The New Ultimate Universe: The Almost But Not Quite

Marvel’s original Ultimate Universe (Universe 1610) had a very simple premise to it: “turn our middle-aging heroes back into teens.” It was a storytelling and marketing decision that some have credited with saving Marvel Comics as a publisher. As this universe of stories was coming to a close, it was writer and story architect Jonathan Hickman who wrote its days of Armageddon. Secret Wars, the event book that killed 1610, is still a much beloved and highly celebrated comic, 8 years after its conclusion. So, it’s interesting then that it’s also Hickman who is breathing new life into the shattered remains of this once vibrant world. Or is that just what he wants us to think? Spoilers for Ultimate InvasionUltimate Universe, and Ultimate Spider-Man #1 ahead!

spoilers ahead

How We Got Here

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Those who have read Ultimate Invasion and the succeeding Ultimate Universe one-shot know that this new Ultimate Universe (designated 6160) is “Ultimate” in name only. There are little to no similarities between it and its predecessor. In fact, Hickman’s every storytelling choice feels not only unexpected, but like it’s happening in reaction to what we’re expecting. For the folks who are just joining us, here’s a little summary:

In Ultimate Invasion, The Maker — the evil Reed Richards who was born in 1610 — gathered up equipment from the main Marvel Universe (Earth-616) to jump start his own reality. Being in 6160 from its conception, and knowing everything there is to know about the heroes who were destined to pop up over time, The Maker manipulated events to prevent certain superheroes from ever existing. Ultimate Invasion #1, for instance, ends with him stopping a radioactive spider from biting a young Peter Parker.

After decades — or perhaps longer, as we’re never overtly told — of invisibly ruling 6160 with the help of a cabal of world leaders who did his bidding, The Maker felt he had achieved peace on Earth, though at the cost of Earth’s freedom. Howard Stark fought the evil Richards to put an end to his machinations, setting 6160 on a journey of righting the path that The Maker had lured them all off of.

Why The Maker?

So, let’s talk about all of the pieces of this new Ultimate Universe that make it so interesting. First, the use of The Maker gives us an interesting window into what it was about 1610 that Hickman liked enough to “reboot.” While 1610’s initial premise was to simply revert our middle-aged heroes back into teenagers and set them in a modern landscape, that’s not all that it did. As time went on, the characters began to differ more and more from their 616 counterparts, and no one so much as Reed Richards. In 616, Reed was one of the catalysts for the “Age of Marvel.” He was the leader of the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s “First Family.” However, in 1610, Reed Richards was a twisted, jealous, manipulative man who went on to become that universe’s greatest villain — eclipsing even Thanos and Doctor Doom. Just like the Ultimate Universes in question, these Reed Richardses are only the same in name. By using The Maker as the catalyst for his new Ultimate Universe, Hickman shows that his interest in 1610 wasn’t the things that made it like 616, but the things that made it different. 6160, therefore, pushes those changes to even greater heights.

Opposites at Heart

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Howard Stark, the original Iron Man in 6160, is a man who craves his son Tony’s approval — a brilliant flipping of the 616 dynamic we’re familiar with. Inspired by his father’s actions, Tony begins his quest to right The Maker’s wrongs as the hero Kang. He’s aided by 6160’s Doctor Doom, who is also known as Reed Richards. Yep, that’s right, 6160 has its own Reed, and The Maker had him enslaved as one of his scientists, forcing him to work in a metal mask out of some strange vendetta. The Hulk is a meditative leader of a religious nation-state, and Captain Britain (now Captain Europe) is a Frenchman who is drunk on power. Tony is Kang, Reed is Doom, Howard is Iron Man, The Hulk is a guru, and none of them are the characters we think we know. In fact, they’re almost all opposites of their counterparts.

But they’re not opposites in a superficial “good version and bad version” sense. In fact, many of these characters are on the same side, morally speaking. They’re opposites in what makes each character who they are at their core. Hickman flips around their deepest motivations in a way that not only introduces us to a new set of characters, but helps us understand the original characters by this brilliant contrast. Reed Richards is not a handsome, rich scientist driven by a thirst for discovery; he’s a tortured and disfigured slave who is intent on stopping anyone from having to suffer a similar fate. Tony Stark isn’t a man whose inner child is wishing he had gotten his father’s approval; he’s a hero who understands sacrifice and hopes to live up to his dad’s inspiration. Which brings us back to Peter Parker and this week’s Ultimate Spider-Man #1.

With No Power Comes… What Exactly?

Ultimate Spider-Man #1 by Hickman and artist Marco Checchetto is masterful and subtle. In the same way that Hickman has flipped the characters on their heads, here he flips the premise of the original Ultimate Universe on its head. Instead of resetting a middle-aged hero to his teenage years, we get to see what it would be like if Peter didn’t get his powers until he was middle-aged. The opening page hammers this point home, as Peter looks himself in the mirror, running his hands through his hair and saying “you are not getting any younger.”

Hickman couldn’t be more obvious about how different his Ultimate Universe is than if he said so with neon lights and flashing signs. When Peter exits his room, he sees his wife Mary Jane and their two kids. Though this isn’t how things are in 616 — much to many fans’ chagrin — we’ve seen MJ before, and even their daughter in some continuities. Peter then goes to work at The Daily Planet, another of his typical haunts. And as he enters the building, good ol’ J. Jonah Jameson goes off like a starter pistol, “PARKER!” Ah, so really nothing is all that different except that Peter is older and without his powers. 

“Oh, hey there, Peter,” Jonah says, before continuing his tirade, which is obviously being directed at a different Parker. That’s when Hickman and Checchetto drop the bomb. Sitting in his office, patiently waiting for Jonah to cool down, is the Managing Editor of The Daily Planet: Peter’s uncle Ben. In the rest of this issue, Peter and Ben talk about Aunt May’s death, which tragically occurred as a result of the events of Ultimate Universe #1. As they talk, Hickman and Checchetto help us to see what an amazing presence Ben has been in Peter’s life. He’s tough as nails, full of moral fiber, and stern yet supportive of his nephew.

And so now, we’re left with a very simple question, “Who is this Peter Parker?” All of the things that drove him in almost every other iteration are missing here. He hasn’t had to figure out his powers from a young age. He hasn’t had to live with the guilt of his uncle’s murder. He hasn’t had to grapple much with power or responsibility — at least not in the same way. All he knows, thanks in no small part to a holographic message from Tony Stark, is that there’s something missing in his life and he was always destined for greatness. The final page sees Peter donning his costume and accepting his powers.

But Why?

As I’ve hopefully established by now, it seems like Hickman isn’t actually building a new Ultimate Universe — at least not one like that of the 2000’s. Instead of making the middle-aged heroes into teens again, he has Peter first becoming Spider-Man at the age of 35. Instead of giving us rebooted versions of 616 characters, he’s changing each of them at their core. In fact, it looks like Hickman is building the opposite of the original Ultimate Universe. Is it then possible that his purpose, his “why” for doing it, is also the opposite of 1610’s raison d’etre? Maybe, Hickman isn’t making comics that are designed to be accessible to teenagers, but instead accessible to adults — not in the surface level “let’s add some sex and gore” kind of way, but by crafting a world that’s quieter, more philosophical, and is driven more by the subtle motivations of each person rather than the splashy action of big battles.

Ultimate Spider-Man #1 certainly seems to hint at that. In the 44 pages of this issue, there are maybe 5 pages that have any kind of superhero costume featured. There’s very little in terms of action and the plot mostly focuses on the vulnerable interactions of the people on the page. Peter is worried about Uncle Ben dealing with the loss of Aunt May. MJ is trying to be a supportive wife on a day that she knows is also really hard for her husband, though he tries to hide it. When Peter talks to her about things that are going on in his head, it becomes clear he’s a man who has never felt like he was enough. And when Peter decides to accept his powers, it feels like the mature version of his origin story. Instead of being thrust into the life of being a webslinger, he chooses the responsibility knowing that it will cost him. This comic feels grounded, grown up, and full of emotional depth.

The End of the Preface

Universe 6160 is something entirely new, and Hickman is as devious and masterful as The Maker. He uses familiar faces and snippets of lore we recognize to build a universe from the ground up. Almost every character is driven by a motivation that’s miles apart from what drives their counterpart in the main Marvel Universe. It seems like this new Ultimate Universe might just be the exact opposite of what we expect, and that Hickman is setting the stage for mature, philosophical stories that have just as much to say about real life as they do about capes and tights. Ultimate Spider-Man #1 is by Hickman and Checchetto, with colors by Matthew Wilson, and letters by Cory Petit and is out this week from Marvel Comics. It’s a must-read and what feels like the end of a slow start towards something incredible.

Zac Owens
Zac Owens
I'm a world traveler. I've lived in Australia, Canada, Tanzania, Kenya, and the United States. I studied theology in Switzerland and did humanitarian work in Egypt. I first got into the medium through DC Comics, but now I read everything under the sun. Some of my favorite works include HELLBOY, FRIDAY, ON A SUNBEAM and THE GOON. I currently live in Reykjavik, Iceland. That is, until my Green Lantern ring comes in...