Mark Millar, the writer of the original volume of The Ultimates, has told the story before of fans approaching him at conventions, describing to him how that work had changed their lives, specifically that it had inspired them to enlist in the American armed forces. The irony of the situation was that Millar’s intent had been just the opposite, to dissuade readers of American interventionism and the Bush Doctrine. He specifically wrote members of the military, including Captain America and General Fury, as authoritarians bordering on fascists. By the end of the twenty-six issue run, Steve Rogers eventually repudiates global policing, with the Ultimates each resigning from active service to become super-heroes instead of super-soldiers, but only after a preemptive attack on American which the team came to regard as the inevitable reaction to their own preventative strikes in the Middle-East and elsewhere.
The Ultimates #8 (Marvel Comics)
When the latest volume of The Ultimates debuted, it seemed to bear nothing in common with its predecessor save for its name. If anything, the comparison it invited was more so to the Illuminati in Hickman’s New Avengers than Millar’s Ultimate Universe version of the original Avengers team. And while Al Ewing is certainly more similar to Hickman, his run thus far both cerebral and cosmic in scope, musing more so on metaphysics and quantum physics than most standard superhero fare, there too is a bit of Millar’s penchant for geopolitics (though sometimes here in the form of astro-politics).
The main difference, however, is that Ewing’s Ultimates is missing the ironic detachment and biting critique of authoritarianism found in Millar’s run, much like the young men that had read the exploits of Millar’s super-soldiers and decided to enlist. Ms. Danvers is every bit is comfortable as the head of Alpha Flight and Ambassador Extraordinary of Earth as General Fury was as head of S.H.I.E.L.D., yet whereas Thor served to voice Fury’s faults, no such counter to Carol exists. Thus, when she unilaterally shut down a private research facility in the previous issue, it’s presented not as an overstep of authority, but as a victory for diplomacy. Perhaps that’s what makes this new Ultimates so frightening; they see themselves (and are shown to the reader) as the ones in a position of moral authority. Whereas Ultimate Fury was the spook in the shadows of a smoke filled room, Carol and Adam Brashear are all about transparency, themselves the ones being spied upon by shadowy cabals. And whereas Fury was a military man that carried a Big Stick, Carol and company are presented as pacifists that have Big Ideas instead.
Yet those big ideas and that same self-righteousness are exactly what empower Ewing’s Ultimates to trample upon individual liberties in ways Millar’s Ultimates never had the means. Ultimate Hulk, after rampaging through Manhattan, received a public trial in which he was found guilty and sentenced to death on several hundred counts of murder. Black Panther, however, has threatened to execute Connor Sims himself, regardless as to the outcome of his trial, not for past wrongdoings but merely because of the threat Anti-Man possess – and with no more justification than his usual spiel of “I am Wakanda.” If Carol has let the title “Ambassador Extraordinary of the Human Species” go to her head recently, T’Challa let the title “Absolute Monarch” go to his long ago; Fury’s “Director of S.H.E.I.L.D.” seems humble in comparison. And speaking of Bruce Banner on trial, Carol – no longer content to police all human activity, even of private individuals and organizations like project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. – has begun policing potential futures as well, recently appearing to apprehend Dr. Banner at the end of last week’s Civil War II #2, free of any formal charges or chance for due process, or even any recent wrongdoing. Evidently, an individual is guilty today if Carol thinks he might become guilty tomorrow.
Right now, the only material difference between Carol running Alpha Flight and Norman Osborn when he was head of H.A.M.M.A.R. is that the former has far great reach and far less checks on her authority. And, by T’Challa’s reasoning, the only reason why Victor von Doom wasn’t a superhero as respected as Black Panther was that Doom failed to utter “I am Latveria” before committing whatever wrongdoing he pleased. Whereas Millar’s Ultimates were super-soldiers, half of Ewing’s seem to be straight up supervillains. The problem is, if Ewing is critiquing his characters, such is certainly subtle, perhaps too much so.
I’m willing to give Ewing the benefit of the doubt for now, firstly because it’s still fairly early on in his run, and the moral faults I’m finding with some of his members may yet be addressed more directly, and secondly because his writing is otherwise so superb. Perhaps it will turn out that he and I differ philosophically with respect to authoritarianism, or perhaps he will not delve deeply enough into the political angle of this book to rightly discern what message he’s trying to make. If either indeed proves the case, I’ll critique why I think that ideology is wrong, or I’ll critique the book for not fully developing the themes presented in the past few issues, but neither of those would impute on the stylishness of his pseudo-scientific prose, the clear and consistent characterization of the cast, the gravitas given to every story beat, or any of the other marks of his skills as a writer, all of which have been evident in each and every issue thus far.
Is It Good?
Even integrating so heavily into Civil War II, an event of dubious quality thus far, this tie-in issue feels like a perfectly natural extension of the direction this series has taken since the beginning. Half the team may be supervillains whom I actively root against, yet that’s proven an inspired premise in the past on titles such as Ellis’ Thunderbolts and Bendis’ Dark Avengers. Perhaps Ewing will embrace that dynamic; perhaps not. Either way, The Ultimates remains one of Marvel’s best ongoing series, and so long that Ewing and Rocafort are on the title, that’s unlikely to change.