The Ultimates is the Ultimate Marvel Universe version of the Avengers, but with a darker and more realistic slant. Captain America is a pragmatist, far more willing to accept violence and death. Janet Pym and Hank Pym share a dysfunctional relationship. Iron Man is a drunk and a womanizer. Jarvis the butler is gay as a Morris Dancer.
Nick Fury wants to build a team of government-controlled super-heroes. He invites Bruce Banner to help (making Banner the number two scientist on the project) and funds him to re-develop the Captain America formula. Number one boffin is Henry Pym, who already controls ants, and is working on a Giant-Man formula. Tony Stark aka Iron Man is also on board the project. Fury has Thor lined up too, but not yet signed.
Bruce Banner turned himself into the Hulk back in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #2. We get a one-panel flashback to that scene, with a Spider-Man cameo. Though Bruce hasn't Hulked since then, he's still having a tough time in his human form. His fiance Betty Ross recently ditched him. He has personal communication issues which render him rather friendless. Worse than that, his Captain America formula research isn't progressing, while Pym's Giant Man project achieves spectacular success.
But Banner's work is about to get a boost. Fury's men just fished a frozen Captain America out of the Arctic Ocean, and they're carefully melting him free.
We're still setting up the team in this issue, and most members haven't even properly met. There's no real conflict in this issue, other than a bit of subtle tension involving Banner and Pym.
Overall, The Ultimates was a critically acclaimed series. It is one of a proud stable of successful commercial stories that have pushed the boundaries of mainstream comics with their genuinely dark characterizations of the heroes. And when I say "genuinely dark," I'm not talking about Carnage and Blade. I'm talking about characters with real human frailties, and stories told with maturity... not just blood and gore.
True, writer Mark Miller can be a bit hit and miss. He has generated some opposition among the "comics should be fun and safe for kids" crowd who are uncomfortable with him producing comics that appear to be regular Marvel comics, but which show "adult situations" on the pages inside. Of course, he also lost a lot of credibility among Spider-Fans with the spectacularly unsuccessful Trouble mini-series a while back. But with the Ultimates he seems to have created a winner.
Ultimates did suffer some serious lateness issues which perhaps took some of the gloss off it for the fans at the time. But it was successful enough to lead to two more 12-issue limited series.
There's no sex or violence in this issue, but there's still an edge on the story-telling which marks this series as rather more sophisticated than your average super-team fights super-villains fodder.
Spider-Man doesn't appear in the first series other than this one panel flashback cameo in #2. But I'm still tempted to pick up the rest of this series, it sure looks like it's worth reading. Four webs.