As an introduction to comics, Millar and Hitch’s Ultimates is one of the best there is. Between Millar’s stripped down scenes and Hitch’s photo-realistic design, virtually no other comics capture the same feeling of a widescreen, blockbuster movie like Ultimates does. And, like any decent movie, the sequel has to come back bigger and better.
Whether Ultimates 2 achieved that or not is debatable. It loses a lot of the punctual simplicity of volume 1 by complicating the superhero arms race, introducing a legion of European super-soldiers and various American second-tier superhumans. Similarly, the idea of “persons of mass destruction” being deployed in foreign countries already feels like an idea firmly rooted in the mid-noughties politics of terrorism. The elements that made it timely already feel out-of-context, and although it’ll eventually make for an entertaining piece of commentary – much like the Cold War, Reagan and Thatcher influenced comics of the 80s do – the wounds are still a little too raw right now for the glow of familiarity to shine through.
Of course, Ultimates isn’t just notable for its politics. In stark contrast to most recent volume of Ultimates, the craft on display is exemplary. Thor and Volstagg’s meeting in a restaurant is particularly memorable, with Volstagg’s warning about shifting realities immediately coming true, leaving the reader in as much doubt as to Thor’s claims as his teammates – unless, that is, they return to the scene and spot Loki in the background. When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, this is the kind of subtext and technique he hoped to bring to the craft.
The pinnacle of Ultimates’ technical achievements is undoubtedly the 8-page spread, rendered as a full fold-out, even in the collected edition. A perfect demonstration of the advantages that the printed medium has over movies, and again, something that touches on groundwork laid by Moore and Gibbons with their panoramic scene of squid-devastation in Watchmen, and in Moore’s Prometha fold-out poster comic. Ultimates Volume 2 actually pushes the medium into new territory.
Its genius as a piece of craft isn’t quite matched by the quality of the stories. It’s longer than the original Ultimates, but occasionally to its own detriment. Pym’s story is itself a little ragged, and the Defenders interlude issue, while comedic, serves largely as a self-indulgent joke at Pym’s expense. Admittedly, it does illustrate Pym hitting rock bottom, but not quite as effectively as a scene where he begs Nick Fury to use his ideas for free, and Fury won’t even stop walking to speak with him. By contrast, the far more entertaining character of Bruce Banner is neglected, shuffled off to star in the legendarily-delayed Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk miniseries mid-season and returning only for the climactic battle. Although spotlighted at the beginning, the story misses him when he’s not around.
There’s always more that can be said about Ultimates 2, but despite its minor flaws, it remains a worthy sequel to the original. A world apart from Jeph Loeb’s Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum, it’s nothing less than a necessary purchase for all superhero fans. Although Millar and Hitch failed to recapture the acclaim of Ultimates in their Fantastic Four run, at least they can be sure that they managed to create two near-perfect volumes of superhero action that will continue to be enjoyed for decades to come.