The Ultimates is simultaneously the best and worst books comics have to offer. What started as a modern take of the Avengers, this book quickly became a crowning achievement for comics at the turn of the century. Much like every other book in the Ultimate line, the quality of this series entered a tailspin from which it never recovered, despite the return of the original creator for a time.
Like every other book in the line, The Ultimates was intended to bring the Avengers into modern day. The first Ultimates series, written by Mark Millar and drawn by Bryan Hitch, was released in 13 issues across three years. Hitch is a very slow artist, causing massive delays in the publication.
The core team was the same as the classical lineup, featuring Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, and Hank and Janet Pym. Their characterization was remixed a bit, avoiding a straightforward retellings, though their powers mostly remained the same. Thor had the biggest change with his godhood in question.
The importance of this book cannot be understated. This is essentially the plot used in the third highest grossing movie, The Avengers (2012). The Samuel Jackson interpretation of Nick Fury was created here. He was designed to look like Jackson long before Iron Man (2008). All the blockbuster Marvel movies essentially come from these books. Two of the eight Lionsgate animated Marvel films came from this, Ultimate Avengers and Ultimate Avengers 2.
The Ultimates 2 continued the seminal work from the rock-star creators. Following the same format, this saw the team nearly torn apart, as well as the most badass Hawkeye moment ever. During these series, every book in the line was firing on all cylinders. The Ultimates were seen in a variety of roles in the other Ultimate titles, Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, and Ultimate Fantastic Four.
With The Ultimates 3 however, the entire Ultimate line took an unmistakable turn for the worse. Jeph Loeb took over writing duty with Joe Madureira on art. The book had an overly forced edginess, antithetical to the previous books. Hawkeye now had a bullseye on his forehead, giving his opponents a target, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were seemingly in an incestuous relationship, a main plot point had a leaked sex tape of Iron Man and Black Widow, etc. This book was atrocious.
Next came the first big reset button for the Ultimate Universe, Ultimatum. While many died, this affected the team least of all, with Thor, Wasp, and Hank Pym dying. Thor, having the god mystery removed, eventually returned to life.
Mark Millar returned to the series in attempts to rejuvenate the line. The title changed to Ultimate Comics: Avengers, releasing as three, 6 issue series. This had Nick Fury creating a new team after Captain America, discovering his son was Red Skull, went rouge. The team consisted of Gregory Stark (Tony’s brother), Monica Chang (Fury’s ex-wife – Black Widow II), Red Wasp (mutant who can control insects), War Machine, and an intelligent Hulk clone.
The series continued, having the team face-off against Blade, Ghost Rider, Punisher, and others. This culminated in Avengers vs New Ultimates, where essentially Gregory Stark is the villain. The mini was billed as crossover with Death of Spider-Man. Spidey took a bullet in the kidney from Punisher, saving Captain America.
This marked another relaunch for the series. A new title started, Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates. Lasting 30 issues, the book was written by Jonathan Hickman, then Sam Humphries, and lastly Joshua Hale Fialkov. The lineup was the classic Avengers, adding in Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew – Peter Parker clone), and Falcon. This had a marked improvement over the previous titles, which wasn’t a difficult feat. Two major story lines first had the team going against an villainous Reed Richards, who created a super society, the Children of Tomorrow, and a civil war in America. The latter of which resulted in Captain America elected president.
Finally, Cataclysm, the second reset button in the Ultimate U., was hit. Galactus came to the Ultimate universe, jumping from the mainline books (Earth-616) after the end of Age of Ultron. This lead to a new book, All-New Ultimates. The book is more street level, featuring Miles Morales, Jessica Drew, Cloak, Dagger, Kitty Pryde, and Bombshell as regular Ultimates mainstays have disappeared.
The first two volumes of The Ultimates stand as some of the best superhero stories ever told. The books though, have become a litmus for the entire line, gauging where the quality lied. Except for Ultimate Spider-Man, that’s always been good.
Abhor Ultimates 3 as much as I did? Liked seeing Cap as President? Comment below!
Jeph Loeb, The Ultimates greatest villain.