Like everyone else this summer, I’ve been a little caught up with the Avengers mania. Hey, it was solid, entertaining film that did almost everything right, so it is completely understandable that the movie and it’s characters have been reaching a high level of popularity. However, I’ve never been much of a Marvel fan, so I have never actually read any Avengers comics, but the film sparked my interest enough to check out one of their books. I thought I would read Mark Millar’s run on The Ultimates, the Ultimate Universe version of the Avengers, since I had heard that the film draws heavily from the title. Also, being in Ultimate Universe, it is easier to start at the beginning and not have to worry about 50 or so years of continuity.
I couldn’t even make it through issue #5. If the Avengers film does almost everything right, The Ultimates does almost everything wrong, and that’s not just an exaggeration. This title serves as an example of everything wrong with modern mainstream superhero comics. Now don’t get me wrong, I have read much worse. This certainly isn’t as bad as Ultimatum (which I unfortunately read all the way through just so I could keep up with Ultimate Spider-Man), and it isn’t as near as offensive as DC’s Identity Crisis, but with the characters being handled so well outside of the medium that birthed them, I was merely disappointed that a film adaptation could be so vastly superior to the source material.
The book doesn’t start out so bad. The first issue is an exploration of Captain America’s origin, starting with his fateful mission to stop a Nazi rocket from blowing up Washington DC. It doesn’t really achieve much other than action, but that is completely fine for this kind of book. The next issue is just more set-up, as Dr. Banner speaks with Nick Fury giving expository dialogue about the Ultimates team they’re trying to assemble, Hank and Janet Pym are introduced along with their powers, and Tony Stark is shown to be, well Tony Stark. Again, nothing too exciting going on here, but it’s a necessary chapter. None of the characters are developed well, but I don’t see that as a problem, as these are characters that have been around for decades and there is the assumption that the reader already knows some amount of information on them. In any other medium or comics publisher, this would be a serious problem, but DC and Marvel have always been able to get away with it. Besides, this is a superhero comic. Everyone really just wants to get to the superheroics as soon as possible.
Issue#3 is where I start to notice problems. The issue starts out with a giant-sized Hank Pym showing off his massive crotch to a group of women as he says, “Afternoon, ladies.” Maybe this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the sunlight was highlighting his crotch and bringing focus to it, but the book has already taken a turn to into typical comic book creepy territory by having one of the team’s heroes commit an act of sexual harassment. In the male psyche, a big dick means more power, and at 60 feet tall with a proportionate-sized package, Pym is letting all the ladies know what’s up (Spoiler–it’s his penis). Just the angle in which he is drawn over the women demonstrate the power and dominance he has over them. On the next page, his wife Janet just shrugs the incident off like, “Tee hee, my husband makes suggestive gestures to women like some kind of sex pervert. Boys will be boys!” Of course, that attitude is the real problem here, that sexual harassment and casual sexism is just a lighthearted joke that causes no real harm. Well, it’s not.
But okay, so there’s one attempt at humor in this book so far and it’s in poor taste. How is the humor in the rest of the book? Well, if you don’t like casually sexist jokes, that’s okay because Millar can whip out jokes about a topic everybody loves: Freddie Prinze Jr! Now some of my younger readers might ask themselves, “Who is Freddie Prinze Jr?” That’s a great question kids. I’m not sure I really know either. I think he was in that Wing Commander movie my dad rented once when I was 12. It wasn’t very good.
But therein lies the problem with issue #4–it doesn’t really tell a story unless you think a story can be nothing more than a list of celebrity names. If that was the case, then the Hollywood Walk of Fame may be the most compelling story ever told and I’m not even sure why they even bother to make books anymore. Issue #4 starts out with Tony Stark hanging out in space with Shannon Elizabeth. Do you remember Shannon Elizabeth? No? Neither did I until I Googled her, then I remembered seeing her boobs in the first American Pie movie. Today, she is doing what every actress aspires to do with their career: play poker for the Lebanese team in global poker events. I know the comic was 10 years old as I first read it (and as I write this blog post), and I would expect it to be dated in some way, but this entire issue expects the reader to be caught in in early 2000s pop culture, and with the way celebrities quickly fade into obscurity, it really doesn’t give the book any lasting power. The way Millar sets up the humor in the issue is like this: you are supposed to find it funny that Shannon Elizabeth is hanging out with Tony Stark because Shannon Elizabeth is a person that you are aware of. If you aren’t aware of Shannon Elizabeth, then it isn’t funny. If you are aware of her, then it still really isn’t all that funny. Putting an unlikely person in an unusual situation can often led to hilarity, but this is a real world actress hanging out with a fake billionaire playboy. I guess we’re supposed to be amused that she’s in the comic, but within the context of the story, they both are supposed to be real anyway, so what is so unusual or funny about a young celebrity hanging out with another young celebrity?
In contrast to this, I feel like the way The Avengers approached humor was much more appropriate and effective. Too often in films, fiction, and comics do writers feel the need to insert humor into every moment. They create whole scenes and characters just to have that comic relief that they feel is necessary. Well, you really don’t need to have random cameos of have Jar Jar Binks to create comedy, and The Avengers proved that. All the humor felt completely natural and true to both the characters and the situation. Tony Stark is the only character giving out the quips and one-liners, but that is because he is supposed to be an obnoxious, arrogant ass. Also because you can tell he’s a lot more scared than he likes to let on, and his wisecracks are really a defense mechanism. It certainly helps that the dialogue was written smart and snappy, and never felt forced. Perhaps the funniest scene in the entire movie was near the end during the not-so-dramatic showdown between the Hulk and Loki. Loki begins to go through a typical supervillian monologue, explain why his plan will work and that the Avengers are doomed to fail. As a morale destroying tactic, he tells the Hulk that he is just a mindless beast and then…well, he’s cut off. The Hulk grabs Loki by the feet and starts to swing him around and he pounds him into the ground. The scene resembled a two-year-old child throwing a tantrum with a doll more than a typical superhero fight. It was unexpected and funny, but most importantly, it was true to the character. The Hulk was not going to sit there and have a moment to gather his inner strength for having a highly choreographed and drawn out fight. The Hulk was going to do what the Hulk does, and what the Hulk does is smash things.
Name dropping one celebrity may not be funny, but it isn’t annoying. This issue was not content to stop at just one celebrity though. There is an incredibly annoying scene in which the crew are hanging out and talking about which celebrities would play them in a movie. The only one that actually came true was Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, but the Ultimate version of Nick Fury was designed to look like Jackson anyway, so that wasn’t surprised. This scene also bothered me because it reminded me that Janet “The Wasp” Pym was originally going to be in The Avengers during early phases of development, but she was cut after Scarlett Johansson signed on to play Black Widow in Iron Man II and international treaties forbid having a superhero team with more than one woman as a member.
After that scene, we see Bruce Banner’s ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross, having dinner with Freddie Prince Jr. This is what sets the Banner over the edge and makes him retake some kind of Hulk juice so he can hulk out again. Apparently he was cured before the events of the comic. At this point the comic stops reading like it was actually published by Marvel, but more like it was some guy’s attempt at parody that was uploaded to Deviantart. But that isn’t even my real problem with this scene. This group of superheroes obviously needs a first threat to unite them, but this is it? A jealous ex-boyfriend? A attempted humorous plot point? This is the great conflict that brings about a new era of superheroes working together for the common good of all mankind? If this was supposed to be a parody, a joke book, or some other kind of riff on the genre, I’d accept and enjoy it, but this isn’t any of those things. After a bunch of boring set-up, we get a boring conflict.
Issue #5 picks up where the last left off. The Hulk is rampaging through New York towards his ex-girlfriend while making threats to rape her. Are you disgusted by this? Well, congratulations on being a decent human being. Hank Pym is apparently angry at the idea of a rival rapist, so he is first on the scene to try to take the Hulk down. He has as much success in this as has at not being a creepy bastard, and he is quickly defeated by the Hulk. After that, the Wasp decides to avenge her husband and she flies over to the Hulk. Now you may be thinking, “The Wasp, huh? She has the power to get really small and fly, and she also holds two PhDs and is a highly accomplished scientist. Since she isn’t a physical match for the Hulk, she’ll have to use her brains and agility to stop him!” Well, no. That is not what she does. She pulls out her tits.
This was the point where I could take no more. I refuse to read any more of The Ultimates or any other book by Mark Millar for that matter. That’s a shame too, because his Superman: Red Son is one of the few Superman stories worth reading and one of my favorite books. I know he meant this as another “funny” moment in the book, but after all the other casual sexism, I just can’t let another moment like that fly. What he is saying with that moment is that Janet Pym, the only female hero on the team, is completely useless. Her powers are useless, her intelligence is useless, but what isn’t useless are those sacks of flesh hanging off her chest.