Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ultimatum by Jeph Loeb and David Finch - A Comic Book Review

There are dumb and pointless, but ultimately harmless, superhero comics and then there’s this travesty. Ultimatum isn’t just a lousy comic book; it’s an insultingly lowbrow piece of filth that should be the poster child for the digital comics movement because no tree deserves to die and be transformed into… this.

On second thought, I’m not really convinced Ultimatum is worth the storage space on anyone’s hard drive, either.

I find this comic very offensive, not because of any sort of underlying message or theme inherent in the text, but because it simply seems to pander to the lowest possible common denominator. It’s like Jeph Loeb thinks his readers are such lazy thinkers that he felt the need to write a pointlessly hyper violent story featuring ill-wrought dialogue and questionable comic book science. I don’t even think I can classify his characters as one-dimensional; they’re more like half-dimensional.

Ultimatum’s supposed to be this major story event that changes the status quo of the entire Ultimate universe. I guess it did its job in that regard, seeing as how the Ultimate Comics line has been rebranded over the past year or two. But that doesn’t make it a readable comic in and of itself.

Ultimatum sort of starts off as a follow-up on Ultimates 3, which I read chunks of and also thought was absolutely horrible, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Let me mention right now that I don’t have a personal vendetta against Jeph Loeb. I certainly don’t wish any ill on the man and, if he were to read this review of his work, I would hope he doesn’t try to hire a professional hitman or someone and destroy me, despite my vitriol for his work. While I don’t think Jeph Loeb has done anything good in years, he did write the screenplays for Teen Wolf and Commando, two rather entertaining and amusing movies. And I know he’s capable of writing decently good comics; Challengers of the Unknown and Superman: For All Seasons are both fun reads from what I remember.

Anyway, back to Ultimatum. Like I was saying, it seems to follow-up on some points left over from Ultimates 3, and broadens the scope of everything so as to include all the major players (and a number of minor ones) in the Ultimate universe.

I guess by the end of Ultimates 3, a bunch of stuff had happened to tick off Magneto in a major way. Scarlet Witch had been assassinated and Quicksilver seemed to have been killed by Hawkeye. Then, in the last couple of pages, Doctor Doom was revealed to be the sinister mastermind who secretly manipulated all of the events of the story. If Doom had facial hair, he surely would have been twirling his curly mustache. (The secret mastermind is one of Loeb’s go-to tropes in his writing. He’s done similar stuff in a lot of his other comics, like Batman: Hush, Spider-Man: Blue, Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory, and maybe some others that I’m forgetting right now.)

Ultimatum begins when some catastrophic stuff happens to Earth. Apparently, Magneto has shifted the planet’s magneto poles and kicked Earth of its axis. Therefore, as it says on the trade paperback’s back cover copy, “Eastern Europe is frozen over in a new Ice Age. The Amazon is on fire with volcanic eruptions. A massive tidal wave drowns Manhattan.”

I’m not a physicist, but I’m reasonably sure that even the comic book science involved in the premise of these catastrophes is somewhat faulty. I mean, even if all that stuff could somehow happen, why would the massive tidal wave strike Manhattan only once? In the story, there’s just one giant tidal wave that hits one borough of New York City. Why wouldn’t the entire eastern seaboard simply be completely drowned under water? I don’t understand that.

Not only that, but Magneto is shown to be able to basically move the entire planet off its axis with minimal effort. He’d never exhibited such power levels before, so why is he suddenly able to do so now? It all reeks of lazy storytelling.

Speaking of which, why is Doctor Doom depicted almost exactly like his 616 counterpart? When Warren Ellis created the Ultimate version of Doom back in the early days of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Doom was depicted as a vile creature, with hands like talons and legs like those of a goat. Now he just looks normal, and there’s no explanation for it. Was David Finch just too lazy to look at the original model, or did I miss the story where they explained this?

Also, what happened to Thor? All of a sudden, he’s talking in that Stan Lee-style, faux-Shakespearean dialect. And Mjolnir is no longer drawn as that giant axe/hammer thing that Bryan Hitch brilliantly designed. Instead, it looks exactly like the 616 Mjolnir. Again, did I miss a storyline where all of this was reconciled? Also, I can understand that Magneto has somehow gained possession of Mjolnir, how is he able to lift it? Is the Ultimate Mjolnir just a normal weapon without any enchantments?

For that matter, what’s up with the Ultimates’ costumes? I know that Joe Madureira gave some of them a new look in Ultimates 3, but why? I never understood the point of making the Ultimates look and act more like the traditional Avengers. Part of the appeal of the Millar/Hitch Ultimates was that it took place in a world that felt a little grittier and more like the “real” world.  Joe Mad (and Loeb, I presume) were the ones who first started to make the Ultimates feel like the red-headed stepchild of the 616 universe. Talk about a fall from grace.

Now, David Finch’s art isn’t as bad as Joe Mad’s. To tell the truth, though, I’m having a tough time thinking of an artist who’s actually worse than Joe Mad. Still, Finch uses the same unattractive designs that Joe Mad came up with and that’s why I have to read this comic where Hawkeye looks like a poor man’s purple Grifter, Giant Man looks almost exactly like the 616 Giant Man, the Wasp is no longer Asian, and none of the teenagers actually look like teenagers.

(Can someone tell me why the Wasp suddenly stopped being Asian? Well, at least Ultimate Nick Fury’s still black.)

There are a lot of things I don’t like about Finch’s art. Don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that he is a very popular artist and there’s a reason he’s a big name.  He has a very commercial style, one that seems to appeal to those who grew up on ‘90s Image-era art (and the stylings of Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, and the like). His action scenes are furious and gritty. His supermen are broad-shouldered, buff, rippling piles of musculature. His women are large-breasted, with thin waists, and pretty much all curves. I get that a good portion of comics fans love his style.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good artwork. I really don’t like how everything is drenched with unnecessary crosshatching. People’s biceps have way too many lines. Their foreheads and brows are coated with ridiculously unattractive amount of furrows. Thick veins are popping out everywhere.

Finch’s characters only have two expressions: They’re either stone-faced sullen, or they’re raging mad. As a result, his scenes that involve characters doing anything other than fighting are particularly lackluster. Everyone stands around posed unnaturally. It’s like Finch draws everything to be a poster. That might be fine for the occasional splash page or fight scene, but it’s just not good storytelling in terms of panel-to-panel continuity and emotional resonance. I find myself extremely bored looking at most of his pictures.

I also think it’s funny how, in some of the extras in the back of the trade, we see some of Finch’s penciled pages. There’s this one page of Carol Danvers meeting Iron Man and Cap in a hospital, and he originally drew her with her 616 Ms. Marvel mask. In the actual printed page, she doesn’t have a mask. I think that kinda sums up David Finch. He’s more passionate about the superheroic aspects of the story rather than any other personal or emotional aspect.

To be fair, I have to point out that Finch does draw one of my favorite pictures of Hela near the end of issue two. (However, Thor’s arms in the foreground have a disgusting amount of extra lines.) It’s probably my favorite David Finch drawing, other than one of his Sentinels during his Ultimate X-Men run with Brian Michael Bendis. It doesn’t necessarily fit the style of the Ultimates that I felt Bryan Hitch had established so nicely, but out of context, it’s not such a bad drawing.

Now, I can stomach lousy artwork if the story’s any decent. I thoroughly enjoyed the latter half of Bendis’ Ultimate X-Men run, and Finch penciled that. Jeph Loeb, clearly, is no Brian Bendis.

There are a lot of problems with the writing. I’ve already mentioned some of the sillier aspects of the premise. The details of the story aren’t much better.

In the first issue, when the tidal wave hits Manhattan, a number of characters die right off. Cap and Iron Man manage to survive and they both seem fine, but, inexplicably, in the second issue Iron Man is racing an unconscious Cap to a hospital. It’s baffling.

I have no idea whether or not the tie-in issues in the Ultimate line’s regular lineup touched on the emotional impact of the deaths. I haven’t read the tie-ins. I can only judge Ultimatum itself. I have to say that here, the deaths feel completely meaningless and pointless.

True, in real life, death often can feel meaningless and pointless. But that’s not the way you want to convey death in a work of fiction. There are ways to convey the idea and emotions of a senseless death to the other characters in the story, but you don’t want the reader to feel that what he just read was pointless.

As such, a lot of Ultimatum simply feels like Loeb’s just clearing the deck of various characters. Beyond the simple shock value, there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind why certain characters are killed, often in absurdly violent fashion.

There’s the infamous scene in which the Blob eats the Wasp’s guts and organs, and Hank Pym retaliates by growing to giant-size, grabbing the Blob, and chomping his head off. Pym then takes Wasp’s chewed corpse and thinks he can still save her. It sounds like something that could be a parody, but Loeb and Finch play it completely dead serious, like they’re actually aiming at genuine gravitas. The results are unintentionally comedic!

When Magneto kills Professor X by snapping his neck, the Professor lies in a pool of his own blood. Granted, I’ve never seen anyone get his neck snapped before, and I’m no expert on anatomy, but should there really be that much blood after a snapped neck?

There’s a lot of unnecessary gore and violence in this comic.

Carol Danvers uses an assault rifle and blows holes in a bunch of Multiple Man’s dupes. Hawkeye shoots arrows through people’s eyes. The X-Men find the x-ceptionally bloody corpses of their comrades. Giant Man explodes, his skeleton scattered all over the water. Dr. Strange is choked in his own sash to the point where his head explodes and the rest of his body plops onto the ground from sixty feet.

In Valhalla, Cap and Thor hack through an unceasing mob of the undead, who all happen to spurt and gush blood with every chopped limb. (For that matter, isn’t Valhalla supposed to be a majestic hall for the souls of dead warriors? In Loeb and Finch’s Ultimate Universe, it’s just a dreary place ruled by Hela and filled with a zombie army. Also, there’s no background, which must have helped Finch have the time to draw all those extra sinews on those zombies’ biceps.)

Sabretooth bites Angel’s wings off. Wolverine eviscerates Magneto’s guts out. Magneto retaliates by forcing Cyclops and Iron Man to shoot all the fleshy bits off of Wolverine before he uses his magnetism to completely disperse his adamantium skeleton. It’s all very juvenile.

You also have to love how, for the final battle against Magneto, Nick Fury assembles a hit squad of Cap, Iron Man, Cyclops, Wolverine, Hawkeye, Marvel Girl, Angel, Valkyrie, and Storm. Really? Nick Fury (whom Reed Richards and Dr. Doom retrieved from an alternate universe – it sounds stupid, and it is, so the less said about it, the better), the greatest and most brilliant tactical strategist in the entire Marvel multiverse, plans an assault against the Master of Magnetism and assembles a team with a guy who uses a metal shield, a guy who uses a metal suit, a guy who uses metal arrows, a chick who uses a metal sword, and a guy with a metal skeleton and metal claws? Really? I’m a bit shocked that Colossus wasn’t part of the team. And after all the times the X-Men have faced Magneto, you’d think Cyclops would wear a plastic visor… but nope.

The ending is also a really cheap copout after all the havoc Magneto wreaked throughout the story. After killing half the world for revenge and mutant pride, Fury tells Mags that homo sapiens created mutants in a laboratory. Booya! Mags’ world is totally shaken! Everything he knew was a lie! A lie! And he believed it! So after he learns the truth, he fixes the earth’s axis in three panels and then asks for forgiveness. Cyclops demolishes him with an optic blast. (Aren’t his optic blasts concussive force beams? How come they completely disintegrated Magneto’s face? I don’t understand comic book science!)

A few pages later, in the epilogue, Cyclops is giving a speech when he gets assassinated. (With a completely gratuitous blood splatter! Almost as gratuitous as my use of parentheses! And exclamation marks! Jeph Loeb, look what you’ve done!)

The Thing then pays Dr. Doom a visit and crushes his head with one hand. “You hadda pay for what you did,” Ben Grimm says, grimly. Did you see what I did there? Jeph Loeb would have been proud at my mastery of the obvious.

At the end, Quicksilver is revealed to have survived Ultimates 3. In typical Jeph Loeb fashion, Quicksilver, or rather some mysterious shadowy woman, is the TRUE mastermind of Ultimatum! What a cliffhanger.

What a horrible comic. Still, it’s worth reading, just once, so you can get a feel for what a truly terrible comic feels like when it assaults your senses. Ultimatum is exactly the sort of shameful, puerile superhero drivel that sets the genre back to the point where you question whether people who brush off comics in general as "kids' stuff" have a legitimate point.

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