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Following Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox last week there’s no shortage of new characters, concepts and collaborations that could be developed at Marvel Studios. There’s already been plenty of speculation about how the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and New Avengers could be introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and utilized to tell new types of superhero stories. And when it comes down to it, that’s really what the excitement surrounding these potential new properties is all about from a creative perspective: telling new kinds of superhero stories that can deviate from the traditional beats and familiar territories.
But beyond the introduction of new faces, Marvel Studios has the opportunity to marry the MCU we already know (or think we know) with the bold, new world Marvel boss Kevin Feige has discussed as part of his post-Avengers: Endgame plans. With access to more characters than ever before, it’s time for the MCU to take some of its most popular characters behind the curtain and explore what they do when no one is watching. Enter the Illuminati.
Marvel’s Illuminati, created by Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven, were first introduced in New Avengers No. 7 (2005). The idea behind the Illuminati was to bring together the most powerful and intelligent heroes on Earth to form a small government of superhumans, like a United Nations, protecting the planet from alien threats before they become Earth’s problem. The original group consisted of Iron Man, Mister Fantastic, Namor, Black Bolt, Professor Xavier and Doctor Strange. Though readers didn’t meet the Illuminati until 2005, the magic of comic book retcons placed their formation directly after the Kree-Skrull War, published in The Avengers in 1971 through 1972. Iron Man was the first to realize that each of the individuals that would come to make up the Illuminati shared some prior knowledge of the Kree and the Skrulls, knowledge that could have prevented the conflict from reaching Earth’s doorstep in the first place had they been on terms to share that information.
What’s interesting about Bendis’ depiction of the Illuminati and their formation is that it goes against the notion that these Marvel power players are all friends. Instead, like any political power, the Illuminati are a result of necessity, and alliances are formed out of ulterior motives rather than trust. Iron Man’s initial proposal for a government of superheroes was turned down, with each player citing their reasons why a public governing body wasn’t feasible. As a result, the heroes agree to share information solely with each other in secret meetings, cutting out the rest of the superhero community and letting the respective team-leaders/monarchs provide their teammates and subjects with that information on a need-to-know basis. The only invited hero who refuses to join the Illuminati is Black Panther, who expresses his dissatisfaction with a small group deciding the fate of so many and assures them that disaster will lie in their decisions. One such disaster was the aftermath of the Illuminati’s decision to rid the world of its Hulk problem by shooting him into space (resulting in an angry Hulk returning to wage war on the Earth), and another was Mr. Fantastic’s decision to split the Infinity Gems among each member of the Illuminati, despite the Watcher’s warning that such power would cost them their souls. This warning made good upon when the multiverse collapsed in the 2015 event Secret Wars.
For the most part, Marvel Studios films’ have done a decent job at examining the consequences of superheroes’ actions. But each time those actions and their results have been dealt with publicly, and quickly. The Illuminati is a chance to examine the behavior of some of these characters when no one is looking, and when they don’t have to take public ownership of the consequences, at least not directly or immediately. So placing the Illuminati in contemporary world that reflects our current social climate, one that desires the transparency of high-powered individuals, and takes pleasure in cancel culture, could provide a means to explore these powerful people in a new and political light, not entirely unlike what Warner Bros. did with its ahead-of-its-time DC entry, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But whereas Superman never did imply he knew what was best for humanity, the Illuminati could, and should. In the aftermath of Thanos’ decimation it would make sense for humanity to turn to superheroes to save them and protect them from the attention they’ve stirred up in the universe. And in turn, it makes sense for those heroes, despite their best intentions, to abuse that power as a result. Even without Iron Man to lead the charge, presuming that he’ll be off the playing board after Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has plenty of other characters waiting in the wings who could decide the fate of Earth’s position in the cosmos.
We’ve already got Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the table, and characters once controlled by Fox including Mr. Fantastic, Namor and Charles Xavier seem certain to show up within the next five years. The Inhumans character Black Bolt seems like less of a sure thing if Marvel Studios doesn’t take the opportunity to ignore the TV series and reboot the property. But a member of The Eternals — Sersi or Ikaris — who are likely to debut in the upcoming Chloe Zhao-directed film, could easily take Black Bolt’s place as the leader of a race of super-powered people. As for Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), he should turn down a seat at the table for the same reasons he did in the comics initially. His sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) should secretly accept his seat instead, providing the technological insight that Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would have, and the royal authority that Black Panther in his role of diplomat can’t. Plus the idea of Shuri having this seat of power behind her brother’s back would pave the way for the prominent role she’s taken in the comics, and as the successor to the throne of Wakanda. And let’s be honest, as cool as the comics’ original Illuminati was, the idea that the most powerful players on Earth are all men doesn’t sit well.
So what could lead this secret group to come together? Well, it seems reasonable to expect that even if Thanos is defeated in Avengers: Endgame, the indestructible Infinity Stones will still be out there somewhere. Thus, the Illuminati’s mission could be to track down the stones and save them for a rainy day so to speak, like the coming of Galactus or the multiverse incursions. But can they resist using those stones to reshape reality? Could Xavier use the Reality Stone to forcibly create peace between human and mutants, or Namor the Power Stone to bring Atlantis to prominence once more? What if Doctor Strange realizes that Earth magic is not enough and uses the Space Stone to travel the cosmos in search of a new source of mystical power? The Illuminati don’t even have to have a film of their own for them to work. They could be subplots within movies, or teased post-credit scene. But ultimately the Illuminati’s presence could set the stage for the MCU’s next great conflict, especially should the organization crumble and turn against each other’s methods. Such an event, incited by the withholding of information and the abuse of power, could set the stage for the MCU’s next big event like Avengers vs. X-Men or the Wakanda/Atlantis War. While we’ve been expecting the Avengers’ next great threat to arise from their roster of villains, perhaps the greatest initial threat to superheroes is their own power when left unchecked. That sounds like an equation where some green-cloaked figure could quietly slip into a position of power with the promise of a better tomorrow and wrath that leaves Earth’s mightiest heroes doomed.
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