I did not want to like the Ultimate Marvel Universe. I loved my Marvel history; the legacy of Jack and Stan and never had issue with Marvel’s sliding nine-year timeline even as convoluted as it could be. I didn’t feel Marvel needed an Earth 2. I remember adamantly refusing to purchase the books. Then I read the first Ultimate Spider Man trade and enjoyed the updated take on the mythos. Then the Ultimate X-Men hit and I liked it. But the book that sealed the deal was Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s the Ultimates. After reading the first issue I understood that the ultimate universe was meant to be Modern Marvel.
The Ultimate’s were the Avengers but they also weren’t. There were familiar faces but different. Hawkeye was no longer a reformed criminal carnie- now he was a black ops military operator. Janet Van Dyne and Hank Pym were struggling genetic scientists suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the world called for post human soldiers. Thor was either the son of Odin cast down to earth in order to save it or a former nurse who had a mental breakdown and believes he was a god. Bruce Banner is a hundred pound weak-willed scientist who can’t pull his weight while the Hulk… well the Ultimate Hulk is just awesome. He’s an insecure monstrosity with a mean hate on for Freddie Prinze Jr. The Banner/Hulk split is a cornerstone of the book and unlike the main Marvel universe, where it is insinuated the Hulk is destructive and deadly, in the Ultimate universe the Hulk’s body count is large and the destruction is epic and his poop has to be collected to identify his victims.
The Ultimates wasn’t just modern in the handling of their heroes, but also in real world concerns of budget and government oversight. A long running theme in the mainline Avengers book was their relationship with the government. The Ultimate’s were a government funded super team with a $150 billion budget and supported by S.H.I.E.L.D. Their entire operation was created as a 21st century military defense initiative in response to the appearance of post-human super terror. As a government teacher, I loved the budget considerations that peppered the book. The budget cuts were necessary to fund the Ultimate’s and even the financial considerations of keeping the doors open to their $50 billion base, the Triskelion. There’s even a moment, where in the middle of the climactic battle, Nick Fury has to dip into discretionary funding for a piece of his personal armory. I loved that added bit of real world concern. Where the mainline book seemed to eternally be funded by the Maria Stark Trust the Ultimate’s had real world financial concerns.
We needed modern in 2003. While I loved the Marvel U, especially as Bendis took over Daredevil, Morrison was on New X-Men, and Priest was revitalizing Black Panther. But, some of the books were dated; the Avengers proper felt antiquated. The ideas lacked depth, it felt redundant, and the modern twist was matching leather jackets. With the Ultimate’s Millar was able to deconstruct the Avenger’s mythos and merge it with a modern feel. For example, in the classic Avengers #4, by the end of the issue, Captain America seems to have a grasp on the fact he had missed a large chunk of time. Under Millar you feel the pain of Steve Roger’s assimilation back into society. To him, he’d been asleep for a day, only to wake up with his best friend married to his former fiancé, most of his friends and family dead, he didn’t understand technology, nor why it was important to lock your door when living in a rough neighborhood. I got the feeling that Steve Rogers only felt comfortable in the middle of conflict, outside of that he was a fish out of water.
My favorite Captain America moment was his 1940’s mindset on how to deal with a modern wife beater. I remember the classic Yellow Jacket slap of the Wasp in Avengers #213. Yes controversial for 1981, especially for my 7-year-old brain. Millar escalated the domestic violence and Captain America dealt with Hank in a very drastic matter, but it feels right, justified. Plus, it shows you how truly badass Captain America is- and believe me, he is a bad ass.
Joining Millar was Bryan Hitch, who was the perfect choice. Both Millar and Hitch were on the rise, but Hitch had already cut his teeth on larger than life stories with Warren Ellis on the Authority and Mark Waid on what should have been an epic JLA run. Hitch and Millar gelled on the Ultimates. It was a blending of pitch perfect dialogue and widescreen action to create a movie on paper. These were modern superheroes told with a modern mindset, not trapped in the past or 400 plus issues of continuity. Which is fitting since Marvel would tap the Ultimates as they created their cinematic universe. When I saw the MCU being forged on the big screen I saw a lot of Jack and Stan, but when I saw the Avengers on the big screen I saw the Ultimates and was happy.