The Fifth Color | Marvel’s Ultimate universe and what comes next
I know the precise moment I stopped caring about the Ultimate universe: Ultimatum. If I’m not mistaken, a lot of readers lost interest there and then, for good reason. I remember reading through the event and somewhere, maybe after the Wasp’s cannibalized corpse, or during the big confrontation with Magneto, with the callous assassination of Cyclops, I just couldn’t find it in my heart to care any longer. My energy could be spent on better comics. I could go outside, maybe learn a language. I could do anything but care about this storyline and the characters Ultimatum left behind.
Event books aren’t supposed to do that. As much as we might grouse about their prevalence, they do serve a very important purpose within their universes and Big Two comics as a whole. “Events,” where a larger plot is spread across several titles, effectively act as a lure; for DC and Marvel, they’re a Whitman’s Sampler, offering a taste of what’s going on to new readers and longtime fans. They have to be something big, really big, so that readers don’t want to be left out of this major catastrophe. In fact, the idea of “saving the world” leans toward very easy reading for people coming into the event. The more characters they have working on this big world-shaking event, the more at least one of them will stand out for the reader.
More importantly, there’s a sense of finality: The idea of an ending is so hard to get across in ongoing titles, but event books are a no-commitment haven, for the most part. Yeah, there are tie-ins, but Marvel has gotten better at providing a main book to follow and leaving the tie-ins to people who are curious about more information. Our event can follow a three-act structure and, with the crisis averted, feel like something was accomplished. That sense of finality also comes from those big moments where characters change (or give the illusion of change), whether by dying, gaining a new look or power set, or forming alliances.
How does the Ultimate universe stack up to the history of event books? Well, it’s had three in its illustrious nearly 14-year existence: Ultimatum, The Death of Spider-Man and the latest, which concluded this week, Cataclysm. The good news is that the third time is the charm, so let’s see how these stack up.
WARNING: I’m actually trying not to spoil too much from Cataclysm, so few details are given and I’m pretty sure advanced solicitations let you know that Galactus didn’t eat Earth, so read on with a clear conscious!
Argh. Ultimatum should be taught as a clinic on how not to write an event comic, and possibly how not how to write a comic. It was reviled by fans and critics alike for the sheer volume of wrong turns. The wanton destruction of story and characters, whether they died or became shallow husks, it was all just so bad. Writer Jeph Loeb had said he wanted to “close the first chapter” of the Ultimate universe, and he darn near closed the whole book in just a couple of crappy story arcs.
Why is this event so bad? It misses the mark at almost every level and takes what had been purposefully established and tosses it aside for what feels like the sake of tossing it aside. We all realized the Ultimate universe was a sandbox all its own, where characters we know and love could turn the tables on their established histories, but come on. The deaths felt random and with little to no weight. Did you care about the Wasp? Sorry, she died off-panel and is now being horrifically eaten by the Blob. Why? Who knew. The Ultimate universe could take time with fresh origins so that beloved characters from regular continuity could live again in a modern context. So when Dazzler simply drowns in a tidal wave, you feel like you missed something. Epics are built on stronger stuff than what we were presented with. How did all this destruction come to pass? Magneto switched the magnetic poles, causing massive disruptions in the Earth’s weather systems and seismic plates. He did this because the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were killed during their time on the Ultimates. Even just typing it here feels like something’s missing. I know Magneto had tried such nonsense before in the regular X-Men comics, but even the Master of Magnetism, scourge of the humanity, wouldn’t wreck the globe out over the loss of his children. The Ultimate universe had worked so hard to portray the Professor X-Magneto dynamic of right and wrong better than that; he’s a smarter villain, and we are smarter readers than the plot seems to think we are.
The Death of Spider-Man is counted as an Ultimate epic storyline, but it’s a little more self-contained than that. Did the world change because of the death of Peter Parker? Sort of. Were a variety of heroes effected by the loss? Kind of? Parker having to face the sudden revenge of Norman Osborne and his other incarcerated rogues is a pretty big story, and I will say that a lot of the Spider-Man supporting cast are used smartly and effectively. But is it an event? The Ultimates and “New Ultimates” have sort of a cameo through their books, and it’s the Punisher who starts us off with a wounded Spidey, but it’s really Peter Parker’s story. Off the pages, Ultimate Spider-Man was the Ultimate universe. It was the book that started the line and the movement to revitalize our heroes for a new audience. It was the risk that paid off, so having the book and the main character end, well … that is a huge story. “Death of Spider-Man” is a very important story in the history of the Ultimate universe, don’t get me wrong, but big moments do not an event book make. We’re looking for something more.
This brings us to Cataclsym, which is the Baby Bear to our Goldilocks Ultimate universe. Not too hard to follow, not to soft on the character moment, just right. The plot is simple: Galactus comes to Earth. The real Galactus. How do our heroes, who have a different set of skills, stop the world eater from … well, eating the world? It’s the kind of logic puzzle fans would work out on their own, and it’s fun to watch the characters figure it out for themselves. Every character gets a chance to shine, whether through upfront battle or the smaller moments of saving loved ones and strangers. Heroes truly came together in this trial and, while not all of them made it, it does feel like they at least made a difference.
Cataclysm succeed, and it finally feels like the Ultimate universe can breathe a little. Their threat eliminated, our heroes stand at a new chapter in their lives that I, for one, am actually looking forward to reading. If you missed Cataclysm, try to check it out; There are a lot of cool moments and seeds to what will be coming up next that it’s worth the read. If you’re a new reader, I’m happy to say that the Ultimate universe is waiting for you.