REVIEW: Ultimate Origins

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Butch Guice
Colors: Justin Ponsor
Publisher: Marvel Comics

My secret origins: back when the Marvel website offered free Dot.Comics, I was about 12 and geeky and hungry for a new obsession. The Ultimate Universe was, for as long as the scant issues they offered could last me, that obsession. When it came to laying down pocket money, I fell away from comics.

These days, I’m back into comics with a vengeance. But, Millar and Bendis made me and, of course, you never forget your first. For years the only trade I had was Ultimates Vol. 1 and I still clutch it to my chest on cold Wednesday nights when the Diamond list looks depressingly empty.

And though I sort of look funnily at people who complain about changes to their favourite character’s continuity or costume or marriage or whatever, I’m pretty defensive of the Ultimate Universe as I knew it. When I realised the three titles I was reading already managed to contradict each other, it hurt a little. 616 Marvel, the DCU… They’re playgrounds to me, happy sources of endless crazy ideas.

But not here. Not the Ultimate Universe. That was real to me, back when I was young and naïve and wanted to go out nightly in a red all-over jumpsuit beating up criminals and winning girls’ hearts…
So it really annoys me that Bruce Banner has massive muscles.

Okay. This is on page 1 of Ultimate Origins, Brian Michael Bendis’ promised shake-up of the increasingly uninteresting line. Since Daddy Millar left, there’s only Ultimate Spider-man really worth reading (I say this entirely uninformed, since I can’t bring myself to touch Ultimates 3.) I’m excited, Bendis is the Mummy of the whole thing, but a muscular Banner contradicts the entire idea of the character.

So let’s talk Origins…

On the aforementioned first page, muscled Banner and all, Origins sets up a mystery- a conspiracy theory, that “everything is connected”, and a shadowy organisation trying to drag Banner away as he tells the young Peter Parker there’s something secretive going on. And that’s the promise, and it’s one Origins never lives up to, in my opinion.

It’s full of secrets, to be sure. On almost every page, there’s something new: the origins of mutants, the connection between the Parkers and Banner, the first Captain America, Nick Fury’s past. And they are all, more or less, connected. But it never feels like it’s unpicking the mystery, just the underpinnings of the universe.

And it feels contradictory, something which isn’t helped by some quite ugly art- Guice’s work has a place, definitely. But it’s not here. The Ultimate Universe is defined, for me, as much by artists like Mark Bagley and Bryan Hitch. Their styles are obviously pretty far removed, but somehow there’s an aesthetic there. The characters are theirs, and these big-muscled, fat-eyebrowed Thunderbird-puppet renditions here just don’t sell me on the odd take Bendis uses on some of the characters. Spider-man looks too adult in his costume (a problem that, to be fair, applied in the last arc of the Ultimates too). Nick Fury is just another Blaxploitation character (arguably, rather than Millar’s Greatest Blaxploitation Character, but that’s a thread for another time).

Then some of the stuff is just superfluous: everything you need to know about young Steve Rogers is implied in those early Ultimates issues, and a basic knowledge of the Marvel Universe. I don’t need to see him facing moral dilemmas about the War: all his conflict is in the present.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of good stuff here too. The narrative trick Bendis pulls to drag all of his story together- the mysterious Grandfather Clock-like watching posts are a genius device and their big reveal is a lovely Ultimate reinvention of a classic Marvel tradition that, rereading, is blindingly obvious. It makes something that is silly in 616 continuity sing with genuine, ominous dread; the way it should.

The characterisation (and, yes, look) of the Fantastic Four seemed fine, too, but then I was never too close to those characters. Even the first meeting between Xavier and Magneto was really enjoyable, the kind of geek fantasy this whole book could’ve been. But, again, we’ve already seen (a very slightly different version of) it all before, and the subplot as a whole feels unnecessary.

The book is best summed up in one page: where the use of the watching posts is revealed and speaks, laying out the why and how of its purpose. There’s a big montage of all the major (and a lot of minor) players in the Ultimate Universe, and its cool picking out the ones you know and love and might not ever expect to be referenced. But the ones that contradict my version of the Ultimate Universe- the silly spike-headed things, lizard-headed things and Ultimate Deadpool (God, everyone remember that little travesty?)- they all hurt a little because it stops making so much sense.

And throughout, the Geek Treasure, all those little links and references, they burn a little because they’re unnecessary. It’s almost like Bendis is accidentally presenting the argument for the Ultimate Universe’s closure as it becomes as continuity-heavy and silly as the Universe that spawned it. But as a fanboy I say, it is the line that needs refreshing, not the universe. Get some fresh talent on the core books, let the world be its own thing, and the Ultimate line can thrive again.

Oh… a score?
6

NEXT… ULTIMATUM?

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