Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's A Wrong Idea: The Ultimate Universe

I'll admit that I never quite understood the purpose of Marvel's Ultimate Universe - outside of the canny and obvious one, that it created the opportunity to expand the franchise of Marvel's top books and characters and pack a few extra must-have books into an already fit-to-bursting comic rack full of Spider-Mans and X-Mens. Beyond that sheerly back-rooms decision, however, the reason for the existence of the thing always exceeded me.

I had been taking one of my periodic breaks from comics when the Ultimate Universe debuted, and was a few years into it before I even noticed it. That it was ex-continuity was clear enough, particularly as modest changes appeared to have been made to the fashions of Wolverine and the Fantastic Four. By the time a streamlined, black-highlighted Captain America, a technological Thor and a heavy industry Iron Man made it into the roster, I became curious enough to begin reading.

I went in with a preconception, one which I thought made for common sense. With the recent runaway success of Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man movies, and a plethora of other films on the way, I assumed that the Ultimate universe would constitute an accord between the summarized continuities established in the film and the traditional continuity of the regular books. Going in, I expected that the Ultimate universe would bend heavily in favor of the film universes and use them as a jumping off point to introduce characters and situations outside the two-hour purview.

But no, they didn't. Ultimate Spider-Man, in many ways, bears fewer resemblances to the film than (god help me, I hate this shorthand) "616" Spider-Man, and likewise the same for the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. so, no, it was no compromise with the films.

Still, I assumed that the Ultimate Universe would be something of a modern-gen comic writer's dream - a chance to make cohesive the expanded continuity of long-established, iconic books. I went into Ultimate Fantastic Four expecting that here we would see the disparate elements, created in the perpetual rush to fill pages and not waste the distribution slots, united into cohesive whole; Galactus and Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, the Skrulls, the Cosmic Rays and the stolen spaceship and Diablo and Mole Man and all the dozens upon dozens of other character and events of the first fifty issues of the original FF sewn together into a linear, interdependent story.

But, Ultimate FF - like Ultimate Spider-Man, X-Men, Ultimates and so on - was no less episodic than the source material.

And it was there where the one advantage of the Ultimate Universe fell apart: a fresh start on continuity. That it was a writer's playground, and a showcase for artists by way of the "wide screen" mentality of storytelling, was fairly clear. Starting from scratch with just the names intact, the writers could begin telling stories without the readers needing to memorize forty years' worth of previous continuity. It was no longer necessary to know, for instance, that Storm was a New York-born, Africa-raised child thief who ended up in Cairo after briefly being worshipped as a goddess in central Africa, had claustrophobia, is now a queen, and was the de facto leader of an underground clan of mutant savages. She could be re-created from basic ingredients.

However, the problem with fresh starts is that they can't stay fresh forever, and the Ultimate Universe now comes with its own backlog of convoluted history. Jumping into the character's history now, the reader - especially one who already did know the above about the mainstream Storm - has to experience some sort of crash-course in picking up the essentials - a relationship with Beast here, with Wolverine here, born in Cairo, an illegal alien in New York, a tragic secret in her past, former friends and now archenemies with Lady Deathstrike ... it's now no less confusing to recount the Ultimate versus the iconic.

There's also the flaw that all of these fresh starts seemed to represent a chance to slough off the conceits and prejudices of the 1960s, and yet it all ended up almost worse. In the rush to find Ultimate versions of everyone, senseless "Ultimate Vision" and "Ultimate Red Guardian" have shown up, amounting to far less than the sum of the parts of the predeccesors, while attempting to even the playing field between certain female "housewife" superheroes and their male counterparts, all the writers could think to do was make the formerly underappreciated female sidekicks into scientists, just like their heroic hubbies. The watered-down 'me-too'ism of the Ultimate Wasp and Ultimate Invisible Woman is not an improvement over having been an accessory, frankly.

So, ten years into the Ultimate Universe, and all I really know about it is that the writers got to do whatever they wanted, they got to swear more, they're killing the whole thing off under the man who is kryptonite to decent writing, Jeph Loeb, and in the end it all feels like a terrifically long issue of What If where the premise was What If All Superheroes Acted Like Assholes Most Of The Time?

It's a terrible shame, because the Ultimate Universe had the opportunity to be more accessible, more streamlined, more mature, more interrelated and more essential than its mainstream impetus, but instead, in the end, it appears to have been only louder, vulgar, and briefer.

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