ULTIMATE END #1
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley, Scott Hanna, Justin Ponsor
Published by Marvel Comics
Release Date: May 20th, 2015
This is a SECRET WARS: BATTLEWORLD tie-in.
*SPOILERS AHOY* The band it back together for one last tour, as Brian Michael Bendis is reunited with artist Mark Bagley to bring us the five issue mini series event Ultimate End. The creative team that launched the Ultimate Universe 15 years ago, were behind one of the best superhero titles of the 21st century, and set a record with 111 consecutive issues of Ultimate Spider-Man are tasked with what we are all assuming is the final story of the Ultimate Universe (although technically it was destroyed in Secret Wars #1). If there was one creative team up to this task it would be Bendis and Bagley. While it it is wonderful to see these two working together again they start off with a head scratcher of an issue. It’s an entertaining head scratcher, but a head scratcher nonetheless. I started to wonder if part of the confusion was to avoid stepping on the toes of the main title. Given the nature of this issue there will be some spoilers in the review. I’ll attempt to keep them to a minimum in most places, but some things need to be talked about in detail in order to fully assess the issue.
I’m going to get a little sentimental here for a moment. The Ultimate Universe holds a special place in my heart. I was a few months away from turning 14 when it launched, and the work of Bendis and Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man, Millar and the Kuberts on Ultimate X-Men, and Millar and Hitch on The Ultimates were among the most important and influential of my teenage years. Many of my all time favorite issues, moments, and stories can be found in just those three series alone. The imprint might have fallen off in popularity over the years but names like Carey, Kirkman, Spencer, Wood, Hickman, Humphries, and Aaron anchored by the rock that is Bendis kept me reading. If the Ultimate Universe is truly ending then I expect it to go out in style. While the cold open indicates something large on the horizon, the bulk of the opening issue is a confusing mess with snappy dialogue.
As mentioned above, the opening to the issue promises some big action moments to come in this series, but we don’t get much of that here. Instead we are taken back to three weeks earlier where we see what looks to be the Marvel Universe Spider-Man swinging through the streets of a New York that isn’t his. Bendis truly excels at writing Spider-Man’s internal dialogue. There’s one line in particular in these early pages that had me laughing out loud (It involves the sound effect “FABOOM”). Of course Spider-Man finds some trouble, but The Ultimates show up to help him out. For those who have been out of the Ultimate Universe for awhile this isn’t your old school Ultmates. These are the All New Ultimates, the young teen team led by Jessica Drew here. Bendis has these characters down to a tee, as he was the one that introduced every single one of these characters over the past several years. Their conversation with Spidey is the highlight of the issue, and didn’t last nearly long enough. The only problem with this exchange is something that might go over casual readers’ heads regarding Spider-Man’s reaction to his relationship with Jessica Drew (we will get to that later). At this pont we are on pace for an electric first issue that has a lot of has made the Ultimate Universe great over the years, but then it grinds to a halt.
The rest of the issue is devoted to a meeting between Ultimate characters, and their counterparts from what was once a different universe, presumably the 616. This meeting eschews action, and becomes one of the infamous Bendis talking heads scene. It feels like the non Ultimate characters find themselves stranded in the Manhattan Domain of Battleworld and want to go home. Although at one point it is implied that the Ultimate characters don’t belong. These characters include Tony Stark, Hulk, Spider-Man, Storm, Cyclops, Emma Frost, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch. The conversation is sharp though, and includes Fury putting down Hawkeye in another great line. The most interesting interaction however may be between the two Tony Starks. The non Ultimate Tony blames Ultimate Stark for his people being stranded there, and the differences between the two are, well, stark (pun intended of course). This would be a great time to point out the stellar lettering job from Corey Petit, as his use of lowercase letters for the Ultimate characters, and all uppercase for the others is a wonderful touch that helps tell who is who and from where. In the midst of the sharp back and forths between characters Bendis switches gears a bit. He pulls back, and seems to be playing with the reader using some intentionally vague dialogue that give off some mysterious vibes. Now this is where things get really confusing.
At one point we seemingly find out how these characters came to be in the Manhattan Domain. Readers of All-New X-Men may remember that during the issues set in the Ultimate Universe that there was a dimensional rift (similar to those seen in Spider-Men and Cataclysm) being overseen by Amadeus Cho that exploded in issue 31. Well here we have that same exact scene played out almost word for word, but when the rift explodes this time another Tony Stark shows up. That’s all we are shown, but it is mentioned that reality folded on itself. The entire meeting is about how to get everyone back to where they belong. If it wasn’t for the last page I wouldn’t even be able to tell this was set on Battleworld. The only line that gives any insight to the bigger picture is Fury warning that whatever is happening Doom will not be happy about it. How can you return to another Earth when there are no other Earth’s left? But then Cyclops mentions that the Ultimate characters might be the ones that don’t belong. It seems to be suggesting that two realities exist in one place. Having not been “saved” in Secret Wars #1 do the characters have any memory of what happened? Then again even characters who were saved, like Cyclops, seem to have no clue. It’s all extremely confusing in regards to what exactly is going on. It feels like Bendis is setting us up for a mystery, but it comes off like he hasn’t paid attention to anything going on, and that includes his own books! It’s either really bad writing or the beginning of a master plan that will be revealed as the series moves along. Given Bendis’ track record I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but it’s a shame that it comes off the way it does. I have some theories, but I’ll stick those at the end.
Mark Bagley is a somewhat polarizing artist. He’s not quite a love him or hate him artist like a John Romita Jr. but he does have a distinct style that feels more old school than most comics today. Having read almost all of his work over the past 15 years, I can say that with Scott Hanna on inks and Justin Ponsor on colors, that this is Bagley’s best work in several years. Hands down the best he has been since he left Ultimate Spider-Man, and multitudes better than his work on Cataclysm. He has always had one of the best takes on Spider-Man and that hasn’t changed. The double page spread following the cold open shows Bagley’s Spidey at his best. His long, lanky, flowing take on Spider-Man’s anatomy has always stood out. Where Bagley usually falters as of late is his take on characters that are not Spider-Man. It’s not that they look horrible, but just not up to the level of his Spidey. He steps his game up big time in that department here. The double splash page in the opening features around 50’characters and it looks great. The lone action scene in the book is handled well in the three pages that it’s given, and Cloak of the All-New Ultimates is a standout visually. The subtle differences between the two Starks are almost unnoticeable, but are a nice little touch. Not only do I believe that Bagley stepped up, but his fellow artists Hanna and Ponsor did as well. They very much accentuate Bagley’s strengths while downplaying the tendencies that put some readers off. It will be interesting to see how this carries over to the rest of the issues as the cast expands (hey where was Miles!?) and the action heats up.
Before this review wraps up I wanted to offer up some observations about the issue, and some theories as to what is going on. There be big SPOILERS ahead. If that doesn’t interest you then you can skip to the verdict and I won’t hold it against you. Even as someone that has been from the beginning this is really confusing! I think it’s because Bendis avoids confirming what’s going on, and is instead leaving clues both in the text and visually. First, everyone seems to assume that this is the Ultimate Universe face to face with the 616 Marvel Universe in this issue. I’m not so sure that it is. Bendis makes a big deal with Spider-Man being so worried about everyone knowing who he is. If this was the 616 Peter then this wouldn’t make sense. In the Spider-Men miniseries the mainstream Peter Parker sees a headline while in the Ultimate Universe that proclaims Spider-Man was killed and was a teenager named Peter Parker. The Ultimate characters know that he knows this yet they all play along in messing with him. Second, what’s up with Cyclops? Last we saw the 616 Cyclops he was aboard the life raft a changed man after unleashing the Phoenix egg in a last ditch effort to save reality. There is zero sign of any Phoenix related anything here. Third, what’s up with Tony Stark? We see Tony in his Iron Man suit, and talking about owning up to his mistakes. That does not sound very “Superior” at all. If you look at the opening of the issue though you can see Superior Iron Man on the left side of the double page spread. Finally, on the Battleworld map Manhattan Domain is split between the 616 and 1610. Why would the 616 characters feel as if they were the ones not at home? Why would 1610 characters feel at home? With how Battleworld was formed how would a dimensional rift come into play to fold reality on itself when the two universes had been in the midst of an incursion? These are all questions that were run if through my head as I read the issue, and I hope we get some clarity quickly.
So what does this all mean though? My immediate theory was that these visitors weren’t from the 616 as everyone (including myself) assumed. Maybe Ultimate Tony Stark pulled characters from one of the last remaining universes when the portal imploded and reality folded on itself, sparing these very similar to 616, but not 616 characters from the incursion that would go on to destroy their reality. Then I thought that maybe these are 616 characters but pulled from its past of the other side. It would take some explaining, but Bendis still hasn’t tied up his ongoing time stream mega story, and is on record saying this will pick up ties from All New X-Men. This would give Marvel an out for the New Marvel Universe to have a Tony Stark that isn’t Superior, and even a Cyclops that isn’t Phoenix powered if they choose to go that route.
Or maybe these were actually legitimate 616 characters and the nature of Battleworld has messed with memories (as seen in Spider-Verse). The description for Battleworld were that pieces of lost realities made it’s way onto the patchwork world. It’s quite possible that these versions of the 616 and Ultimate characters are the ideal versions of them (which would also give them those same outs described above). The only characters who would have any clear knowledge of what came before are those on the Illuminati’s and Cabal’s rafts. Those characters could be outside Battleworld’s altering reach, and also replaced when the Domains were formed. That last point would explain Cyclops in this issue. Last, but not least, maybe the dimensional rift wasn’t a gateway to another time or reality, but another Domain. When it blew up we got the only place on Battleworld where two separate Domains have been mushed together. Maybe the underlying issue has to do with the final incursion even. Whatever the answer may be it would have been nice to be given some more information to go on, so we weren’t left wondering who was who, and could just enjoy the solid exchanges between characters.
Overall this was a frustrating first issue. It may be billed as the last hurrah for most of the Ultimate Universe characters, but outside of the promise of the first three pages readers were left confused. What has made the successful Secret Wars tie-ins work has been the effective setup of the new status quo. Instead of implementing that approach the whos and whys were left a mystery. Luckily there were a few saving graces that saved the issue from being a total disaster. The art team of Bagley, Hanna, and Ponsor produced the best looking book with Bagley’s name on he cover in years. Then despite all the confusing aspects of the plot Bendis’ script is quick, snappy and downright funny in spots. While I trust Bendis to pull it all together, it didnt read like a first issue in the slightest.I can’t help but wonder if Bendis was hamstrung by not being able to reveal to much about how Battleworld works, specifically the Manhattan Domain, by Hickman’s work on the main title. By the time it’s all over this issue will ultimately be judged by the following issues, and how the confusing aspects look in retrospect when the entire event comes together. Hopefully we will see more of our favorite characters, the action will pick up, the haze of confusion clears up, and the Ultimate Universe gets the send off it deserves.
The Verdict: 6.0/10