Dang, Jeph Loeb sure is getting dumped on... Pardon me as I pile on. After the bounty of awesome that Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch handed out with the first two ULTIMATES series, ULTIMATES 3 swaggers in, trashes the place and insults your intelligence (and then probably bags on your momma behind your back). Highly anticipated, and then deeply resented are these five issues. Comparisons being inevitable, it's only natural that Jeph Loeb would want to make his own mark. But you can't top the untoppable, which is the watershed mark established by Millar and Hitch's run. Jeph Loeb, he crashes and burns.
The first issue may give longtime readers a mental whiplash, as Loeb has switched things up. No longer officially sanctioned by S.H.I.E.L.D. and the American government, the Ultimates have gone their own way and are now based out of Tony Stark's posh Manhattan mansion. In this roster of suddenly one-dimensional characters, Hawkeye, his family recently murdered, is on a self-destructive trip and now looks like that guy from WildC.A.T.s. Iron Man is a boozer. Hank is under house arrest. Wasp is the new leader. And Cap hasn't been around much. As the story opens, a video of Tony Stark and the Black Widow en deshabille has been leaked to the Internet. As they debate the pros and cons of this Triple X escapade (the only pro being that NBC had the decency to blur out the graphic bits), the Ultimates are suddenly attacked in their mansion by Ultimate Venom, for some unfathomable reason. That this assault takes place as soon as in the second page of the first issue foreshadows the extent of meaningful character development Loeb means to invest in this series.
A glance at this volume's title should clue you in to the impetus of the narrative. Someone has offed the Scarlet Witch, which not only presents a murder mystery for the Ultimates but also leaves Pietro no option now but to date outside his family gene pool. Wanda's death brings Magneto into the picture, and, yep, the Brotherhood of Mutants isn't too far behind. The other significant story arc has to do with the machinations of Ultimate Ultron, of which subplot has been brewing since ULTIMATES 2. And if you stick with this series long enough, you'll eventually hook up with the Ultimate versions of Ka-Zar and Shanna as the fighty fight moves to the Savage Land.
And because I guess Marvel doesn't think Spidey and Wolverine get enough exposure, these two pop in for guest-star stints (with artist Joe Madureira turning out a very nifty looking wallcrawler). In the overall scheme, this means diddly-doo.
3 is not the magic number, 3 times is not the charm. ULTIMATES 3, oy! Somewhere, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch are hanging out, feeling all kinds of superior. "Jeph Loeb!" is my new curse word. Eisner-winning, Emmy-nominated, currently hack writing Jeph Loeb. I say "currently" because dude deserves props for excellent past works like BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN. But he tanks it here (he also tanks it in HULK, but that's a different bitter pill).
THE ULTIMATES, as conceived by Mark Millar, generated mucho excitement by dint of meticulous character development, panoramic, hardhitting storytelling, and a grounded worldview. THE ULTIMATES, as rendered by artist Bryan Hitch, conveyed images of power and scope and grit. ULTIMATES 3 presents us with a dumbing down of characters and of narrative. It's as if Loeb went to sleep and woke up in the 1990s and working for Image Comics. These five issues are basically a whole lotta weak in-your-face woofin', bombast without foundation. Loeb injects cusswords and bad attitude and this is supposed to pass as hardboiled and edgy. But it comes off as a poser. And are you kidding me with the script? A sample of Loeb's brand of banter:
- Iron Man, about to apply a whuppin' on the Blob: "Didn't you see the sign on the way in, Blob? 'The management reserves the right to refuse service to anyone.' That means you, you fat tub of goo."
- To which witticism Wasp responds with a: "You go, Tony!"
Somewhere, Brian Michael Bendis - baldy-domed and Master of Dialogue - rolls his eyes (and then applies some scalp cream).
Jarring elements, elements which jar. Thing #1 is that Loeb doesn't, but doesn't, bother with shedding light on the Black Panther - what the bleep he's doing with the Ultimates or why dude doesn't ever talk (although this is apparently delved into in the Ultimate Captain America Annual). Anyway, we eventually find out the guy behind the mask, but we never find out the why of it. Thing #2: When did 19-year-old superhero groupie Valkyrie, formerly a member of the pathetic (and powerless) Defenders - suddenly gain powers? And, while Pietro and Wanda had this creepy relationship, I think that Valkyrie's shacking up with the very mature Thor also smacks of the unsavory. Thing #3: What's up with Thor's hammer and Iron Man's armor now resembling those of their 616 counterparts? And with Wanda being gigged out in a costume closer to the one worn by the 616 Scarlet Witch? Thing #4: I'm not down with Thor suddenly speechifyin' in archaic flavor, although he does explain why he's now doing it. Thing #5: Can Loeb be more pointed with Cap's fuddy-duddiness? Yes, we get it already, there's a generational gap; Steve Rogers is a Man Out of His Time.
The art? Gone is Bryan Hitch's awesome hyper-realistic art. And respect to Joe Madureira, whose stuff I liked in UNCANNY X-MEN, but the guy's style doesn't translate well to what brung THE ULTIMATES its street cred. Joe Mad's pencils are stylized and exaggerated, carrying a whiff of Simon Bisley and of manga. But he doesn't have Hitch's gift for the cinematic canvas and Joe's strengths, which gravitate toward the more dramatic moments, aren't really suited for the quieter, more contemplative beats. And I don't like it when Captain America doesn't have a neck. I'd say even more about Joe Mad's art taking away from that undertone of realism in THE ULTIMATES, except that Jeph Loeb has already beaten him to it.
About this trade, ULTIMATES 3: WHO KILLED THE SCARLET WITCH? collects issues #1-5 and reproduces the series's three spiffy gatefolds, including the humongous one with the Ultimates and the Brotherhood of Evil facing off. Again, in the overall scheme, this means squatty-cumquats.
Back on theme: ULTIMATES 3 is loud and garish and undermines the excellence of its predecessors. The worrying thing is that Jeph Loeb is also writing ULTIMATUM, the Ultimate imprint's crossover event and a killfest of a mini-series. In fact, ULTIMATUM springboards off the events in ULTIMATES 3. Big changes are promised in ULTIMATUM, and, being a fan of the Ultimate universe, I'm hoping my favorites make it thru. But if not, I guess all I can do is shake my fist and spew profanity at the sky: "JEPH LOEB!!!"