Remember when the Ultimate Universe felt fresh and exciting?
When the imprint first launched around a decade ago, it was the home of some of Marvel’s best storytellers, who reinterpreted the company’s traditional superhero universe in a modern context, reinventing many of the characters and concepts in the process.
The cream of that early crop of Ultimate books was Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates, a sophisticated title that reimagined the Day-Glo superhero boom of Stan Lee’s 1960s Marvel Age as a militaristic arms race, with the traditional Avengers team essentially serving as footsoldiers for the US military machine.
Since Ultimates ended, we’ve seen the Ultimate universe diluted by a host of inferior series that have not only been disappointing as stories in their own right, but have gradually moved the characters closer to their regular MU counterparts. The result has been that the universe just doesn’t feel that fresh and exciting any more, and even Millar’s return to the imprint with Ultimate Avengers just over a year ago hasn’t managed to turn back the tide.
Admittedly, Ultimate Avengers vs New Ultimates is a continuation of that run (effectively, it’s Ultimate Avengers #19, although the release of each story arc as an individual miniseries means it also serves as Ultimate Avengers 4 #1). However, there’s little in the way of distracting hangover from those earlier issues, save for the troubling situation involving the Triskelion having been teleported to Iran–a very enjoyable closing development in Ultimate Avengers 3, and one that adds some intense yet absurd international political pressure to the team at the start of this volume.
Yes, the politics that we saw play a heavy role in the original Ultimates returns to the book’s universe with a vengeance here, as various competing factions wage a covert war over the next stage in the evolution of superhuman-as-weapon-of-mass-destruction. Without giving anything away, this opening issue already manages to serve up one or two compelling surprises, some of which surely can’t be as straightforward as they seem, but which work as effective plot twists nonetheless–especially in the context of the superhero arms race that Millar set up in the first two volumes of Ultimates.
It’s also nice to see the writer get his hands back on the core cast of that book, demonstrating that he still has a better handle on how these ultimate versions work than most other writers to have worked with them, and also getting the chance to revisit leftover plot points from that earlier run (such as Tony Stark’s terminal brain tumor)
Indeed, if you squint a bit, and ignore some of the cosmetic details (like Thor’s ‘new’ hammer, Iron Man’s ‘new’ armour, and the ‘new’ Giant-Man), you could even pretend that this is a direct continuation of Ultimates. Certainly, it’s the first thing that has really felt like it truly captures the spirit of Millar and Hitch’s run on the title.
Talking of Hitch, the absence of the original Ultimates illustrator is well compensated for here with the presence of Leinil Yu. The artist’s work on Millar’s recent creator-owned Superior series has been some of his best yet, and this issue continues that trend, bringing us dynamic compositions that carry a strong sense of energy despite the rich detail and stylised angular touches.
Yu is a good fit for the world of the Ultimates, especially in comparison to some of the recent artists to have worked on the book: you only have to compare his depiction of the Triskelion stuck in the middle of an Iranian desert with that of Steve Dillon in Ultimate Avengers 3 to see how much Yu brings to the book. He’s very faithful to the original Ultimates in terms of both the realistic tone and the specific character designs–and he even gets the chance to contribute one or two of his own towards the end of the issue, with the debut of an interesting new creation called Mimic.
At this early stage, I’ve no idea where this book is ultimately heading–and, significantly, how much it’s going to have to do with the “Death of Ultimate Spider-Man” story that’s running in Ultimate Spider-Man (although the cover to this issue would suggest that there’ll be a fair bit of crossover, as the name of that storyline dwarfs the title of the series itself). There’s certainly ample scope for this book’s storyline to be knocked off course by a tie-in with a series I’m not reading, and I’m also slightly unsure of whether Millar is going to be able to do this book justice in terms of providing an entertaining story in its own right, whilst also crossing over with the Spider-Man story, whilst also tying up a lot of dangling plot threads from earlier issues of his Ultimate Avengers.
For now, however, this is probably the closest thing we’re going to get to a third volume of Millar’s Ultimates–and that’s definitely something to be happy about.