Hard-Traveling Fanboys: The Longbook Hunters (The Ultimates 2)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. Over the course of their travels through comicdom, they have encountered numerous stories via the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Once a month, Nick and Greg will review one of those collections in The Longbook Hunters.

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Nick: It’s that time once again where Greg and I dig through our graphic novel and trade collections to find something the other hasn’t read. This month, I dug out my edition of Ultimates 2 for Greg to give his first read-through.

Greg: Nick first encountered this one as it was coming out. My exposure to Marvel’s Ultimate Universe is quite tame by comparison, as I only recently read the first few story arcs of Ultimate Spider-Man after having read The Ultimates a few years back.

Nick: And while the first Ultimates volume is very well-known and highly regarded in most circles, this one hasn’t been read by quite as many. It retains the same Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch creative team while expanding the bubble, so to speak, on the Ultimates and the consequences their formation has had.

Greg: Who are the Ultimates? Well, the Avengers — just in an alternate universe. And I think it’s fair to say that these characters are more different from their mainstream counterparts than Ultimate Spider-Man was from his.

Some, like Captain America, remain basically the same (if harder around the edges). Others, like the Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ant-Man and Bruce Banner, are significantly altered.

Ultimate Hank Pym is pretty desperate, in a lot of ways.
Ultimate Hank Pym is pretty desperate, in a lot of ways.

Nick: Yeah, they’ve been “modernized,” which, as anyone who reads comics knows, means they come complete with all kinds of psychological and personal issues. Black Widow has major trust issues, Hawkeye experiences some traumatic life-altering events, Ant-Man is a domestic abuser and Bruce Banner might be one of the most pathetic, self-loathing heroes ever.

Greg: While some of these changes are … off-putting (Ant-Man is completely unlikeable here), others provide a fresh take on characters that truly justifies the alternate universe setting. In particular, Thor is used masterfully in this iteration.

As established in The Ultimates, Thor is either the Norse god of thunder or a complete raving lunatic. Well, after showing up and saving the world, he’s become a folk hero since the end of The Ultimates and the beginning of The Ultimates 2 (think of these as movies rather than comic series). Except nobody has really figured out exactly what his deal is. To his believers, he’s a god. To his friends, like Tony Stark, he’s a goofy but ultimately well-intentioned nutjob.

This image can be considered a teaser for the journey and fate of Ultimate Thor.
This image can be considered a teaser for the journey and fate of Ultimate Thor.

That ambiguity is also left up to the reader’s imagination, and the Millar/Hitch team amps up the doubt as the story progresses. Thor’s half-brother Loki (or is he?) comes into play and leads to Thor being exposed (or does he?). It’s a great roller coaster that leaves you guessing right up to the halfway point in the story.

Nick: Yes, Thor and Cap are probably the two characters that Millar digs the deepest into, and he does plenty to cast doubt on the motivations of both characters. While Thor is made to look like an unstable nutcase, Cap falls under suspicion of being a mole on the team. So, a large portion of the book is a “whodunit,” with the identity of the mole not revealed until past the halfway point.

We also get looks at how Tony Stark is dealing with his newfound heroic role and his ongoing health concerns. This version of Stark feels very in line with the version of Stark that Robert Downey Jr. portrayed in the Iron Man and Avengers movies, even though the book came out a few years before the screen version existed.

Kind of like the Batman-Alfred dynamic, except with a more sarcastic Batman.
Kind of like the Batman-Alfred dynamic, except with a more sarcastic Batman.

Meanwhile, the Wasp and Ant-Man (who are/were married) are each dealing with their separation in very different ways, with Hank Pym experiencing the depths of depression as he watches his former teammates become global icons.

Greg: That’s a great point about Iron Man. It’s clear that this version of Stark was a major influence on the big-screen adaptation and, perhaps, in the decision to cast Robert Downey Jr. Elements, such as the air of suave arrogance and alcoholism, are in line with the mainstream comics version. However, Ultimate Tony possesses the same snark and cynicism of RDJ’s iconic interpretation.

Nick: And in another example of this book’s possible influences on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the book’s major themes is the question of how far is too far in pursuit of security? At what point does being proactive rather than reactive become tyrannical? Judging by the trailers for the upcoming Captain America sequel, that theme will be featured heavily in Cap’s newest outing.

Greg: Yes, this book is steeped in questions of militarism and politics. The themes, and even the circumstances under which the Avengers meet and greet each other, seem in line with their cinematic counterparts.

However, that opens up an area that could be seen as a strength or a weakness of this book — it is very much of its time. In the same way as something like Watchmen was definitively ’80s, Ultimates 2 is written in the scope of Bush-era America, particularly in relation to the War in Iraq. The book presents the likes of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in their then-current positions, and it makes its political statements/observations within those parameters.

None of that is to diminish the validity of the book’s narrative quality, but it’s certainly a bit jarring to read nearly 10 years after the fact.

Nick: The book certainly doesn’t portray those in power in a positive light, but luckily that’s a background element. Even without the political undertones, there’s still an effective superhero story underneath. Speaking of which, what scenes wound up standing out to you as the plot progressed?

Greg: On the positive end, the twisty end to the Natasha/Tony romance was a standout. It was some of the best character work on Stark that I’ve seen outside the movies (I’ve never been a fan of “616” Tony). We get to see Tony at his most vulnerable and his most resourceful (“Billionaires don’t get rich by being stupid.”).

The eventual appearance of the Hulk is probably the book’s single best fist-pump moment. It really turns the tide in what had been a pretty bleak battle for the heroes.

Nick: Yes, as weak as Bruce Banner has been through the first volume and most of Ultimates 2, it was inevitable that he’d eventually get his act together, and when he does, we get to see the Hulk unleashed and really set loose on a group of evildoers.

I also loved Thor’s role in the final battle, as the question of his origin finally is answered in a satisfying fashion. Really, the entire closing sequence is very well done, with each character getting their own moment to shine. That sequence has a cinematic feel to it, something that Millar and Hitch have said was a goal of theirs. Each of their Ultimates volumes are meant to have a movie-like structure, rather than a television season like many authors have turned to.

But before that final sequence, there are some other notable sequences as well. Hawkeye’s capture and subsequent escape was a point of debate between us, as I recall.

The scene in question, as Hawkeye makes his Ultimate skillset known.
The scene in question, as Hawkeye makes his Ultimate skillset known.

Greg: Indeed. I’ll be completely frank in that I laughed out loud during the escape sequence, which I don’t think was the idea. Without spoiling it, it’s difficult to explain, but it read (to me) like something a teenager would’ve written (“You know what’d look awesome?”). While the whole book has an air of over-the-top to it, I found that particular scene to be jarring, since the book clearly prides itself on being mature, at least in the level of graphic content. Until the final battle, there is a sense of “reality within fantasy” grounding the story, but Hawkeye’s scene stretched that pretty severely.

Emotionally, it resonated. But it took me out of the story in the same way that an overly soft offense can take me out of a wrestling match otherwise built on violent exchanges.

Nick: I was fine with it, mainly because they needed to do something to explain why Hawkeye was so important that he would be held captive rather than the antagonists focusing on the more powerful members of the team. It helped to show how valuable and resourceful he can be, and why he posed a threat to the opposing force. Plus, as you said, he had been put through the emotional wringer, so it was good to see him get some form of comeuppance.

Another scene I’d like to point out is Thor’s restaurant meeting with fellow Asgardian Volstagg. However, in keeping with the mystery surrounding Thor’s true identity, when Thor looks around, there is no Volstagg and all the patrons of the restaurant are staring as Thor talks to himself.

Greg: That was one of the best scenes in the book. Hitch was fantastic there, juxtaposing the completely normal expressions on Thor’s face (as he thinks he’s carrying on a normal conversation) and the sheer confusion on all the other patrons’ faces. Thor’s disbelief when confronted afterward is equally amusing.

Nick: Yeah, Hitch does a phenomenal job throughout the book. His art style certainly fits with the story’s cinematic nature, as the human characters are portrayed in a realistic fashion for the most part. To me, his Cap is the one that instantly pops into my head whenever I think of the character. What were your impressions of the art throughout the story?

Greg: To be completely honest, I felt the art outshone the writing in this one. Hitch was outstanding throughout, and like you, I was instantly enamored with his version of Cap. From a design standpoint, it’s a more practical version of the character, but it still manages to carry that iconic superhero element.

I also felt Hitch drew some really great, flashy splash pages throughout. The Thor and Liberators battles were well rendered. While there were a few instances where I found the battle sequences hard to follow, I didn’t feel that was an issue with the art. As for the more personal moments, they were mostly good. There were a handful of moments that felt off in terms of facial expressions, but for the most part it captured the right tone for each scene.

The Liberators.
The Liberators.

Millar clearly gave Hitch plenty of room in the scripts to work his magic, and it shows in the finished product.

Nick: Very well said. Well, that about does it. I feel like Ultimates 2 is a very worthy successor to the first volume, even if it doesn’t quite hit the highs of its predecessor. I wish Millar and Hitch had re-teamed for Ultimates 3, rather than the Jeph Loeb/Joe Maduiera abomination we got, but you can’t win em all, I suppose. Anyway, I’d suggest trying Ultimates 2 to anyone who’s a fan of the films or of the first volume, and for huge fans, it’s certainly worth owning. Greg, your final thoughts and recommendations?

Greg: I’d recommend it only for those who read and enjoyed the first volume. While I’m used to (and prefer) the modern style of more decompressed storytelling, I felt Ultimates 2 ventured too far into that realm. The first three or four issues move at a snail’s pace, to the point that I audibly wondered when something was going to happen. Yet the ending felt a bit rushed. For that reason, I can’t give it as glowing a recommendation as I’d give its predecessor.

I’d also warn people that some of the characterizations are jarring. I’ve never had an issue with Captain America killing (he went to war, so it makes sense to me), but killing an unarmed opponent who was already beaten seems especially strange unless it’s a “Cap gone rogue” story.

Still, I found myself engrossed in the story by the end. Seeing the numerous subplots weave together and reach their logical conclusions was particularly satisfying, and the final beatdown of the bad guys felt genuinely earned. Check out The Ultimates first, and if you dig it, give this one a read. It really is like watching a long Marvel movie in many ways, and it’s structured differently than a traditional superhero comic. Still, the pacing and content will probably turn some off.

Oddly, I think it works as an interesting companion to Identity Crisis, which we reviewed in our last edition of The Longbook Hunters, in that it’s a snapshot of comics in the mid-2000s and the direction the industry would head from a storytelling standpoint.

Speaking of the mid-2000s, this guy had a TV show. Thanks a lot, America.
Speaking of the mid-2000s, this guy had a TV show. Thanks a lot, America.

Nick: All right, that does it for this month’s edition of The Longbook Hunters. Be sure to come back next week, when we’ll give you The Rundown of March’s major happenings in the comics industry.

Greg: And next month, we’ll be right back here with a look at volume one of Marvel’s latest Hawkeye series. As always, we welcome your feedback on Facebook, Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), or at our PTBN email accounts (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com).

 

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.