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Thursday, April 28, 2011

How I learned to love the Ultimates

Ok, not quite love. "Appreciate" is maybe even too strong of a word. "Understand," not quite. "Accept" might be the best term here.

Wait, what the fuck am I babbling about? The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2 by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch (and whatever idiot did the lettering, because damn son, learn how to use commas). I have some issues with this book. Let me tell you them--indeed, let me tell YOU them, because for certain my manfriend is sick of arguing about this with me. This comes a little late in the game, since the arcs I'm talking about were published in 2002, but I read one or two about five years ago, didn't bother to read the rest, and didn't think about them until last week, when Manfriend said, Hey, you should read The Ultimates.

So I did. At first I was like, Hmm! Look! Hank and Janet are, like, in love and stuff, they get along, they're both wildly smart, this is awesome! I'm so glad we're in an alternate universe where Jan gets to have two Ph.Ds instead of a biweekly beatdown from her bastard husband! Then I was like, SADFACE. Because everything went to shit. A little background--The Ultimates takes place outside mainstream Marvel continuity, so Mark Millar really had free license to do whatever the hell he wanted with the characters. According to Manfriend, the characters are reworked in interesting ways. Not having much interest to begin with in Captain America or Iron Man and only a passing knowledge of the historical Avengers team (Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Wasp, Giant Man), my reactions to The Ultimates are only based on these stories in themselves. I don't have anything to compare them to. So maybe my reactions are the "wrong" reactions, but if a story can't stand up by itself without a relative newcomer having read a bunch of backstory, ur doin it rong.

So what exactly are my issues? My issues can really be boiled down into one thing: poor writing. This encompasses a TON of stuff that I don't like about this book--that the dialogue is in places really odd, that there are strange, seemingly pointless inclusions of real-world celebrities and politicians, that the female characters are sexist, hollow stereotypes, and that the male characters (save Thor, which I will get to in a minute) are ALSO sexist, hollow stereotypes. The art, I must say, is fantastic, and the plotting is really quite good; the storylines major and minor are interesting, the pacing is great, and overall the plot is solid and worthy of its cast. But a comic can't run on plot alone and it really needs substantial characters to move it along. The Ultimates, to my mind, does not deliver on this score. The "Ultimates" team in this universe consists of the historical founding members of the Avengers: Captain America, the Wasp, Giant Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, with Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. heading the whole shebang up. Other characters are recruited from various locations--Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch from the X-Verse, Hawkeye and Black Widow from government black ops. All in all, it should have been an exciting ride with a lot of interesting characters. Instead, Millar's "reimagining" falls pretty flat. Captain America's patriotism is revved up to hysterically jingoist levels; Tony Stark, despite a brain tumor which he claims has made him rethink his life and an engagement to Natasha Romanoff, is even drunker and more womanizing than ever; Hank Pym and Bruce Banner take their towering inferiority complexes out on the women in their lives, and said women--Jan Pym and Betty Ross--are cyphers with little power and even less plot presence. Natasha as the Black Widow has a bit more kick in the plot (she betrays the Ultimates to their enemies), but the reveal of her betrayal occurs, of course, when she is naked and fucking Tony Stark. It is not even really feminist to expect well-rounded, interesting female characters, unless the bar is even lower than I thought. It sucks to read a story that's supposed to be a completely new take on established characters and see the same old bullshit.

Then there's the situation of the supporting characters from other teams. The Maximoff siblings, Wanda/Scarlet Witch and Pietro/Quicksilver, are portrayed as limp-wristed, incestuous Europeans who would prefer to pole through Venice reading Shakespeare than actually fight. The "Defenders" team, which Hank Pym joins briefly after being booted from the Ultimates post-wife-beating, is made up of various Marvel characters at their worst: Valkyrie is a yellow-belt karate student in a Red Sonja outfit; Luke Cage is a musclehead sans shirt; Nighthawk is a wussy who gets his ass beat by some gang kids; and Hellcat and Son of Satan aren't even worth mentioning. If the Defenders team was supposed to be played for laughs, it didn't trip my giggle gland. Sorry.

Oh, I mustn't forget to address the matter of the villains! "The Liberators," as they call themselves, encapsulate the white-bread American fear of brown people, yellow people, European people, and basically everyone who isn't a white-bread American. Abdul al-Rahman leads them, a Muslim native of Azerbaijan who watched as the Ultimates team invaded his country; the rest are foreign versions of the Ultimates themselves, from a Chinese Hulk (Abomination) and Iron Man (Crimson Dynamo) to a Russian Thor (Perun) and Syrian Wasp (Swarm). Black Widow, Loki, and to a lesser extent Hank Pym work with this group. They are portrayed as attempting to invade the U.S. and break its grip on national politics, trade, and warfare. In other words, they are the white Republican's worst nightmare.

Character-wise, Thor is another matter entirely. In this 'verse, Thor is either a messiah or a delusional schizophrenic, and he is downright compelling at times, whether he's destroying his evil brother Loki or speechifying about the military-industrial complex. It reads as though Millar poured his all into Thor and every other major character got the leftovers. Clint Barton (Hawkeye) is another oddity; a reasonable, down-to-earth dude with a girlfriend and three kids, who makes coffee for his bodyguards and generally gets shit done (his entire family is slaughtered, of course). Thor and Hawkeye were the real stand-out characters for me, the only ones which I cared about, was interested in, or respected.

The only way in which The Ultimates is palatable is if I read it as a parody of U.S. culture, specifically under President Bush. Everything in this story is so heightened, from the over-the-top characters to the scenes in which Tony Stark flies with Shannon Elizabeth on the space shuttle, Betty Ross dates Freddie Prinze, Jr., and the team sits around casting themselves in a Hollywood blockbuster (it's no accident that Samuel L. Jackson is playing Nick Fury in the current crop of Marvel films. Ultimate Nick Fury is BASED ON Samuel L. Jackson, which makes the scene in which Nick Fury casts Samuel L. Jackson as the man to play him in a movie a mind-bending ourobouros of self-referential meta garbage). The tone of the story often feels as though Millar is winking at himself for being so damn clever. Cuteness is something I can rarely stomach in comics. HOWEVER, if Millar was indeed writing this book as a commentary on the state of global politicking, pre-emptive strikes, and other fucked-up-ness in the U.S. generally and specifically under Bush and since, then I applaud him for being the greatest troll comic writing has ever seen. I prefer to read The Ultimates in this mode...otherwise it's just too depressing for words.

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