The MCU now has an Illuminati.
Well… had an Illuminati, as nearly the entire team was wiped out by the Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, now streaming on Disney Plus.
As viewers of the film know, the MCU version of the secret squad of heroes dedicated to making impossible decisions to preserve the Multiverse consisted of the MCU Earth-838 versions of Charles Xavier, the Inhuman leader Black Bolt, Captain Marvel (Maria Rambeau), Captain Peggy Carter, Baron Mordo, and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four – at least till Wanda Maximoff gave everyone but Mordo gruesome onscreen deaths in her pursuit of America Chavez.
And as readers of Marvel Comics know, the version of the team and its mission shown in Multiverse of Madness look just a bit different in the MCU than in the Marvel Universe of comic books.
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Along with Professor Charles Xavier, there are five other original Illuminati members in comics, and their hidden actions in the Marvel Universe involve everything from capturing the Infinity Stones to taking on the cosmic being the Beyonder.
In the real world, the term ‘Illuminati’ has come to represent any number of supposed high-powered secret societies which, in many popular conspiracy theories, manipulate aspects of global society from behind the scenes.
But in the Marvel Universe, this conspiracy theory is taken to a whole new level, first by making it a concrete part of Marvel continuity, but also by elevating the group from being a secretive cabal of shadowy figures to being a conglomeration of six of Marvel’s most powerful heroes who secretly undertake dangerous and world-threatening missions to ensure the stability of their reality.
And what great and terrible deeds have the Illuminati of Marvel Comics done? We’ll break it down right now.
Who are the Illuminati?
The original Marvel Universe group known as the Illuminati were brought together by Iron Man in the wake of the ‘Kree/Skrull War (opens in new tab)‘ storyline, first as a sort of ‘think tank’ composed to try and form what Tony Stark calls a kind of “superhero government,” based around his realization that the heroes of Earth could have done much more to prevent the Kree/Skrull War’s impact had they been more communicative about their collective encounters with the Kree and Skrull empires.
This initial meeting, shown retroactively in 2007’s New Avengers #7 (opens in new tab), includes Stark, Xavier (leader of the X-Men), Reed Richards-Mister Fantastic, Doctor Strange (Sorcerer Supreme), Namor the Sub-Mariner (King of Atlantis), Black Bolt (King of the Inhumans), and Black Panther (King of Wakanda).
Though the group refuses Stark’s idea of a superhero bureaucracy (which he later somewhat enacts in the story ‘Civil War (opens in new tab)‘ as the Super-Human Registration Act), all those present but Black Panther agree that they should remain in contact to exchange information and coordinate their actions. Black Panther refuses, stating his belief that such a group is likely to quickly overstep its intended bounds in potentially harmful ways.
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Unfortunately, T’Challa is proven somewhat right as the years go by. Through the course of the New Avengers: Illuminati (opens in new tab) limited series, the group first begins meeting to exchange information, as stated, but they quickly begin undertaking their own missions and operations in secret – with most of the group’s biggest manipulations eventually backfiring on them.
Though a full list of the Illuminati’s attempted – and backfired – manipulations of the Marvel Universe would take an exhaustive amount of time, their ‘greatest hits’ spell out the kind of impact they’ve had on the events of Marvel continuity.
- A failed mission among the Skrulls leads to the Skrulls developing the power to shape-shift undetected, resulting in the story Secret Invasion (opens in new tab).
- Hulk is exiled to the planet Sakaar in the story Planet Hulk (opens in new tab), only to return to Earth and wreak havoc in a quest for vengeance against the Illuminati in World War Hulk.
- The Illuminati attempts to re-empower the secret hero the Sentry while purging him of his villainous dark side the Void, instead opening him up to manipulation by Norman Osborn and the destruction of Asgard (more on that momentarily).
- Reed Richards assembles the Infinity Stones in an attempt to destroy them, but instead gains the ire of the Watcher, forcing the members of the Illuminati to each safeguard one of the stones (Stark gets the Reality Stone, Xavier gets the Mind Stone, Namor gets the Time Stone, Black Bolt gets the Space Stone, Strange gets the Soul Stone, and Reed himself takes the Power Stone).
- The Illuminati intervenes in the events of both the original Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars (opens in new tab) and its sequel Secret Wars II (opens in new tab) to try and defeat the all-powerful Beyonder without the other heroes ever knowing. Though they fail the first time, their second attempt is somewhat successful.
That last bit with the Beyonder, despite involving some odd story beats that contradicted established continuity and were later rewritten or ignored themselves, actually sets off a chain of events that ultimately leads to nothing less than the full-on death and rebirth of Marvel’s entire Multiverse.
But before that, the Illuminati themselves would undergo something of a death and rebirth, with the original group disbanding during the events of Civil War, with members of the group winding up split between the separate factions of the conflict and its aftermath.
The Illuminati wouldn’t stay dormant – or hidden – for long, as their previous mistake with the Infinity Stones would be the catalyst for their return and the exposure of their secrets to the Marvel Universe at large.
The Illuminati in the Marvel Universe
As many of the great scientific minds of Marvel’s Illuminati can attest, one of the first rules of physics states that for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction – and in the case of the Illuminati, that philosophical principle holds true.
Following the one-two punch of Civil War and Secret Invasion, Norman Osborn becomes the head of a new SHIELD-type organization which he dubs HAMMER – and which he quickly starts using toward his own nefarious ends.
Along with becoming leader of HAMMER and taking up the identity of Iron Patriot to form his own Dark Avengers team, Osborn forms his own secret society of supervillains (DC, please don’t sue me!) including Doctor Doom, the Hood, Loki (then in her guise as a woman), Emma Frost, and, strangely enough, Namor – who was still technically part of the then dwindling Illuminati at the same time.
The machinations of this so-called Cabal lead to the story Siege (opens in new tab), in which a plan to install Loki as king of Asgard, which was then floating high above the town of Broxton, Oklahoma as its own sovereign city-state as opposed to existing in its own separate plane of reality. Instead, Osborn uses his Dark Avengers, particularly the Sentry (who as we mentioned was inadvertently brought into Osborn’s fold by the Illuminati themselves), to destroy Asgard and send it crashing to the ground when his plans of conquest fail.
This is where some of the Illuminati’s failures start to come back into the picture, and the group is forced to come back together and overcome the split caused by Civil War.
In the aftermath of the disbanding of Osborn’s Cabal, the Hood (a supervillain gangster who wears a demon-possessed cloak) began using the demonic power of his cloak to assemble the Infinity Stones that were once hidden by the Illuminati into his own Infinity Gauntlet. Naturally, this forces the Illuminati to come back together – and more so, forces them to reveal not just their existence but also their manipulations to the rest of Marvel’s heroes.
Though the Hood is defeated, the Illuminati’s mistakes come home to roost with the rest of the heroes mistrusting the group members for new reasons – while Black Bolt, then presumed dead, is replaced in the Illuminati by his queen Medusa, and Captain America is brought into the fold as the new guardian of the Space Stone.
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This kicks off a new wave of macrocosmic problems for the Illuminati, starting with Avengers vs. X-Men (opens in new tab), in which Namor is possessed by the Phoenix Force along with several other mutants, resulting in the death of Professor X and new fractures among the heroes of the Marvel Universe.
Meanwhile, those metaphorical fractures in the Marvel Universe also start to become literal, as a series of events known as ‘Incursions’ begin to cause the various realities of Marvel’s Multiverse to literally collide with each other and be destroyed.
To investigate solutions to the problem, a new Illuminati is formed by, ironically, Black Panther; this time consisting of Captain America, Iron Man, Black Bolt, Namor, Doctor Strange, and Beast of the X-Men who inherited Xavier’s place on the team after his death in Avengers vs. X-Men.
After a series of failed attempts to prevent these ‘Incursions’ between other worlds before they reach the Marvel 616 Universe (opens in new tab), the Illuminati finally manages to stop one of the events when Captain America uses the Infinity Gauntlet to separate the worlds as they collide. However, this comes at great cost, as the Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity Stones are destroyed in the process.
Left with no other options, the Illuminati begin building a doomsday device that can destroy other realities before they collide with the core Marvel Universe – though Captain America objects to any plan that involves being directly responsible for destroying a whole Universe, even to save their own. As a result, Captain America is temporarily mindwiped by the group, with his memories of all their past deeds erased from his consciousness.
Cap did eventually remember all the things the Illuminati did, including mindwiping him. And though this does reignite tensions among the Avengers, it’s too late to stop what’s coming. The Illuminati ultimately fail to stop the Incursions, which are revealed to be the work of an omnipotent race known as the Beyonders, connected to the Illuminati’s old foe of the same name.
Only Doctor Doom is able to stop every single Marvel reality from being destroyed altogether, using his combined mastery of science and magic, and the reality manipulating power of Owen Reese the Molecule Man to assemble Battleworld, a conglomeration of the scraps of numerous Marvel realities which Doom was able to save. The result is the 2015/16 Secret Wars (opens in new tab) revival story in which Marvel’s entire Multiverse is destroyed and rebuilt – that whole ‘death and rebirth of the Multiverse’ we mentioned.
Since then, the Illuminati hasn’t come back together (as far as readers and the people in the Marvel Universe know) – though there’s always the chance we’ll someday learn of new secret adventures and manipulations that have occurred behind the scenes as with the group’s initial introduction.
The Illuminati in the MCU
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness presented one version of the Illuminati, the version from Earth-838 of the MCU Multiverse, to be exact. And in fact, in their world, the Illuminati are the ones who name realities, with Earth-838 Christine Palmer, a consultant for the group, explaining they named the core Marvel Universe Earth-616.
(Nevermind that the TVA supposedly also come up with these designations, per Loki – that’s the madness of the Multiverse).
In their universe, the Illuminati once included Doctor Strange, until he went mad with Multiversal power and caused an Incursion, defined in the MCU as a break in the barrier between realities (with similar definitions in comic books).
This led the Illuminati to do what they always do, and make the impossible decision to kill Doctor Strange as a way to correct the break between realities.
Incidentally, the MCU Earth-616 Doctor Strange also caused an Incursion, as revealed by Clea in the film’s mid-credits scene – perhaps through his actions in Spider-Man: No Way Home – though he (or at least whatever third-eye version of him is seen at the end) seems to have better options to clean up the mess than his Illuminati counterpart.
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Of course, after Multiverse of Madness, there’s practically no Earth-838 Illuminati left, with only Baron Mordo’s death not shown onscreen, though we can’t rule out any fate for him including survival.
That little glimmer of hope means that Earth-838 could still have heroes – and since Earth-616 Stephen Strange has now discovered the concept, the seed has been potentially planted in the main MCU as well.
What does it all mean? With the MCU Illuminati an apparent dead end for the moment (pun intended, Sam Raimi style), we’re left to wonder about the Incursion caused by the core MCU Doctor Strange, which will likely become a relevant plot point sooner than later.
In comic books, when Earth-616 began suffering incursions, it led to the Multiverse remaking Secret Wars event – and that’s a name that’s been on the lips of some big Marvel Studios names in recent years.
Joe and Anthony Russo, directors of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, have stated their desire to direct a Secret Wars adaptation that escalates the concepts of their previous Avengers films – and we could be in the lead-up to that very ambition.
Want to know more about the history of characters and story points in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Then check out our guides to:
- America Chavez – the Marvel Comics history of Doctor Strange 2’s powerful new teen hero
- Clea – the Marvel history of Doctor Strange’s wife and new Sorcerer Supreme
- How the Marvel Universe became a Multiverse and got the name “Earth-616”
- Wanda Maximoff the Scarlet Witch has a new Marvel comic book status quo
- The best Wanda Maximoff – Scarlet Witch stories of all time
- The Darkhold – Marvel’s book of dark magic explained
- Gargantos – the Doctor Strange 2 monster’s complicated Marvel history explained