Ultimate Spider-Man Comics: The Good, The Bad, The Repetitive
With the Ultimate line of Marvel comics possibly coming to an end soon with their next big event, Cataclysm, it’s a good time to look back over the thirteen years of this alternate Spider-Man comic series. While it is critically acclaimed there are still a lot of problems with the series that don’t seem to get mentioned in the usual complaints about it. So I’m going to talk about a lot of the positive and negative parts these comics had from their over ten year history. I’ve talked about some parts of this comic before, the Jessica Drew character mainly, so I’ll be ignoring them here since I have nothing new to add and I have a lot of other things to cover.
In October 2000 the first issue came out from Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and Bill Jemas. Bendis and Bagley would be a team on the book for many years, holding the record for longest creative team on a comic, and Bendis has never stopped writing it. The comic has been critically acclaimed and held up as the example of the Ultimate Universe at its best. It’s weathered through terrible events going on elsewhere and still managing to keep consistent writing while other titles where flailing about. Then they killed of Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, a now beloved character who has shown to be a good match for the Spider-Man identity.
I’ve previously recommended this series for anyone wanting to start reading Spider-Man and I stand by that. It has a perfect collection of what makes the character great, Peter Parker and his personal drama. It’s the soap opera elements that made the character so likeable to so many people; he was a real guy dealing with regular problems. Bendis captures that and we do see a clear storyline for Peter and his troubles. It was a very good modernised Spidey for the time and there are still elements from it that are used in today’s Spidey stories. While I would never say this is a definitive Spider-Man series it has stood the test of time and deserves to be mentioned with some of the classic Spider-Man books.
It really captured how great the supporting cast of Spider-Man is. MJ, Gwen, Aunt May, Kitty Pryde, Kenny, all were fantastic. It felt like an expansive cast that we got to know over time, mostly, and that helped make it a memorable book that captured a lot of fans attention. It took ideas from the original comics and wasn’t afraid to change things up, especially with it’s cast.
It did take a lot of chances in changing things up from the original. It comes with the modernised idea, that this isn’t just a remake of the original but a wholly new thing with its own stories and ideas. Peter becoming a webmaster at the Daily Bugle rather than a photographer, him joining the high town high basketball team when he got his powers, Gwen being more of an outspoken punk girl (at first), and adding Kenny to the cast, a bully who later became a friend in the vein of Flash Thompson. But those were more small stuff; the bigger changes like Kitty Pryde joining the regular cast and even dating Peter at one point, Eddie Brock being a childhood friend of Peter (even if it should’ve been introduced earlier), Peter’s parents being scientists who worked with the Brock’s and died together, and Aunt May finding out Peter was Spider-Man.
The entire Peter and May relationship was one of the hallmarks of the book. May is a little younger than she’s usually portrayed; she’s not always five seconds away from a heart attack, and is a very strong character. Other than when she found out Peter was Spidey I think my favourite moment was when the Kingpin came back after Spidey got evidence of him killing someone on tape. After his lawyers got the tape thrown out he came back to New York and Peter went crazy that it happened. He just stewed, having it go over and over again in his head that he could go free after he murdered someone on tape. He gets thrown out of class and fired from the Bugle because he kept bringing it up since to him no one else saw it as a big deal. Then when he goes to May at work she gets to the heart of the matter and that tells him that it’s alright; that the man who killed Uncle Ben is staying in prison. She saw what was really going through Peter’s head and comforted him over it. There were some really heart-warming moments between the two. She was the loving Aunt we all remember her to be, but without some of the silly parts.
Which is where the comic managed to shine when it was great. It took the good things and streamlined everything else so it all worked a lot better. It might not have worked all of the time but it did try to make it all fit together in a cohesive fashion. The key example of this was the Clone Saga, one of the most infamously terrible Spider-Man stories which to some embodied everything wrong with the 90s. The Ultimate version took the general idea of someone trying to mess with Peter’s life through cloning him and made a great story out of it. It did feel like the comic was building towards this one climax where Peter would face a great challenge and be forever changed. Aside from the middle of the story floundering a bit and most of the aftermath being underutilised or just plain forgotten about; it’s still a great example of what really worked about the comic. I’m not sure it ever got as good as this story.
There is one writing quirk that is usually brought up whenever I see discussions about the comic, the “Bendis Speak.” Lots of quick dialogue with repeating words and phrases, representing how actual people speak. There’s usually a lot of repetition in real speech, if something gets described in a conversation then some of those words will be repeated because they are at the forefront of people’s minds at the time. It is funny seeing people criticise this as “not how real people speak” when in fact it is the opposite. It’s not how fictional people speak. So to some it is too jarring and to others it’s a refreshing change. It does lead to characters sounding the same at times and it can be very annoying when the repetition goes beyond a conversation. Such as when Miles Morales became the new Spider-Man and everyone kept saying his costume was in poor taste. Having the exact phrase repeated over and over again by everyone is lazy repetition and incredibly annoying to read in every issue. So it has its good and bad points but I rather liked it when it was reined in and didn’t go overboard.
All that being said this series is not perfect, in fact looking back on it there are quite a few flaws that are present throughout the series.
One of the big reused story points that gets brought up is the mask and how Peter is constantly losing it. Once or twice is fine but when it gets so bad that characters would point it out and mock it then it’s a bit ridiculous. It’s self referential humour that says “I know this is stupid and that it happens a lot, but I’m not stopping it.” It would’ve been nice if it lead to something, maybe an actual unmasking that couldn’t be fixed by magic, where Peter would deal with everyone knowing who he was. But that didn’t happen as such. It was just annoying to keep seeing it happen, over and over again, and like most of the problems of the series it was repetition rather than innovation. But hardly the worst offender.
Even though the Peter story seems to have some plans and ideas of where it’s going and how it would pay off that’s not the same for the Spider-Man part of things. Story elements will be brought up and the end of an arc will usually have a “what will happen next with these villains” but there will be no follow-up for quite some time. Venom appears, has a big deal made about whether he’s alive or dead with strong hinting he’s alive and knows all about Peter, but he doesn’t return for about 90 issues. After he comes back he is taken out again, captured by Dr Doom and never heard from again. There’s a lot of the same story set-up where they clearly don’t know how or when they’ll do the next story. It is quite frustrating seeing the set-up for a story that may not happen for years, if it ever does happen. While the Peter storyline feels a little more structured it seems like the Spider-Man one was more of a “make it up as we go along” deal.
Then there’s the handling of the villains themselves. Most of them are underutilized, going hand in hand with not planning a storyline for them. Norman Osborn and Dr Octopus are better served than the rest due to how many times they are used, but even then their personalities change from story to story. Doc Ock started out as having a psychotic break, being extremely paranoid that everyone was plotting against him, then is more general crazy when they were doing the Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in and talking to his tentacles just like the movie, which he never did before or since. After that he’s more of a mad scientist schemer that just wants to mess with Spider-Man, even having some sort of change of heart where he realises Peter’s scientific potential or something just so they could kill him off while trying to elicit some sympathy.
Osborn also has the same “50 shades of crazy” throughout his appearances. He was a Hulk like monster, then a regular schizophrenic hearing voices, then much more lucid in organising the Sinister Six to attack the President to get SHIELD to give them their lives back, then just regular crazy Norman who thinks of Peter as his heir, and finally just a dude out for revenge. He also had the habit of dying, or being mortality wounded, at the end of every story then coming back in the next one perfectly fine. It really did sap any drama and suspense out of the endings. There was just no character consistency between any of these stories, almost like they had no idea what to do with him other than slapping a generic crazy label on him and Ock so they could write them in whatever level of craziness the story needed. It is some terrible storytelling for an ongoing series done by the same creative team. Kingpin was probably the best villain in the series because he wasn’t crazy so he had some consistency about him. Even then things his marital problems and his wife being in a coma and near death are used in two stories and never mentioned again. They added some depth to him only for it not to matter. They started a gang war with Hammerhead going after the Kingpin once he was being investigated by the FBI. But that never really had any conclusion to it and wasn’t mentioned after Hammerhead died.
The other villains however aren’t as lucky as those three. They were usually just there for the story arc and got little actual development or even an explanation of who they were. It seemed like they were banking on name recognition so the audience would be sated rather than giving us fully fleshed out characters. I can’t think of a single villain in this series that I liked as a character. They were just there to be the bad guy Spidey could hit. How did they get their powers and why were they criminals? Never really answered, or at most given rather generic answers.
That was another problem; there was a lack of explanation a lot of the time. Where someone with superpowers would just show up and we might get an offhand bit of dialogue saying who they are but not really going into the hows or whys. Things would just happen and there wouldn’t be any proper explanation for it; it just needed to happen for the plot. Example from when they did the Clone Saga, Gwen Stacy returns from the dead as Carnage. The people who were cloning Peter decided to clone one of his dead best friends and made her into Carnage. Why did they do this? Not answered. It was just a way to get Gwen back but also have a shocking twist to it. But it was a twist no one thought about because it just doesn’t make sense why the department specifically made to clone Peter Parker would do this. A lot about the Symbiotes aren’t explained, how and why they do things are never gone into at all. There are just a lot of shocking twists that are not really explained or seem needed other than because they wanted a shocking twist.
Then there’s the other side of things, where too much exposition happens. There comes a point in some of the stories where a full page spread, or a double page spread, is dedicated to one character spewing meaningless exposition. It’s just a lot of dialogue that doesn’t matter and could’ve been cut down quite a bit without losing what was being said. It just kept on happening throughout the series and it was meant to be these big profound statements but ended up not meaning a damn thing because there was too much excess around a central idea so the idea just died.
The Ultimatum event is commonly cited as the time when the Ultimate universe took a downturn and never recovered from it. That’s probably actuate, though things were already getting a bit repetitive and stale at that point anyway, Ultimatum was just the tipping point. Where Magneto tried to destroy the world, flooded New York, and killed a bunch of characters in meaningless and pointless ways. It was just a terrible comic. Spider-Man was relatively untouched by this, none of his characters died, and his tie-in was the best written and the most meaningful. However afterwards there was a clear lack of understanding where the book was going. Looking back on it you can see where plans and ideas shifted to fit in new ones that would also be ignored.
The best example of this was what happened to Kitty Pryde. She’d adopted another superhero identity (she had about five different ones for little reason) and was trying to help people without them knowing it was her, since mutants were ostracised and practically outlawed because of what Magneto did. It all came to a head when the government just showed up and tried to take Kitty by force from her classroom and her having to go on the run. Good setup for some political and ethical driven stories, sadly the payoff disappeared. Halfway through this six part comic the story suddenly shifted into a story about the Chameleon kidnapping Jonah Jameson and Peter and him having to pretend to be Peter while committing as much crime as possible as Spidey. There was literally no connection between those two stories, aside from a reason to get Peter to the Bugle from him to be kidnapped, but they were billed as one compete tale. I don’t think anyone really knew where they were going till they decided to kill off Peter.
The death of Peter was a rather courageous move, one that seems to have served them well for getting good press and had people talking about the comic again. It led into the successful and acclaimed Miles Morales run, but the comic itself wasn’t that good. First problem was the branding of “The Death of Spider-Man” as it appeared on comics it had no right to. The story arc before the Death story was slapped with the label of “Prequel to the Death” even though the story had literally nothing to do with the Death. You could skip it and miss nothing. Then there was the obligatory crossover with the “Ultimates Vs Ultimate Avengers” miniseries, which consisted of about two pages total from the 6 issues of each series. That’s not much of a crossover, just a way to boost sales of a book that was already an event book. The two pages in question were of the Punisher accidentally shooting Spidey when he took a bullet for Captain America. That was pretty much the extent of the crossover, hardly worth branding the two with the same name.
The story itself wasn’t that good either. It’s not a good idea to start a story about an important character death with a resurrection. In this case it was bringing back the Green Goblin from his great death scene in his last story. After that it was a rehash of the ‘Goblin escapes SHIELD because they’re idiots and teams up with the other inmates’ story that was told about three times. Then there’s a rather useless death of Doc Ock, who could’ve been used as the leader of the breakout rather than bringing back the Goblin, but instead Ock died for no reason. It seemed very much like an afterthought of “oh yeah, we were leading to Ock being less of a crazy psychopath and more of a guy who loves science” so they couldn’t have him leading the charge to kill Peter. But Ock’s characterisation hasn’t been consistent before so why try it now if it’s just to kill him off.
The story ends with a giant fight at Peter’s house between him and the Sinister Six, without his mask on so everyone saw he was Spidey. Which at that point should’ve been less of an “OMG!” moment for the neighbours and more of a “well duh.” because of all the craziness around that house. The last final showdown between Peter and the Goblin was less impressive than the last one and a bit confusing how the Goblin died when it seemed a lot less fatal then all the other ways he had died. The only really good moment is Peter dying in May’s arms. Very touching and incredibly well done. It just should’ve been attached to a much better story.
The aftermath was good and the Miles Morales story of him taking up the mantle was great. It was back on form for some really good personal drama that the book started off as. However it also contained the same problems, the rather lacklustre Spider-Man plots. His first major villain is the Scorpion, a Mexican drug lord who has some ill-defined powers, doesn’t dress as a scorpion, and uses chains for weapons. If he’d said “get over here” he would’ve been an entirely different Scorpion.
We’re back to vague ill-defined things and plot points. In recent issues Roxxon is the main bad guy, despite them being used as a joke in the Peter era. They could’ve just had it being run by a different CEO but no, it’s still being run by a guy called Roxxon. It’s like they’re pretending the long storyline of Roxxon being a cowardly CEO in over his head never happened. What do they want? To use (Peter) Miles spider powers to get rich, again. A storyline so played out in the previous book it was beyond a joke.
Venom shows up again, except it’s just some scientist dude from Roxxon. They spend an entire issue with Gwen and MJ explaining Venom to Miles but we don’t even get much of an explanation of who this guy was or how he got Venom. The writing effort was being put into the out of costume stuff and any of the in-costume drama was badly thought out with no real depth to any of it. The villains were badly characterised, one note, and hell it was the same note we were getting before.
Ultimate Spider-Man is still a book I’d recommend for anyone interested in reading Spider-Man for the first time. But after a certain point, when the repetition of story devices, badly defined characters, and plot points that go nowhere, gets too much then switch to other Spider-Man comics. Modern runs from J. Michael Straczynski, Dan Slott, or classics by Stan Lee, Roger Stern, and Gerry Conway, are all great to read. Even if the Ultimate comic ends we can just pick up the older ones and know that if it had continued it would’ve been repeating those old plot points and story beats anyway.