Or – “Everything Old Is New Again…”
It’s been a long, strange trip, but it ain’t over yet, Faithful Spoilerites… A long time ago, a mysterious face from the past arrived at my comic store with a proposition to bring awesome to the universe, a proposition that I decided to take him up on. (After all, it’s only free time, right?) The first review I ever did for this website was something that I remember working and reworking, tweaking and adjusting, as well as trying to figure out how to edit my images, what to put in, what to leave out, and whether or not I was actually funny. (Mileage on that STILL varies, by the way.) In the spirit of Anniversary Week, I’ve decided to put the capper on things by travelling back in time to do a Retro Review of my first review, which would make this also a Dueling Review…
There’s a slight chance that the whole thing might collapse past the space-time continuum, but at least it’ll be a fun ride getting there.
(All 2006 Matthew portions are as originally written , save for punctuation & image breaks in the original review.)
Previously on Ultimates 2: The heroes of the Ultimate universe started out well, bringing together an unfrozen Captain America with the other attempts to create American super-soldiers, under the auspices of Nick Fury. Their initial forays were well-recieved, but the rampage of the Incredible Hulk nearly destroyed their reputations, causing the team to fake his death (!!) and have to stop one of their own. Their public profile was even more damaged by the reveal that Thor is nothing more than an escaped mental patient with delusions of grandeur, and the team splintered under stress. When one of their own went bad, the Ultimates were attacked by a coalition of foes they didn’t know they had, a group called “The Liberators” who hate the American heroes and all that they stand for. They’re at their lowest point, and are completely outgunned, mere moments from destruction. Then, they let out The Hulk.
2006 Matthew: When it comes to reviews, I’ll try to be positive, I’ll try to be creative, but most of all, I’ll try not to curse like a sailor.
2010 Matthew: Well, I agree on the first two points, but as the adult tags on many of the podcasts (especially Saturday podcasts) will tell you, I’ve loosened my standards on the latter point.
2006 Matthew: Today’s victim– er, reviewed book is very much representative of today’s comic book industry. With “Ultimates 2 #12,” the story is decompressed, the storyline and characters brutal and “realistic,” (I’ll save my rant about “realism” for another day), the violence is rather graphic, and the book itself is several months late.
2010 Matthew: Well, get used to your future, pal. This book was a harbinger of many things to come, including style over substance, the “superstar-artist-can’t-get-our-book-out-on-time” syndrome, and “Add-an-issue-because-we-can’t-plot-effectively” disease. Books like Civil War, Flash: Rebirth and Captain America Reborn will revisit pretty much everything wrong with this issue over and over again, and comic-book industry inbreeding being what it is, it looks like none of that is going to stop anytime soon. But, in any case, how late WAS this one?
2006 Matthew: So late, in fact, that when “Ultimates Annual” came out some weeks ago, one of my customers was heard to remark “Doesn’t EVERY issue of this thing come out annually?”
2010 Matthew: Bah DUM-BUMP!
2006 Matthew: The Ultimates is, as the name would suggest, part of Marvel’s “Ultimate” comic line, and has never been known for punctuality. Ultimates 2 #1 came out in December of 2004, if memory serves, and the wait between issues has been averaging out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-6 months. #12 was originally meant to be the capstone to the entire thing, the big denouement of the entire series. At this point, the only REAL question is “Is it worth the wait?”
2010 Matthew: Well, not for me, but I have an unfair advantage over you. Not only have I spent the last four years analyzing comic stories EVEN MORE than we did the previous 35 years, I’ve seen what will come out of this particular bit of storytelling. The future of the Ultimate Universe is a bleak one, especially for the Ultimate Avengers, and you now get to look forward to re-reading this story (or some derivation of it) over and over again, sometimes even by different people! But I’m not bitter, mind you… What’d you think of the plot?
2006 Matthew: Certainly, the issue hits the ground running… Actually, it hits the ground moving like it was fired out of a cannon. The creators know all too well that, since issue 11’s cliffhanger revealed that The Hulk was still alive and kicking, they’d better let the big man… kick. The first three pages are nothing but Hulk-induced devastation, lovingly rendered in widescreen. From that point on, the story doesn’t slow down, as each Ultimate is given their moment (in Quicksilver’s case, a literal moment) in the spotlight. The plot touches all the bases (if only for a second), tying up the loose ends: What about Hank Pym? Who’s the guy in the red helmet? Where is Iron Man? What happened to Captain Britain? Aren’t there OTHER superheroes in the world? And what about Naomi?
2010 Matthew: Indeed. Though the Quicksilver super-speed fight is pretty awesome (he takes down his foe in milliseconds, and returns to the battle with his teammates unsure what, if ANYTHING, has happened) the issue basically consists of half a dozen reveals, each one meant to be bigger than the last, from the return of Iron Man (death ray from the sky) to the reveal of the Wasp’s new powers (giant woman smashing things) to the Hulk’s defeat of the Abomination. I kind of felt like I was re-reading the climaxes of half a dozen different issues in quick succession…
2006 Matthew: The Ultimates, from the first issue of the first volume, has been a fast forward rocketsled, the equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie. Big, loud, fun, full of John Wayne quips and bigger than life heroes. Parts of this book literally gave me goosebumps, as the payoffs cashed in big on seeds planted in previous issues. When The Abomination taunts the Hulk about his limited intellect, our Mr. Banner does exactly what each and every one of us wanted to do with our various tormentors: Pick up the nearest bludgeon, and beat him upside the head, then, rip off his arms and beat him to death with the bloody stumps. Oh, and end it all with a snotty remark.
2010 Matthew: That’s exactly what it is, the most banal wish-fulfillment scenario that the vicious little teenage sociopath inside us all could come up with, which is what makes it resonate, but also what makes it grotesque and awful. In essence, Ultimate Hulk has become little more than a gamma-powered Stan Gable, the guy who does what he does because he CAN, rather than out of any sense of heroism or duty. Even Joe Fixit was more heroic than this…
2006 Matthew: I like Ultimate Hulk. In fact, I like the iterations on almost all the Ultimate Avengers. A capable Wasp, a Quicksilver who uses superspeed to it’s fullest (not just the way comic books have always done it), a Hawkeye who is both comical and deadly, even a slightly drunken Iron Man in his most awesome armor yet… (If you can call a battlewagon the size of Lichtenstein “armor,” I guess.) The only characterizations I dislike are those of Henry Pym and Captain America. Mark Millar has stated on the record that he feels Henry Pym deserves his treatment in the Ultimates, as “nobody likes a wife-beater.” Given how unstable the regular-Marvel-Universe Henry Pym is, I can’t take too much issue with his portrayal here… Millar has simply chosen to emphasize parts of the character that I don’t like, the weakness, the dishonesty. But, in so doing, he gives Doctor Pym one of the best moments of the entire issue…
2010 Matthew: 2006 Me, you IGNORANT SLUT. All the characterizations in this book are either “Regular Marvel Universe Turned Up To Eleven” (Giant-Man, Iron Man, Quicksilver, Captain America) or “Mirror Universe Version” (Black Widow, The Wasp, Hawkeye, and The Hulk.) Once I figured that out, all the twists of the story become pretty predictable and end up with most of the good parts heavily lampshaded (with the possible exception being Natasha’s heel turn, and even that came from a turncoat Russian spy, some mileage varies.) As for Pym, his realization that his side is losing and that he needs to distance himself from the Liberators still rings funny today. As Hank orders his robots to help the Ultimates, Ultron (the primary android) looks at him with what must be the synthezoid version of a look of pure disgust. “What? SERIOUSLY?” It is pretty funny.
2006 Matthew: Heh. I’m with Ultron on this one, that conversion seems just a bit too “convenient,” don’t it?
2010 Matthew: Don’t explain the joke, 2006 Me. That’s a rookie mistake…
2006 Matthew: Back on the subject of characterization… One of the biggest problems I’ve had with The Ultimates is Captain America. In an early issue, after downing an enemy, Ultimate Cap took a moment to KICK HIM IN THE FACE. Hitting an enemy when he’s down doesn’t seem very Cap-like, to me. Ultimate Captain America is more of a Steven-Seagal-movie soldier, willing to crack any and all skulls in the name of a greater good. When the villains siege starts to finally collapse, Captain America fights a one-on-one duel with the main bad guy (who would have been German until 2001, but now must be Arabic, apparently). This evil terrorist has, in true villain fashion, ordered his lackeys to stay out of it so he can “humble the American pig-dog blah de blah blah…” This directive only lasts until he loses, of course, and Cap has to power his way through the hordes of identical video-game chaff characters to…
…STAB THE VILLAIN IN THE HEART.
Part of me cheered. A much, much larger part is incredibly troubled by this. Certainly, Abdul has been set up as a quintessential evil, willing to wipe out the American Way just to prove a point. I guess it’s too many years of reading old-school comic books, but stabbing someone to death isn’t (to me) a heroic act.
2010 Matthew: Being troubled started me thinking on this point, and additional exposure to more work by the same writers makes it clear: Captain America is a tongue-in-cheek shot at all the hyper-patriotism that came about around the turn of this century, and is not SUPPOSED to be a hero at all. He’s a racist, he’s a throwback, he’s a genuinely unpleasant person in his militant tendencies.
2006 Matthew: And I think that’s Millar’s point. His Captain America is a military man, first and foremost, and questions of honor and heroism are secondary concerns. And that’s fine.
2010 Matthew: Maybe for you, but I don’t care for Millar’s work when he gets bombastic like this. It’s kind of like listening to the drunk guy at the bar telling you how he’s a master of kung-fu and once killed a man in Reno for snoring too loud. The brashness that is it’s main strength is overbearing in large doses, and if you think too hard, the whole thing collapses like a pig’s house after being hit by an explosive chicken… (Did I mention that I got an Android phone recently? No? Nevermind… Bygones.)
2006 Matthew: The book is mighty entertaining, even if it does boil down to what my friend Bruce calls a “cluster-schmozz” and what I sometimes label “Big Dumb Fight Scene.” A well-choreographed, well-drawn, well-dialogued, summer movie story Big Dumb Fight Scene, to be sure, but a fight scene nonetheless. Oh, and one question does remain, at the end. Throughout the series, doubt has been cast as to whether Ultimate Thor is really an deity of long-lost Asgard, or just a male nurse with delusions of grandeur. Though the book ends with a cliffhanger (apparently, another issue had to be added to the run, the better to get in all the ‘Hulk-Smash-Blow-Up-New-York-Stabitty-Stab-Stab’ action), it give the very strong impression that Tony Stark’s psychiatrists owe SOMEONE a pretty sizable apology.
2010 Matthew: I recall being very annoyed when we first read this book that the end wasn’t the end at all, but a cliff-hanger for the unannounced 13th issue of The Ultimates, something that you (for reasons I can’t recall) didn’t touch on. The Thor reveal would have worked better for me if the whole thing hadn’t been clearly telegraphed, what with this being an adaptation of stories we already KNEW about. It’s much like Stephen’s recent podcast discussion of making a movie where Clark Kent might not be Superman. Whether the answer is yes or no, the reveal will be disappointing…
2006 Matthew: Judged on it’s own merits, it’s a pretty good book. Certainly you have to turn off parts of your brain and enjoy it for the joy of “crush-kill-destroy,” no Alan Moore subtlety or Grant Morrison metaphors here. Hitch’s art is, as always, beautiful, and I get the feeling Mark Millar has been wanting to tell a story like this for a long time. Even so, I won’t be getting back on the roller coaster for Ultimates 3 or 4. The ending of this storyline went where it had to, thematically speaking. I simply don’t have a lot of interest in the continued adventures of these characters. Certainly, I can understand the urge to skewer a terrorist mastermind. But I’m not interested in reading the monthly stories about the skewerer. I’m giving it three stars, averaging out the “Hell, yeah!” moments with the “Oh, dear!” moments into a slightly-above-average adventure story.
2010 Matthew: Well, Ultimates 3 has come and gone, and now there are two equally confusing teams of Ultimate Avengers, and we’re still holding steady on the “Not Coming Back” portion of the Ultimates program, mostly due to an almost complete lack of anything resembling subtlety in the stories, and the Ultimate Universe becoming a charnel house in the last year or so. While 2006 Me has points in that there are still moments that hold up, but not as many as he/I think/thought. With the benefit of perspective and hindsight, Ultimates 2 #12 drops a full star rating for me, admittedly due to factors that aren’t all related to the quality of the book itself, and earns 2 out of 5 stars overall from Present Me.
2006 Matthew: Oh, one last whine: In previous stories, Hank Pym had to run about naked because his special giant-costume (which DIDN’T change size with him) wasn’t around. When The Wasp grows in THIS issue, her costume grows with her. Unless I missed something, there’s no explanation for this, and they missed a perfectly good opportunity to show a giant naked woman throwing robots like ten-pins. That might have bought them four stars… (No, not really.)
2010 Matthew: Actually, yeah it would have. These people know us, we can admit that now…
–Ultimate Captain America is currently leading the New Ultimates.
–Ultimate Iron Man is now sleeping with Ultimate Ms. Marvel.
–Ultimate Wasp was eaten by Ultimate Blob.
–Ultimate Thor is, I think, dead, but on the way to getting better.
–Ultimate Giant-Man has redeemed himself after Ultimate Ultron went insane and became Ultimate Yellowjacket.
–Ultimate Quicksilver was murdered by Ultimate Hawkeye.
–Ultimate Black Widow is still dead.
–Matthew and Ultimate Scarlet Witch are now Senator and Mrs. John Blutarsky, Washington, DC.
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: When you look back on the things you did in the past, do you ever think that past you is kind of a putz?