, including the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as Fury. In fact, it was after Jackson found out that Ultimates Fury was modelled after him that he asked to play Fury in any movies Marvel was planning.
In The Ultimates , the heroes aren’t always likeable, but they are very, very watchable.
And I STILL WANT A BLACK WIDOW MOVIE! YOU HEAR ME MARVEL?