Wednesday Review: Jeph Loeb’s Marvel Ultimatum Series

It’s been a little while since I last geeked out good and proper. Consider yourself forewarned.

The Marvel Ultimates are reimagined series of some of Marvel’s most famous superheroes. The concept was that these comics would start fresh and free themselves from the sometimes wonky backstories that they had earned over decades of comics. The Ultimates exist side by side with their standard counterparts because the Marvel Multiverse has, as the title would suggest, a wide vartiety of parallel universes. This lets Marvel use their characters a bit more freely, knowing they can always hop into another universe where things are as the fans have always wanted them to be.

Jeph Loeb wrote a series for the Ultimates arc called Ultimatum. This was intended to be a conclusion for the Ultimates, and the completion of his miniseries did result in some Ultimates comics being discontinued and others being relaunched anew.


Ultimatum deals with Magneto’s attack on the Earth via the Ultimatum Wave. Magneto has tired of humanity and intends to wipe them from the Earth. He begins by using his magnetic powers to tilt the Earth’s axis, causing portions of the world to freeze over, wreaking general tectonic havoc (not to be confused with “teutonic havoc”, though that would be funnier) and, in the event that the series focuses most on, causing a massive tidal wave to wipe out most of the Eastern seaboard of the United States. In the aftermath of this attack, essentially, shit happens.

The series is a violent and shocking look at what would happen if superheroes and supervillains stopped doing a Bond/Bond-villain dance around one another. There are no evil plots that are easily tossed aside. Villains and heroes don’t choose to nerf their powers so that they’re not hurting anyone. It’s a grim and gritty five-comic series. There’s not a ton of depth to it. Magneto has caused the deaths of millions, including many notable heroes. The heroes then attempt to regroup and fight back. They do, and succeed in defeating Magneto in a grisly and far-too-easy fashion. This is a man that can tilt the Earth itself, but you’re telling me that the X-Jet has no critical metal parts in it that he could have shorted out to keep the heroes from even arriving at all? The man has his arm cut off by someone with a sword for jeebus’ sake. A metal sword does in the Master of Magnetism? I don’t think so, Jeph. It seems lazy.

I’m getting off topic. The highlight of the Ultimatum mini-series is the violence, no doubt about it. Heads explode, limbs are severed, people are eaten. There is a good deal of gratuity, but at the same time, Loeb is showing things a bit closer to how they might really occur with heroes. Magneto has been foiled for years by Professor Xavier. So… he visit his old friends Charles and snaps his neck. Why not? Why would he leave him around to spoil his plans for the bajillionth time? It’s cold and callous and violent… but it is believable. Not all of the violence is believable or necessary, but it is in keeping with the overall tone Loeb has set for Ultimatum.

But that’s not what I want to gripe about today. I want to gripe about the critical reception of Ultimatum. Critics LOATHED it. Loeb was panned left and right and up and down. The series has sold exceptionally well, but it hasn’t stopped the critics from slamming him hard. I think this is unfair.

Ultimatum is extrapolating a common trend in comics today. As comics hit the mainstream, they reaching for ways to reinvent themselves. It’s not a surprise that many comic artists chose to go for stark, realistic violence. There’s a reason the costumes heroes wear, for the most part, are toned down for Hollywood consumption. People who were not fans of the comics back in the day might find it silly. The natural progression would be for comics to get more intense and a few shades darker to convince new readers that they’re approaching some heavy stuff that they need to take seriously. Comic readers are getting older as well, and the presumption is that older readers want more mature content. Mature content doesn’t equal explicit content, but that tends to be the most obvious conclusion content producers reach.

My beef with Ultimatum’s reception is that it is being villainized for the same things that Wanted was lionized for. You’ve likely heard of Wanted as a film starting Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy. The film bears almost no actual resemblance to the comic series, though creator Mark Millar was closely involved the film’s production. The film deals with an ancient order of assassins that are charged with keeping the world safe, no matter the cost. The comic deals with a world where super-villains have killed all the heroes off and rule supreme. The “hero” is an unabashed Eminem look-alike who learns he is the son of one of the most famous of all super-villains and the story covers his rise to power in the fraternity of bad-dudes.

Wanted as a comic is interesting… but totally disgusting. It is more violent than Ultimatum, and more crude. A villain named “Shithead” actually kills someone by pooping him to death. The hero’s main ability seems to just be that he’s really good at killing lots of people, and when he’s bored he takes to raping and killing at whim (at one point he kills everyone in a police station, Terminator-style, just because he’s in a bad mood). Some of the ideas presented in Wanted are more clever than Loeb’s Ultimatum, but the content is much more abhorrent because it is presented as a sort of fantasy life for a loser who has finally become a big shot. Wanted felt to me like it was trying to make some ironic statement about self-confidence and to poke fun at comics for the last fifty years, but in the end it felt to me like what happens when you let drunk frat guys write comics.

I enjoyed elements of Wanted, but felt it received too kind a reception. It was probably the first very popular comic to be so violent and explicit, and it was embraced. Here we are a few years later and Loeb is being crushed for what seem to be the same reasons that Wanted was praised.

Some examples:

From IGN’s Wanted review: “Wanted is a fresh, vivid and uncensored look at the world of villains.”

From Comic Book Resource’s Wanted review: “Despite all the super-villainy, raping, and territorial intrigue, Millar and Jones’s “Wanted” is about a lad whose life is dominated by the lack of a father’s love.”

From Comic Book Resource’s Ultimatum review: “At this rate, “Ultimatum” is going to be remembered as little more than a snuff film for Marvel fans.”

From IGN’s Ultimatum review: “The gruesome deaths only grow more and more ridiculous as the series draws down. Several A-List characters get killed in ways that will make you grimace. It’s a wonder Loeb is even allowed to depict this level of violence and gore in a mainstream Marvel comic.”

Wanted is great in spite of all the raping, but Ultimatum is a snuff film. Wanted is fresh and uncensored, but Ultimatum is the kind of comic that’s so violent maybe it’s unpublishable. The flip-flop in standard bothered me quite a bit.

I’m simplifying a bit, as some of the critical comments are accurate. Loeb is trying to tell a story so big that he’s forced to devote only a couple panels to major events like the death of a hero to fit it all into five issues. Ultimatum was an interesting look at the Marvel world gone a bit mad. It’s a story painted in broad strokes that is being panned because it took shots at favorite heroes, instead of going the Wanted route and slaying approximations of those heroes. It’s not for everyone, and it is probably more interesting and entertaining than it is good, but it’s certainly not deserving of the destruction it is receiving from general critics.

  1. #1 by Oliver Grigsby on August 19, 2009 - 11:24 AM

    You’re like the John Stewart of comic book reviews.

  2. #2 by mscarpel on August 19, 2009 - 1:34 PM

    The more I ponder, the more some of the review samples I’ve read have irked me. Especially when you realize that Ultimatum was really collating events from a multitude of Ultimate comics and weaving those events into a new and overarching narrative. So… if it seems like Spiderman’s plot is over and done with quickly… well that’s probably because you weren’t reading Ultimate Spiderman. etc. etc.

    Okay. I’m done now.

  3. #3 by Azudarko on September 22, 2009 - 10:49 PM

    I think the issue isn’t the violence itself, necessarily. It’s the fucking with the universe as a whole. Millar and Bendis (as well as many other writers that worked on the line) created multi-faceted, complex characters, rich-but-believable backstories, and a strong continuity to further build the universe upon.

    Then Jeph Loeb came along, and decided that these complex, interesting characters that people had come to know and care about only deserved a passing mention of “oh, hey, (insert hero name) died.”

    He supremely disrespected the series as a whole, and seemed to derive nothing but utter glee at destroying it in the laziest fashion possible.

  4. #4 by mscarpel on September 23, 2009 - 8:48 AM

    I understand having a distaste for the way the series ended, but I think placing the blame squarely on Loeb might be misguided.

    He was only given a, what, 5 issue span to wrap up virtually ALL the Ultimates storylines. When you’re dealing with that amount of content in what has to end up being something like 100 pages of comic art, you’re going to have to short change things.

    I’m also not sure it’s fair to say he took glee in destroying anything—I’m pretty sure he probably thought he was doing a good job.

  5. #5 by ykak on February 27, 2010 - 1:19 PM

    “Some of the ideas presented in Wanted are more clever than Loeb’s Ultimatum, but the content is much more abhorrent because it is presented as a sort of fantasy life for a loser who has finally become a big shot.”
    Well but see, this is not necessarily a flip flop in standards. Despite not being all that impressed with the ideas in “Wanted” there still *are* ideas in “Wanted”. “Ultimatum” did not even include a speck of the same effort. As you pointed out in your summing up: “Wanted is great in spite of all the raping, but Ultimatum is a snuff film.” I would modify that statement to say that “Wanted was *interesting*” rather than “great” but the point still stands that it was *something*.

    @mscarpel: You do make a good point about the constraints of “ending a universe” in five issues. Even so, what strikes me as unacceptable in “Ultimatum” was the total lack of any effort to tell a story. I’m personally glad I never bought it and would hope that the bashing fanpeople had decided to, you know, not give it good sales despite complaining about it in hordes.

  6. #6 by John on October 5, 2012 - 7:29 PM

    I fail to see how Jeph Loeb made any real effort to tie up the Ultimate universe when its seemed evident that he didnt research much of it before doing “Ultimates 3” and “Ultimatum”. Besides was there any need to end a universe that had been a runaway success for Marvel.
    I also feel that the review excerpts from IGN and Comic Book Resource were disingenuous at the very least. The comments on Loebs work was not about the violence per se, but the fact that he was killing off mainstream characters wholesale and at random.
    I remember Jeph Loebs work with fondness (I really enjoyed his “Challengers of the Unknown” over 20 years ago, his first work in comics). But his work on the Ultimate universe was a very big letdown.

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