Worst of the Worst: Ultimatum
Like pretty much every other comics reader with an Internet connection, I'd heard that "Ultimatum," the line-wide crossover that more or less destroyed Marvel's Ultimate line, was terrible. Despite strong sales that kept it in the top ten for its entire run, the series was almost universally panned, with readers going so far as to declare it one of, if not the, most mind-bendingly terrible comics ever printed. So when I sat down to read the trade for a ComicsAlliance review, I was prepared for the worst.
And as I was reading through, I've gotta say: It was better than I thought it was going to be.
Don't get me wrong: I don't mean that it's good, because even from the first few pages it becomes obvious that it's not, just that it wasn't as bad as I expected. Of course, considering what I'd heard about it from the Internet before it came out, all it had to do to be better than I expected was not punch me in the eye and give me the super space-plague the second I opened it up.
Was it stupid and loud, with actual storytelling apparently put aside for the sake of high spots? Yes, but when you're reading a line of comics largely based around the work of Mark Millar, that's going to happen. Did things happen without any explanation whatsoever? Yes, but to be fair, I didn't read any of the tie-ins and this was the first Ultimate title I've read in years, so if anything was set up before the series proper, I missed it. Was it really the atrocity everyone had claimed it was? No, I certainly didn't think so.
And then this happened. (Warning: Gore)
And then THIS happened.
The two scenes that everyone had talked about: The Blob eating the Wasp and then being eaten himself in revenge. And it just got worse from there.
The over-the-top gore and implied sexism of that scene have already been covered to death on the comics Internet, and it's just as bad in context as I'd heard it was going to be. Even so, it was hard for me to get worked up about it, because, as I mentioned, I don't have the emotional investment in the Ultimate universe characters that I do for the versions of the Core Marvel Universe.
As strange as it sounds, we've all sort of agreed that while none of these characters are real, some of them are more "real" than others, and for all its flaws and strengths, the Ultimate universe is essentially fanfiction with production values, where creators are allowed to pick and choose the different aspects of existing characters to bang together in new ways. But if Millar and Bendis were doing fanfiction based on the Marvel Universe, then Loeb is doing fan-fiction based on Millar, taking Millar's knack for characters who only speak in one-liners and Big Action Explosions and boiling it down to something that has even less plot.
And it is terrible fanfiction at that. It's the kind of story written by a teenager that wants to sound like a grownup. For one thing, big ideas are introduced without even a cursory attempt at explaining them. The book starts, for instance, with Magneto, inverting the Earth's magnetic poles in that grand tradition of dubious comic book science, which not only causes a tidal wave to hit Manhattan (and nowhere else, and only once), it also causes a blizzard in Latveria that comes on so suddenly that people are instantly frozen solid while walking around outside.
According to the Wikipedia article (which, yes, I'm not too proud to admit I had to read to try to make sense of this thing), this was done by combining his own powers with Thor's hammer, but the closest the actual text comes to mentioning this is that Magneto's got the hammer laying around. Why he's got it, how he got it, and why Thor didn't bother to go get his hammer back? Never mentioned. From what I understand, it happened in "Ultimates 3," but again, the most that happens with it in the story is that he waves it around and blows up a Madrox dupe with it. It's just there, for no reason.
Similarly, there's a scene in #3 where Magneto tells Mystique that he's got important plans for her:
So what's this important plan that had to be ominously (and "specifically") foreshadowed?
Nothing. It doesn't exist. The next time she shows up, she's shooting at the Hulk with a flamethrower, and then later she's hanging out with Sabretooth, who apparently doesn't have a healing factor in the Ultimate universe. The panel above serves absolutely no purpose in the story.
Another element of Ultimatum that seems cribbed from the fan-fiction of xXDaRk_DeAdPooLXx is the constant, incredibly gory violence that comes at a rate that goes from shocking to hilarious and finally settles back down at sad. I read that there's a rule for SyFy Channel Original Movies that says they have to kill someone off once every eight minutes to keep viewer interest, and Loeb writes this like he's going for extra credit. Characters are killed off left and right, and none of them have particularly heroic deaths. They just die for the sake of filling pages.
Professor X, for instance, is confronted by Magneto and, after a classy exchange where Professor X compares him to Osama Bin Laden, Magneto snaps his neck.
That's it. That's the entire sequence of events. Professor X doesn't bother to fight back at all. He doesn't even use his powers to call for help, or tell anyone that he's about to be murdered and that if they hurry, they can catch up to the genocidal maniac that they're all looking for. He just sits there and patiently waits for Magneto to kill him. It's like he's read the script.
My favorite example of the outright childish nature of this story, however, is the fact that the climactic battle takes place in a room lined with stained glass windows so that no fewer than three characters can each crash through one in rapid succession shouting things like "IT'S OVER!" or "I'LL KILL YOU!" before being effortlessly smacked down. Seriously, three characters do the exact same thing over the span of nine pages, politely waiting their turn to fight while everyone stands around looking at them.
Also, Dr. Doom is in it for about ten minutes for reasons that continue to elude me, and while this doesn't have much to do with "Ultimatum" or Jeph Loeb, but I'd completely forgotten that Ultimate Dr. Doom's name was "Victor Van Damme." I can't figure out if they changed it because they thought "Von Doom" was too silly, or if they thought it wasn't silly enough.
At the end, Cyclops dies in what I think was meant to be a shocking twist, except that a character being violently murdered can't be a shocking twist in a book that is entirely about characters being violently murdered. It's not even surprising, no more than the horror movie slasher getting up for one last swipe at the main character. It's like "Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe," but without the cleverness, dark humor, or charm.
As for the art, well, I'm not a huge fan of Dave Finch myself, but given what he's drawing, it's it's actually hard to judge. I don't think the panel where the Thing murders Dr. Doom by crushing his head like a grape is well-done, but is there any way that panel would be good? Does a good drawing of that actually exist? It gets way too metaphysical way too quickly.
I will say, however, that the art is insanely oversexualized, even by the standards of the guy who broke out doing "Aphrodite IX," a book that was essentially about a murderous RealDoll™ in a fetish cheerleader costume. Every woman's spine looks like a parentheses to the point where even in death, when her entire abdomen has been ripped out and is being eaten, the Wasp is arching her back to display her chest, and the only way Carol Danvers' breasts make sense is if she's later revealed to be Half-Kree/Half -Beach Ball.
In short, I don't think anything quite sums it up like the fact that "Ultimatum" is a comic that doesn't have an ultimatum in it. Like the series itself, it's just something that someone thought sounded cool, and the more you think about it, the worse it gets.
So congratulations, "Ultimatum": You are hands down one of the Worst of the Worst.