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The Ultimate universe is a secondary universe created by Marvel to update their characters in the twenty-first century and keep them fresh and appealing for new readers. The line opened up with Ultimate Spider-Man, which was a retelling of Spider-Man's origins in a modern era, focusing less on radiation (which was a fear during the 60s when the original stories were written, and more on genetic manipulation - a more relevant fear for today's youth). These stories allowed for a fresh approach to the original material, with subtle tweaks to the established characters. It proved immensely popular, and the universe was expanded with an X-Men, Fantastic Four and Avengers title. However, over time the quality on these secondary titles dwindled somewhat and the events in the original universe were proved to be far more interesting than their more "modern" counterparts, so the decision was made to drastically change the landscape of the Ultimate universe, making the differences between the two universes even greater. Writer, Jeph Loeb, and artist, David Finch, were tasked with the job of 'destroying the Ultimate Universe' so it could be rebuilt into a brand new status quo, and with this apocalyptic mini-series, they certainly succeeded.
Considering the tone of the Ultimate Universe prior to this miniseries, it does seem very mismatched. There was seldom any gore or violence in any of the Ultimate Universe books, which were aimed at new and younger readers, but Jeph Loeb seems to forget this and fills this miniseries with plenty of shocking and violent deaths - some of which are particularly gory, even for someone in their late twenties to read. While it appeals to me in a naughty way to see these legendary characters, such as The Blob or The Wasp, get killed off in spectacular fashion, it does make me wonder whether this is a particularly child-friendly book, and whether it crosses the line into Adults-only material.
The miniseries is very grand in scope, and opens up with a dramatic global catastrophe that devastates New York, which costs the lives of several heroes. It transpires that one iconic super-villain is responsible for the millions of deaths that have occurred, and promises more attacks. The heroes have to deal with the repercussions of the attack, gather their dead and injured and wage a final last-ditch attack on the mastermind before he destroys mankind.
I have been purposefully vague on some of the details, as this book relies heavily on the shocking events rather than the character moments, and to spoil what happens and who dies does ruin most of the appeal from the book. As I said earlier, this is not a tame book and while in normal stories, most of the heroes (and villains) would emerge from the conflict unscathed - due to the status quo changing element of this series, there is a feeling of 'no holds barred' and that not everyone will be walking away from this one.
As this miniseries was published alongside the other Ultimate titles (Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four) - there are allusions to events happening within those books and how they tie-in together, so it does read slightly incomplete on its own, with those supplementary titles providing some of the details between the panels. For example, most of Spider-Man's appearances seem slightly disjointed and vague, due to the fact that most of his involvement is played out in his own solo series and not within this book.
I did enjoy this book for what it was - a giant, blockbuster movie with devastating and graphic depictions of its results. It succeeds in its endeavour to deconstruct the Ultimate Universe in a way that Marvel could never do with their original universe, killing of iconic characters and wiping out key landmarks. It leaves writers with hundreds of potential ways to approach future stories, forcing them to create brand-new characters to replace the ones they have lost, making the Ultimate Universe a truly different alternative to the core Marvel universe.
However, for parents of children who have seen the various Marvel Avengers' movies and want to buy a book for their kids to read - I would recommend steering clear of this as it depicts gruesome violence, mostly revolving around people's heads. There's gunshots to the head, beheadings, heads popping and even elements of cannibalistic behaviour. I am surprised Marvel didn't issue a kid-friendly alternative to this book with some of the more violent images removed or redrawn, in order to allow children (from whom this line was originally intended to draw in) to read this latest chapter.
The book is available in Hardcover (£16.14) and Paperback (£10.49) from Amazon.co.uk. It collects the core five chapters of the Ultimatum storyline (144 pages), but there is a second book Ultimatum: Requiem, which deals with some of the aftermath of the events (£8.39 - paperback), which may be of interest once finishing this book.
[This review also appears on Amazon.co.uk & Ciao]