The following is a feature article I wrote for PopMatters.com entitled, The Cataclysmic Destruction of Marvel's Ultimate Universe.
When an iconic celebrity fails because of forces beyond their control, it’s a tragedy. But when that same celebrity fails because of something they did deliberately and intentionally, it’s something far worse. These icons sometimes come out of nowhere and become the most powerful name of the industry. Sometimes they work hard to establish a reputation and a brand that makes them special. And when they fall, whether it happens suddenly or gradually, it’s deeply distressing.
In many ways, Marvel’s once prominent Ultimate line was once the A-list celebrity of the comic book industry. They emerged at the turn of the millennium as the gold standard of modern comics. They had a unique brand that was so refined that it raised the bar for the entire industry. For nearly half a decade, any comic bearing the Ultimate brand was usually a top 10 or top 20 seller. That same comic could expect critical acclaim while garnering a great deal of intrigue from fans. It was a remarkable feat that redefined comics for a new generation.
Then in what felt like a series of violent blows that left it permanently concussed, the Ultimate went into a period of decline where that once iconic brand wasn’t just undermined. It was shattered like a brick thrown through a pane of glass. But it didn’t happen all at once. There was no one single moment where this decline became a full-fledged collapse. Some will point to the end of Ultimates 2 and the departure of Mark Millar. Some will point to the arrival of Jeph Loeb and the poor reception garnered by his work on Ultimates 3. Some will point to Ultimatum and the massive destruction and death that devastated so much of what the line had built. Some will point to death of Peter Parker and his subsequent replacement with Miles Morales. But in the end there is no one event, person, or moment that led to the destruction of the once powerful Ultimate brand. Every publishing endeavor is a collective effort. As such, every downfall is a result of a collective failure.
Now as Ultimate embarks on yet another re-launch after yet another destructive event where yet another iconic character was killed, the sheer scale of the decline in Ultimate is more apparent. That time when Ultimate had such a strong and trusted brand seemed so long ago. But what made that brand and what subsequently destroyed it can never be fully known by those working outside of Marvel’s inner offices. There remains at Marvel, and in nearly every prominent company to some degree, a culture of selective arrogance. What this means is that at no point in certain endeavors, past or future, can anyone within this culture ever admit that a decision was a mistake. No matter how much they upset customers or how poorly their products are received, they cannot and will not apologize because that would undermine the overall vision. But in the case of Ultimate, a little humility might be warranted if only this once.
First and foremost, it’s important to recall what made the first few years of Ultimate such a profound experience for the industry. It wasn’t just that Marvel wanted these books to be the gold standard where the characters weren’t bogged down with decades of continuity. Each book took iconic characters from Captain America to Peter Parker and repackaged them in a fresh, mature, and engaging manner. Fans of these characters could read stories about them that offered a different perspective than what had been offered in the mainline comics. That perspective was mature in that it had refined themes that kids and adults alike could relate to. There was nothing about Ultimate that was inconsistent with the message that the Avengers, the X-men, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four had been conveying for decade. It was just updated, like an old car that got a fresh coat of paint and a new engine. But this alone didn’t make it such a great success.
Circumstances also played a major factor in the early success of the Ultimate brand. It began at a time when Marvel’s mainline comics were struggling. This was also an era before the movies and after the success of the 90s animated cartoons where some fans just hadn’t kept up. Efforts like Heroes Reborn and the Onslaught Epic only went so far. So when Ultimate emerged, it timed the market perfectly. However, in some ways it became a victim of its own success. By injecting new energy into the industry, it allowed the mainline comics to eventually catch up. Events like Civil War brought the mainline comics back to a level where Ultimate could no longer dominate.
With the mainline comics improving, the original brand for Ultimate was deemed insufficient. Being the gold standard and just having more modernized version of these iconic characters wasn’t enough anymore. So instead of refining that standard, another concept was adopted. Now Ultimate could no longer be the place where iconic characters could simply evolve in a different world. It had to be a place where anything could happen that wouldn’t normally happen in the mainline comics. This was the main justification for the massive destruction and slew of deaths that struck Ultimate in a short span of time. While this justification has been reiterated and reinforced, it is still fundamentally flawed. And that flaw is what triggered its downfall.
The flaw itself has to do with the conflicting messages that this new Ultimate brand conveys. Marvel may frame their vision a certain way, but that’s not how fans interpret it. Like a visitor to another country that doesn’t realize they’re speaking the wrong language, the powers that be don’t seem to realize the implications of this message. They say, “Dead means dead. Death matters in Ultimate.” But fans interpret that as, “We kill the characters you love, keep them dead, and offer no hope of ever bringing them back. So don’t bother getting attached to them.” It shouldn’t take a telepath on the level of Charles Xavier to see why that’s a problem for a lot of fans. It also shouldn’t take a marketing guru to see that killing iconic characters and keeping them dead is a poor strategy. The critical and commercial success of DC’s Blackest Night and Brightest Day series effectively disproves that argument.
Another popular branding that the new Ultimate comics were given has to do with novelty. Instead of just taking iconic characters and developing them in a bold new world, they had to become so different that they essentially nullified the very premise under which they were created. It was justified as, “We do things that can’t otherwise be done.” But fans interpret this as, “We just do whatever we want because we know we can get away with it.” That doesn’t give the impression of a bold vision. That gives the impression of reckless abandon and utter disregard. That may work for certain art forms, such as professional wrestling and base jumping, but it doesn’t work for something like Ultimate. It’s like a once accomplished brain surgeon trying to perform surgeries while drunk and blindfolded. They can do it, but the patients are the ones that suffer. And in this case, the patients are both the characters and the fans that went through the trouble of becoming emotionally invested in them.
In addition, the very concept of being able to do things in Ultimate that can’t be done in the mainline comics is fundamentally flawed. Marvel holds the rights to these iconic characters. That means they can do with them whatever they want. They can make Captain America President in the mainline comics. They can kill Wolverine, Daredevil, and Magneto in the most gratuitously callous way possible. They can make Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch engage in an incestuous relationship. They can do anything they want. But they don’t because they understand that it’s not a good idea on some levels. And if it isn’t a good idea in the mainline comics, then it’s not a good idea in Ultimate. Just because someone is better able to get away with murder doesn’t make murder any less wrong.
The very idea that Ultimate provides something novel and different itself is a fallacy. Anybody who has ever fallen victim to fad diets or get-rich-quick schemes knows all about catch-phrases like “It’s new! It’s proven! And it works!” It comes back to a very simple lesson that most kids learn at a young age. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be done. In fact, this important lesson is enshrined in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man where Peter’s Uncle Ben tells him that “With great power comes great responsibility.” And by that standard, Marvel has been incredibly irresponsible with Ultimate to the point where it constitutes full-blown hypocrisy.
The current Ultimate comics are built on a damaged foundation riddled with the corpses of iconic characters that many fans have grown to love over the past half-century. When Disney paid $4 billion for Marvel, they weren’t just buying the name of the company or the creators that made it great. They were buying the characters that are the core of Marvel’s success. And Ultimate has treated those characters with a recklessness that would probably constitute gross negligence if they were children.
This is best highlighted in the way characters like Nightcrawler, Dr. Strange, Wasp, Charles Xavier, and most recently Captain America were killed. There was no emotional weight to their deaths. They were just thrown away with the utmost callousness. It happened in a way that would be like a professional football team executing half their players in front of their fans after the final game of the season. And in wake of such inglorious slaughter, that selective arrogance still leads the powers that be to believe that this void can be filled with the likes of Miles Morales, Jimmy Hudson, Derek Morgan, Monica Chang, Ray Connor, and Mach Two. With the exception of Miles Morales, none of these characters inspire the passion that manifests in fan clubs, cos-players, and sales.
But beyond the death, the scale of the destruction in Ultimate has left devastating scars in another way. It essentially nullified many of the stories, sub-plots, and developments that helped make Ultimate so compelling early on. The drama between Giant Man and Wasp, the return of Charles Xavier to the X-men, and the relationship dynamics within the Fantastic Four were rendered meaningless. Nothing they did mattered in the end because the scale of the destruction made everything they did completely pointless. There’s no progression like there usually is in the mainline comics. Every story or character sub-plot was essentially voided, as if Galactus himself shot it with the Ultimate Nullifier. So it isn’t just the future of Ultimate that is destroyed. Its glorious past is also undermined.
This is where the tragedy that is Ultimate Marvel becomes something far worse. After yet more destruction and death in Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand, it continues to press on like damaged ship that’s already partially flooded. It gives the impression that Marvel is content with Ultimate being a shadow of its former self. But there’s nothing respectable about that. It would be akin to watching a successful actor throw their career away, get addicted to heroin, lose all their money, and be content knowing that they’re constantly on the brink of destruction. Even if this isn’t the case, the continuation of Ultimate Marvel seems predicated on one more element of flawed logic that basically amounts to, “We’re doing it for the sake of doing it.” Like taking medicine that has already been proven to not work, Ultimate is a habit that has lost its impact.
In the end, all these mitigating factors conspired to what can be appropriately labeled as a truly ultimate tragedy. The Ultimate comics had something that worked. Then for reasons that fail every test of logic, it was abandoned in favor of something that doesn’t work without the aid of selective arrogance. It speaks poorly to the so-called House of Ideas when those ideas are restricted to “Let’s kill more iconic characters” and “Let’s just keep being different for the sake of being different.” Again, it’s impossible to know the inner workings of Marvel. But it is possible to judge Ultimate Marvel on its critical, cultural, and commercial merits. And by these standards, Ultimate Marvel has collapsed in a way that cannot be quantified. If there is a lesson to be learned from the legacy of Ultimate Marvel, it’s that great power and great responsibility don’t just fall on the shoulders of heroes. They also fall upon the shoulders of those the fans trust with this ultimate power.