#308- This is Why (The Ultimates 2)
Last week, I referred to The Ultimates 2 as the more “thoughtful” of the two volumes, and now that my return to the material is complete, I think that was something of an understatement…
Nothing against the first volume (obviously, as I just did an entire column about it), but this one paired the same level of insanely detailed action with more compelling and engrossing character moments. Captain America was the obvious focus before, and now the spotlight dances around quite a bit more, and there’s a much higher level of interaction between everyone. Some of that is likely due to the usual narrative advantage of sequels (everything is previously established), but it feels like Millar developed a more complex understanding of all the characters, and how they really fit together. There’s also an overt political thread running through the stories that naturally demands a slightly larger focus on character and interpersonal drama. Everything just all comes together perfectly, and a great book simply got better, which is truly a rare thing.
We got a monster this week again, so let’s get things started. You’ll notice that my feelings above largely influence the kind of material and moments I’ve chosen to reference. As usual, your comments are always welcome below.
Broken Promises (Issue 1)
It’s only appropriate that this series begins with Cap jumping out of yet another plane, on a mission to kick the crap out of yet another group of America’s enemies. Millar and Hitch don’t devote the entire first chapter to a large, glorious fight sequence, but this one is highly impressive in its own right, while accomplishing something far more important. This entire story arc is about escalation, and what would really happen when the superhuman became more “involved” in U.S. foreign policy, which clearly, was only a matter of time once the program was initiated. And while it is cool to look at, Cap dismantling a terrorist cell in Iraq is the one event that leads to every other major event in the series, and you can just tell that everything is changing, even without Fury saying it out loud.
This is truly a new day for The Ultimates project here, a tipping point that will define their standing and functionality in the 21st century---one that transforms them from glorified celebrities and action heroes into actual military operators and soldiers. The only question left slightly ambiguous is whether Nick Fury was planning this whole “transition” from the very beginning. Note the use of the word “slightly” because there’s a very good chance the answer to that question is a resounding “yes”.
Room Without Doors (Issue 1)
Hitch’s storytelling really sells this scene of Thor’s public meeting with Volstagg, which is not at all what it appears to be. You don’t notice it at first (well, at least I didn’t) but all of the other people in the restaurant are giving Thor strange looks in the backgrounds of all the shots, (think the original script only called for that in one) and it’s the subtlest of cues that something in this scene isn’t quite right. And while our first theory probably wasn’t that his mad half-brother Loki is manipulating reality all around him, it’s certainly one of the coolest (and creepiest) possible explanations. Later on, we’ll see just how useful an ability like this really is, and the scene is also the first spot where Loki randomly appears in the background. Cool little thing to search for as he pops up in a few critical scenes, most of them involving Thor, naturally.
But it seems unfair that an artist who is so great at epic superhero battles is equally as talented in the quieter moments, when subtlety and expression is called for. Wish he’d been able to make it out to the recent Chicago show, as I would’ve bought any sketchbook, print, etc. that he put on his table.
No Stranger Than That (Issue 2)
The obvious contrast to this is the infamous scene between Hank and Cap, but likely due to Thor’s elevated level of maturity (and the fact that he wasn’t a fugitive wife-beater), the outcome is a little different in this case. As usual, Steve Rogers comes across as a bit of a prick in how he delivers his completely unfounded accusation, but Thor still steps up in his defense when things get out of hand, in another of the character’s great moments. The real kicker though is when Loki is blamed for the group’s recent troubles, and Cap completely dismisses the idea, walking away from Thor like he’s completely lost his mind. This will soon become a prevalent theme with Thor and his frequent explanations of Loki’s influence. You would think these people have completely forgot the dude teleporting a nuke into another dimension to save everyone’s lives in the previous volume.
Despite that tiny detail, put this down as another really nice character moment that gives this volume some additional depth to go along with its powerful action sequences.
Sorry, Bruce (Issue 3)
Now see, this is the kind of thing that makes me distrust Nick Fury…well, this and the fact he’s wearing Samuel L. Jackson’s face, of course. We knew how this whole “trial of Bruce Banner” thing was going to go from the start, but Fury walking onto his cell block, and offering the good doctor a victory glass of drugged champagne, still comes across as a bit cruel. Ever the tactician, Fury wasn’t taking the chance that delivering the real verdict would trigger another Hulk episode, and the page where it all goes down is classic---a shot of a stoic Fury, the bottle shattering against the floor, Banner rushing to join it, what sounds like an apology, and a plan put into motion. Just like everything else in this series, the events all feel a little more tragic and horrible than their 616 counterparts, and it’s really easy to feel sorry for poor Bruce Banner. And to cheer a little bit when he ultimately survives and calls a confused Hank to tell him, “Thanks,” before disappearing into a crowd.
Team-Up (Issues 4-5)
Around this time in the last series it was the Hulk, and now it’s Thor who’s attacked by his own friends and teammates. And while the first situation was somewhat understandable, this assault seems to fully support Thor’s theory that everyone is being cleverly manipulated by his trickster, reality-bending half-brother. The Ultimates and their international counterparts don’t want to hear that ____ though, and if they did, we would be denied another stunning sequence of hyper-violence, so perhaps we should forgive it just this once.
As expected though, Thor proves to be more than a match for the assembled heroes, and the fact that he’s obviously right about the team being under covert attack makes for some horrible moments, particularly the shot of Cap and Hawkeye setting him on fire with flamethrowers. Or when Black Widow distracts him by claiming to be pregnant. Or when Tony, supposedly his best friend on the team, tries to microwave his brain. It’s all fantastic looking and exciting stuff, but seriously…with friends like these…
Turning Points/Kick-Ass (Issue 6)
This is the issue that changes everything. With Thor effectively neutralized, Fury and SHIELD are now able to proceed with deploying The Ultimates to the Middle East, which is the very thing Thor tried to tell everyone was the inevitable next step. With the focus on Hank Pym and his poor attempts at being useful, the critical moment is presented as almost an afterthought, which was pretty clever of Millar. It’s obviously the biggest thing to happen in the series thus far, but it’s revealed with a single final image, following a seemingly unconnected main story that was equal parts sand and funny.
Speaking of that, The Defenders stuff has a very Kick-Ass type vibe to it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Millar was actually testing the waters for this type of idea, or if this became the spark for his recent hit series/movie. Plenty of greatness to be had here though---my favorite shot being a tiny Hank Pym standing next to a beer bottle and looking out at the city, right after he’s taken advantage of a star-struck Valkyrie. Also, the question of “how low can Hank possibly go” becomes even more interesting when the team’s traitor tries to recruit him. Always thought the shadowy figure’s hand belonged to a male character, but I accept Millar and Hitch’s slight trickery to deflect suspicion from the person who should’ve been the obvious culprit.
The Smart One (Issue 7)
Great scene between Tony and Thor, as everything the imprisoned thunder god ever said is beginning to come true. The political argument is a familiar one of course, but it still bites when a disappointed Thor tells his old friend “I used to think you were the smart one, Tony.” I know I’m going on and on about scenes of people just talking, but again, this is what I think really separates the two volumes from each other. Everyone falls like dominos after this, but what is The Ultimates without a little crushing adversity, right?
Oh, Okay…The Smart One (Issue 10)
Good lookin’ out, Tony. Not only did you get every piece of relevant information out of an overly confident Black Widow, but as soon as she gave it all up, you took control of the nanites in her blood and cracked her head open with a wine bottle. Props also to Hawkeye doing his best Bullseye impression with his own fingernails, which straddles the line of complete ridiculousness, yet still manages to come across as completely badass instead. And this is before a squad of security guards is stupid enough to give him some real weapons, mind you. The guy is pretty cool with a bow in his hand, but this sequence (and the one where he takes out assassins with kitchenware) proves that he’s just awesome period.
Getback (Issue 11)
Seeing the heroes turn the tables on the bad guys is always a fun moment, and if you think it was fun last time to watch them mobilize against aliens, it’s even better here, as the odds against them are even worse. Hawkeye again steals a scene, when Cap and Jan storm the White House only to find that the archer has already filled the bad guys with arrows, and sprung Fury and the others. Tony continues to show he is without question “The Man,” and activates a monstrous space platform that he calls Iron Man Six. But the gold star must go to Bruce Banner, who appears out of nowhere and changes into the Hulk at will, and appears to maintain some of his intelligence in the process. Dumb Hulk is definitely funnier, but Smart Hulk is pretty much unstoppable, as we’ll find out in the next two issues.
The Even Bigger Finish (Issues 12-13)
There is so much going on in this final battle, that I could probably do an entire column on just the choreography and staging of the various moving parts. As massive as the closing sequence was in volume one, this one surpasses it in about every way, without sacrificing any of the givens. For instance, Captain America has to throwdown with an equally matched opponent, the Hulk has to tear someone into pieces, Iron Man has to make a joke about being drunk while he’s saving the day, etc. And as a bonus, we get the great beat between Hawkeye and Quicksilver, after he pulps Hurricane between heartbeats, a giant Janet Pym, cameos from every major hero in the Ultimate U, and that oversized spread. Man, that thing is just gorgeous. It was that way in single-issue form, but in the enlarged hardcover? It’s tough to keep yourself from ripping it out of the book. It’s like the final piece of evidence that Hitch is one of the greatest storytellers of the modern age, if you weren’t already convinced. Without a doubt the perfect artistic cap on an already phenomenal work, leaving Pacheco and company with a ridiculously high bar to hit over the next couple years.
Okay, now that that’s settled, everyone quickly run out to your local stop, and pick up Ultimate Avengers and Ultimate Spider-Man, if you haven’t already, as Millar and Bendis get ready to do it all over again. If they’re even half as successful as last time, I think we’ll all be in great shape. Probably some impressions of both next week, in addition to some thoughts from my first time behind a table in Artists’ Alley. If I can fit it in around moving into a new apartment, that is. Thanks for listening, and in final conclusion---
The Ultimates 2, by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch---this is why I love comics.
Comments and additional thoughts below, if you feel additionally inspired. Thanks.