So…how did we get here?
Ultimate Spider-Man #28 brought the first volume of Miles Morales’s journey to a close, in which he reclaimed his mantle of power and responsibility with great purpose. As Spider-Man, he worked with Spider-Woman, Bombshell, and Cloak and Dagger to score a major victory against a corrupt organization and expose a greater conspiracy. As Miles Morales, he’s been redefining his family, coming to terms with losing his mother while navigating his first romantic relationship. This young man has been on a long and difficult road, but he’s finally gotten his life back to a good place.
Making now a perfect time to have his world come crashing down. Literally.
Cataclysm does just that, as world eater Galactus crosses over from the mainstream Marvel 616 universe into the Ultimate Marvel universe, with his sights set firmly on Earth. As this event is spread over multiple titles and affecting the entire Ultimate range, we’ll be focusing here on Miles Morales as Spider-Man and his role in the overall story.
Cataclysm: Ultimate Spider-Man acts as the “calm before the storm” and unfolds as a thoughtfully structured three-issue miniseries that focuses more on characterization than action sequences. Brian Michael Bendis successfully (re)introduces the core cast before flashing back two years to their individual experiences during the Ultimatum event. It’s here where we get defining moments that help the reader appreciate why each character responds to Galactus’s arrival as they do. Without a doubt, the emotional and artistic highpoint of this miniseries is Miles’s revealing his secret identity to his father and Jefferson’s pained reaction. This is a huge moment in Miles’s story, and it’s given the artistic treatment it deserves.
Frustratingly, the larger narrative of Galactus’s arrival takes precedence and the miniseries ends on a cliffhanger as Spider-Man is recruited by the Ultimates to help. Readers are informed that the story continues in issue #4 of the Cataclysm: Ultimates’ Last Stand miniseries.
Unfortunately, this is not an entirely smooth transition for the Spider-Man reader to make. Although it’s summarized on the opening page for newcomers, issue #4 of Ultimates’ Last Stand picks up the story following a significant narrative jump involving Miles and Reed Richards journeying to another universe (!) in search of an answer on how to stop Galactus.
Despite the powerful imagery on the cover (where a distraught Spider-Man is cradling a grievously wounded Captain America), Spider-Man is a disappointing non-entity in this story. He appears in only a few panels toward the end, saving a S.H.I.E.L.D. soldier in the background and then expressing wordless shock at Captain America’s apparent self-sacrifice. Jefferson, Ganke, Cloak and Dagger, Bombshell, and Spider-Woman are nowhere to be seen. His presence seems solely to justify the cover image, which is equally unnecessary.
This is very much the Ultimates’s story (perfectly reasonable, given the mini-series’ title), but for a reader not fully versed in the wider Ultimate universe and/or only following Spider-Man, Bendis misses the opportunity to help the reader connect to the weight of the disaster and the personal impact on our heroes and their world. The end result is jarring, especially coming from the more nuanced and emotionally grounded Cataclysm: Ultimate Spider-Man mini-series. Suddenly the reader is bombarded with much sound and fury, signifying…well, what, exactly? There’s no drama to the proceedings, despite the notion of the World Coming To An End. Instead, the whole affair is reduced to a cold exercise in plot mechanics as the characters are moved into position for the inevitable showdown.
Which brings us to issue #5, the final entry in the Last Stand miniseries.
With the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier destroyed, Miles and Kitty Pryde share a brief quiet moment as they meet for the first time, but she is then called to action. Reed Richards gives Kitty a motivational speech, which Bendis and Bagley render in a remarkable two-page spread. But it’s not what it seems, and on more than one level.
We learn that Kitty’s role is only half of Reed’s plan. Does he believe anything that he said to her, or is he just manipulating her emotions to get to the endgame? That’s when I realized that this is what the creative team is doing to the reader as well. It’s not as if Kitty would reflect on all of those faces in what may be her final moments (Seriously, the Rhino?).
Why else dramatically depict the entire Ultimate universe if not trying to stir emotions about its impending end? It comes off as scrambling to inject some heart into a story that otherwise descends into an over the top action sequence.
When Miles realizes that Reed is writing Kitty off as collateral damage, he swings into action with help from Sue Storm. It should be a remarkable moment, seeing Miles selflessly risking his life for someone he’d just met, but it’s handled in a detached and perfunctory “let’s wrap this up” manner. Kitty is saved, Galactus is defeated, another hero is lost, and the reader is left to wonder why they bothered picking this up in the first place. What was the point? When can we get back to the good stuff?