The latest Marvel movie, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, promises a lot of, well, madness—but some in particular that has had fans heating up with possibilities ever since the first trailer is the arrival of the Illuminati to the MCU, one of the 21st century’s most fascinating comics supergroups. Here’s what you need to know before you—and Stephen Strange—meet them later this week.
First introduced by Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven in the pages of 2005's New Avengers #7, but retroactively established to have existed in the vast, convoluted history of Marvel’s superhero comics for years—in particular, it was meant to have first been formed in the aftermath of the Kree-Skrull war, as depicted in the Avengers story arc of that name in Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, and John Buscema’s run in the early 1970s. Functionally a secret society outside of any other particular superteam in Marvel’s pantheon, the Illuminati was created by, of course, the Marvel universe’s smart asshole du jour: the one and only Tony Stark, aka Iron Man.
In the wake of the devastation wrought by the Kree and Skrull’s interstellar conflict, Tony reached out to some of the smartest heroes in the Marvel universe, and offered a deal: individually, each of these figures had information or had been able to plan for the possibility of an alien attack on Earth by the Kree and Skrull’s conflicts, information that, if shared, could’ve stopped at least some of the collateral damage. Unable to act on that information on their own or with their respective super-teams, that preparation was wasted, so Tony figured... why not form their own governing body and treat superheroes like the citizens of a community of nations?
It’s... an idea. And, frankly, none of the heroes that Tony reaches out to think that superheroes getting their own United Nations would do anything but create a diplomatic nightmare. Everyone turns him down, but instead of completely pooh-poohing Tony’s idea, they decide to instead form a secret group to exchange information about potential threats to the Earth on a regular basis, and figure out plans to deal with those threats without the internal team politics of groups like the Avengers having to be involved. That is, everyone except one person Tony reached out to: Black Panther, who respectfully looked at Tony’s team and went “Yeah, I’m not getting involved with that drama,” anticipating that the clash of egos could prove disastrous, and that any ideas to pre-empt threats the Illuminati could offer would no doubt prove almost as much of a headache as the threats themselves.
He... was kind of right, actually.
So that’s why it was set up, but who formed the Illuminati? Well, obviously the first is Tony Stark, Iron Man, who came up with the idea in the first place. Almost everyone else Tony initially reached out to after the Kree-Skrull War agreed to join: Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four and of course one of the smartest people in the Marvel Universe; Professor Charles Xavier, to represent the will of mutantkind; Namor, not just for his status as the king of the highly advanced Atlantean civilization but for his ruthlessness; Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans, another royal representative but also crucial given the Inhumans’ connection to the Kree; and, of course, Doctor Stephen Strange, not just the Earth’s pre-eminent user of magic, but also a representation of the world of mystics among the group. As we said before, the group’s third royal, Black Panther, was meant to join the group to represent Wakandan interests and leverage the nation’s own technological and surveillance prowess, he delivered a swift hard pass when offered. Eventually however, T’Challa did join the group for a time, alongside Beast, aka Henry “Hank” McCoy, who replaced Xavier after he died during the events of Avengers vs. X-Men (he got better).
When it comes to the MCU version of this team we’re going to meet in Multiverse of Madness, only a few explicit members have been teased. TV spots and trailers for the movie have teased that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo has some kind of association with the Illuminati, and we’ve heard and briefly glimpsed an appearance from Patrick Stewart as Professor X, complete with a very retro-looking X-Men: The Animated Series style hoverchair. Also teased with a potential for membership: Hayley Atwell’s Captain Peggy Carter, an alternate universe version of the former Agent of SHIELD who, in her reality, was given the supersoldier serum rather than Steve Rogers. We met her in What If?, where she helped form her own pan-multiversal superteam with the help of the Watcher, but this would mark her live action debut. Briefly glimpsed in trailers as well, but with even less of a potential idea for Illuminati membership: an alternate Captain Marvel, seemingly Maria Rambeau—and played by Captain Marvel’s Lashana Lynch—has been seen fighting Wanda Maximoff in trailers, but their role in the movie is currently hazy, so it’s uncertain if she’s connected or not.
So aside from information sharing, the Illuminati has attempted several times in the comics to use their intelligence, foresight, and a certain lack of moral fortitude to surreptitiously alter what they perceive as upcoming threats. Not all of these actions were successful. Shortly after the Kree-Skrull war ended the group traveled to the Skrull homeworld to warn the species about tangling with Earth, only to be captured for a period—with their eventual escape after interrogation and analysis eventually laying the road for the Skrulls to conduct their infiltration of Earth in Secret Invasion years later, for example.
The Illuminati, given their secret nature, have had many links connected to seemingly unrelated events across their appearances in the comics beyond this—it’s the Illuminati who formed the plan to jettison a wild Hulk into outer space (and faced the consequences in part in the events of World War Hulk, when Bruce/Hulk returned to Earth), and Tony Stark first floated his plans for what would become Civil War’s Superhuman Registration Act to the council before it was eventually enacted. The Illuminati once helped Reed Richards gather the six Infinity Gems in an attempt to will them out of existence, and when that failed, each member became responsible for safeguarding one of the artifacts to avoid them falling into the wrong hands again.
But perhaps the most interesting plotline for the Illuminati is also the one that could have some intriguing ramifications for the MCU’s current multiversal trend. During Jonathan Hickman’s run as the writer of New Avengers in 2012, the Illuminati became the main team of that series—now with Black Panther joining them and Professor X replaced with Hank McCoy/Beast—as a prelude to the events of the Marvel-wide continuity re-shuffle Secret Wars in 2015. New Avengers saw T’Challa approach the Illuminati with knowledge that could threaten the entire multiverse—realities were colliding with each other, wiping themselves out, and it wouldn’t be long before their own Earth would meet a similar dire fate in an event known as an Incursion.
It’s the Illuminati who initially attempted to safeguard Earth, first by recruiting Steve Rogers to wield the recombined Infinity Gauntlet to hold back an Earth threatening an Incursion—only for all but the Time Gem to be destroyed in the process, and for Steve to very rightly go “what the HELL, you assholes?” about the whole endeavor of destroying entire worlds to save their own, only to have his mind wiped by a spell from Dr. Strange. As the Incursion threat grew worse, however, the Illuminati splintered—Namor got ousted from the group for using an antimatter weapon to wipe out one reality when Black Panther refused to, eventually attempting to be a double agent with his own Incursion-preventing group of villains, the Cabal. The remaining Illuminati were being hunted down by the Avengers after Steve’s memory of his brief involvement was restored during the events of Original Sin.
The Illuminati essentially dissolves when the Ultimate and 616 Marvel universes collided with each other in the events of Secret Wars, wiping out both realities save for a handful of heroes, including Mister Fantastic and Black Panther, who rode out the destruction in a life pod that transported them to the fractured multiversal reality known as Battleworld. When the universe was rebuilt to set the stage for Marvel’s “All-New, All-Different” lineup, the Illuminati vanished into the ether—yet to be reformed since the events of Secret Wars, outside of a knockoff team of supervillains by Hood that included Black Ant, the Enchantress, Mad Thinker, Thunderball, and Titania.
Based on their role in New Avengers, the Illuminati as some sort of morally dubious police force for preventing Multiversal disaster could be very interesting in the current state of the MCU. Phase 4 has seen the concept of the multiverse expand and explode on a scale unlike anything before in the MCU’s timeline, with shows like Loki and What If?, and movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home and now Multiverse of Madness, all setting the stage for not just the very existence of these parallel realities, but the idea that their exponential growth and exposure to the “prime” reality we’ve known for over a decade of movies could eventually be a threat.
It makes sense then, that the MCU’s Illuminati could be made up of heroes from across multiple realities, instead of the singular “prime” that the team was built up from in the comics. Just how much of the Illuminati as both a team and an idea after Multiverse of Madness will persist remains to be seen—it’s possible that the team we meet in the new Doctor Strange movie is a one-and-done thing, and not a new lingering facet of the ever-expanding MCU multiverse. We’ll have to wait until Friday, May 6, to find out for sure.
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