Marvel‘s Ultimate line was an innovative step in the direction of getting new readers while refreshing their own brand, but in recent years it has fallen from grace. Read on to hear what went wrong, and why sending it the way of Old Yeller is Marvel’s best course of action.
Too Much Continuity
The whole idea behind the Ultimate books was to introduce a new audience to Marvel characters with updated origins, modern costumes, and zero continuity. These factors are hard to come by in the regular 616 universe (ie, the real Marvel universe) because fans get angered by ret-cons, changes to classic costumes, and 50+ years of convoluted back story. That’s why it was so genius of Marvel to create the Ultimate universe. It was the perfect way to tell unhindered stories and, most importantly, attract new readers.
Each Ultimate title launched with strong sales and widespread critical acclaim, but that success was not meant to last. Ultimate X-Men was the first to show signs of continuity-fatigue when more and more of the 616 mutants began making their inevitable appearances, each one adding needlessly complicated subplots and uninspired twists and turns for the already character-heavy cast.
The same thing happened with Ultimate Fantastic Four. Most notably, Dr. Doom went through a total re-imagining when he was perceived as an acid belching, spike throwing hoofed man with metal skin – a beautiful example how a well-known character could be given the Ultimate makeover. But then all of a sudden he appeared in his 616 armor and gone were the unique spikes, acid, and hooves. The constant, jarring shifts back to 616-style costumes and character behavior (Thor suddenly speaking like an Asgardian in The Ultimates 3) angered some fans and made people ask Marvel an important question: If things are exactly like the 616 universe, then what is the point of the Ultimate universe?
Marvel’s answer to that, in a way, was that they did not need a fully-fledged Ultimate universe. Sales began to plummet for key titles and suddenly this once great machine started to choke and sputter under 9 years of continuity. The gears ground to a halt for 2009’s Ultimatum storyline, which was panned by fans and critics alike for graphically killing off many characters related to failed titles – X-Men and Fantastic Four – and disbanding their respective teams.
The event’s true purpose was a way for Marvel to push the reset button. All Ultimate titles were scrapped and four titles were re-launched under the Ultimate Comics Banner, including the ever-popular Spider-Man series that had been largely unaffected by sales or messy continuity.
Jump forward to 2011. None of the Ultimate titles are performing notably well, but Spider-Man continues its solid run. Naturally, Marvel decided to launch an event titled “Death of Spider-Man,” which teases the death of the star of the Ultimate line’s most popular and profitable character. What? Why?!
Recently, Marvel announced that this year would mark the start of “Ultimate Comics Universe Reborn.” Now they are just getting repetitive. What is a second re-launch going to do that the first one post-Ultimatum didn’t? It feels like Marvel is desperately hanging onto the Ultimate universe despite it’s toxic flaws, like trying to rationalize keeping Old Yeller after he gets rabies.
If You Love Something, Let it Go.. THEN Re-Launch It
If Marvel were to cancel the Ultimate line, it would be a colossal achievement for them as a company and for the comics industry as a whole. In the wake of the cancellation, Marvel should begin a new line of comics in the style of Grant Morrison‘s All-Star Superman, which told a timeless Superman story that paid respect to previous stories but was completely isolated from continuity and had a definitive beginning and end.
The key difference to this “All-Star” line of comics would be that the format of story changes from a never-ending cycle of small story arcs to a single long-running narrative. It would completely eradicate the issue of continuity for all Ultimate books because each book would start with a beginning and an end in mind. Modern day comic masterpieces such as Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets both started out with a clear story, ran for a predetermined amount of issues, and then finished with a triumphant, epic, cathartic ending that has earned unanimous critical and fan praise. Why not do the same thing for all of Marvel’s biggest properties?
Instead of the X-Men being decades of super heroes fighting each other, dying, resurrecting, going rogue, becoming heroes, and getting submerged in a quagmire of continuity, why not create a long-running series where those elements actually have consequence? Imagine the X-Men in a world where death has true meaning, there’s no such thing as a ret-con, and each character reaches their destiny, no matter how awful or wonderful it may be. Imagine seeing the rise and fall of Jean Grey as the Phoenix with a definitive ending. Picture a story where either Magneto or Professor X gets to see their dream come true. Think of all of your favorite mutants getting a solid, concrete arc told over several years like a TV show. There’s no spin-offs or huge cross-over events with other properties, just solid X-Men stories with heart, character, and consequence. Doesn’t that sound more engaging than just the next 6-issue arc of Ultimate X-Men that, no matter how good it is, will inevitably be stepped on and muddled with by the next writer to take the reigns?
Think of the ways this format would affect your other favorite heroes. Spider-Man could finally confront the Green Goblin for all of the pain he’s caused him and have the verdict be permanent. Mr. Fantastic will either resolve his differences with Dr. Doom or his story will end in a Shakespearean family tragedy. The Ultimates will find a way to save the Earth or crumble before an enemy that is too great for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
After over 10 years, the Ultimate line has slowly eroded into exactly what they did not want it to be, the 616 universe. It was a great idea, but that idea has run its course. If Marvel truly wants to create a universe worthy of the label “Ultimate,” then they should not only change a character’s origin and how they look, but rather the structure of the entire story format. Design each title to run a select number of issues; plot out a beginning, middle, and end; and tell a definitive and timeless story that will define those characters forever. Comic book fans love their events, so imagine the fan craze as a 5-year long X-Men story finally comes to its dramatic conclusion. It would achieve Harry Potter-level debate on who lives, who dies, and who gets married. It would change the format forever. It would be the Ultimate Story, which is just what we need.