Page 45 Review by Stephen
A damning indictment of American neo-imperialism rammed with military geopolitics, this is my favourite superhero series of all time. Completely self-contained - you need know nothing before - it's now collected into two seasons, each containing two of the original softcovers. There's very little interior art online, but I'll do what I can!
The Ultimates vol 1:
The world is changing. Threats are emerging that conventional armed forces may be unable to deal with. Last year a terrorist calling himself Magneto single-handedly tore into the Whitehouse and stripped the President naked. The Commander In Chief of the most powerful nation on this planet happened to be saved at the last minute by a couple of rogue mutants, but it could all have been very different. Ah yes, then there's those mutants... If you were the U.S. Secretary of State, and you wanted to maintain American military supremacy, what would you do?
General Nick Fury is given 50 billion dollars to build The Triskelion, a military base in the Upper Bay of Manhattan, and a twelve-digit budget to commission a renowned geneticist to replicate the serum that once created Captain America, the World War II human military hardware who went missing after saving Washington from a nuclear rocket decades ago. He hires two other scientists, who claim they have been able to develop a hormonal process which brings about instant height division, to work on other potential enhancements like height multiplication, enlists the trusted brand which is billionaire industrialist womaniser, Tony Stark, and sets about creating The Ultimates, a force of few to take down the many or the unthinkable.
Unfortunately the unthinkable lies within them, for the name of the geneticist - the lonely man whose personal insecurities are compounded by romantic rejection, demotion and failure to come close to recreating a Supersoldier - is Dr. Robert Bruce Banner. He's tired of feeling small, and is about to do something very, very stupid.
Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch deliver a summer blockbuster which will blow your brains out long before the main event. Until recently Bryan's art eclipsed all modern cinematic special effects (I say it still does), and his sense of scale is going to take your breath away. When the rain pours onto the streets of Manhattan, the excess skids across the road, and when lightning strikes you may well begin to believe in Norse Gods. Millar's successfully taken one-dimensional characters from the Legoland that is the Marvel Universe, shuffled them about, given them rounded (and occasionally split) personalities, then thrown them into the real world of media courtship, self-promotion, political self-justification, and national security.
Gone is the altruism, the gaudy costumes and quaint old supervillains; they're replaced with bloody big paychecks, functional kevlar, fucked-up relationships and inferiority complexes on prozac. Who in their right mind would want to risk their lives fighting beings that could crush your skull like an empty eggshell? Thor...? Nope:
"Go back to your paymasters and tell them that the Son Of Odin is not interested in working for a military industrial complex who engineers wars and murders innocents. Your talk might be of super-villains now, but it is only a matter of time before you are sent to kill for oil or free trade."
"Oh, for goodness sake. How can you people just sit there and listen to this "Son Of Odin" garbage? You're not the New Messiah. You're just a crazy ex-nurse who had a nervous breakdown three weeks short of his thirtieth birthday and spent eighteen months in a lunatic asylum. You might make a fortune from your lecture tours and trashy self-help books, but you don't fool me for a second, Mister; I've got your secrets right here."
"And I have your secrets right here, Doctor Banner. Have you told Betty Ross that you cry yourself to sleep every night, or are you too busy fantasising about hurting the Pyms for stealing your old job?"
The entire first issue is a prologue devoted to the World War II events which robbed the world of Captain America and robbed Steve Rogers, the man behind the mask, of his chance at a happy marriage. When he's found again in the early 21st Century his relatives are all dead, and the only friend Rogers has left has been married to his old fiancée for nearly sixty years. He's dying of cancer and she can't bare for him to see her enfeebled body. As for the rest of them, General Fury is a convincing recreation for a modern age with all the charisma of Samuel L. Jackson, Betty Banner is a self-centred, superficial P.R. guru, Jarvis the faithful butler is now a petulant old queen, and the Pyms have more than one secret which will out by the end of the book. As for Tony Stark, he may be a happy-go-lucky, lady-chasing, booze-guzzling flirt, but if he's living life to the full it's because the gauge is almost empty. Still, tomorrow's just another day.
"Vodka and Orange? It's only 10 am, Tony."
"Not in Moscow, old boy. Cheers by the way."
The Ultimates vol 2: Homeland Security (minor spoilers for vol 1):
When was the last time you saw an action film that was perfect? I mean, completely and utterly perfect: compelling performances, mesmerising special effects, jaw-dropping plotting, and the pithiest and wittiest of scripts. I've never seen one. Well, apart from Alien and maybe the very first Matrix. Even with the best, something is always slightly disappointing - a niggle here, a niggle there, an insult to your intelligence, or a ham actor in a vital role. All that money, all that talent and they rarely hit the jackpot, often through underestimating their audience.
Welcome to THE ULTIMATES: I cannot fault one single second of this on any front whatsoever. If you are amongst the record-breaking numbers to have already snatched up volume one, this knocks its teeth to the back of its throat then pulls them out the other end. The Black Widow's and Hawkeye's impossibly spectacular double-act above the streets of New York; the brutal reprisal meted out on Hank Pym for abusing his wife; the running gag about Quicksilver seemingly doing nothing ("Actually if you slow down the building's security tapes..."Liar."); that tellingly treacherous little scene between the soldier and the boy, once Stark has been persuaded to rejoin the fray. These and twenty-five other sequences vie with each other for "finest ever seen in a superhero comic to date".
Did I say "superhero" comic? I wouldn't mind for once if this won the Eisner.
As we rejoin the series, the band of the few created to take down the many or the unthinkable have, by the skin of their teeth, just scraped through the latter, but at a staggering cost to the population of Manhattan, the dignity of Dr. Banner, and the self-esteem of their resident goliath and biogenetic fraudster, Hank Pym. Banner, whose sex-crazed rampage as the insatiable Hulk caused such loss of life, now lies sedated and captive at the heart of the Triskelion, the Ultimates' multi-billion dollar military complex. Pym, having beaten and poisoned his wife to within an inch of her diminutive life, is about to find out what it feels like to be on the receiving end from a very, very angry soldier. And evidence has now been uncovered of an invasion force of shape-shifting aliens, which has been regrouping since the Second World War, and about to begin their final strike.
Time to go pre-emptive with the biggest airborne fleet of almighty carriers and jets you cannot begin to imagine until you've seen Hitch's panoramas.
Won't do them any good I'm afraid: they've been outmanoeuvred. In a finale which makes the first book's look like an 18th century picnic in a 16th century park, Plan A is a catastrophe, Plan B proves useless and Plan C runs right out of time. I guess that leaves Plan H, then. How big is your "appetite" for war?