A common complaint about Marvel Comics is how dense its history is. It’s a double-edged sword, of course -- longtime fans enjoy the fact that a new issue might casually reference a comic from decades ago. However, new readers often worry they must read up on decades of comics just to keep up! Nearly two decades ago, Marvel thought they had a solution to this with the Ultimate Universe. This was an entire set of comics set in one of Marvel’s parallel universes. Basically, the company could have their cake and eat it, too, by including traditional elements from the mainstream universe while changing certain things up for the modern world.
And, best of all, it would be friendly for new readers. This line produced a new “jumping on” point for new readers featuring famous heroes and teams such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers (now known as the Ultimates). Eventually, this universe would be combined (sort of) with the mainstream 616 universe, allowing popular characters like Miles Morales to cross over while otherwise closing the door on this world. All these years later, here’s the big question: was it any good? The answer, of course, is both “yes and no.” This line of comics was hugely influential, both in terms of gaining new readers and influencing what would later become the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the same time, some of the plots and characters fell flat, while others were just gross and disturbing in the name of shock value. Don’t believe us? Read on!
20 BEST: JACKSON AS FURY
If we only got to pick one thing to praise about the Ultimates comics, it would be the fact that they inspired Samuel L. Jackson to portray Nick Fury in the MCU. It all started with The Ultimates artist Bryan Hitch shamelessly making Nick Fury look exactly like Jackson in the comic.
It got pretty meta in a later issue, as the team decided who should portray them in a movie and Fury insisted on being portrayed by Jackson. It all worked out though, as Jackson was a fan of writer Mark Millar and the popularity of the comic character is what led to Jackson being in the MCU.
19 WORST: CYCLOPS
Comic fans are used to debating “the moral event horizon.” This is when a character crosses a line and can no longer be redeemed. For many, Dark Phoenix destroying a planet was one such moment. In Ultimate X-Men, we got something quieter, but still terrible in a n evil Cyclops. It all starts when he (briefly) defects to the Brotherhood of Mutants.
Before you know it, Cyclops is joining Quicksilver and the others on attacks against humanity. They rack up quite the tally, and while Cyclops protests some of their actions, he is still part of it. Pretty soon, he’s back with the X-Men... disappointingly, though, we never deal with the monster he became under Magneto’s leadership.
18 BEST: HULK AS A VILLAIN
It’s always tricky to make the Hulk into a hero. After all, his stock in trade is destruction and “smashing”: in any other story, the giant rage monster capable of taking down buildings would be the villain. While the mainstream Marvel Universe goes to great lengths to insist Hulk almost never stomps anyone, The Ultimates went in a different direction.
In those early comics, there were no real threats for The Ultimates to fight. So Bruce Banner became Hulk to give them a villain. They stopped him, but not before he claimed hundreds of lives. We then got a satisfyingly crunchy drama where the team had to pretend to not know who Hulk was so the public would think they were heroes.
17 WORST: MAGNETO'S HUNGER
The spirit of the Ultimates line of comics was to make these characters more accessible to new readers. Inevitably, though, that led to several characters being made more modern and, overall, darker. With Magneto, though, there was a throwaway line that went a bit too far in trying to make him seem threatening.
When Cyclops is debating Magneto about being evil, the villain casually mentions how it’s been years since he’s eaten flesh, “human or otherwise.” Does it make Magneto scarier? Sure, but at a cost. Once you know he casually eats humans from time to time, it’s tough to take his mutant/human relations philosophies very seriously.
16 BEST: AN UNFORGIVING CAPTAIN AMERICA
It may seem surprising to fans of the MCU in general (and Chris Evans specifically), but Captain America wasn’t always seen as a cool. Many fans thought of him as a glorified boy scout, and it sometimes seemed he wasn’t pulling his weight next to the gods and monsters of the Avengers.
The Ultimates successfully changed all that. We see a Captain America who takes on the Hulk, beats back alien invasions, and jumps out of airplanes with no parachute. He takes out Giant Man without breaking a sweat, too. Even the biggest skeptics of the character would soon understand why Fury wanted him to lead Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!
15 WORST: CRAZY MR. SINISTER
The writers of these comics had to walk a tightrope. They had to preserve the essence of classic characters that fans loved while also introducing things that were new and unexpected. Unfortunately, the Ultimate take on Mr. Sinister was a colossal failure. While it’s not always easy to take the Dr. Frank N. Furter-looking villain seriously, this made things worse.
They later fleshed his story out that he was a bioengineer who went crazy, but he’s introduced in the comics as a kind of mutant-centric Jack the Ripper. The most memorable thing about him is when he threw Professor X down some stairs... hardly the stuff of supervillain legend!
14 BEST: THE CHITAURI
Plenty of things in the Ultimate line helped shape the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of these things were pretty subtle, and some were pretty loud. And nothing was louder than the aliens known as the Chitauri! They basically functioned as the “big bads” in the early days of The Ultimates.
In the MCU, the Chitauri are the relatively mindless bad guys we first see in Avengers. In the comics, they are basically the Skrulls -- shapeshifters who have come to Earth over many years and attempted to shape its history in various ways. If they were not introduced and popularized in these comics, though, Loki might not have had an army!
13 WORST: MIND-CONTROLLED STUDENTS
Earlier, we discussed Cyclops leaving the X-Men and briefly joining Magneto’s band of evil mutants. This was partially motivated by his jealousy of Wolverine and Jean Grey’s relationship (which itself was pretty icky), but it came to a pretty unexpected head when Professor X tried to control his mind!
When they are arguing about Xavier’s willingness to work with the American government, the Professor begins predicting what Cyclops will say and releasing endorphins in his head to try to force him to calm down. It’s arguably a callback to the manipulative professor from the 616 universe, but it’s still gross and wrong to read.
12 BEST: ASSASSIN WOLVERINE
In the mainstream comics, Wolverine was a character who got a lot more background as he got more popular. However, the character background didn’t always match up with what we knew about him: it seemed weird that a berserker like him, for instance, would ever end up as a government agent for Canada.
In Ultimate X-Men, they cut out the middleman and introduced Wolverine as an assassin hired by Magneto to target Professor X. Not only does this seem more in line with Wolverine’s mindset, but it gives him a pretty satisfying arc when he ends up giving up on his mission and actually believing in Xavier’s ideals.
11 WORST: BODY SWAP
As much as we loved it, the Ultimate line went on way too long. This meant there were many classic stories they were going to eventually adapt, and some were worse than others. For instance, we got the inevitable Freaky Friday comic when Jean Grey swapped Wolverine and Spider-Man into each other’s bodies, and it was...well, it was weird.
Don’t get us wrong, there are some good laughs to be had as they try to navigate each other’s bodies. However, it apparently takes Wolverine no time at all to try to put the moves on Mary Jane. She, like Peter Parker, is in high school at the time, making what was supposed to be a lighthearted comic very gross and weird.
10 BEST: FUN IRON MAN
Earlier, we talked about how The Ultimates’ Nick Fury was the clear and obvious inspiration for the Fury of the MCU. But while it’s not quite as obvious as that example, Ultimates had a clear influence on another popular MCU character -- Iron Man! And all they had to do was make him fun again.
They made a conscious decision for those comics that they wouldn’t deal with Tony Stark being a hot mess. Instead, he’s a fun-loving, woman-loving rich guy who also happens to be one of the smartest men on the planet. It was a refreshing change from the demon-haunted Stark of the mainstream comics, and it’s no surprise that this ended up the model for the MCU.
9 WORST: HAWKEYE'S FAMILY
For better or for worse, the Ultimate brand really liked to swing for the fences. Everything was big stories and high stakes, all the time. Sometimes, though, this went to some heart-wrenching places, and the best example of this is when Black Widow takes out Hawkeye’s family.
It turned out that Black Widow was actually a traitor who had infiltrated The Ultimates, and she targeted Hawkeye’s family. By now, we had gotten to know his wife and two children pretty well, so seeing what happened to them was downright hard to read. This is one comic element we are thankful isn’t making it to the MCU!
8 BEST: CELEBRITY THOR
Hands-down, one of the best takes on the character of Thor occurred in the early Ultimates comics. Basically, no one believed he was actually a god, though the team wanted him for the powers that he had. The world loved him in a different way, though -- as a celebrity.
Thor was basically an extremely leftwing author and celebrity who initially worked with The Ultimates on a part-time basis... and he wasn’t afraid to withhold his services in exchange for government aid to people in need. Basically, the “one-two” punch of people questioning Thor’s godhood while worshiping him as an earthly celebrity made for insanely entertaining reading.
7 WORST: BROTHERLY LOVE
The Marvel Cinematic Universe gave a simple, non-technical description for Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch: “he’s fast, she’s weird.” However, in the world of the Ultimate comics, it could have been even simpler: they’re both weird, mostly due to the bizarre relationship they have with one another!
It wasn’t really veiled, coded, or hinted at: this brother and sister duo had more than a sibling-level relationships with one another. It was tough to read their scenes together without remembering this troubling detail, and this was one more example of these comics taking it too far for no real reason at all.
6 BEST: REAL PEOPLE
While certain writers are more persistent about it than others, modern comics typically shy away from using real people in the comics. Aside from potential legal issues, it also risks the comic feeling dated. And while The Ultimates may or may not seem dated now, the use of all those famous personalities really helped the story.
For instance, we saw the X-Men dealing with George W. Bush, and we saw Iron Man going on a space date with Elizabeth Shannon. Most memorably, though, we saw a Betsy Ross date with a certain celebrity go sideways, leading to the classic line, “Hulk want Freddie Prinze Jr!”
5 WORST: THE WASP'S ULTIMATUM
We’ve talked a few times now about when these comics didn’t just push the envelope -- they pushed the entire damn table over. Perhaps no example of this is so pertinent as "Ultimatum", the big “whole world against Magneto” story. The comic had some unsettling moments, including the Blob's interaction with the Wasp!
Not only was Blob a very grotesque monster, but he defeated Wasp and started snacking on her before being disposed of by Hank Pym. It was just bad all around -- not only was Wasp added to the characters unnecessarily disposed of in the story, but it was simply shock for the sake of shock instead of serving the story in a compelling way.
4 BEST: NEW VENOM STORY
The Ultimate Spider-Man comics were some of the most successful of this line. They managed to recreate heroes and villains in a consistently entertaining way. One of the biggest examples of this is Venom... a character who got a complete overhaul that still ended up quite good!
Instead of Eddie Brock being a bad reporter, he is a college student and old friend of Peter Parker’s. And instead of the suit being an alien symbiote, it is an experiment of their fathers that ends up getting rapidly out of hand. Ultimately, we got a satisfying story for the character that maintained the integrity of who he is while integrating him into this new universe. And his genuine connection with Peter is the icing on the cake!
3 WORST: BAD ROMANCE
If you like Ant-Man/Giant Man, then you might want to avoid The Ultimates entirely. Hank Pym is consistently portrayed in a negative light: he’s a bad scientist, bad superhero, and bad husband. While it’s all cringe-worthy, the scenes with him and Wasp are pretty legendarily bad.
The writers decided to do a modern interpretation of the rough relationship from the mainstream comics. This culminated in a scene where Hank Pym sprays a shrunken Wasp with Raid and sends his ants after her. It’s over the top and unsettling, and we could never look at his character the same again.
2 BEST: THE END OF SPIDER-MAN
Part of the fun of the Ultimate Universe is that the writers could do major things that wouldn’t impact the “real” universe. The biggest example of this is when we actually see the classic Spider-Man, Peter Parker, perish in the line of duty while defeating Green Goblin. If you thought it was sad seeing him fade in Infinity War, you may want to stay away from this!
He actually perishes with a smile, happy that he was able to save Aunt May in the way he could never save Uncle Ben. And because his secret identity is revealed during the battle, virtually all of New York comes out to honor him at his funeral. It gets better, though: soon after, we got Miles Morales!
1 WORST: SPIDEY LOSING HIS MASK
One aspect of the original Spider-Man that carried over into the Ultimate comics was the infamous “Parker luck.” Peter Parker felt like the universe must have had it out for him, as bad things just kept on happening though. By far, the most annoying of these was that he constantly lost his mask.
He loses it while fighting Green Goblin, he loses it while fighting Kingpin... and if that’s not bad enough, his identity gets sussed out by everyone from Doctor Octopus to J. Jonah Jameson. All in all, that “Parker luck” extended to Peter having the worst “secret identity” in history!