[3 March 2014]
When death and destruction become routine to the point of being expected, does it lose all meaning? Is it at all possible for death and destruction to still resonate when it has been applied so callously that it is devoid of emotional weight? These are questions that most comic book fans don’t want answered or even asked. But Marvel seems determined to give a definitive answer with their once dominant Ultimate comics. It’s not enough that previous events like Ultimatum, Ultimates 3, and Death of Spider-Man have already addressed these questions to a significant degree. It’s also not enough that the answers given are deeply unsettling to many of the fans that had a considerable emotional investment in the Ultimate comics. Like jamming a rusty knife into an already infected wound, Marvel insists on taking this issue as far as they can get away with. And in Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand #5, the point that is made has already been belabored to the point where it undermines any possible meaning meaning.
There’s nothing groundbreaking or shocking about the conclusion of this event. Galactus has invaded the Ultimate universe. He has already laid waste to the entire state of New Jersey and now he’s preparing to devour Earth. And at the very last minute, some of the remaining heroes in Ultimate find a way to save their planet. It’s a story that has played out many times before in many different ways. The ways shown in this story aren’t very novel. And once again, the resolution comes at a high cost in the form of yet more death.
That seems to be the only currency that Ultimate Marvel accepts these days. But this isn’t even the kind of death that can’t happen in the mainline comics. That idea, which was supposed to be Ultimate’s biggest selling point, falls completely flat in this instance. In the same way a heavy gambler already in debt starts betting with the clothes on their back, the cost of the resolution in this story has become meaningless. In the end more characters died and more destruction was unleashed. It’s actually not that cynical to take a “so what?” approach in the context of Ultimate Marvel. In a world that has already been destroyed and littered with the dead bodies of iconic characters, there really is no emotional weight.
But this isn’t just because Ultimate has already been the site of so much death and destruction. That alone isn’t what limits the impact of Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand #5. What really undermines is just how big the conflict is and how little most of the characters contribute. Even though this event is called “The Ultimates’ Last Stand,” the Ultimates don’t do much. Most of the actions are done by Reed Richards, who abruptly reversed his transition into a villain, and Kitty Pryde. The Ultimates as a whole never really made a stand. They might as well have been spectators sitting in the middle of a track during a demolition derby.
It wasn’t just their lack of contributions either. Even when there’s a concerted effort to inject drama and emotion into the story, it still falls flat. This is best shown in the way Reed Richards tries to encourage Kitty Pryde as she battles Galactus. He gives her this Braveheart speech about how she was meant for this epic battle to save the world and everyone she loved. But in the end, that speech might as well have been ended with him saying, “Psyche!” Because in the end she just amounted to a giant distraction in the most literal and figurative sense. So the rhetoric behind this seemingly passionate battle was as hallow as an empty egg-shell. In a sense that’s a good metaphor for Cataclysm as a whole what the Ultimate universe has become. It favors concept over character, style over substance, and shock over intrigue. In the same way the energy boost from a cup of coffee wears off, the impact of this concept wore off long before this story even began.
But beyond the impact, the actual details of the story left the narrative disconnected and chaotic. Part of what made Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand so intriguing from the beginning was how it spun directly out of the events of Age of Ultron. It effectively widened the gateway to Marvel’s mainline universe that Spider-Men first opened. But that link that instigated this conflict did nothing else. While Reed Richards and Miles Morales traveled to this other universe, the solution it led them to didn’t come off as something that made the trip necessary in the first place. Why would Reed or anyone need to travel to another universe to come up with the idea to shove Galactus into the N-Zone? There may indeed be a very good reason, but that reason is lost in the lack of refinement. It’s like an undercooked piece of meat that is hard to chew and potentially dangerous to digest.
That’s not to say there isn’t a story worth telling in Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand. The visuals and presentation have plenty of appeal. The voices for certain characters are nicely done. But not enough of those voices were heard. Any character not named Reed Richards, Kitty Pryde, and Miles Morales experienced little progression. Every other character, due to their lack of contributions, offered nothing else to the story. All they did was look shell-shocked and take up space. They might as well been kids touring a slaughter house.
In many respects, Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand #5 came up to the plate with the team already down by a dozen runs. If it occurred six years ago at a time when the Ultimate comics weren’t so burned out by death and destruction, the impact would be much greater. But even without playing in unfair circumstances, the narrative lacked refinement. With so few characters contributing and the lack of progression in the story, it had little chance of resonating. In the end it just added to the damage Ultimate has already endured and any hope it offers rings hollow. Reed Richards claimed at the end of the story that by surviving this onslaught, anything was possible. He may be right to some extent, but for now those possibilities extend only to more death and more destruction and little hope of anything else.