After less than a decade, Marvel is reviving the Ultimate Universe with this summer’s Ultimate Invasion miniseries from Jonathan Hickman and Bryan Hitch — two big name creators with long histories in the world of the Ultimates.
2023 is a very different time from when the Ultimate Universe was in its prime back at the start of this century, however, raising an important question: is there reason beyond simple nostalgia to bring the Ultimate Universe back… especially in a world where the MCU does the Ultimate treatment better than the Ultimate comics ever managed?
There are, inevitably, going to be fans who’ll strongly disagree with that last statement; they’ll point out that the Ultimate line and the Marvel Studios movies are different things for different audiences in different media, that they feature different characters and shouldn’t be compared in any way. There’s some weight to that, of course — but that’s ignoring the fact that both the Ultimate Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe share no shortage of DNA.
Pointing to Samuel L. Jackson’s casting as Nick Fury as a sign that the MCU is based on the Ultimate Universe would be the obvious go-to in making that argument — Jackson being the clear inspiration for the MCU version of Fury, as seen in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates (in his original comic book incarnation, he was white and had hair) — but the similarities in terms of characterization and world building extend far beyond that singular element. Both the MCU and the Ultimate Universe share a clear militarization of the superhero community, with the Avengers treated as an extension of SHIELD and therefore the U.S. Government, for one thing; the origins of characters such as Black Widow and Hawkeye onscreen share the gritty espionage backstory of their Ultimate incarnations than their admittedly more melodramatic, ridiculous original histories — although, personally, I’m deeply saddened that we didn’t get to see their Femme Fatale and Obnoxious Carny selves in full flight as should have happened.
(Hawkeye also has a secret family in the MCU; another Ultimate Universe invention.)
Ultimately — pun only slightly intended — the reason for the closeness between these two reimaginings of classic Marvel mythology likely lie in their very nature: that both were attempts to translate, streamline, and modernize half a century’s worth of storylines, characters, and ideas for essentially the same audience… which is to say, people who weren’t already reading Marvel comics… within a decade or so of each other. Given those similarities, how could the two not echo each other, or share ideas? For it not to happen would be more unlikely, all things considered.
The benefits of coming second
The MCU had an advantage that the Ultimate Universe didn’t, though; it got to learn from the other’s mistakes. It’s surely not too outrageous to admit that the Ultimate Universe got some things… if not wrong, then at least wrong-adjacent. Who can remember the incestuous relationship between the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver? Or Black Panther being a mutant who’d been operated on by the same Weapon X program that created Wolverine, leaving him with… a healing factor and retractable claws, just like Wolverine…? Or the Hulk being a cannibal obsessed with Freddie Prinze Jr.? Or Wolverine’s goatee?!?
There were many, many missteps in the development of the Ultimate Universe, from simply being too swayed by the fashions of the moment — there’s a lot of “edginess” in the early comics that hasn’t aged well — to burning through story content and ideas with shocking speed, as when the X-Men made it to its own version of the Dark Phoenix saga within a handful of years, as opposed to the two decades it took the original series.
The MCU has managed to sidestep many of these issues in part because of its format — it’s far more difficult to burn through story when you make one movie every three years, for example — but also because those responsible for the movies have the experience of the Ultimate Universe to guide them; they’ve seen when character swings were too big (“Does this A on my head stand for trying too hard?”) and when it works; they’ve had a chance to learn what fans will accept and what they won’t, and what speaks to the core of a character as opposed to a misunderstanding. Sure, the MCU is rebuilding the Marvel comic book universe for a different medium, but in many respects, it’s taking the Ultimate formula and doing it for a second time with added hindsight. It’s a do-over, with arguably far better results.
I don’t just mean that financially, but it’s tough to argue that Marvel Studios hasn’t been far, far more successful than the Ultimate Universe could have ever hoped to be.
What comes next?
In the dying days of the original Ultimate Universe, comic book creators attempted to differentiate the line from the MCU by doubling down on the status quo changes, eventually leading to the abandonment of the Ultimate Universe altogether. With the Universe’s return, it’ll be interesting to see if that’s a route Marvel continues to go down, or if there’s another alternative available. What if… the reborn Ultimate Universe is Marvel’s chance to learn from the missteps of the MCU, and try for a third makeover of core Marvel mythology for newcomers…? It is being advertised with the tagline, “The transformation of the Marvel Universe begins” after all…
More on Ultimate Invasion’s ambition can be found here.