This weekend, Marvel fans will finally get the chance to fully explore the Marvel multiverse in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. While much of the film has been kept pretty secret, one interesting surprise from the trailers was the revelation that a new organization would be making the leap from the Avengers comics to the films – The Illuminati.
While the reference to the conspiracy theory suggests that this group has been kicking around since the early days of Marvel comics, the group is a relatively modern creation. Spinning out of the Brian Michael Bendis early 2000’s era New Avengers series, the Illuminati is a bit of a retcon to the history of the Marvel universe that places them in the middle of a lot of major changes the universe would come to see. Now with the group posed to leave a mark on the MCU, here is a look at their history and what to read to get the full story.
The New Avengers: Illuminati #0-5
The first series involving the Illuminati includes the formation of the group: Mister Fantastic, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Charles Xavier, Black Bolt, and Namor the Sub-Mariner. This group forms in response to the Kree-Skrull War, to set these smart and powerful men in a place of self imposed authority to deal with massive threats to the world. If that sounds like a bad idea, Black Panther, who was invited, agrees and refuses membership.
Over the course of the miniseries, the Illuminati meddles in various events in the Marvel universe, with those events laying the groundwork for multiple major events that would play out over the next several years in the overall comics line, events that have been and will continue to be mined for MCU projects. They would be revealed to have inadvertently caused the events of Secret Invasion in particular, almost handing the Marvel Earth completely over to the Skrulls. The series ends, somewhat inevitably, with the Illuminati being unable to trust each other and disbanding. Before long though, they would reform.
Avengers (2010) #7-12
One of the various actions the Illuminati took in their previous outing was to collect the Infinity Gems and give one to each member to safekeep. In this arc of the reformed Avengers main series, low tier character The Hood goes hunting for them after exploiting a missed thread the Illuminati forgot to clean up. Medusa joins the group inadvertently (in place of her husband Black Bolt who was dead at the time) when the others realize they messed up and try to put things right behind the backs of the other Avengers, which backfires.
This arc wraps pretty quickly but does put tension on the relationships between the Illuminati and their fellow heroes who have discovered those working behind their back. Nonetheless this time the group remains formed at the end in order to continue guarding the Infinity Gems and with a new member in tow: Steve Rogers, who was persuaded to play along for now but remains distrusting of the others.
Avengers 2012 #1-44 and New Avengers 2013 #1-33
A couple of years later, writer Jonathan Hickman would take the reins of Avengers and would set in motion a large-scale epic across two series. New Avengers is the primary run that includes the Illuminati, called together by Black Panther when he discovers that the multiverse is beginning to collide with itself. Meanwhile, the main Avengers book seeds other aspects of the larger events of the universe. New Avengers can be read on its own, but both eventually collide and it may help to have both.
Be warned though – New Avengers is bleak. The story is one of powerful men experiencing existential horror and dread, and pushed to be something they don’t want to become. Captain America has to depart the Illuminati pretty early on because of this while Black Bolt rejoins after getting better from being dead and X-Men member Beast subs in for Xavier who also caught a case of being dead during this.
After The Illuminati
Avengers and New Avengers culminate in a modern day version of the classic Secret Wars series originally from the 80’s and also brings the saga of the Illuminati to a close. That event series does not name the Illuminati but does pay off the remaining plot threads from everything before, particularly spinning something worthwhile out of the bleakness of New Avengers.
A post-event series simply called Illuminati would run later in 2015, but was a group of villains led by the aforementioned Hood to try to cloy for power and only uses the name – perhaps to finally separate the name from heroes. That is the last time the name has really appeared in any notable way across the Marvel line.
Overall the story of the Illuminati is a story of heroes overstepping their bounds and trying to force the world into their order. Most of this will likely not directly impact Multiverse of Madness but they are bold takes on familiar characters just like the film promises, if you are curious for more after your trip to the theater.