Missed Directions: The Long Dark Halftime of The Ultimate Universe

Back in 2000 there was a cool, clear logic to the Marvel Universe. Or at least to the Marvel Universes. There was the regular universe, the universe of “Earth-616”, a longstanding reality in Marvel’s Multiverse. This world housed all the characters that featured so prominently over Marvel’s thitherto 40 years of publications. There was the Mangaverse, its own distinction from the regular universe was clear. The Mangaverse was a place to re-encounter old favorites, this time their origins, histories and motivations interpreted through the cultural lens of manga.

Then there was the Ultimate Universe.

Begun in 2000 with Ultimate Spider-Man, each subsequent year would see the launch of a new core title beginning with Ultimate X-Men in 2001, followed by The Ultimates (the Ultimate treatment of The Avengers) in 2002 and ending with Ultimate Fantastic Four in 2004. What the Ultimate Universe was about would become abundantly clear as early as Ultimate Spider-Man — this was the modernizing of Earth-616, through the eyes of specific writers. No doubt The Ultimates was uniquely Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s vision, just as Ultimate Spider-Man “belonged” to Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley.

If anything, the general lack of critical acclaim for Jeph Loeb’s run as writer on Ultimates 3 (succeeding Millar) seems to underline the fact of writers in the Ultimate Universe offering a strong if not exclusive vision of their creative projects.

A Missed Direction however appears with Volume 9 of the Ultimate Spider-Man collected editions, “Ultimate Six”. In it, Ultimate Spidey scribe Bendis offers up a tale in which the Ultimates themselves are crucial to the narrative’s outcome. And with his “guest”-writing of the “Millar team”, Bendis offers a radical new vision of in-team politics.

With Millar writing Ultimates, the three key Marvel superheroes (Captain America, Iron Man and Thor) each offered a distinct and humane foil to zealously strategic Nick Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence agency. Thor was a New-Age prophet, concerned with the social welfare and political freedoms of people. Cap was the voice of reason against military incursion into everyday lives. And Iron Man was the foil against excessive corporatization and media saturation.

With Bendis writing however, all three contrarian positions to Fury’s often maniacal pursuit of security by way of secrecy seem to be conflated into Cap. Iron Man and Thor find themselves marginalized within the team structure, and nearly voiceless.

And yet somehow, this decision to shake-up Millar’s usual characterization just seems to work. Cap and Fury should come to face off against each other. Thor and Iron Man should find themselves marginalized. As with any good storytelling, the audience just intuits that this should be the case.

With the reboot of the Ultimate Universe after the events of 2009’s Ultimatum (a crossover event meant to finally shut down the Ultimate Universe) and the re-launch of Ultimate Universe characters under their “original” writers (Bendis on the new Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and Millar on Ultimate Comics: Avengers) is Marvel facing a Missed Direction? Could this have been a key opportunity to have swapped writers and built a new mythology for the Ultimate characters?

Or is the real Missed Direction, having attempted to shut down the Ultimate Universe in the first place?