With the recent surprise announcement that Jonathan Hickman and Bryan Hitch will return to Marvel's Ultimate Universe with 2023's Ultimate Invasion, Marvel's modernized alternate universe has been on many comic readers' minds. The Ultimate Universe launched in September of 2000 with Ultimate Spider-Man #1 (by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley), before meeting its explosive conclusion in 2015s' Secret Wars. Although some characters from the Ultimate 'verse have remained (namely Miles Morales and The Maker), the actual Ultimate line of comics has been defunct for around eight years!
So, before Ultimate Invasion kickstarts an exciting new chapter for what it means to be a Marvel Ultimate, it's fun to look back at the original 15 years and consider their best moments. The Ultimate line of comics was hugely influential on both comic book styles and storytelling as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so despite its significant flaws (what's up withBlob eating the Wasp in Ultimatum!), let's look at what stands the test of time.
Spider-Man makes Black Cat puke
Ultimate Spider-Man is the most consistent work in the Ultimate line, partly because Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley worked on the book for ~10 straight years (honestly, they might still be going, there's no way to know for sure), but also because it lovingly captures the heartfelt teenage humor of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita's earliest work on the Amazing Spider-Man. With an Earth-616 perpetually fighting against the growth and aging of Peter Parker, it was refreshing to read a series that could lean into Peter's teen years without those decades of baggage.
Of course, being 15 has its downsides, such as in Ultimate Spider-Man #85 when sultry anti-hero the Black Cat pressures Spidey into attempted rooftop sex. Peter is, of course, nowhere near prepared for this, but an insult to injury, when Felicia unmasks Spider-Man and realizes he's a little baby boy, she quite literally throws up all over him. It's very funny, avoids the darker complications of age and consent, and all perfectly Spider-Man.
Ultimate Fantastic Four discover Marvel Zombies
Before Robert Kirman and Sean Phillips made Marvel Zombies one of the most successful alternate universes in Marvel, and before the MCU adapted the idea in the What If animated series, Mark Millar and Greg Land introduced the concept and foundations in Ultimate Fantastic Four #21. Millar's fingerprints are all over the Ultimate Universe, from the co-creation of The Ultimates with Bryan Hitch to the original run on Ultimate X-Men. Yet the series he's probably least known for went on to have a massive legacy with five official Marvel Zombies series, and several spinoffs since.
One of the most underrated elements of the introduction of Marvel Zombies is how it very specifically inverts the expectations and world-building of the Ultimate Universe, by making Magneto the lone surviving rebel against the zombie takeover. Whereas Magneto is the primary antagonist of the entire Ultimate Universe from launch through Ultimatum, in the Zombies-verse we get the more nuanced 616-tinged version of a charismatic anti-hero.
Colossus comes out as gay
Despite its promise as a fresh, modern recrafting of the Marvel Universe for a new millennium, the Ultimate Universe often seems to regularly avoid social progress or realistic reflections of diversity. On the whole, the entire affair can be downright regressive. That's a big part of what makes Colossus coming out as a gay man all the more memorable.
In Ultimate X-Men #65, by Brian K. Vaughan and Stuart Immonen, Piotr is asked to a homecoming dance by Northstar and uses the occasion to reveal to Nightcrawler (whose Ultimate Universe incarnation is horribly homophobic) that he is gay. With a Marvel Universe that still lags in realistic reflections of queer characters, it's refreshing to see an example of a well-known mutant in the Ultimate verse.
Magneto destroys New York City
Listen: I know. I know! It's borderline malpractice to include Ultimatum on a list of the 'best' of anything in the Ultimate Universe. But you know what?
Ultimatum started as a genuinely good idea!
In fact, for one full issue and 20 pages, Ultimatum seems to be the thrilling explosion of the pent-up threat of Magneto the Ultimate Universe had been building from day one of Ultimate X-Men. Magneto wipes out New York City with a tidal wave and freezes Eastern Europe, all in what feels like an instant, and the heroes have no recourse. It's the kind of supervillain "win" you can't get away with in Earth-616, at least without a reset button, and with Magneto's devastation, there is never a reset button! The Ultimate Universe simply has to live with a new normal.
Then Jeph Loeb and David Finch made us read a splash page of Blob eating the Wasp, and ok, NOW we don't ever have to talk about Ultimatum again.
Peter Parker gets to save Aunt May
Killing Spider-Man is not a particularly fan-friendly decision. Just ask Brian Michael Bendis or Dan Slott. This makes it all the more amazing how successfully Bendis and collaborators pulled off the Ultimate Universe death of Peter Parker, one of only a few Ultimate mainstays to make it out of Ultimatum relatively unscathed.
What's especially effective about Peter's death in Ultimate Spider-Man #160 is how Bendis and Bagley flip Spidey's origins to bring it all full circle. Whereas Peter made the wrong decision resulting in the death of Uncle Ben, and that guilt fueled his career as Spider-Man, in his final storyline, he gets to return home to defend Aunt May from Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin. "I did it," he tells May at the very end. You sure did, Pete.
Miles Morales comes into his own
It's no surprise that much of what's stood the test of time comes from the storytelling that didn't just attempt to translate Silver Age Marvel for a new generation, but instead leveraged the opportunity to build something new and exciting. That's exactly what Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli pulled off with the debut of Miles Morales, indisputably the most successful new character created in the Ultimate Universe (sorry Bombshell and Kong, you had a good run!).
Miles truly becomes the new Ultimate Universe Spider-Man in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #5, when Nick Fury and the Ultimates bring him to the Triskelion for questioning, and he winds up helping them take down an invading Electro. Before that point, Miles is still very much figuring out what being Spider-Man means, and how to properly honor the deceased Peter Parker, and this sets Miles on the track to heroism.
The Maker devastates S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Ultimates
In all honestly, this piece could just as easily be the 10 best moments exclusively from Hickman and Esad Ribic's run on Ultimate Comics: Ultimates. In their all-too-brief 12 issues, Hickman and Ribic lay the groundwork for a salvaged post-Ultimatum landscape, replete with the Ultimate Universe's stock-in-trade mass devastation and impossible odds.
One of the coolest and most important moments comes at the very end of Ultimate Comics: Ultimates #4, with the reveal from Thor that he has seen the face of The Maker, and that it is, in fact, Reed Richards returned from his disappearance at the end of the Ultimate Doomsday trilogy. It's a brilliant continuation of Ultimate Reed's descent into one of the single greatest threats in the entire Ultimate Universe, and one that will continue to pay dividends through Ultimate Invasion in 2023!
The Xorn Twins christen the capital cities of Heaven
Ultimate Hawkeye isn't going down as too many people's favorite Ultimate Comic, but the amount of creative reconfiguring of Earth-616 concepts that happen in these four issues is some of Hickman's finest mash-up continuity. Alongside artist Rafa Sandoval, Hickman reconstructs Grant Morrison's Xorn into the twins Xorn and Zorn, who lead a Southeast Asian revolution building to their twin cites of Tian, a Celestial City and an Eternal City.
Conceptually it's a blast, but specifically, Zorn beating down Ultimate Hulk with ease and riling Hulk up to the point that he shouts "Hulk no tiny!" is a blessing.
The first meeting of the Spider-Men
Amazingly, the Ultimate Universe kept to itself for over a decade before finally relenting to a crossover between Earth-616 Peter Parker and the newly introduced Miles Morales of Earth-1610. Apart from a rock-solid series, Spider-Men stands out because of how it utilizes recent Ultimate Universe continuity (namely, the death of Ultimate Peter Parker) to hammer home emotional story beats.
While it's simply good clean fun to see Peter and Miles take down Ultimate Mysterio and his shocking crossover abilities, the heartfelt core comes from Ultimate Aunt May getting to see a version of her nephew again, regardless of his multiversal differences.
Kitty Pryde tries to punch out Galactus
For my money, Kitty Pryde has one of the better Ultimate Universe experiences, developed through a brilliant, adorable romance with Peter Parker, and ultimately growth into a hardened leader for mutantkind following the devastation of Ultimatum. As one of the few "household" mutants to even survive Ultimatum, Kitty faces an incredibly challenging world for the remainder of the Ultimate Universe, where mutants are demonized more than ever due to the actions of Magneto.
In Cataclysm, the time-travel abuses of the Earth-616 event Age of Ultron result in Galactus waltzing into the Ultimate Universe (don't ask questions, it just happens!). The Ultimates, X-Men, and pals are then thrown into the classic Marvel challenge of taking down a proper Galactus (as opposed to the mid-aughts "Gah Lak Tus" Ultimate version of sentient satellites. Later, it's ultimately revealed that Kitty punching Galactus in the jaw is a mere distraction for Ultimate Reed/Maker's true plan, but it's a damn thrill while it lasts!
Jonathan Hickman and Bryan Hitch are reviving Marvel's Ultimate Universe