Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ultimates 2 ends with a whimper

Producing the sequel to a hugely popular blockbuster film is a tricky matter. The fans of the original film generally aren't looking for, nor are they expecting, new ground to be broken. Sure, they want new and bigger explosions, but it's largely a matter of wanting more of the same. The best sequels, of course, tend to deviate from these expectations almost to a rule: the second Godfather film introduces an entirely new temporal structure, the second Star Wars offers both real philosophy and a much darker tone, and the second Ocean's film is as much a satire of the heist genre as the original was a loving homage. But the majority - and the most successful - tend not to wander far from their beginnings.

Needless to say, the conclusion to Millar and Hitch's run on Ultimates is of the less impressive sort. All sense of plot is lost as we approach the end, characters (that is, Hulk and Thor) conveniently arrive just when they're needed most and with little explanation, and the battles rage mindlessly and endlessly until the tidy ending. Bryan Hitch can draw a hell of a fight - as evinced by the huge pull-out that seems to include every hero in the Ultimate universe - but his powers seem abused on these issues. The Hulk battle that capped the very first story arc was all the more incredible because it was unlike anything else we had seen. But in Millar and Hitch's relentless push to outdo themselves with every subsequent story, it seems like there's just nowhere else to go and nothing left to do. If we can't have more dramatic fights, the logic seems to go, then maybe we just have longer ones?

I'm disappointed, as well, with the way Loki and Abdul al-Rahman are handled. Loki was far more interesting in the previous issues, when we didn't actually know whether he and Thor were Norse gods. (It's a shame that it's proven conclusively. One of the great things about the Ultimates are that they seem to exist in a world much like our own, with people are similarly unbelieving in the existence of monsters and aliens - even when they see it for themselves. Norse gods push it ever closer to the normal Marvel Universe.) al-Rahman, on the other hand, appears far too quickly - he's introduced in the first part, but it would have really been fantastic if his cameo could have appeared several issues earlier - and is dealt with much too easily. A man who could have been a great foil for Cap is already done telling his stories.

There's another sad bit in that battle with Cap. While Cap stands over al-Rahman, the latter asks him if he's going to say anything clever and John Wayne-like before he finally kills him. Cap doesn't, but the point is far too apt - it seems like every character spouts a cheesy line before surprisingly jumping (back) into the fray. Cap has his full-page return at the end of the 4th issue, Banner takes a moment to grandstand before turning into the Hulk, and Iron Man re-appears just in time to shut up the Crimson Dynamo in dramatic fashion. Oh, and Thor gets an entire two-pages for his comeback. Hawkeye also returns from the dead, though his return isn't quite as flashy and lacks that John Wayne quality.

It's affecting in the moment, sure, but it's all very cheap, and in the end it feels quite cold. It's more of the same, sure, but it seems clear that Millar has lost his drive to do anything new with the Ultimates. Its top-of-the-line special-effects budget aside, this blockbuster sequel is of the worst sort - the direct-to-video variety. (I'm over-stating, sure, but Millar and Hitch started so well that even a mediocre-to-good result is hugely disappointing.)

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