How can global destruction have the same effect in a world that has already endured too much of it?
Cataclysm: The Ultimates Last Stand #1Publisher: Marvel
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley
Publication Date: 2014-01
It used to be a real challenge to sufficiently convey the epic scale of a story. Now with the advent of CGI and Photoshop, it's possible for anyone with moderate to advanced computer skills to operate on a scale equivalent to a heavyweight prize fighter in boxing. This has made it so people don't have to overly use their imagination to put a story into a certain context. However, it has also made it so the concept of epic scale is graded on a reverse curve. It has gotten to the point where if it were a course in college, getting a mere C-minus would require the kind of effort that usually warrants an A.
In Marvel's Ultimate comics, that grading scale has become so horribly skewed that even the biggest overachievers in every Ivy League school in the world would be turned off by it. Throughout its history, the Ultimate comics have raised the bar for epic storytelling. There was even a time when it contained some of the most epic stories in contemporary comics. However, that might as well have been a lifetime ago when AOL was still the most popular internet service and Apple's stock price was under ten dollars a share.
Since then, Ultimate Marvel has become a victim of its own distorted scale. Events like Ultimatum, Death of Spider-Man, and President Captain America have left it in a state of stagnation where the narrative seems to be in a state of constantly healing from old festering wounds. But now Marvel seeks to recapture the sense of epic scale that once made Ultimate Marvel one of the most compelling narratives in comics. Cataclysm: The Ultimates' Last Stand isn't just another bit of disaster porn in a universe where Marvel has the luxury of horribly maiming its characters both physically and mentally. It actually is part of a much larger story that ties directly into Age of Ultron. That story already began with a prelude of sorts in Hunger, which showed Galactus entering the Ultimate universe in his never-ending quest to sate his hunger. Now he's like a hungry wolf who just had a steak ripped from his mouth before he could fully gorge and Ultimate Earth represents a much thicker, juicer steak.
The very premise itself is epic in a way that simply would not work in Marvel's mainline comics. The Ultimate comics is essentially a wounded duck where half the flock has been shot down by hunters equipped with machine guns. The Fantastic Four, S.H.I.E.L.D., the X-men, and the Ultimates are all considerably weaker, ravaged by years of ineptitude, ego, and utterly unheroic behavior. They are completely unequipped to deal with a threat like Galactus and for most of Cataclysm: The Ultimates Last Stand #1, this is painfully apparent.
From the moment of his arrival, Galactus barely breaks a sweat. S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Ultimates throw everything they have at him and Galactus still manages to destroy the entire state of New Jersey as if it were an appetizer at dinner. But that isn't what gives this issue an appropriate sense of scale. The story of Galactus's arrival is told through the eyes of Miles Morales, who has been one of the few bright spots within an Ultimate series that has otherwise been in increasingly forgettable. In Age of Ultron, he saw a vision of Galactus entering the Ultimate universe. So it's fitting that his perspective is the one that establishes the narrative. He may be a teenager, but who else other than an overwhelmed teenager could offer a fitting perspective of an attack by Galactus?
This perspective is what helps make Cataclysm: The Ultimates Last Stand #1 resonate in a way that recent Ultimate events, such as Hunger, have failed to accomplish. It's not enough to just throw the characters of Ultimate into a story that involves cities blowing up and beloved characters dying. Miles's perspective makes the story more engaging. It's not like just standing outside the bathroom while a massive bar fight breaks out during a football game. There is actually sense of personality that is perfectly complemented by the detailed artwork of Mark Bagley, who helped establish the style of Ultimate Marvel during its earliest days. So even if that skewed grading scale was applied, this issue would earn an A-minus in terms of presenting a sufficiently epic story.
But it's only an A-minus because aside from Miles, there's not much else that this issue offers in terms of plot. Galactus shows up and starts destroying Ultimate Earth. The heroes in Ultimate that haven't been killed, gone crazy, or turned evil do their best to fight back. However, there's never a point in the story where it seems like they're doing anything more than throwing sand in the face of an angry grizzly bear. It still has the same problem that like Hunger had from the very beginning. Ultimate Marvel has just become so damaged in recent years that the threat of global destruction simply has little emotional impact. It's like another beloved child star getting arrested for drugs. It's so common that the strongest reactions are still tempered to the point of it being bland.
Like de-caffinated coffee, the impact of Cataclysm: The Ultimates Last Stand #1 is limited. However, the circumstances of the story that tie it into the aftermath of Age of Ultron, which is still unfolding, give the plot some badly needed emotional weight. For once, Ultimate feels like a part of a greater narrative that involves more than just destroying things that can't be readily destroyed in Marvel's 616 comics. It gives the impression that this will fundamentally change the nature of Ultimate Marvel in a way that involves more than just global destruction and shock tactics. The gravity of the story is still muted, but the scope is refreshingly fitting.