REVIEW: JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED ULTRAMAN
I continue to be impressed at the longevity of the JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED line, produced by Mattel, and based on the animated series featuring the popular DC Comics characters. Never mind that the show has been off the air for years -- occasional off-hour reruns on Cartoon Network notwithstanding. The toy line has endured and expanded to include characters that never appeared in the show, but which longtime fans want to see rendered in the popular animated style first seen in the early 90's Batman series, followed by Superman, and then by Justice League.
Moreover, the line is no longer an exclusive to Target, which it has been for several years. The line has so maintained its staying power that Toys "R" Us has decided that it wants it back, as well, which in fact is where this particular individual was found. His name is ULTRAMAN -- and he's no relation to the Japanese hero of the same name -- although that might explain why there's no "TM" after his name on the package here.
Ultraman has a surprisingly long and certainly varied history in the DC Universe, as does his team, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika. But, that's what happens when you get caught up in universal shifts.
In basic terms, Ultraman is an evil, alternate Earth version of Superman. He and the original Crime Syndicate first appeared in Justice League of America #29, back in 1964. In this story, the Crime Syndicate existed on the interdimensional alternate Earth which would be called Earth-3. By this time, it had been established that Earth-1 was the home of the modern-day heroes of the Justice League, whereas Earth-2 was the home of the Golden Age heroes known as the Justice Society. They had begun a series of annual team-ups which would run right up to 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths. Most of these stories are being presented in trade paperbacks under the banner "Crisis on Multiple Earths" -- five volumes to date.
Earth-3 was unlike either Earth-1 or Earth-2, in that it had no super-heroes. Instead, the planet was constantly under siege by the Crime Syndicate of America, a group of five super-villains very analogous to the Justice League. Rather than Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern, the team consisted of Ultraman, Owlman, Superwoman, Johnny Quick, and Power Ring.
Over the course of a handful of appearances, the original Ultraman's origin was revealed. His name was Jur-Li, and he came from his universe's version of Krypton. Little is known of his past, except that he grew up to become a super-villain. Unlike Superman, the Earth-3 Ultraman gets stronger every time he is exposed to Kryptonite, occasionally even developing a new super-power. It was one such development, the ability to see into other dimensions, that allowed Ultraman to detect Earths-1 and 2 in the first place.
In the early 1980's, in DC Comics Presents Annual #1, Lex Luthor teamed up with his Earth-2 counterpart, known as Alexei Luthor, in an attempt to defeat the two Supermen from each Earth. They ultimately were defeated, but traveled to Earth-3, teaming up with Ultraman in a plot on the part of Alexei Luthor to destroy his Earth, as well as Earth-1. They were stopped by the two Supermen, as well as Earth-3's newly-minted first-ever superhero, Alexander Luthor.
Mattel produced a DC Universe Classics two-pack a while back, that featured Alexander Luthor and the original Ultraman. I'm pleased to have it, but it's not my favorite uniform design for Ultraman these days.
Earth-3, along with the original Ultraman and the original Crime Syndicate of America, was wiped out of existence -- indeed was the first such shown casualty -- in the first issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, in 1985. The anti-matter wave engulfed the planet, and the Crime Syndicate found themselves in the unusual position of trying to save as many lives as possible, or even the planet if they could. Tragically, they could not, and neither could Luthor, who sent his son into the interdimensional void.
Distraught over the fact that his superpowers were useless at the time when he most needed them, Ultraman flew straight into the anti-matter wave that was destroying Earth-3, telling Power Ring, "I do what I have done all my life. Fight -- to the very end!" Which was not long in coming for the entire Earth-3 universe...
The original Crime Syndicate tended to be a little on the hokey side, as were many of the characters developed for the stories of the time. However, in 1999, writer Grant Morrison decided to bring back the Crime Syndicate, despite the lack of a Multiverse to work with. In this instance, he placed the Crime Syndicate within an anti-matter universe that was known to still exist, on an anti-matter Earth that was geographically the exact opposite of ours, and that was hardly the only other dissimilarity.
This anti-Earth, which first appeared in the pages of the graphic novel "JLA: Earth 2", is a far darker place than Earth-3 ever was. Virtually every aspect of society is corrupt. As would be later revealed in a multi-part story in the pages of JLA by Kurt Busiek, about the only thing that holds the society together is the "Favor Bank". If someone asks a favor of you, you owe them a favor in return, and it is an absolutely inviolable bond.
Unlike the more basic criminal activities of the original Crime Syndicate, the new Crime Syndicate are able to rule their world, although they allow government to continue operating worldwide, as much for their own amusement as anything. They also dress better, although a story in JLA Secret Files 2004 shows that they once more closely resembled their Earth-3 counterparts.
Here, Ultraman is in fact Clark Kent, a human astronaut from the anti-matter Earth. After a fiery space shuttle crash, an unknown alien race reconstructed Kent in an attempt to repair the damaged astronaut, which ultimately gave him superpowers analogous to Superman's. In contrast to Superman, Ultraman's powers rely on his proximity and exposure to a substance called Anti-Kryptonite. This substance has been shown to have no effect on Superman, nor does regular Kryptonite affect Ultraman. In the Busiek storyline, Ultraman revealed that he has found a way to infuse his costume with time-release dosages to maintain his powers, even if away from a ready source of Anti-Kryptonite for an extended period of time.
Ultraman is unhappily married to his Earth's Lois Lane, who also happens to be Crime Syndicate member Superwoman. However, Superwoman also maintains an ongoing affair with another Crime Syndicate member, Owlman. An undisclosed form of photographic blackmail has kept Ultraman from doing any permanent harm to Owlman. Knowing the way the anti-matter Earth's society works, it's probably a set of pictures showing Ultraman helping a little old lady across the street or some such...
The Crime Syndicate, following their debut, turned up in a sequence in the epic Marvel/DC crossover event JLA/AVENGERS, which -- eerily reminiscent of the original Crime Syndicate's demise in Crisis on Infinite Earths, showed the Crime Syndicate and the anti-matter universe being wiped out by an unknown foe.
Their next appearance was in the pages of JLA, in a story by Kurt Busiek, who had also written JLA/Avengers. The unknown foe had been Krona, a being long obsessed with determining the true origins of the universe, and when he had been defeated "by the League with some help", as Owlman put it, referencing the "can't mention 'em in a strictly DC publication" Avengers, the anti-matter universe was restored, picking up pretty much where it had left off, although there were some detectable differences, not the least of which was a new man bearing the ring and name of Power Ring.
Three of the Crime Syndicate, including Ultraman, Owlman, and Superwoman, turned up in a Superman/Batman Annual, which presented a rather -- ahem -- imaginative take on the first alleged meeting between Superman and Batman. Speaking of unofficial crossovers, an anti-matter Earth version of Marvel's Deadpool showed up as well, even if he never managed to get his name out. What can you expect -- the story was written by Joe Kelly!
The Crime Syndicate turned up again during the weekly mini-series TRINITY, and had an active role in that story, which was also crafted by Busiek. However, it's at this point that we also hit a few -- complications.
When the Multiverse was restored, due in large part to the events of Infinite Crisis, there was a new Earth-3 created. And it has its own version of the Crime Syndicate, known as the Crime Society, and they also have their own Ultraman. He looks somewhat different than the current one in the Crime Syndicate, and indeed, the Society has been shown to be a larger team, with more analogues to assorted Justice League members. Additionally, although this Earth-3 is a more serious and grim place than the original, it does not seem to be as grim and dark as the Anti-Matter Earth of the Crime Syndicate.
Then there's the matter of the Ultraman that turned up in a storyline presented in "The Brave and the Bold" title -- no relation to the animated series. He briefly battled Superman, but was then forced to team up with Superman and a number of other heroes to deal with a threat known as Megistus, that was something of a prelude to the Final Crisis. This Ultraman ended up deformed by the end of the adventure, and although he seemed to make it back to whatever dimensional space he came from, nothing has been heard from since. He was just about as cruel as the Anti-Matter Ultraman, threatening to tear apart a hospital in Metropolis at one point, but he didn't seem quite as sure of himself in some respects. His uniform was very similar, but the symbol was different, more closely resembling Superman's.
Most recently, the Crime Syndicate has returned to the pages of Justice League of America, with Ultraman facing Supergirl in issue #50.
So, which Ultraman have we got here? Despite the fact that the package references Earth-3, the uniform indicates that this is in fact the Anti-Matter Earth Ultraman, which these days, is arguably the best known of the lot.
Technically, this Ultraman never appeared in the Justice League animated series, nor did any of the Crime Syndicate. They did appear in the Justice League movie "Crisis on Two Earths", which I highly recommend, but their uniform designs were distinctive to that movie.
The animated-style illustration on the package back for Ultraman works a cute trick by taking an image of Superman, and superimposing (!) Ultraman's symbol over the chest. It works well enough, but don't go wracking your mind trying to figure out which episode you might have missed.
So, how's the figure? Abundantly cool. I'll admit I'm a distinct fan of the Crime Syndicate. I'm not sure I'd want them to pay me a personal visit, mind you, but I've always gotten a kick out of this "alternate/mirror universe" concept, and in my opinion, the two concepts that have made it work the best have been DC Comics with the Crime Syndicate, and Star Trek with its Mirror Universe.
As one might expect, the Ultraman figure is a recolored Superman. It even uses a Superman headsculpt, with is a bit of a stretch. Then again, Ultraman successfully (if briefly) impersonated Superman during the storyline in JLA, so there has to be a fairly strong resemblance. It's just that Ultraman doesn't always go for the spit-curl of hair in front. In his initial appearance in "Earth 2", he tended to slick his hair back somewhat. But he has been seen with the curl on occasion. My guess is he's got the same sort of cowlick that probably causes it on Superman, and ever since becoming aware of Superman's existence, it probably drives him nuts, even if it comes in handy for disguise purposes once in a while.
Ultraman's uniform colors are blue and red, just like Superman's, but the particulars of the costume do differ, and it is here that we have the greatest evidence that this figure is intended to represent the modern Anti-matter Earth Ultraman. The figure is wearing a solid blue uniform, with silver spheres painted on the belt and near the elbows. This is in keeping with Ultraman's design. The figure's hands are gloved, and there is no visible line at the boots. Since the figure does use a previous mold, there's a visible belt sculpted in, that technically speaking shouldn't be there, but I'm not going to complain about it.
Ultraman wears a red cape, which is secured to the shoulders, and I want to commend Mattel for making the cape out of very flexible plastic. They've gotten better at this in recent times, on DC Universe Classics particularly. Wave 15 of that excellent series of figures had quite a few caped individuals in it, and all the capes were well made and nicely flexible. Certainly preferable to the days of DCUC's overly starched Mister Miracle's cape. I'm not sure what sort of plastic this is, but I hope Mattel can acquire a regular supply of it.
Most distinctive is Ultraman's symbol. This is one of my favorite parts of the new design. The original Ultraman just had a plain red "U" on his costume -- and these weird shoulders that looked vaguely like angled football padding. I'm not entirely sure what was up with that.
The modern Ultraman not only has normal shoulders, but a much cooler symbol. Like Superman's, it's a letter within a five-sided shape. However, Ultraman's shape is inverted relative to Superman's -- it's flat on the bottom with the point at the top! And of course the letter within is a "U", not an "S". It's really a very cool design, has been carried out superbly well on this figure, and really showcases how Ultraman is very much Superman's opposite.
Painted details on the Ultraman figure are relatively minimal, but are well done. There are the silver spheres on the waist and elbows. I had to retouch one of these, but that wasn't a big deal. The "U" symbol is an imprint of some sort, and is extremely well done. There's some flesh tone around the neck, which is part of the torso and otherwise molded in dark blue, and it's been neatly painted and is an excellent match for the head, which is molded in flesh-tone plastic. Ultraman's hair, eyes, and eyebrows on the head complete the painted detail.
Granted the Ultraman figure is not extensively articulated, but anyone collecting the Justice League line knows that by now. He is poseable at the head, arms, and legs, and he stands well of his own accord. That's more than sufficient for this line.
Ultraman also comes with an accessory, as a number of recent Justice League Unlimited figures have. In Ultraman's case, it's a bent girder, something with Superman has also come with, and oddly enough, Plastic Man, in that instance the girder being painted to look like Plastic Man himself. Ultraman's girder is more of a standard steel gray.
Ultraman is one of three Crime Syndicate figures in the Justice League Unlimited line. Superwoman came out some time ago, and can still be found at some clearance outlets. Power Ring is also reportedly out there, although as of this writing I have not yet seen him. Like Ultraman, he's a relatively easy figure to do, as he is just a recoloration of the John Stewart Green Lantern, as Ultraman is a recoloration of Superman.
An Owlman figure was seen in a display by Mattel at a Comic-Con a while back, but there's been no indication of him or Johnny Quick being added to the line. I remain hopeful that it will happen, but admittedly they will need more effort. Both will need unique heads, and Owlman will require a unique cape. Here's hoping that with Justice League figures returning to Toys "R" Us, there may be the impetus for it to happen.
Honestly, what I'd REALLY like to see happen is a DC Universe Classics five-pack featuring the Crime Syndicate. We've had two previous five-packs -- one featuring Superman and Batman and some of their enemies, with a unique Luthor figure, and a Green Lantern five-pack that gave us the first-ever figures of Tomar-Re and, more significantly, Guy Gardner. A Crime Syndicate five-pack would require some work, although most of the figures could be made with existing molds, and new heads and a few capes. Really only slightly more effort, part for part, than what the Justice League versions require. Here's hoping that perhaps it will be considered.
So, what's my final word? The Justice League line is not DC Universe Classics. However, it does have its own "cool", and at least until such time as we get DCUC versions of the Crime Syndicate, I'll gladly welcome them into my Justice League collection. As I said at the top of this review, it impresses me that the line continues, and is willing to expand as it has, into characters well beyond those that appeared in the series, yet maintaining the popular style developed largely by Bruce Timm.
And, as much as I enjoy the Crime Syndicate, I am sincerely pleased to have this figure of the modern Ultraman in my collection! Be advised, he's not easy to track down. So if you're fortunate enough to see him -- get him right then!
The JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED figure of ULTRAMAN definitely has my highest recommendation!