Back in 2000, Marvel Comics was hanging on by a thread. The House of Ideas had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the mid-90s after the speculator market went bust, and although it bounced back somewhat by the dawn of the new millennium, flagging sales figures left the company’s future looking far from rosy.
Desperate to hook new readers, Publisher Bill Jemas and Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada did the unthinkable: they hit the reset button on the entire Marvel Universe. Together, Jemas and Quesada oversaw the creation of a new line of comics geared towards an audience unfamiliar with (and intimidated by) Marvel’s decades-worth of convoluted continuity; they named this imprint Ultimate Marvel.
Initially derided by a vocal contingent of fans as a cheap gimmick predestined to fail – previous attempts to tinker with canon like Heroes Reborn or Spider-Man: Chapter One had generated healthy sales spikes, only to be rolled back in the wake of reader backlash – Jemas and Quesada’s bold gamble paid off in spades.
Ultimate Marvel’s legacy is about more than just spearheading a creative and commercial renaissance at Marvel two decades ago, though. Even today, the impact of the imprint’s success is visible across not just the wider comic book industry, but the overall pop culture landscape itself, as well.
Why did Ultimate Marvel succeed where other reboots failed?
Before we dive into that, let’s take a moment to explore why Ultimate Marvel was such a critical and commercial smash-hit compared to other revamps.
For starters, Ultimate Marvel really nailed what makes these iconic superheroes and villains tick. Sure, origins were tweaked, outifits redesigned, relationships redefined, and a cleverly-conceived contemporary sheen was sprayed on top of everything to make things seem fresh and modern. But the essential elements that made these colourful characters so appealing and relatable in the first place was retained.
Spider-Man was still a wisecracking, responsibility-driven teenager, the X-Men were still outsiders trying to protect a world that hates and fears them – they just weren’t weighed down by 40 years of narrative baggage.
And that’s another thing Ultimate Marvel got right: continuity. Even though they were launching a reboot, Jemas and Quesada made the brilliant decision not to replace the existing Marvel Universe canon – always a sure-fire way of inciting fan outrage – or worse, to hedge their bets by leaving the canonicity of the series vague.
Instead, they allowed the imprint to alongside but (initially, at least) entirely separate from Marvel’s other, non-Ultimate titles, which still followed the chronology dating back to 1961’s Fantastic Four #1. It was a genius move that kept both continuity die-hards and newbies happy and allowed Ultimate Marvel to serve as a gateway to the publisher’s wider catalogue (and vice versa).
But really, there’s one simple reason why Ultimate Marvel succeeded: the books were good, especially during the first few years when the imprint was driven by writers Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar.
Yes, there were plenty of misfires – Bendis/Millar joint effort Ultimate Fantastic Four was a bit of a mess, while sci-fi novelist Orson Scott Card’s Ultimate Iron Man mini-series was so out-there it was swiftly retconned out of existence – and the whole imprint went out on a bum note with the universally-panned Ultimatum crossover. But when the Ultimate Marvel line was good, boy, was it good.
The rise of new storytelling styles and superstar storytellers
Ultimate Marvel was so good, in fact, that it helped usher in new styles of superhero comic book storytelling that are still prevalent today.
Take the books penned by Millar. Both Ultimate X-Men and Avengers reimagining The Ultimates – pencilled by superstar artists Adam Kubert and Bryan Hitch, respectively – further popularised the so-called “widescreen” approach to comics, emulating blockbuster movies through bombastic plotting, streamlined character development and more cinematic page layouts.
At the same time, Bendis’ less flamboyant, talky Ultimate Spider-Man scripts had more in common with the works of screenwriters like David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin than the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics it was based on. Just as Millar’s output mimicked big screen entertainment, this dialogue-heavy, character-driven spin on superhero comics – a perfect fit for veteran artist Mark Bagley’s less ostentatious style – evoked the sensibilities of a slick TV drama, perpetuating another ongoing storytelling trend in American comics, decompression.
However, Ultimate Marvel did more than change the way stories were told; it made the careers of the creators who told them, especially where Bendis and Millar are concerned. Yes, both were Eisner Award-winning scribes and had enjoyed reasonable success until that point. But Ultimate Marvel would establish them as two of the biggest and most influential names in the industry.
For his part, Bendis quickly emerged as one of the key architects of the Marvel Universe proper – as well as a creative consultant on umpteen Marvel movies, TV shows and video games – for the next decade before he jumped ship to fulfil a similar role for rival publisher DC.
Miller went in an entirely different direction, parlaying his work-for-hire notoriety into his own multimedia empire Millarworld. Equal parts creator-owned comic book line and Hollywood IP farm, Millarworld – which publishes the books that inspired the Kingsman and Kick-Ass movie franchises – presaged the film and TV industry’s current obsession with strip-mining comics for new ideas, culminating in its acquisition by Netflix back in 2017.
And speaking of multimedia franchises and strip-mining comics…
No Ultimate Marvel means no Marvel Cinematic Universe
…without Ultimate Marvel, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it would not exist. I’m not kidding: the biggest film franchise in the world right now – a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut that has made geek culture truly mainstream – straight-up owes its existence to this 20-year-old comic book imprint.
Do you like the costume design aesthetic of the MCU? SHIELD as its major shared universe connective tissue between different MCU sub-franchises? Its more grounded tone? You can thank Ultimate Marvel for all these things, plus countless other plot points, characterisations and concepts – and heck, even the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury – that were lifted straight from the pages of the imprint’s books.
It’s not just the MCU that Ultimate Marvel made possible, either. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – you know, the sublime animated outing that nabbed the freaking Academy Award for Best Animated Feature – is headlined by Miles Morales, who was created by Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli as the successor for the Ultimate version of Spider-Man. Seriously: Ultimate Marvel spawned an Oscar-winning flick, for crying out loud!
If all that’s not enough to lay claim to shaping the pop culture landscape for an entire generation, frankly, I don’t know what is.
Ultimate Marvel: an imprint that lived up to its name
Ultimate Marvel started off as last-ditch effort to save a comic book company and wound up doing a whole lot more. It firmly entrenched a distinctive style of storytelling in American comics, built the careers of two titans of the industry, and most importantly of all, it laid the bedrock upon which our current, superhero-obsessed pop culture landscape rests – more than earning its “ultimate” moniker in the process.