Ultimate Marvel has had a rocky history. A lot of people, myself included, really like Ultimate Spider-Man, and especially the introduction of Miles Morales. On the other hand, the line hosts some infamously bad stories, including the especially terrible Ultimatum. A question by LightningLouie over on my review of All-New Ultimates #4 (it's terrible, don't buy it) prompted me to write up a short history of the line, which I've edited and reposted here so that more might see it. There are spoilers for the whole Ultimate Marvel line ahead. Be aware.
The first nine years of the line's run was basically Marvel comics for people who don't want to read 50+ years of back issues to understand what's going on. The line was all over the place, Ultimate Spider-Man is generally considered to be excellent, but the other series are a real mess. Ultimate Fantastic Four is where the original Marvel Zombies run (before the proper "Marvel Zombies" series) came from, and people seem to like that. The biggest problem with the line is that everything outside of Ultimate Spider-Man (which is great) seemed to think the key to making the Marvel universe "edgier" was to make everyone an asshole. This is especially bad in the Ultimates.
The idea behind The Ultimates was to do the comic book equivalent of a summer blockbuster, do a miniseries every couple of years which pulled out all of the stops, and threw everything the writers could at the heroes. The Ultimates (1) isn't even that bad, although I have a few big problems with it, number one being this:
And number two being that they decided to turn the Hulk into a metaphor for drug addiction, in that Bruce Banner actually has to keep taking the serum to keep becoming the Hulk, but he's addicted to the rush of becoming a big grey rapist.
Actually, no, you know what, I take it back, The Ultimates is that bad.
Any way, the series continued to decline in quality with The Ultimates 2, which I haven't read, The Ultimates 3, which is by all accounts a hot mess, and Ultimatum, which I'll talk about in a moment.
Any way, for the first nine years, the various series continued to chug along. Let me stress, Ultimate Spider-Man is 100% worth reading, in its entirety. The series basically covers a bunch of story arcs from the original Spider-Man comics, but with various twists (the Green Goblin is actually transformed into a monstrous Green Green Goblin, Gwen Stacy is killed by Carnage, etc.). In fact a lot of the choices made for the new Amazing Spider-Man film series seem to be based on characterizations from the Ultimate universe. The storyline about Peter's dad being killed for the science he was working on is basically the Ultimate Venom storyline altered slightly.
Ultimate Spider-Man even managed to turn the entire Clone Saga into one eight issue series (Ultimate Spider-Man #94-105) which is arguably the best arc out of the whole series. In all truth, it's probably even my favorite version of the Spider-Man story as a whole, and I love a lot of the choices they make with it. I love Ultimate Gwen Stacy, I love Ultimate Aunt May, I love Ultimate Mary Jane, I love Ultimate Peter Parker, I love the different versions of the villains, even more than I love the regular Marvel version of some of those characters. It's just great.
And then Ultimatum happened.
Ultimatum is an infamously terrible storyline in which Magneto uses Mjolnir to flood Manhattan, killing millions (including an absolutely depressing number of superheroes who are killed for no reason whatsoever, like Daredevil, Nightcrawler, Wasp, Professor X, and literally dozens of others). It's absolute garbage. Few things make sense narratively, and literally. The large number of character deaths are largely pointless, and there's that one part where the Blob graphically cannibalizes the Wasp because "EDGY," which is best left unmentioned. Wait, crap.
It also signaled a line-wide relaunch, this time under the various titles "Ultimate Comics: ____." This relaunch signaled a change in direction for the line. The idea was that now that the line had a decade of backstory behind it, it had become too obtuse to get into, just like the mainstream continuity, and it would instead be used as a sort of dumping ground for crazy ideas. Ideas which could potentially make for good stories, but which would have an impact on mainstream continuity which would be too great to justify. Killing off characters and (theoretically) letting them stay dead. A storyline where Hydra literally destroys the entire U.S. Government, and Captain America declares himself president to keep the country together. A terrific storyline about the persecution mutants (like Kitty Pryde) face in a world where a mutant terrorist (Magneto) is the very public face of the greatest destructive tragedy in American history. A storyline where Galactus eats New Jersey. Like, all of it.
My personal favorite, though, and a story which I highly recommend checking out, is called the "Ultimate Doomsday Trilogy," and is a set of three four-issue miniseries which are really just one twelve issue miniseries where an evil unknown force is posing major attacks on the world.
Reed Richards is killed at the beginning, and Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, the remaining members of the Fantastic Four, and Iceman (who was living in Peter's house at the time) have to team up to figure out who the force is, only to discover that it's Reed Richards, who faked his death, and has become an omnicidal maniac, the new Doctor Doom. It's a really great storyline, which displays what the Ultimate universe should have become, a dumping ground for crazy ideas, like a large-scale Elseworld with continuity.
The Death of Spider-Man and the introduction of the new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, is the other critically acclaimed choice they made in this post-Ultimatum world. It's another great example of how the Ultimate line should have turned out.
Unfortunately, the problems with the Ultimate universe aren't hard to see. Most of the writing done for it either isn't very good, or is trying so hard to be "edgy" and "mature" that it winds up being the exact opposite of both of those things.
In any case, last year they had an event (Cataclysm) where the mainstream universe's Galactus was transported to the 1610 universe, and merged with the much, much, much weaker form of Galactus seen in the Ultimate line, a mechanical swarm that devoured worlds of their resources to self-replicate called Gah Lak Tus.
There were rumors when that event was going on that Marvel was shutting down the line, and that the line would end with Miles Morales being thrown into the mainstream universe (we know from Spider-Men that there's a Miles in the mainstream world, and he might be some sort of bad guy), while Galactus literally ate the rest of the universe so that it didn't exist any more. Those rumors weren't true, the event actually ended with a bunch of people dying (basically all the highest-level superheroes), and Kitty Pryde (who has a cooler power set in the Ultimate universe of being able to switch her body density in either direction, making her super strong, heavy, and indestructible) wound up working with evil Reed Richards to push Galactus into the phantom— I mean the negative zone.
The whole thing was a cue for another line-wide relaunch, and the three books currently running are "Ultimate FF" (featuring a team being led by Agent Coulson, as I understand it), "All-New Ultimates" which is ostensibly a street-level team with a diverse cast of cool characters, but which is actually terrible, and "Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man" which is still really good, although I'm not totally on board with the current arc.
In terms of what's good in the line, anything written by Brian Michael Bendis. The line seems to kind of be his baby since he's the one who launched it with Ultimate Spider-Man, and I honestly wonder whether they're keeping the whole thing around just to humor him at this point.
I was really hoping this second relaunch would be what the line needed, and that Marvel would stick some more talented writers to the project along with Bendis, because I really like the idea of a comic book universe having a second similar universe to play around with which is basically just a sandbox, but it doesn't look promising any more.
TL;DR: Ultimate Spider-Man is awesome, the rest of the universe is pretty bad.
(Also now cross posted to my website, because it's a long post, I might as well put it there.)