I grew up reading superhero comic books, like many boys my age. I was always partial to Marvel’s comics, but I read some DC heroes too, being drawn to artists and interesting stories as opposed to just being tied to specific characters. My interest hung on longer than some, lasting well into my adulthood; and even though my primary tastes evolved to science-fiction-themed graphic novels and stories, I still occasionally returned to my superhero roots in order to enjoy a good capes-and-spandex yarn.
It had been years since I’d spent much time looking at superhero books, when I discovered something new from Marvel: The Ultimates line was essentially Marvel’s plan to update its familiar characters for the 21st century, to bring some more modern relevance to them. The first books I saw were an updating of the Avengers, now dubbed The Ultimates. We were being given new or slightly modified origins for Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Giant Man and The Wasp, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, the Falcon, and even a new Nick Fury and SHIELD headquarters… all of which had more resonance with a post 9/11, terrorist-infested, nano-developing, metal-fiber-wearing, cyber-hacking and genetically-experimenting world. And I, for one, thought this was a fantastic way to make superheroes more popular with modern kids… and adults like me.
So I was disappointed when it ended up dying. The real value of the Ultimates line was that it gave the characters a more realistic 21st century look; you could almost believe real people could be out there fighting for us on today’s streets. And instead of fighting outlandish monsters, the Ultimates line were fighting bad guys augmented by advanced medicine or financed by crazy moguls, scientists gone wrong or angry governments. Y’know… real stuff.
These were truly superheroes and stories for the 21st century’s more serious threats and more science-savvy world. And more importantly, these were more modern takes to apply to the new superhero movies: Now that modern special effects had finally caught up to the incredible feats and spectacle of superhero stories, Hollywood soon established that movies were where the real money was.
Unfortunately, Marvel experienced a backlash from comic book fans who were attached to the original characters, and did not want to see their runs end (as they would have to, to make room for the updated Ultimates characters). It didn’t help that many of the Ultimates lines weren’t selling as well as those of the original characters, and some of the Ultimates storylines were handed off to writers who tried to take the more modern, gritty characters into extremely dark territory.
So Marvel is pretty much sacking the Ultimate universe, using what is known as a “comics crossover event” to redesign characters and delete underperforming alternative versions; though they will selectively preserve a few elements that connect to the movies, most of the Marvel comic book characters will likely revert back to their more familiar 20th century versions. In the meantime, the movie characters will continue to be based more on the 21st century Ultimates treatment.
It’s kind of sad to see an industry that’s decided to wax nostalgia for old fans rather than innovate for potential new ones. But then, comics have always been a low-profit industry, and if it died tomorrow while the movies continue to be so popular and profitable… well, the outcry wouldn’t exactly be huge.