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Why Marvel Should CANCEL the Ultimate Comics Line

death of ultimate marvel

Marvel‘s Ultimate line was an innovative step in the direction of getting new readers while refreshing their own brand, but in recent years it has fallen from grace. Read on to hear what went wrong, and why sending it the way of Old Yeller is Marvel’s best course of action.

Too Much Continuity

The whole idea behind the Ultimate books was to introduce a new audience to Marvel characters with updated origins, modern costumes, and zero continuity. These factors are hard to come by in the regular 616 universe (ie, the real Marvel universe) because fans get angered by ret-cons, changes to classic costumes, and 50+ years of convoluted back story. That’s why it was so genius of Marvel to create the Ultimate universe. It was the perfect way to tell unhindered stories and, most importantly, attract new readers.

Each Ultimate title launched with strong sales and widespread critical acclaim, but that success was not meant to last. Ultimate X-Men was the first to show signs of continuity-fatigue when more and more of the 616 mutants began making their inevitable appearances, each one adding needlessly complicated subplots and uninspired twists and turns for the already character-heavy cast.

Too. Many. Characters.

The same thing happened with Ultimate Fantastic Four. Most notably, Dr. Doom went through a total re-imagining when he was perceived as an acid belching, spike throwing hoofed man with metal skin – a beautiful example how a well-known character could be given the Ultimate makeover. But then all of a sudden he appeared in his 616 armor and gone were the unique spikes, acid, and hooves. The constant, jarring shifts back to 616-style costumes and character behavior (Thor suddenly speaking like an Asgardian in The Ultimates 3) angered some fans and made people ask Marvel an important question: If things are exactly like the 616 universe, then what is the point of the Ultimate universe?

I know he’s a doctor but how do you change HOOVES to FEET?


Marvel’s answer to that, in a way, was that they did not need a fully-fledged Ultimate universe. Sales began to plummet for key titles and suddenly this once great machine started to choke and sputter under 9 years of continuity. The gears ground to a halt for 2009’s Ultimatum storyline, which was panned by fans and critics alike for graphically killing off many characters related to failed titles – X-Men and Fantastic Four – and disbanding their respective teams.


The event’s true purpose was a way for Marvel to push the reset button. All Ultimate titles were scrapped and four titles were re-launched under the Ultimate Comics Banner, including the ever-popular Spider-Man series that had been largely unaffected by sales or messy continuity.

Jump forward to 2011. None of the Ultimate titles are performing notably well, but Spider-Man continues its solid run. Naturally, Marvel decided to launch an event titled “Death of Spider-Man,” which teases the death of the star of the Ultimate line’s most popular and profitable character. What? Why?!

Recently, Marvel announced that this year would mark the start of “Ultimate Comics Universe Reborn.” Now they are just getting repetitive. What is a second re-launch going to do that the first one post-Ultimatum didn’t? It feels like Marvel is desperately hanging onto the Ultimate universe despite it’s toxic flaws, like trying to rationalize keeping Old Yeller after he gets rabies.

If You Love Something, Let it Go.. THEN Re-Launch It

If Marvel were to cancel the Ultimate line, it would be a colossal achievement for them as a company and for the comics industry as a whole. In the wake of the cancellation, Marvel should begin a new line of comics in the style of Grant Morrison‘s All-Star Superman, which told a timeless Superman story that paid respect to previous stories but was completely isolated from continuity and had a definitive beginning and end.

It’s not easy being super.

The key difference to this “All-Star” line of comics would be that the format of story changes from a never-ending cycle of small story arcs to a single long-running narrative. It would completely eradicate the issue of continuity for all Ultimate books because each book would start with a beginning and an end in mind. Modern day comic masterpieces such as Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets both started out with a clear story, ran for a predetermined amount of issues, and then finished with a triumphant, epic, cathartic ending that has earned unanimous critical and fan praise. Why not do the same thing for all of Marvel’s biggest properties?

Instead of the X-Men being decades of super heroes fighting each other, dying, resurrecting, going rogue, becoming heroes, and getting submerged in a quagmire of continuity, why not create a long-running series where those elements actually have consequence? Imagine the X-Men in a world where death has true meaning, there’s no such thing as a ret-con, and each character reaches their destiny, no matter how awful or wonderful it may be. Imagine seeing the rise and fall of Jean Grey as the Phoenix with a definitive ending. Picture a story where either Magneto or Professor X gets to see their dream come true. Think of all of your favorite mutants getting a solid, concrete arc told over several years like a TV show. There’s no spin-offs or huge cross-over events with other properties, just solid X-Men stories with heart, character, and consequence. Doesn’t that sound more engaging than just the next 6-issue arc of Ultimate X-Men that, no matter how good it is, will inevitably be stepped on and muddled with by the next writer to take the reigns?

Think of the ways this format would affect your other favorite heroes. Spider-Man could finally confront the Green Goblin for all of the pain he’s caused him and have the verdict be permanent. Mr. Fantastic will either resolve his differences with Dr. Doom or his story will end in a Shakespearean family tragedy. The Ultimates will find a way to save the Earth or crumble before an enemy that is too great for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

After over 10 years, the Ultimate line has slowly eroded into exactly what they did not want it to be, the 616 universe. It was a great idea, but that idea has run its course. If Marvel truly wants to create a universe worthy of the label “Ultimate,” then they should not only change a character’s origin and how they look, but rather the structure of the entire story format. Design each title to run a select number of issues; plot out a beginning, middle, and end; and tell a definitive and timeless story that will define those characters forever. Comic book fans love their events, so imagine the fan craze as a 5-year long X-Men story finally comes to its dramatic conclusion. It would achieve Harry Potter-level debate on who lives, who dies, and who gets married. It would change the format forever. It would be the Ultimate Story, which is just what we need.

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Comments (15)

I'm all in favour of scrapping the Ultimate Universe, it was a good idea, but flawed. They must have thought at some point “hey this is a new series without continuity, what do when it has continuity?” The All Star Superman is a great example of a stand alone time line that really worked, Alan Moore did something similar in what I think was What ever happened to the Man of Tomorrow. I pretty much agreed with everything you said and think this mechanic could be applied to Marvel.

Welcome to Comic Booked Joshua!

Spot on analysis. "Ultimatum", and the books that led into it ("Ultimate Origin," etc.) were the tipping point, needlessly convoluting the backstory in an attempt to fit everything together (oh, so now it's the Hulk who killed Spider-Man's parents? Even though he was an infant in Origins, but earlier in Ultimate Spider-Man he was at least 5 or 6, how does that make—oh god *head explodes*). The whole line's really limped on ever since, and the only good thing that's going to come from "Death of Spider-Man" is the new costume (which is admittedly cool). It's a shame they won't end it, though, at least not until a few more boring, rehashed, overhyped events that also fail to save the line get trotted out.

What turned me off to comics was the bait and switch.

Early on all comics were pretty much stand alone. Then came, "to be continued". I hated it. Then came the crossover's, "continued in X-men # 17". What! I hate the X-men.

Where once I collected, I now only bother with short runs contained in one title, and always after the fact.

Skott of Fables

I don't get the apparent 'anti-continuity' thing. If there is no continuity then there is no progression of stories or character development.

Though I seem to recall Ultimate being little more than a door way for new readers to jump on the normal Marvel books. Then it became it's own thing.

Crossovers I generally don't mind if they make sense. I, myself, neither like nor read X-Men and don't like it when I'm forced to read an X-Book to get a whole story. Peter David killed the She-Hulk series for me, after changing the entire tone of the book first, by crossing it over with X-Force (I think…he was writing that book too) so I dropped it.

I never had a use for the Ultimate line. Only thing they gave me that I liked was Marvel Zombies.

Awesome article here!

I am not an Ultimate reader by any means but some of the stories really got my attention. I agree though that the Ultimate line started off as a genius idea then got completely messed up. I am one of those few people who just can't stand the whole being brought back to life thing. I just wish dead meant dead.

Interesting note on Doom's transformation. I had forgotten that. The majority of the fanrage focused on Loeb reverting Thor back to his 616, as opposed to Warren Ellis' revamp getting thrown out.

I imagine the Marvel execs objection to the All Star model would be that it would be indistinguishable from a 'What If' issue extended into a series. I agree with you, a beginning, middle and end is what makes a story. But to contrast with All Star – Morrison's take on Superman is really the only notable example of that model working for DC. All Star Batman and Robin descended into a bad parody and I know there have been others, but I cannot think of them right now (not a good sign).

The Ultimate line continues to suffer from an identity crisis. I think on the one hand, unlike mainstream Marvel U, it can afford to junk everything and start again after ten years. I would love to see a character handed to a team with the proviso of wrapping up the storyline Preacher-style in sixty issues. Should it prove popular, Marvel Studios can spin it off into animated shows or movies. In effect that is the job of the Ultimate line now, create a version of popular comics that is easy to adapt.

Nice article!

The continuity thing is a bit of a head-scratcher. Yes, the Ultimate line developed continuity of it's own, but that's inevitable after a decade of publication. And convoluted as it may or may not have been, it still pales in comparison to 616.

One of the ironies of the Ultimate/All-Star comparison here is that I remember All-Star being presented early on as a sort of "Ultimate DC". Of course, things turned out somewhat differently.

I've noticed Marvel sometimes has a strange attitude towards the Ultimate line. Not to harp on the Spider-Marriage (as I know I am prone to do), but when One More Day hit, one of the complaints I heard quite frequently was "What about Ultimate Spider-Man?". The point being that, up to that point, Marvel had been publishing a married Spider-Man in ASM and a single (or at least not married), teenage Spider-Man in USM, which is more or less what they were trying to get closer to in ASM at the time. In effect, they were able to have their cake and eat it too. Personally, I have no problem with the Ultimate line continuing (though outside of Ultimate Spider-Man, I honestly don't care about it in the least), but at the same time if they're not going to exploit it in the way it was arguably intended (to tell stories that avoid the "baggage" of 616 continuity) and capitalize on the differences between the 616 and Ultimate universes, then I just don't see the point.

*cough* Meant to say "5 or 6 when they died.

When your rebooting your regular comic line time after time, I think it is time to come up with a different formula. Its been all too intriguing that Ultimate seems to be keeping to more rules in it's world. The fact that characters who die stay dead is awesome, it keeps from becoming stale. I always get upset that in comicbook movies they kill the villain even though he is an ongoing character, well in Ultimate that is flip-flopped and is super interesting, and Ultimate Spiderman is so good because of this.

Its merely opinion, but I do think that the characters of the Marvel Now universe are going to get stale once again, and seriously its like that because its like a longer that long relationship between character and fans, weve been married 20 plus years and done it all and its time to see someone else.

I believe Marvel and even DC Comics is coming to a mid-life crisis, and things like Ultimate and 52 are what makes people interested because these are new lives that we never got to experience.

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