The 'Avengers' Comic That Basically Created The Modern Superhero Movie
Over the past 30 years, Marvel's risen meteorically. The company's gone from pawning off its most lucrative superheroes to keep the lights on to hedging untold millions on D-list characters even the most obsessive fans barely remember. And now that Black Widow's finally hitting theaters, Cracked's looking at the past (and future) of the studio that revolutionized the modern superhero narrative.
Every kid who loves the Avengers movies and decides to look up the comics they're based on has one of two experiences: 1) they see the original 1960s issues and go "wow, this is corny," or 2) they run into The Ultimates and find a lot more cannibalism, depravity, and Bush-era politics than they probably expected. Thing is, without The Ultimates, your superhero-obsessed nephew would have no idea what words like "Thanos" and "Hawkeye" mean, and Jeremy Renner's most recent role would be "dancing cowboy" at a bachelorette party. Here's the history of the weird comic that unexpectedly served as the template for 90% of superhero movies this century:
The Ultimate Universe Was Born Out Of Marvel's Lowest Point
In the late '90s, Marvel wasn't doing so hot financially and the editors started thinking that this might have something to do with the fact that you couldn't so much as glance at one of their comics without first reading 30 years of older stories. Remember that this was before the era of faithful superhero movie adaptations, Wikipedia summaries, or YouTube videos where some a-hole explains comic book continuity to you. And so, Marvel made the dramatic decision to take Spider-Man back to his teenage years to make him more accessible to new readers, and they signaled that this new Spidey origin was firmly set in the present by ... giving Peter Parker a PC and mentioning hot new bands like the Rolling Stones.
Marvel's first attempt to modernize the character, Spider-Man: Chapter One, was just a lazy retelling of the original 1962 stories but with more skateboards and backwards caps. Somehow, it failed to turn Marvel's fortunes around. But Marvel still liked the basic idea, so in 2000 they tried again with Ultimate Spider-Man, which actually made Peter look and sound like a bullied millennial teen who gets bitten by a genetically modified spider (minus the part where the hospital costs bankrupt his family for generations).
Ultimate Spider-Man was a hit, and you could see its cultural influence almost right away when the 2002 Spider-Man movie took many pointers from it (as did every other Spidey movie after that). Ultimate X-Men also sold a crapload of comics, so Marvel asked the same writer, Mark Millar, to give the Ultimate treatment to the Avengers next. At the time, Millar was best known for being the second writer on DC's The Authority, a controversial series based on showing superheroes as they would be in the "real world" -- that is, ultra-violent, kind of unpleasant, and not terribly concerned by stuff like "borders" or "international law."
It's worth noting that one issue written by Millar featured the Authority brutally beating up a group of fascist "superheroes" who looked suspiciously like Marvel's top characters (but slightly less so after DC made some changes on the "Captain America" one).
Incidentally, by the time Marvel came calling, Millar had just quit DC because they kept censoring references to stuff like necrophilia, oral sex, and (most offensively) George W. Bush on The Authority. Apparently, Millar's pitch to Marvel was "I'm gonna do that, more or less, but with your characters." Marvel said "sure," and the result was called The Ultimates, either because they didn't want to risk ruining the Avengers brand, or because there was no Avengers brand at that point, so who cared?
Well, a lot of people ended up caring, to the tune of billions of dollars ...
The MCU Borrowed A LOT From The Ultimates ... But Stayed The Hell Away From Some Parts
Millar and artist Bryan Hitch (also known for The Authority) approached The Ultimates under the crazy, unfeasible notion of "What if someone made an Avengers movie one day?" The whole comic has the tone and aesthetic of an early 2000s blockbuster action movie -- you can practically hear Michael Bay yelling at traumatized crew-members from outside the panels. That's why Nick Fury straight up looked like Samuel L. Jackson six years before Iron Man came out. If Jackson wasn't a comics nerd, he would have sued them into oblivion.
Even before the first Avengers movie came out, the influence of The Ultimates was already all over the MCU, from Tony Stark's wise-cracking personality (he was more of a stiff in the comics), to Hulk's Super Soldier-related origin, to Captain America's costume, to Hawkeye looking like a badass black ops agent instead of some sort of exotic dancer.
Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Bendis and Millar himself served as consultants in the movies, and Avengers screenwriter Zak Penn credited The Ultimates as a big influence -- he says they even took inspiration in Hitch's art and Millar's dialogue (which he called "a slightly meaner version of [co-writer/director Joss Whedon's] type of dialogue"). The movie borrowed major Ultimates story elements that hadn't been used in the regular Marvel Universe yet, like the Avengers being a S.H.I.E.L.D.-backed organization or the team fighting an alien race called the Chitauri. But ... there are also major elements that the filmmakers decided they wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, and that's probably for the best.
A biggie is the reason behind the Ultimates' first mission: Bruce Banner overhears his teammates saying he looks like Woody Allen and Steve Buscemi, so he intentionally Hulks out and goes on a murderous, horny rampage while looking for his ex-fiancee, who is having dinner with Freddie Prinze Junior. (He's horny for his ex, not Freddie.)
And then there's the relationship between Hawkeye and Black Widow. Like in the movies, they start out as close buddies and it's established that she even knows his wife and kids (the whole "Hawkeye as a family man" thing was another Ultimates innovation). But, in The Ultimates 2, Widow turns out to be a Russian double agent and murders Hawkeye's entire family, so he puts an arrow through her forehead in return -- yeah, their goodbye scene is somewhat less sentimental than the one in Endgame. Oh, and Widow reveals her treachery while having sex with Tony Stark, who she was about to marry. At least this frees Tony up to go back to flirting with his true love: First Lady Laura Bush.
Other unsavory aspects ignored by the MCU include the scene where Ant-Man smacks and uses bug spray on his Smurf-sized wife, the Wasp, and the fact that Ultimate Scarlet Witch clearly had a Cersei/Jaime Lannister thing going on with her brother Quicksilver. But, believe it or not, things were about to get even wrong-er ...
Ultimate Marvel Became The Very Thing It Swore To Destroy
After Ultimates 2, Millar took a break from the Ultimate Universe and left the characters in the hands of Jeph Loeb, author of some highly acclaimed Batman stories and someone with ample film and TV experience (in fact, he'd go on to become Executive VP of Marvel Television). If you're thinking that giving The Ultimates to a TV exec meant that the characters would suddenly clean up their act and be ready for their own Saturday morning show, nope -- the opposite happened. The Ultimates 3 STARTS with the whole team watching Iron Man and Black Widow's leaked sex tape on a big screen.
In that same issue, Loeb made Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver's incestual relationship explicit, only to have her killed by what turned out to be an Ultron android who was horny for her. Black Panther also showed up, but it was revealed that he was Captain America in disguise all along, because no one told him that blackface is frowned upon these days.
As it turned out, Ultimates 3 was only a preamble to Ultimatum, also written by Loeb, in which Magneto gets so pissed off by the death of Scarlet Witch that he inverts the planet's polarity and unleashes a series of devastating natural disasters. This series featured memorable moments like X-Men villain Blob eating the Wasp while saying "Tastes like chicken," only for a distraught Ant-Man to bite his head off ...
... Dr. Strange being squeezed until his head explodes, Cyclops decapitating Magneto and getting shot in the head himself a few pages later, and The Thing of the Fantastic Four squashing Dr. Doom's head with one hand. Loeb really has something against heads, possibly because brains live there and there's no way a functioning brain was involved in the making of this comic. Marvel wanted to shake-up the Ultimate Universe with Ultimatum, and they sure did: they killed 34 heroes and villains, millions of people, and any chance that most readers would ever pick up a comic with the world "Ultimate" on it again.
Marvel tried to relaunch their Ultimate line several times after that, but each mega-event just made the continuity more complicated. Within a few years, the Ultimate Earth is almost destroyed by alien monsters, a giant planet-eating guy from another reality, and that time it literally crashed into the regular Marvel Earth. The whole idea of the Ultimate Universe was that you could just pick up these comics without being an expert in Marvel history, but anyone trying to read The Ultimates for the first time in 2010 would end up with questions like "Why is Mr. Fantastic a bad guy?" or "Since when is Wolverine a blond teenager?" or "Wait, the Red Skull is Captain America's bastard Nazi son?!"
Somehow, Marvel managed to make these characters' backstories just as (or in some cases even more) confusing as their older counterparts in only a fraction of the time. Even the titles of the comics got harder to keep track of: The Ultimates turned into Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, not to be confused with Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates, which is not the same thing as Ultimate Comics: Avengers or Ultimate Comics: Avengers vs. New Ultimates. Except for Ultimate Spider-Man, which kept chugging along under Bendis for 15 years and introduced the fan-favorite Miles Morales version of Spidey, no one seemed to care much about what was going on in that universe, and Marvel put it out of its misery in 2015.
The same forces the Ultimate line was trying to fight eventually killed it -- and you can sort of see that same entropy creeping into the MCU. WandaVision and Loki are fun, but how many NEW fans are being formed by a show whose starting point is that "OK, so in that movie where the characters travel in time back into another movie, this guy who died in the previous movie grabs a cosmic Rubik's Cube and ..."?
It'll be interesting to see if Marvel's Phase Four can refresh their cinematic universe without succumbing to the vices that doomed the Ultimate line forever -- or at least until they re-reboot it as Ultimate Ultimates: New Ultimate Ultimates (And Now They're Babies).
Top Image: Marvel Comics
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