Probably one of the most clear, visually striking ways to show the difference between the 2000s and 2010s is to juxtapose the Ultimate Marvel comic line between its beginning and its ending:
What started out as a fresh re-imagining of Marvel’s continuity-mired, aging superhero world in the 21st century became itself a continuity-mired mess, one that, once the Marvel Studios movies themselves became a fresh re-imagining of Marvel in the 21st century, became so obsolete that the entire universe was destroyed in a crossover event.
What happened, though?
Well, the problem certainly stretches back further than the 2010s, with a long storied history I’m sure comic book sites have talked about in great detail. Long story short, the Ultimate Marvel series went on for most of the 10s just fine until suddenly, missing the point completely, they decided to ramp up the edge and descend into ultra-violence and confusing antics with the ill-advised Ultimates 3 comic, and then the absolutely horrendous Ultimatum event that saw the deaths of literally almost half the Ultimate Marvel cast.
It took a couple years for the entire line to recover from such a devastating, poorly written blow, and they only did so by, weirdly, killing Spider-Man.
The entire Ultimate Marvel universe had been faced with a battle of soul for many years, by this point. On one side was Ultimate Spider-Man, a young optimistic kid who faced adversity head-on and grew into the hero of New York, something that certainly meant a lot more in the post-9/11 world. On the other side were the Ultimates, a deeply cynical, satirical version of the Avengers who acted as a symbol for the Bush-era United States, wherein Captain America was a cranky racist, Iron Man was an alcoholic sexual predator, the Hulk was an incel creep, and the Wasp was in a abusive marriage with Ant-Man.
There were plenty of other popular Ultimate Marvel stories, but these two represented the fractured nature of the entire experiment. Half of the universe was about reviving the heroic spirit of 60s Marvel but put in the 00s. The other half of the universe was about taking the heroic spirit of the 60s and deconstructing it with the realities of the modern world. Only one side could win out…
Or… Only one side would have won out, but then they killed Spider-Man and used the opportunity to refresh everything.
See, killing Spider-Man was a huge event. Even if he wasn’t the “main” version, USA Today still reported it as if it were front-page news-worthy stuff. And really, Ultimate Spider-Man had kind of become the icon, the quintessential version of the character outside the Sam Raimi movies. His comic holds the record to this day for the longest writer/artist collaboration for a superhero comic, with 111 consecutive issues written by Brian Michael Bendis and penciled by Mark Bagley. Then after Bagley left, Bendis continued to write the series all the way to the end. Killing this version of Spider-Man was honestly a bigger deal than killing the “main” one would have been at the time.
By killing Spider-Man and making a big deal out of it, Marvel was able to relaunch the entire line, calling it Ultimate Comics, and begin a brand-new endeavor to fix its problems.
The first endeavor would be to give us a brand-new Spider-Man to reflect the 10s: Miles Morales.
Miles of course became so overwhelmingly popular that they essentially made an entire crossover event to kill the Ultimate universe, but somehow save him as well. His story is compelling, emotional, and extremely relevant for the 10s: Miles is a legacy hero, a kid taking up the mantle of a dead man and trying to live up to him, while everyone around him tries to make his destiny for him. He’s a fundamentally different character and got amazing treatment in the new Spider-Verse movie.
His introduction also got big press thanks partially to a misunderstanding on the fact that he wasn’t “THE” Spider-Man, just an alternate version, but the news definitely worked.
The rest of the line, though…
Okay, listen. Ultimate Comics: Ultimates was a big, bold, ambitious endeavor by Jonathan Hickman to take this large continuity and turn it into something beyond what he could ever accomplish in the main universe. The first storyline of the new Ultimates is some wacked-out cosmic shit that I’m still a little bit unsure on even after having read it twice. It’s still pretty great, though, and introduced the world to The Maker, one of Marvel’s best villains.
The end result of the reboot, though?
Once again, another battle for the soul of Ultimate Marvel. Miles Morales was another optimistic story about a young kid in a big world, up against this grand-scale Jonathan Hickman shit where every villain is fifty times bigger than Miles could ever handle. Every threat just kept making everything more ridiculous until it was clear that these two sides could not coexist together.
Miles has to fight his uncle, who is a thief? Okay, but at the same time, a massive domestic terror organization is taking over the country and the X-Men are fighting a war for independence. Miles realizes his best friend has a crush on him? Okay, but Captain America has just been elected President of the United States and now fucking Galactus is coming to destroy the planet, but not just any Galactus, THE Galactus from the main universe.
The Ultimate Marvel comics kept coming up with big event after big event to keep itself relevant outside the Spider-Man comics that always did well, and eventually these two things failed to reconcile with each other. Spider-Man declined in quality, the other comics petered out into uselessness, and in 2015 the whole universe got blown up in Secret Wars.
It’s tragic, really, but probably an excellent example for the future on how shared universes can collapse over time due to creative visions, editorial pressures, and the simple march of time.
Ultimate Spider-Man, across both series, lasted for over 200 issues, all with Brian Michael Bendis at the helm. It may not have been the best near the end, but it’s one of the all-time classic comic runs, in my opinion, and worth a read, no matter if everything surrounding it was a bunch of ridiculous bullshit.
I will never get over the Ultimate Comics covers they did for the first couple years after the relaunch, though. They were so good!