Somewhere along the line, something went a little bit wrong with Mark Millar's return to the Ultimate Universe.
The first couple of issues of the writer's Ultimate Avengers were actually pretty good, and gave me hope that his run might provide something approaching the same level of quality that we witnessed in his Ultimates and Ultimates 2 with artist Bryan Hitch.
However, things soon went slightly sour, as more and more fantastical elements were shoehorned into what Millar had previously treated as a far more grounded and realistic title. (If you can say that a group of super-soldiers, bio-technological wizards, super-spies and living gods are anywhere near realistic, that is.)
Along the way, we've encountered the best-forgotten Ultimate Ghost Rider and an entire arc about vampires that we'll just pretend didn't happen. But with Millar's fourth (and final) Ultimate Avengers miniseries, there was a sense that the writer had somehow recaptured his mojo -- at least initially.
A superhuman arms race between the US and China seemed like the perfect backdrop for a complex, politically-oriented story about how superhumans might function in the world today, and the rising prominence of Nick Fury as a potentially-traitorous and morally-compromised character added compelling extra layers to a character who has always been one of the great successes of the Ultimate Universe's “re-imagining” of classic MU characters.
And to give Millar his credit, this latest issue still taps into that characterisation, with one particularly powerful scene in which Fury exploits and then coldly kills a supporting player who had been previously been built up as one of the major new additions to the series.
But it doesn't take long before the writer slips into the kind of overblown superheroics that feel more at home in the pages of classic Avengers titles than they do in an Ultimate book.
In particular, one plot device that involves most of Fury's "Black Ops" team taking pills to turn them into Hulks just comes across as silly -- especially when artists Leinil Yu and Stephen Segovia present them in such an exaggerated light -- and it serves to pull you out of the story.
Characterisation of Millar's Big Bad -- and indeed the newly-revealed major villain of all four Ultimate Avengers miniseries -- Gregory Stark comes off as equally silly. After touching on some potentially very interesting political ideas in the previous issue, most of that subtlety is eschewed here in favour of a more traditional moustache-twirling, monologuing super-villain style that sells short the huge amount of attention and build-up that the character has received over the course of the four minis.
And other long-running character threads don't fare much better. For example, the mysterious 'Spider' character that we glimpsed way back towards the start of Millar's first Ultimate Avengers mini is revealed here to be far more mundane and ordinary a character here than was hinted, acting as little more than a henchman for the elder Stark.
In fact, if he hadn't been set up so far in advance, I would suspect that he had merely been included in an attempt to justify the “Death of Ultimate Spider-Man” crossover tag that's emblazoned across the cover of this issue, despite the story containing no direct crossover with Brian Michael Bendis's book.
It's yet another element that distracts and detracts from the core story of this title, at a time when the book should be building up to a thrilling climax that's been 23 issues in the making.
That said, the issue does have certain redeeming features. There's a hint towards the end of the issue that Millar hasn't completely forgotten about the political elements that he set up earlier in the story, deploying the Ultimates to North Korea with quite a sly political justification that makes me hope that the writer is keen to explore some of the real-world issues surrounding civilian uprisings in non-democratic states that we've seen so much of in the news lately. (Although given that the book has just one more issue to go, he probably won't have much time to do so.)
At the same time, Millar also manages to tick off the final cliché of the classic superhero team-up model, in which heroes must get together to fight over a misunderstanding before recognising the real enemy in their midst and joining forces to defeat him. It's a tired formula, but it's also one that works and makes for good drama, and I can forgive Millar for recycling such a conventional story arc since it serves his plot so well.
It also gives Yu and Segovia an opportunity to really show off, with a closing set of splashpages that should have fans of the book cheering in the aisles, punching the air, or doing whatever else people do these days when they're gleefully happy.
Is it enough to rescue the story? In all honesty, no: there are still too many missed opportunities and too many overly conventional approaches to superhero storytelling here for me to really be able to recommend the book to anyone but the devoted Ultimate Universe enthusiasts who have probably already bought it.
Whilst I might be reading too much into things, there's definitely a sense that Millar has already mentally moved on from Marvel in order to concentrate on his many creator-owned projets, and that completing this miniseries was little more than a formality to see out his contract with the publisher.
Frankly, though, I'll be quite happy if we don't see the writer return to the Ultimate imprint any time soon. His Ultimate Avengers hasn't had the same spark that his Ultimates did, the Ultimate universe is no longer the fresh and exciting place that it once was, and if I'm completely honest, I'd rather see him and Leinil Yu continue to team up on the frankly superior Superior than continue to churn out perfectly serviceable but ultimately empty company books like this.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!