The Rise and Fall of the Ultimate Marvel Universe

Once considered one of the best things Marvel had going, the Ultimate Universe is in its final days. How did this come to pass?

In the world of comics, there’s a feeling that anything can last forever. Spider-Man and Batman and the like will always be around as long as comics exist. If somebody dies, it doesn’t matter because they’ll just come back later down the line.

Yeah, maybe for the A-list, but even popular concepts and characters simply fade away after a while. Times change. Characters like Booster Gold and Luke Cage were fixtures in their respective universes for years until their stars faded, they were thrown in storage, and only made minor appearances until being brought back many years later. The Hulk had a big status quo where his friends and family were all gamma beings, but their spinoffs petered out and now that genie is back in the bottle.

Now Marvel’s Ultimate Universe is on the way out after 15 years and, sadly, it’s probably a bit overdue. It’s unfortunate because of how huge, popular, and influential the whole imprint was and how it became unnecessary and redundant. After so many false-finishes, it’s going to meet its end during the big Secret Wars event this May.

The Ultimate Universe was introduced in 2000, starting with Ultimate Spider-Man, quickly followed by Ultimate X-Men. For those of you who weren’t reading Marvel at the time, Spider-Man and the X-Men certainly needed it. Oh God, did they ever. Spider-Man was in dire straits. The stink of the infamous Clone Saga was still fresh and what followed wasn’t much better. John Byrne’s Chapter One was a mess and Howard Mackie – one of the architects of the Clone Saga – was running the character into the ground with stories that he never thought out past the first act, yet wrote anyway. They needed a new start, but not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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With the X-Men, things weren’t quite as bad, even with the corpse of the ill-fated Onslaught storyline still warm. If anything, Marvel appeared to realize just how much of a mess X-Men side of things was. The first X-Men movie was a huge box-office hit, but how was anyone supposed to actually get into the comics? They had so many characters with the rosters constantly in flux and there was too much insanity going on. The straw that broke the camel’s back was apparently Dream’s End, a crossover centered around Mystique and Senator Kelly that was supposed to capitalize on the movie, yet was littered with time-travel confusion. They too needed a new start.

Related: Full Marvel Movie Release Calendar

And so Ultimate Spider-Man #1 came out in October of 2000, written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Mark Bagley. It went back to square one. Peter Parker was a teenager, living with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. On a class trip, he was bitten by a spider and it gave him powers. It was an instance of reinventing the wheel, but with a modern bend.

The science behind the spider bite wasn’t just radiation on its own. They went with a more modernized take that it was genetically-engineered by Norman Osborn. The whole origin wasn’t wrapped up in half an issue, but stretched over several. On one hand, Bendis rightfully catches a lot of crap for that style of storytelling, but on the other hand, it also let the classic storyline breathe. Sure, it took several issues for Uncle Ben to eat a bullet, but we actually got to know him in that time and his death was more of a punch to the gut.

Also important was that the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie was on the way and this gave everyone a ground floor. Something new to jump onto if you came out of the film wanting to read some Spider-Man without having to read the really old stuff or the recent-yet-terrible stuff. As mentioned, this was a bigger deal with X-Men as the continuity had gotten completely out of control.

Mark Millar and Adam Kubert started things off with Ultimate X-Men #1 and despite Millar’s relative ignorance of the X-Men, it actually worked out. Rather than having to deal with several years of the original X-Men that never went anywhere until the All-New team came in, Millar got to start it off with all the all-stars. Storm, Colossus, and especially Wolverine were there from the beginning. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run was way better, but at least Millar’s stuff was a strong, streamlined starting point.

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up soon followed, which allowed Ultimate Spider-Man to team up with different reimagined versions of classic heroes. There we got the first looks at the likes of Ultimate Hulk, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and so on. The most memorable thing about the run was the ninth issue, where Spider-Man teamed up with the Fantastic Four. This is a comedy story that portrayed the Fantastic Four as being almost exactly like their mainstream counterparts, later disregarded as being out of continuity once Bendis and Millar collaborated on a more unique Ultimate Fantastic Four team design.

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Something similar happened during Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man run where he introduced Eddie Brock as a reporter – much like in regular continuity – only to ignore that and reintroduce him as a science-obsessed college student only a couple of years older than Peter.

In 2002, Millar and Bryan Hitch gave us the first volume of Ultimates, arguably the most important comic to come out of the entire Ultimate line. The Avengers – which weren’t exactly setting the world on fire in regular continuity at the time – were reimagined in a more cynical, down-to-earth, and current way. The Hulk was no longer created from the gamma bomb, but from a failed attempt to recreate the Super Soldier Serum. Thor no longer had a human form that he could alternate with. Nick Fury – originally created to look like Dean Martin, the coolest cat of that era – was redesigned to look like Samuel L. Jackson, the coolest cat of this era. Sound familiar? It was mean-spirited and needlessly dark at times, much like many Mark Millar comics, but it was a fresh take with some badass and memorable moments.

It inspired a pair of animated movies a few years down the line that were less than stellar, but then again, so were nearly all of Marvel’s animated features. Ultimate Spider-Man got its own video game, which for a time was supposed to be considered part of the comic’s canon. A few years later, the comic recreated the storyline to iron out what parts of the game’s plot actually happened. While that was going on, Ultimate Fantastic Four introduced the Marvel Zombies universe, which got years of play.

The Ultimate line was riding really high for years. You had Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Ultimates, and a handful of one-shots and miniseries sprinkled throughout. There was also Ultimate Adventures, which starred original characters, but nobody cared about that and it quietly went away.

Even with the Ultimate Universe’s flaws, it still felt so fresh and fans would speculate on Ultimate takes of other characters. What’s Ultimate Deadpool going to be like? What about Ultimate Thanos? For years, it seemed they had just the right balance of keeping things familiar and changing them up to keep them interesting.

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One of my favorite little things is how Bendis got so tired of people asking for Ultimate Ben Reilly that he simply gave a random black scientist a quick walk-on role, identified him as “Ben Reilly,” and had him leave the scene. He also responded to questions about an Ultimate Carnage by talking about how Gwen Stacy would be Carnage, which seemed like a joke, only he wasn’t bluffing at all. Well played.

In a way, the Ultimate Universe was the comic book predecessor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Same basic idea: introduce old concepts with a fresh coat of paint so the curious masses can get into it while making it just as accessible for the longtime Marvel readers. Even as the line expanded, the connections in the continuity felt stronger and more tightly-knit. They even did a miniseries called Ultimate Origins that tackled the fact that outside of the magic and alien stuff, everything appeared to be connected. Hulk, Spider-Man, Spider-Man’s villains, Nick Fury, and even the entire mutant race were created because of Captain America and the Super Soldier Serum. It felt intimate.

There were problems, though. Orson Scott Card and Andy Kubert did a miniseries about the origin of Ultimate Iron Man and it felt…off. Although the Ultimate comics celebrated being different when compared to the original characters, Card went a little too far. There was all this stuff in there about him having blue skin and the ability to regenerate body parts and having a brain that spread across his entire body that just didn’t sit right.

Years later, Mark Millar explained it away that the Ultimate Iron Man stories by Card were just part of an animated series Tony Stark had commissioned and didn’t reflect the Ultimate Universe proper.

Other problems included Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk, a miniseries by Damon Lindelof and Leinil Francis Yu, that came out with two explosive issues and then…nothing. For several years, we didn’t get word of the third issue and it became a running gag in the comic community. Even various Ultimate comics made references to its lack of completion. Speaking of comics with trouble ending, the Ultimate heroes had a nine-issue crossover with Supreme Power, the darker, more modern version of Squadron Supreme (the Ultimate Squadron Supreme, if you will). The miniseries was a complete mess met with delays, laughable art, and it suffered from having three writers.

Things really went down the drain the second we got Jeph Loeb and Joe Madureira’s Ultimates Volume 3 at the end of 2007. It had all of Loeb’s annoying habits. A murder mystery? Check. A whole bunch of guest appearances even if they were pointless and didn’t make sense? Check. Heroes and villains written out of character? Oh, you certainly have a check there.

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Thor – a character known for acting like a super-powerful hippy who spoke like a normal guy – was inexplicably back to being his Marvel 616 self, speaking in Stan Lee Shakespeare dialogue. He even went back to wielding the classic comics Mjolnir instead of the axe-hammer that defined him in the first two volumes of Ultimates. Similarly, Pyro was suddenly a member of Magneto’s Brotherhood with no explanation despite being introduced as a member of the X-Men a year or so earlier. But whatever. He was a villain in the regular comics so surely he would just be a good plug-and-play villain here.

I could go on for days complaining about this book, but the most hilariously bad moment comes from the first issue. Millar – whose writing is blunt as a shovel to the skull – was able to write a relatively subtle relationship between Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch where it seemed that they were a little too close. Loeb decided to not only outright state that they were doing it, but Wasp went on to defend it to Captain America. Like she totally acted as if incest was a totally normal and adorable thing and that Cap was only disgusted by it because he’s from the 1940s. Yeah. That happened.

And Wolverine watched them have sex one time, which was creepier since it was implied that he might be their real father.

Loeb practically took over the whole line, getting his TV-writing buddies Joe Pokaski and Aron Coleite spots on Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men respectively. Loeb reportedly even tried taking Ultimate Spider-Man for himself, but Bendis put his foot down and refused to budge. Loeb then created a big crossover event alongside David Finch called Ultimatum based on the idea of demolishing the planet and taking out as many characters as possible. It was a five-issue snuff comic where shock value took center stage above everything else. Lots of major characters got taken out, mainly in the X-Men side of things, like Cyclops, Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, and so on.

The idea behind the disasterpiece made some sense. Marvel’s mainstream line was doing fantastic and some felt the Ultimate line was losing its luster. Simply saying, “Here’s Ultimate Mr. Sinister,” was no longer doing it. What better way to show off how different this world could be than just causing massive, irreparable damage? It’s not like you could just blow up a continent in regular Marvel while killing off some of the more important members of the X-Men and call it a day, right?

The whole line was changed from “Ultimate ______” to “Ultimate Comics ______.” The results were scattershot. Ultimate Comics Spider-Man still had Bendis at the helm and continued its run of quality. Loeb teamed up with Frank Cho to do New Ultimates, which was actually pretty fun and one of Loeb’s better titles in the past decade. On the other hand, he and Art Adams did Ultimate Comics X, which dealt with Wolverine’s illegitimate son and it was met with nothing but delays, ending before it could go anywhere, not that it was the biggest loss since it wasn’t all that good.

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Then Mark Millar came back to do Ultimate Comics Avengers alongside various artists to tell stories with weird spinoff versions of existing characters like Iron Man’s Brother, Nerd Hulk, Rap Video Hulk, Vampire Daredevil, and so on. He threw some interesting stuff in there, but it didn’t really measure up to his original Ultimates work.

In mid-2011, they gave the Ultimate line the biggest shot in the arm they could get when Bendis finally killed off Spider-Man. A mini-event in itself, Death of Spider-Man had Peter Parker suffer bullet wound and power through it while fighting off several of his top villains before stopping the Green Goblin. He died in front of Aunt May, happy that he succeeded in saving her unlike how he failed Uncle Ben. This made national news for the aftermath, where in an issue of Ultimate Comics Fallout, we saw a new Spider-Man fight crime for the first time, return home, and unmask to reveal he was black.

With eyes back on the Ultimate imprint thanks to Miles Morales Spider-Man making waves, we got two new relaunches in Ultimate Comics Ultimates and Ultimate Comics X-Men. Ultimates was written by Jonathan Hickman with art by Esad Ribic and picked up on a development from an earlier story where Ultimate Reed Richards became a villain. It started strong, going with the idea of a threat so grand that it took a full year of storytelling for the good guys to finally get their win after enduring failure after failure.

Considering this is the Secret Wars creative team and it has the same long-lasting feeling of hopelessness rather than have everything wrapped up in six issues, Ultimates comes off as a bit of a prototype for Hickman’s New Avengers run. In fact, as of this writing, the latest issue of Avengers is acting as a follow-up to that exact story.

The world was once again shoved into a more dystopian direction thanks to the Ultimates arc. Hickman left the book and gave it to Sam Humphries, who livened things up just a little bit by making Captain America the president in order to restore order in the States.

Ultimate X-Men got off on the wrong foot due to writer Nick Spencer’s decision to write a less-than-linear storyline. Every issue was the first act of a different story with hopes of connecting them down the line (he tried the same style in Avengers World). After a year of this nonsense, he was taken off the series and it was given to Brian Wood.

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Bendis’ Spider-Man remained the heart of the Ultimate line and held onto the quality like nobody’s business. It also led to the first official Marvel 616/Ultimate Marvel crossover in Spider-Men, a storyline where the mainstream Peter Parker entered the Ultimate world and befriended Miles while fighting Mysterio. Although Marvel Zombies linked 616 and Ultimate together in a roundabout way, it took 12 whole years before Marvel decided to pull the trigger on outright having the characters meet up. That’s pretty impressive, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man was the only series that had any juice in it. Ultimates and X-Men were dying out. Marvel would try one more gambit to get people interested: Once again, they would threaten to end the entire line in a world-ending event and then use it as an excuse to relaunch everything. This time, coming out of the 616 miniseries Age of Ultron, they gave us Cataclysm. The 616 version of Galactus came to the Ultimate universe, assimilated the Ultimate version of himself (Gah Lak Tus, a swarm of alien locusts) and went after Ultimate Earth. Naturally, it took a big superhero team-up to stop him.

In the aftermath, we got Ultimate Marvel NOW!, the final breath of the Ultimate Universe. Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man started at #1 and has mostly acted as a way to conclude some dangling storylines, such as Miles’ relationship with his father. It even brought Peter Parker back to let him ride off into the sunset. Miles would also use his star power in Michel Fiffe’s All-New Ultimates, which went back to the well of creating Ultimate versions of existing characters like Scourge, Diamondback, Terror, and so on, while starring a more street-level team of Kitty Pryde, Cloak, Dagger, and others. Much like Joshua Hale Fialkov and Stuart Moore’s new Ultimate FF series, it failed to catch on and it was dead in the water.

Once a necessary and thriving brave new world of continuity, Ultimate Marvel has been reduced to a single solo title that knows that the writing is on the wall. It’s given us plenty of inspiration. Hell, Marvel bent over backwards to replace the classic Nick Fury with his bald, black, one-eyed son whose name also happens to be Nick Fury in regular continuity. But now? It’s unnecessary.

Marvel Comics is killing it right now in general. We’re no longer in the post-Clone Saga era. There’s no luster left in building on this alternate, more modern reality. Little reason other than nostalgia for a few years ago when there was something left to say. After several fake-outs, it’s time to say goodbye. In Secret Wars, Ultimate Marvel will be destroyed and integrated into the new continuity, presumably so that Miles Morales isn’t lost in the sands of time.

Though that, “Do you think this letter on my head stands for France?” line can bite the dust. I’m fine with that.

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Gavin Jasper wishes Guy Gardner was a Marvel character just so we could have gotten a book called Ultimate Warrior. Follow him on Twitter!