While “Ultimate Spider-Man” is clearly at the top of Marvel’s “Ultimate” line of comics, “Ultimate Fantastic Four,” after a strong couple of years, has sunk to the bottom under the direction of writer Mike Carey. While the Ultimate line was initially predicated on retelling classic Marvel stories set in a more contemporary time, with hip accoutrements like soul patches and iPods, the comics have since veered off into new directions and the game now becomes: how much can the writers change the story details while still keeping the essence of the characters?
In Mike Carey’s case, he’s decided to keep the core of the Fantastic Four intact, and thematically consistent with what was established earlier, but use them to tell brand new stories of strange menaces from other worlds, other dimensions. Except instead of creating wholly original villains to populate the “Ultimate Fantastic Four” multiverse, he just uses the same old Marvel villain names, but in a completely different context. His Mad Thinker, for example, was a woman! His Psycho-Man was the creator of the Silver Surfer! His Thanos, seen in this current arc, is an alien warlord in possession of the Cosmic Cube!
While I appreciate the attempt to keep things fresh by zigging when readers expect a zag, Carey often fails to make his new iterations of the Marvel villains more interesting than the originals. And that failing is on display quite clearly in “Ultimate Fantastic Four” #53.
Thanos has always been a second-rate Darkseid, but under Jim Starlin’s direction, he had a tragic quality that’s missing from Carey’s version as seen here. Carey’s Thanos is a power-hungry monarch who manipulates his children, Atrea and Ronan (the Accuser — another spin on a classic Marvel character), as readily as he would manipulate his enemies. Thanos lusts for power, but that’s all he does. And Reed Richards easily takes advantage of him, allowing Thanos’s own greed to destroy him. Carey’s one-dimensional Thanos barks loudly, but lacks enough substance to make the story compelling.
It doesn’t help that artists Tyler Kirkham and Sal Regla overwhelm each panel with oppressive detail. Nothing in this issue has room to breathe, as each moment is cluttered with heavily inked detritus. Such overwrought artwork deadens any potential excitement or emotion within the story, rendering this climactic issue nearly lifeless.
Ultimate Fantastic Four” #53 reads less like a Fantastic Four story than like a late-period Chris Claremont X-Men tale. It’s overburdened with insignificant detail and lacks the human moments that would make it worth reading. For all of Mike Carey’s cleverness (and there are a couple of clever twists in the plot), there’s just not much of a Fantastic Four story here. The essence of the main characters remains, but their struggle feels as artificial as it looks.