This week, I am deciding to eat my vegetables before dessert and am reviewing the Ultimatum crossover series many weeks before I get to it in my History of the Ultimate Universe series. I am also combining my column with our mini event “Worst Comics Month”. This is because after I finished binge reading Ultimate Spider-Man Volume One and decided to read this “Ultimatum” series, which filled the gaps in some of the final issues, I (the neophyte comics fan) felt like I had truly experienced a bad comic with its ugly art, “shocking” plot reveals with little or no build-up, and jarring switches in tone from Hulk switching from dumb to smart to in between in the space of a panel to Thor and Cap fighting a knock-off of Return of the King‘s Army of the Dead in Valhalla and the unkillable Wolverine killed in a pathetic, yet overlong way. But how did Ultimatum make it past editorial stage?
In winter of 2008, Marvel decided to publish an event comic set in the Ultimate Universe that would shake up the status quo and return some of the freshness to books like Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four, which weren’t selling as well as when they launched. (Probably due to the departure of high profile writers like Mark Millar and Brian K Vaughan.) They decided to give this five issue crossover miniseries called Ultimatum, to long time industry veteran Jeph Loeb (best known for Batman: Long Halloween) who had recently wrapped Ultimates 3, a commercially successful (Its final issue sold 86,826 copies and was the 6th highest selling book in September 2008.) if critically maligned book. Fans and critics disliked the fact that Ultimates 3 took the tabloid trash elements of the first two Ultimates books and upped them to eleven with the plot of the series hinging around Ultron leaking a Tony Stark sex tape and an incestuous relationship between Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who were offed by Ultron and Hawkeye respectively.
This focus on sensationalism and darkness for darkness’ sake definitely seeped its way into Jeph Loeb’s work on Ultimatum, which stemmed out of his work on Ultimates 3 with the inciting plot incident being Magneto flooding to New York to take revenge on humanity for the deaths of his children. The comic reads like a child being handed a whole toy box of barely used action figures (Ultimatum features appearances from characters as disparate as Dazzler, Dormammu, Doctor Doom, and Spider-Man.) and deciding to rip their heads off or (quite literally in the case of this comic) eat them instead of enjoying playing with them. I will give Marvel the benefit of the doubt in hiring Jeph Loeb for the project because in September 2008, he was writing the second highest selling non-Brian Michael Bendis books. (Hulk and Ultimates 3.)
Ultimatum itself was the top book of November 2008 with its disaster movie meets superhero crossover premise. However, by the time the negative reviews, disjointed plots, offscreen deaths, and teen stripper style female bodies drawn by David Finch had all piled up, sales had dipped from 114,208 for Ultimatum #1 to 86,690 for Ultimatum #5. I think that some fans might have continued to read the series for the shock value, but Ultimatum ended up hindering future writers’ (especially X-Men) efforts in the Ultimate Universe with the death of high profile characters, like Professor X, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Dr. Doom.
The plot of Ultimatum begins as a run of the mill Roland Emmerich summer blockbuster with a giant flood destroying Manhattan and killing millions of people, including superheroes. Off-panel deaths include Daredevil and Beast, who were given decent arcs and personalities by Bendis and Millar in various comics. (Hell, I had to keep Wikipedia open this whole time while writing this article to keep all of them straight.) Some Charles Xavier magic (and Finch does know how to compose a lovely single page spread), and Magneto is revealed as the culprit. The next issues are filler-ish as various X-Men, Ultimates, and Fantastic Four members fight Dormammu, Jamie Madrox suicide bombers (Loeb loses all subtlety in connecting this comic to contemporary politics.), the earlier mentioned Army of the Dead knock-offs, and rescue Nick Fury from an alternate universe used in one JMS story. Loeb’s use of past continuity is, shall we say, selective. Along the way, there is cannibalism, Bible quotes, and Hawkeye acting like a dick to a convalescent Captain America. The story wraps with a big showdown against Magneto where Wolverine dies horribly, Nick Fury actually does something badass with Jean Grey, and Cyclops gets killed by a random sniper later. Then, Loeb brings out his inner M. Night Shymalan (post-Signs) and makes it that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver weren’t really dead and are starting a new mutant revolution to be continued in his not as bad Ultimate X series.
Basically, this event had no point and was just an opportunity for Jeph Loeb to stick as many brutal superhero deaths in one comics series while ostensibly “clearing the deck” for future writers. (Luckily, fan favorites like Spider-Man, Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Human Torch, and the recently resurrected Gwen Stacy find their happy way over to Brian Michael Bendis and David Lafuente’s Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.) The brutality is what sadly makes David Finch the perfect artist for this comic. Finch is known for showing superheroes at their most depraved and tortured from a steroid pumped She-Hulk going on a mind-controlled rampage in the Avengers “Disassembled” arc to Dick Grayson being mentally destroyed in the more recent Forever Evil. He hits peak ugliness in a full page
Finch also continues to portray women as either children or porn stars. The children part works for teenagers like Kitty Pryde and Mary-Jane Watson, and Kitty Pryde actually has the best couple scenes in the comic as she sends Spider-Man off to battle while she defends his civilian friends. She also shares a touching moment with Wolverine, who gives her a rousing speech about being the leader of the next generation of mutants as colorist Peter Steigerwald takes a break from the murky, gloomy palette used by him and Steve Firchow to bathe her in triumphant light. But this is a tiny shade of light in which the broke back pose is in full effect, Scarlet Witch rocks a thong to have one last chat with Magneto, Invisible Woman has the face of a pre-pubescent girl, and Valkyrie is the epitome of the sexy lamp trope. Finch does do an okay job showing off Jean Grey’s power in a double page knockout blow splash wreathed in red and yellow to go with Nick Fury using words to defeat Magneto, the mutant who thought he was a god, but was actually a government experiment. The reaction shot of an aged, wrinkled Magneto to this revelation is almost heart-wrenching, but then Loeb and Finch ruin it by having the (up to this point) moral Cyclops behead him with a cool one-liner. By the end of Ultimatum, the heroes of the Ultimate Marvel universe are either murdered or murderers with exception of what I like to personally call Bendis’ Babies. (Spider-Man and his teen crew.)
I think I can sum up the trainwreck that was Ultimatum in a single pop culture reference: it’s like the montage of the side Jedi getting massacred in Revenge of the Sith, but if that movie was just that scene. (And if there were random strippers, zombies, horrible attempts at wordplay beyond that “sand is sandy” sequence in Attack of the Clones, and cannibalism from both heroes and villains.) I could probably write a whole academic monograph on how Ultimatum is the gold standard as far as the “fridging” trope goes as it kills off characters for mere shock value and barely lets readers connect with them emotionally. The only death scenes that really work for me is Magneto crippling and killing Xavier because he had threatened to do it throughout Millar’s run and his children’s death put him over the edge. There is also The Thing killing Doctor Doom because Doom’s dickery is the only reason this event happened (You’re not much of a supergenius if you think killing the daughter of one of the most powerful people in the universe is a good idea.), and Thing makes a couple nice quips and takes care of almost fridged Sue for the rest of the event.
In a sentence, Ultimatum is the superhero comic that will make you hate superhero comics and will have you reading nothing but Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb, and Daniel Clowes for the rest of your comics reading career. (My apologies to Fantagraphics.) Jeph Loeb really should have apologized to Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis for destroying their carefully crafted, simultaneously optimistic and nihilistic universe with all the skill of a child knocking over sand castles and then pulling its pants down to take a piss on the wretched ruins.