Conspiracy theories would be fun if they weren’t so dangerous sometimes.
As of this writing, we are still in the throes of COVID-19. I am saying it like that because I am hoping very much that by the time this goes out, that will all be over. But… it doesn’t seem likely.
Anyway, there are already so many objectively silly theories around our little pandemic. China created it to weaken Trump’s powerful economy! Trump created it fabricate a crisis in an election year and stay in power! Politics is the best because it allows us to moronically narrow our scope of important matters and assume the other side—those villains!—are behind everything bad.
Then you’ve got your Flat Earthers and your “There is no moon!” folks. The world is run by lizard people! We actually live INSIDE the Earth! Like I said… these are just fun things that you hear about and laugh at and move on with your day.
But sometimes you run into the anti-vaxxers or the people who believe every mass shooting is all crisis actors and propaganda, and… it’s all a bit less fun.
TITLE: New Avengers: Illuminati
Writer and Artist: Brian Michael Bendis and Jim Cheung
Protagonists: Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, Namor, Professor Xavier.
Antagonists: Noh-Varr, Skrulls, The Beyond
One popular conspiracy theory is that there is an Illuminati, a gathering of powerful, influential people shrouded in mystery who direct the movements of everything on Earth (or, at least, in your country of choice). They have so much power that they even, uhh, designed our American one dollar bill (or something).
In the early 2000’s, Marvel took the idea of an Illuminati and applied it directly to their 616 canon by revealing that several seemingly unrelated Marvel heroes had appointed themselves as the secret protectors of the Earth and were making unilateral decisions on behalf of all heroes.
Professor X represented homo superior. Dr. Strange was on behalf of the mystic community. Namor was there as the guardian of the seas. Black Bolt represented the Inhumans. And Tony Stark and Reed Richards headed it up because they are both in love with how smart they are.
In the wake of the reveal, Marvel put out a five issue mini-series detailing the workings of the Illuminati as a lead-in to the Secret Invasion storyline. It is bookended by stories revolving around the Skrulls, showing that the Illuminati’s own post-Kree/Skrull War hubris led Earth directly to the eventual Skrull invasion. After threatening the alien race, they are taken captive and studied, allowing the shapeshifters to gain the ability to make themselves undetectable.
Between those Skrull chapters, the Illuminati spend some time gathering the Infinity Gems, talking Noh-Varr into becoming a hero rather than a Kree terrorist, and discover that The Beyonder is actually an Inhuman.
If Illuminati had been based entirely around the upcoming Secret Invasion storyline, it would probably be better. Or, perhaps, if it was a longer series—maybe 10-12 issues—that intertwined stories about the group throughout Marvel history with seeds of the invasion, it would probably be better. As it stands, issues two, three, and four just feel so extraneous.
In a five issue series, why do we want to waste time setting up future plot threads when we could just be building to a more immediate payoff. It just seems like such a strange exercise to me.
But it is what it is. The Illuminati is hilariously ineffectual in Marvel’s history, from causing World War Hulk to causing Secret Invasion to being unable to rein in The Beyonder, it feels like the entire idea behind them was just to show some well-meaning heroes constantly screwing up because of their own pride. It also continues in the Civil War-era Marvel tradition of making Reed and Tony out to be borderline villainous and moronic. I’ve never been a huge fan of either character, but this era was all about denigrating them.
Reed foolishly gathers the Infinity Gauntlet and gets scolded by The Watcher over it, and then fails in destroying the gems. Tony is the head of it all, but always feels a step behind everyone. For whatever reason, Namor is Bendis’ pet project in the group and is typically the voice of (very angry) reason. He is the one who usually says “We shouldn’t be doing this!”, but they tell him to shut up, and then it ends up that he was right all along.
Bendis is at the helm for this, and there is some typically classic Bendis writing involved. Even when I don’t like his ideas once he gets larger in scope, he still writes clever dialogue. From this series, a discussion between Xavier and Dr. Strange results in one of my new favorite comic book lines: “I can’t get hockey scores on the Astral Plane”. Bendis is so frustrating to me when he ca be both so good AND so bad.
Honestly, your mileage on this will be determined by your love or hate of this weird never-ending-event-stories era of Marvel from the 2000’s and your feelings on Bendis. The art by Cheung is perfectly fine. I enjoyed it a great deal, and he has a style that makes the characters seem both nefarious (when they should be) and sympathetic in other moments.
Talking Point: Who do you think would be on a DC Comics version of an Illuminati?
The art is quite good, and Bendis’ dialogue delivers as usual. Even at a relatively small five issue run, this series feels a bit directionless, and the middle chunk just has a “why are THESE stories here?” rub. Still, as a lead in to Secret Invasion, it works.