When Marvel Comics first launched their Ultimate line of books in 2000, they were meant to be a place new readers could go to pick up stories starring iconic characters that weren't weighed down by decades of continuity. Ultimate books were touted as a back-to-basics approach that anyone could enjoy, and for a lot of people that seemed to be the case. As a bonus, the Ultimate books were especially film-friendly; so many of Marvel's movie adaptations over the past decade, including the Spider-Man films and, yes, Avengers, have been heavily influenced by the Ultimate comics that preceded them more than the main Marvel universe.
It was probably inevitable, though, that at some point the Ultimate books would pick up as much continuity baggage as their mainstream Marvel counterparts. And after a series of crossovers, deaths, plot twists, and whatever else you can imagine, that's exactly what happened. Some books—like the excellent Ultimate Comics Spider-Man that we covered a few weeks ago—use this to their advantage to do something strikingly new and interesting. Other books have a harder time doing so. Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic's Ultimates Comics: The Ultimates falls into that category.
It's not that this book—a collection of the first six issues of Hickman and Ribic's series—is bad. Hickman's a celebrated writer, and with good reason: he's smart, he concocts incredibly fascinating plots, and he mines his love of science fiction for more great ideas than most writers could ever hope to have. Where this volume fails is in providing any context—like, at all—for anything that is happening.
For fear of spoiling anything, we can't describe the plot too thoroughly, but here's a bit about the set-up: Nick Fury commands the Ultimates (basically the Avengers) as a world peace-keeping task force. At current, his team's made up of the wealthy industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man, the Asgardian thunder god Thor, the tactical master and sharpshooter Hawkeye, and a female clone of Peter Parker named Spider-Woman, plus a bunch of soldiers. Steve Rogers/Captain America is MIA for some reason, though people sure do like to talk about him. Fury's men are scattered across the globe handling whatever situations may arise; they only band together in times of extreme crisis.
Of course, extreme crisis is what they've got; an old friend-turned-new enemy has been building an artificial, self-aware domed city in northern Europe, and the denizens of that city intend to make most of the continent theirs. To make matters worse, time functions differently inside the dome, meaning its residents have evolved thousands of years beyond humankind in the span of a few months. So, while a god like Thor might still give them pause, some ape like Tony Stark means nothing to them.
Sounds cool? Well, it is; it's the kind of crazy stuff superhero comics excel at. The problem is that, although this book has six issues to explore this plot, nothing really feels like it has a chance to develop. The denizens of this dome city are a massive threat to human kind, but we don't really get to experience that on a global scale—we're told they're bad a couple times, but we only ever see them fight Thor and Iron Man, which gives us an awfully small notion of scale. Even on the fringes of this story, there are a whole lot of things going on that one feels could really do with an explanation: why is Captain America no longer with his team? Why is Asgard now on Earth? Why is Tony Stark hanging out with bad guys? What happened to make the main hero-turned-villain evil? There's certainly something to be said for dramatic suspense, but the way the book presents these questions, it seems like we should already know the answers—like maybe they've been published in another book and not included here—and that's really frustrating.
Reading this comic, then, is a lot like trying to pick up what you can on the fly and go with the flow. Hickman's script moves quickly, which in other cases would be an asset; at least it doesn't get boring. And, if you love the Avengers movie, this probably isn't the worst place you could start reading; it comes closer than anything in the main Marvel U to really capturing the performances of Samuel L Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Hemsworth on the printed page. That's worth something. But also, as the first volume in a new series, it should probably be a little more accessible than it is.
If it was inevitable that Marvel's Ultimate books would become as bogged down in continuity as their mainstream counterparts had, volume one of The Ultimates draws a line in the sand. What will Marvel do when people find the Ultimate books too much? Well, they'll probably just make movies that gross billions of dollars or something. While we wait for more of those, The Ultimates provides solid superhero sci-fi action, just not necessarily for the uninitiated. C