Bendis’ Avengers: New Avengers: The Illuminati

The very idea of the Illuminati always seemed fairly strange to me. Simply calling this group the Illuminati rubbed me the wrong way. Not to mention the premise, a secret organization made up of the smartest men in the Marvel Universe, for the sole purpose of determining how to protect the world. Needless to say, the whole idea felt a little too elitist for my taste. As a kid, I was more interested in the more traditional, self-sacrificing, honest heroes, like Spider-Man or Captain America. The Illuminati, by contrast, seemed like a group of intellectual jerks. After reading World War Hulk and Civil War, seeing the catastrophe which the Illuminati brought to the Marvel Universe left me with even more distaste for these characters. Cloning Thor and shooting the Hulk into outer space were not particularly heroic acts. Beyond character likability, two primary reasons kept me from reading New Avengers: the Illuminati. First, there seemed to be far too much continuity of which one should be aware in order to understand the mini-series. Events such as the Kree-Skrull War, Secret Wars, and the Infinity Gauntlet are featured heavily in the Illuminati. Second, the series itself did not feel that important for what I was reading at the time: the more street-level New Avengers series. Yet, after reading the Illuminati, I find that there is more to this mini-series than meets the eye.

A little too “big brother” for me

In the context of Bendis’ Avengers run, the Illuminati plays a major role, including events such as World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, and even Civil War. During World War Hulk, it was discovered that the Illuminati, a group of some of the smartest superheroes, had sent the Hulk into outer space against his will. It was believed that the Hulk would be at peace on an uninhabited planet, protecting both the Hulk and the Earth. Yet the Hulk instead landed on the war world of Sakaar, fighting his way out of slavery and becoming the world’s new king. Later, the Hulk returned to ravage New York and exact revenge on the Illuminati for their actions. Similarly, Civil War demonstrates some of the consequences of the Illuminati’s questionable actions. For example, Tony Stark and Reed Richards, two members of the Illuminati, created a clone Thor, which then killed longtime superhero Goliath. Additionally, Stark and Richards created a prison for unregistered heroes in the negative zone and recruited supervillains to hunt down these heroes. While none of these morally reprehensible acts were the actions of the Illuminati as a whole, Stark and Richards committed these acts under the same logic as sending the Hulk into space. Namely, these men believed that their actions would make the world a safer place. Finally, the events of the Illuminati accompany the lead-in to Secret Invasion in the pages of New Avengers and Mighty Avengers. During this period of time, Skrulls have been revealed as infiltrating key areas of the Marvel Universe.

Picking up the pieces

Clearly, the Illuminati fits very well into Bendis’ larger Avengers narrative. Furthermore, this mini-series connects itself to the larger Marvel continuity. In response to the classic Kree-Skrull War, when the Earth was caught between two warring alien races, the Illuminati came into being. This group consisted of key figures in every major area of the Marvel Universe, acting in secret to protect the Earth from any future disasters. Each issue of the Illuminati jumps to a different point in Marvel history, specifically addressing a major event such as the Kree-Skrull War or the Infinity Gauntlet. Following up on these near disasters, the Illuminati takes measures to ensure that incidents such as these never happen again. For example, the Illuminati threatens the Skrull Empire against coming back to Earth, keeps the cosmic being known as the Beyonder from losing control of his power, and even gathers to keep the infinity gems out of the wrong hands. Eventually, however, the actions of the Illuminati come back to haunt them. The consequences of the Illuminati’s proactive methods lead into the present day, explaining incoming events such as Secret Invasion.

No six men should have all this power…

Representing the Avengers in this cabal is Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. Stark is the one who proposes the initial idea of the Illuminati, continuing Bendis’ pragmatic characterization of the Avenger. Just as he understood the need for the Avengers in the pages of New Avengers, Stark believes in the necessity of a group like the Illuminati. After feeling how powerless the Avengers were in the face of the Kree/Skrull War, Stark feels the need to be more proactive in defending the Earth. Yet it is this sense of powerlessness which drives Stark too far on occasion. Feeling that he must have absolute control of the situation, Stark often cannot see past his own fears. For example, when Stark tries to convince the rest of the Illuminati to support superhuman registration, his own obsession with protecting the superhuman community blinds him to the others’ perspectives. Additionally, the Illuminati is a major contributing factor to Stark’s downfall in the eyes of the superhuman community. Sending the Hulk into space and becoming the chief enforcer of the superhuman registration act are only two products of Stark’s narrow-minded vision. Acting in such a unilateral manner results in several major mistakes, isolating him from the superhuman community and even the other members of the Illuminati.

The control freak loses control

The Illuminati also serves to isolate Reed Richards, of the Fantastic Four, from his own family. While Richards is a man of science, at heart, he is also a family man. Everything that Richards does, he does for the sake of the Fantastic Four and his children. Making a brighter future has always been Richards’ goal, especially for the sake of his family. By this logic, it is only natural that Richards would want to be proactive in defending the planet, to build a better world. Yet the fatal flaw in Richards joining the Illuminati is how it cuts him off from his family. Without the Fantastic Four to ground him, Richards loses sight of the reason he joined the Illuminati in the first place. Working with men of science like Stark leaves Richards detached from the moral conscience of his wife Sue, or best friend Ben Grimm. Even in moments when Richards tries to do the right thing, such as destroying the infinity gems, he is forced into a moral compromise. Since he cannot destroy the stones, Richards gives each member of the Illuminati a gem to hide. While well-meaning, this action is problematic in trusting so much power to so few individuals. Without his family, Richards falls into the gray area of morality.

Like some kinda future foundation…

Yet some members, like Doctor Strange, are more comfortable in making unilateral decisions for the greater good. Indeed, as the sorcerer supreme, Strange is accustomed to confronting hidden problems from the safety of the shadows. Some burdens, Strange understands, cannot be carried by ordinary mortals. Rather, Strange is used to dealing with the issues which only present themselves behind-the-scenes. There is a certain amount of arrogance that comes with Strange’s paternalistic treatment of humanity. Realizing the danger of wielding power such as the Infinity Gauntlet, Strange still believes his own sense of morality and discipline will triumph. As the Illuminati’s ambassador to the mystical realms, Strange may hold more power than any of the other members. Strange plays a key role in finding the infinity gems, locating the Beyonder, and several other important tasks. Trusting Strange with the power to handle these issues risks dangerous consequences, which the sorcerer faces in the pages of World War Hulk and New Avengers.

A strange, lonely existence…

Similarly to Strange’s hubris is that of Professor Charles Xavier. Representing the entire mutant community, Xavier acts in secret on behalf of a whole species. In saving the Earth from potential threats, Xavier hopes to work with the Illuminati to ensure a future for his students. It’s quite fortunate, then, that Xavier is often the ethical voice of reason in the Illuminati. As a telepath, Xavier knows all of the consequences for crossing moral and ethical boundaries. Yet placing sole responsibility of the mutant race on one man becomes a moral quandary, especially considering the discreet nature of his actions. Being the chief genetics expert of the Illuminati, Xavier knows how to handle mutants, inhumans, and all genetic variants in-between. Without the collaboration of any other mutants, however, especially his own X-Men, Xavier is unaccountable for his actions, giving him free rein to represent the mutant community however he sees fit. As one man, Charles Xavier lacks the capacity to act in the best interests of a whole community.

You’d know, wouldn’t you, Chuck?

The most blatantly arrogant member of the Illuminati is Prince Namor, the king of Atlantis. Throughout the Illuminati, Namor is often the “bad cop” of the group. Namor speaks his mind in all of the most morally repugnant ways, pushing the Illuminati into questionable territory. For example, when trying to convince alien Noh-Varr to cease his war on the Earth, Namor repeatedly beats and threatens the Kree warrior. Despite his immoral behavior and blunt personality, Namor does manage to hold his fellow members accountable for their actions. Namor reminds the other Illuminati members of their heroic nature, including bluntly telling Reed Richards how lucky he is to have his family. By reminding the heroes of who they are, Namor shows how his brutal honesty can work for both good and bad purposes. Still, Namor’s presence is generally quite volatile, indicative of how fragile the Illuminati’s alliance truly is. For example, when Iron Man decides to shoot the Hulk into outer space, Namor disagrees, violently attacking the armored Avenger. This outburst reminds the reader of how self-interested each member of the Illuminati is, acting for individual causes rather than a united goal.

A surprisingly wholesome truth

Over the course of the Illuminati, Bendis illustrates how being proactive can go too far. Indeed, trying to take preventative measures leads to extreme consequences throughout the Illuminati. For example, when the Illuminati try to prevent another Kree-Skrull War, they end up getting captured and experimented upon. This experimentation later provides the genetic material that the Skrulls require for their infiltration leading into Secret Invasion. Preventative measures tend to escalate into catastrophe, demonstrating the danger of proactive heroism. This danger results from the arrogance of the Illuminati. Each member of the group believes that they represent the best interests of their respective communities. Stark thinks he knows what’s best for the Avengers, Richards believes he is protecting the Fantastic Four, Strange fights to defend the mystical realm, Xavier protects the mutants, and Namor defends the sea. Yet no one person can represent a whole community, as shown through the many mistakes of the Illuminati which resulted in events such as Civil War, World War Hulk, and Secret Invasion. Furthermore, by attempting to the represent their respective spheres, each member of the Illuminati ironically isolates themselves from these communities. The burden of acting in secrecy has major consequences, making Stark a pariah in the Avengers, Richards estranged from his family, Xavier isolated from his students, and Strange stripped of the title of sorcerer supreme. Ultimately, Bendis seems to say that, no matter how good our intentions are, humans are not meant to wield immense power in isolation.

Their actions crashing down around them…

Each story in the Illuminati examines a different point in Marvel history, during which the Illuminati secretly acted to protect the Earth. The first issue kicks things off with a bang, detailing the Illuminati’s venture into the Skrull Empire to prevent another Kree-Skrull War. Seeing the retro, 1970s versions of each hero is fun, and the Illuminati’s capture and experimentation is a good look at the more immediate consequences of their actions. Even without the inclusion of the long-term ramifications of this story, this issue goes to show the danger of threatening a power like the Skrull Empire. The next issue, following up on the Infinity Gauntlet, is pretty fun. Seeing the Illuminati search for the infinity gems is very exciting and fast-paced, and the temptation behind the gauntlet’s power is emphasized very well. The ending, where each member takes a stone for safe-keeping, does a nice job showing how arrogant the Illuminati has become. The group believes themselves to be humanity’s secret defenders, blind to their own hubris. The story following up on Secret Wars is a mixed bag. On one hand, making the Beyonder an inhuman and a mutant is an interesting twist. The actual story, on the other hand, is a jumbled, confused affair, with little consequence. Not much is done to deal with the Beyonder, leaving this story feeling a bit wasted in potential. Perhaps if Bendis wrote a scenario in which the Illuminati had to take extreme measures to stop the Beyonder, the reader could see how dirty the group’s hands truly are. Still, the issue where the Illuminati confronts Noh-Varr, a fanatical Kree warrior, is a nice one. This story is a rare exception in the series, showing how not everything the Illuminati does is for the worse. Indeed, the Illuminati simply talk to Noh-Varr, convincing him that humanity is worth saving. Finally, the last issue brings the whole series full circle. Tying back to the initial conflict with the Skrulls, the Illuminati discover their culpability in the Skrull infiltration. Yet there is nothing which the group can do about this, as it is revealed that one of their own is also a Skrull. The lack of trust, due to the infiltration, which the Illuminati inadvertently caused, shatters the alliance. It’s a nice way to close out the series, showing how a group like the Illuminati causes its own downfall. At the same time, the ending is an excellent set-up for Secret Invasion.

Flashback Friday?

Ultimately, I think Bendis does a lot of great things in the Illuminati. The mini-series ties into Marvel history, simultaneously bringing these hidden events into the context of his overall run. I would still say that the Illuminati is a little too continuity-heavy for some readers. As someone who has read the Kree-Skrull War, Secret Wars, and the Infinity Gauntlet, I did have a greater appreciation for the Illuminati‘s connection to these events. Still, Bendis does a nice job explaining the gist of these major points in Marvel history, making the Illuminati accessible for those who are only interested in Bendis’ overall Avengers run. The characters chosen for the Illuminati were also perfect, as each represents a major corner of the Marvel Universe. Each character’s motivation is pretty clear, especially when the group is at odds with itself. Certain characters, such as Stark and Richards, do get more attention than others, so I would have liked to have seen more from characters like Doctor Strange. The cast of characters were all given something to do, however, despite a lack of insight into certain perspectives. Furthermore, the episodic format of the Illuminati is a nice touch, giving readers glimpses into important moments for the group. These moments fit into the history of the Marvel Universe well, addressing the context behind each time period. Bendis does leave room for potential future storylines, as the reader is left to wonder if they’ve truly seen all of the Illuminati’s activity over the years. The Illuminati, overall, explores some fascinating ideas, planting the seeds for future tales.

Coming together, for the last time…

The first major ramification of the Illuminati is going to be Noh-Varr’s character arc. This Kree warrior is going to become a major player in Bendis’ Avengers run, starting in Secret Invasion. The Illuminati’s talk with Noh-Varr will make an impact on him, as he decides to become a hero of Earth. Noh-Varr’s heroic arc continues through Dark Avengers and during Bendis’ adjective-less Avengers title. Further in the future, the infinity gems will play an important role in Bendis’ Avengers. Specifically, the Illuminati’s hiding places will not be so hidden anymore, leading to a clash between the Avengers and the Hood over the infinity gauntlet. More importantly, this event will result in further conflict between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark over the existence of the Illuminati. The most immediate consequence of the Illuminati, however, comes in the pages of Secret Invasion. As a direct result of the Illuminati’s first mission, the Skrull infiltration will turn into a full-scale invasion. This invasion leads to the downfall of Tony Stark, losing his status as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and leader of the Avengers. In his place, Norman Osborn is instated, leading to Dark Reign, an understandably darker era for the Avengers. In taking secretive, proactive measures to defend humanity, the Illuminati incidentally bring about the darkest period of Bendis’ Avengers saga.

Humanity’s defenders, humanity’s doom?

That’s all for today. What do you think about New Avengers: the Illuminati? Was the Illuminati right in their actions? Are they just a group of jerks? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter, @book_column, and feel free to share this blog with your friends! Thanks for reading! Check back in tomorrow, when I dive into Bendis’ status quo-changing Secret Invasion!

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