Storytelling Failures – Marvel’s Illuminati

This is an odd hybrid rant.  One side of the mash-up is the utter failure of the stories involving Marvel’s Illuminati (thus far) and the other side is the mash-up is that this is a retcon that I, were I tyrant-in-chief, would have not allowed under any circumstances and probably would have chewed out the writer(s)/editor(s) who suggested it.

By the way, this is spawned because the company that runs Marvel’s subscription service is fairly terrible and this is the third time my friend with the subscription has received a comic he is not technically signed up to receive.  Third.  In two years.  Yeah.  So this time instead of Ultimate Spider-man, he got New Avengers #1, which is misleading on pretty much every level.  It’s not #1; according to the recap page it’s actually #16.  It’s also not the New Avengers that I’ve discussed before and the group is not in fact even Avengers but the Illuminati.  It’s also not even new because this set of comics is up to issue #3.  That’s a lot of fail, especially considering this is not even the comic my friend subscribed to!

So, time for some backstory.  There are reasons I dropped Marvel, and this dumbass retcon was one of them.  Oh, yes, while I usually try to be measured in my criticisms and often regret being too sharp (still sorry about the Superior Spider-man thing, but how was I supposed to know the end goal was to bring Peter Parker back?), this is not one of those times.  I find the concept of the Illuminati to be so detrimental to the characters, the stories, hell, the very fabric of Marvel’s 616 continuity, I will be much less than measured…  Also, this will be long.  Long and ranty.

So anyway, a bunch of things tend to happen in Marvel that should attract the attention of certain people and never seem to.  This is both a plothole but also a fact that is almost necessary for suspension of disbelief.  Apparently, people who write comics picked up on the obvious plothole of people not talking to each other and apparently didn’t understand that is not a plothole to pick at.  They should have watched the ST:TNG episode “Tapestry;” it’s not a perfect analogue, but sometimes picking at loose threads in the continuity causes the whole damn thing to unravel, which is kind of what happened here.  While I do indeed complain that an alien invasion in the Fantastic Four should damn well get the Avengers involved, for many of the stories the fact that such groups tend to not talk to each other is the only way to believe the outcome.

Anyway, long story short (too late) Marvel writer Bendis (whom I normally like but wow do good writers sometimes make horrendous mistakes), got the task of fixing the universe, which in this case meant explaining why the hell Reed Richards never talked to Charles Xavier who never talked to Stephen Strange and so on despite the fact they logically should have.  Via a retcon in 2005, suddenly the Illuminati, a group consisting of Prof X, Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, Blackbolt, Dr. Strange, and Namor, had existed since right after the Kree-Skrull War (abouts 1971-1972 in real time).  So this means over thirty years of comic book history was suddenly retconned to have had this group existing all the time and doing whatever it is that they do.  And what did they do?  F*#k up royal is what they do.  Here’s a brief summary of events that actually impact Universe 616.

1) They meet and decide that such men of power and benevolence should try to talk to each other and prevent another war like the Kree-Skrull War, but in secret, because that’s in no way what villains do.  Initially Black Panther is invited, but he basically tells them they’re being self-righteous [Denis Learys] and that heroes totally do not meet in secret to decide the fate of the world.  He leaves, and the others continue to secretly meet because clearly they are not villains, right?

2) They decide to go to the Skrull Empire and show off how badass they are to convince the skrulls to never invade Earth.  They promptly get themselves captured, tortured, and experimented on, until they finally escape, leaving the Skrulls with much more intelligence on the defenses of Earth than they had before that little stunt.  Spoiler alert!  This did not turn out well.

3) Tried to stop the Beyonder and the Secret Wars II.  Spoiler alert – it totally did not work.  Also, the writers of that set of stories apparently couldn’t be bothered to read the original Secret Wars II and consequently had numerous continuity errors.  Spoiler alert!  This is a trend with the Illuminati.

4) Tried to convince Marvel Boy, a Kree warrior, to protect Earth instead of take it over.  Shockingly, this worked.  It’s pretty much the only thing that did, and honestly it should not have taken Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Prof X, Blackbolt, and Namor to convince this kid to be a hero.

5) The Sentry is retconned into existence and they discuss the matter and Iron Man decides the Avengers will take him into their fold.  Spoiler alert!  This does not turn out well, although I concede this may not have been their fault.

6) After the Hulk smashes up a whole bunch of stuff (as he is wont to do), including Las Vegas, Iron Man tells the group (minus Prof X) that they should shoot the Hulk into space and maroon him on a deserted planet.  Namor is the only person who dissents.  Namor.  Yeah, Namor, the guy who periodically decides to destroy/conquer the surface world.  Namor, the anti-hero, is the only one who thinks it’s wrong do this action and he stands by his principles and leaves over it.  NAMOR.  Well, the others shoot the Hulk into space.  Spoiler alert!  This also does not turn out well, and it is absolutely and completely their fault.

7) Despite dissolving the group over Iron Man starting Civil War, for some reason Mr. Fantastic, who has been collecting Infinity Gems (don’t know how the Infinity Watch felt about that), gives them to his former best buddies to protect them.

8) Hey, remember that time the Illuminati shot the Hulk into space and marooned him on a deserted planet?  Well, it wasn’t deserted because the geniuses couldn’t get the shuttle to hit the right planet, and after some contrivance, Hulk heads back to Earth for revenge!  Because that’s totally what heroes do!  And instead of you know, taking responsibility for being totally unheroic douche-bags, the Illuminati end up in a big fight that managed to destroy everyone’s characters.  Except Namor, because he told the Illuminati where to stick it in the first place.  (Note – I think “World War Hulk” is an epic fail of storytelling too)

9) Hey, remember that time the Illuminati decided to preen and posture and warn the Skrull Empire that they were total badasses and instead got their idiot selves captured like chumps?  Yeah, well, with all that extra intelligence the Skrulls invaded Earth, secretly.  It sucked.

10) Hey, remember that time when Mr. Fantastic gave all his best buddies the Infinity Gems to guard?  So, naturally, someone came after those gems.  It sucked, especially since the baddie was a C-list arcanist (I don’t care who was possessing him) and shouldn’t have been a real problem.  This set of events ended with Captain America being given custody of a gem.  That actually was a good idea.  Sadly, one of the few this brain trust has come up with.

11) So in the issue I just read, apparently a bunch of universes are colliding and this could be the end of 616.  Black Panther (remember, the guy who wisely said “screw this!” at the beginning) loses all common sense (or is subject to a dumbass “creative team”) and decides to get the band back together!  You know, the one he was part of for like five minutes before he realized how stupid the idea was.  And he gets all of them, even Namor.  Well, except Prof X, since he is dead and has had his brain eaten by the Red Skull, so he’s replaced with Beast.

I’d like to pause a moment and point out of this group (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Namor, Blackbolt, Mr. Fantastic, Beast, Black Panther), five of them have been or are Avengers, but they’re still not Avengers!!!

Anyway, to try to prevent the worlds from colliding, they try the Infinity Gauntlet, which doesn’t work (because the Living Tribunal said it would never work again, but apparently the writers didn’t actually know that because who could be bothered to read up on the continuity and just declared it didn’t work or else there would be no plot).  All the Gems are destroyed (which they can’t be) except the Time Gem and Captain America is rightfully upset about the whole existence of the Illuminati.  Naturally, as perhaps the only hero (big damn or otherwise) left in the Marvel universe, Cap attempts to convince them that they are wrong and so Iron Man asks Dr. Strange to wipe Cap’s memory of meeting the Illuminati, and Dr. Strange is totally okay with that, because heroes absolutely wipe the minds of other heroes to hide the existence of their secret and totally not villainous club.  Based on my knowledge of narrative structure, and the history of the Illuminati thus far, I predict this will not go well, and it will be their own damn fault.

12) And then there’s all the stuff the Illuminati didn’t do, which if not spelled out is implied by their very existence.  Every major event that occurred between their retcon and the present that they utterly failed to prevent – The Korvac Saga, the Phoenix Saga, the Dark Phoenix Saga, Inferno, the Nefaria Trilogy, Days of Future Past, the Trial of Magneto, Avengers Under Siege, Acts of Vengeance, the Phalanx Covenant, Operation: Galactic Storm, and so on and so forth.  All those major events happened despite, in theory, the Illuminati existing and, you know, talking to each other to prevent such things from happening.

Intermission – I’m going to take a moment here to quell my rage by slamming my forehead into something hard until the pain goes away or slamming back shots until the pain goes away.  Either way, I should feel better, by which I mean not on the verge of a Hulk-like rampage, not that I feel better about this [expletive] mess.

Storytelling Failures:
The two biggest failures with this whole concept are character and plot.
Character – I know that people have different character amalgams, but the Illuminati does not fit the character of any of the men involved, except maybe Namor.
a) This is NOT heroic – Yeah, so heroes don’t typically get together for secret meetings to discuss the fate of the world.  That’s kind of a Legion of Doom or Masters of Evil sort of thing.  So the only person that makes any sense to be in this kind of shadowy and morally ambiguous group is, well, Namor.

b) Dumbass! – For this to exist, all of these men would have to exercise the kind of poor judgment more typical of a caffiene-addled, hormone-crazed teenager, and that’s a bit insulting to caffiene-addled, hormone-crazed teenagers.  Sure, let’s barge into the homeworld of the Skrull Empire to show off what kind of badasses we are!  That’s totally a good idea!

c) Incompetent! – Not only are they all arrogant, terrible people, they are utterly, completely, and unbelievably incompetent!  These are people who regularly save the world and yet apparently can’t prevent terrible things from happening and cause more terrible things to happen.  Their incompetence is so complete I’m left wondering how the hell they ever saved the world to all!

Plot –
a) Unraveling the tapestry – This concept only creates plotholes.  Huge, gaping, universe-breaking plotholes.  For example, it is the job of the Sorcerer Supreme to stop magical, extra-dimensional incursions into the universe.  But for those of you unfamiliar with the Inferno, it was, briefly, a magical, extra-dimensional incursion into the universe.  The X-men stopped and Dr. Strange was nowhere to be found.  The cause of the problem was the demon-sorceress Magik.  Now, by the tenuous logic of the universe before the retcon, which is that these people don’t talk to each other, a reader could assume Strange was absent for an event he obviously should have been present for because he was off tending to some other magical, extra-dimensional incursion (so, you know, Tuesday).  But once it has been established that Xavier knows Strange, there is no logical reason why he wasn’t involved.  Because, logically, Xavier should have called in Strange for help the minute he realized Magik was a demon-sorceress.  Whether or not this would have actually prevented Inferno I don’t know, but it does make a giant gaping plothole that this was never even addressed.  And that’s just one of many examples.
b) Been there, done that – Also, heroes acting like villains?  Ooooo!!  That’s so original and has never been done before and I hope the sarcasm is screamingly obvious.  Was that really the best they could come up with in 2005?
c) Made it worse – They caused huge, earth-shattering, terrible crises!  The retcon of the Skrull Empire bluff just made the skrulls more determined to take over Earth.  Flinging the Hulk into space directly led to World War Hulk!  Did Marvel really think it needed the heroes to f@#k up this royal to create drama?

1) What narrative possibilities are created with the retcon of the Illuminati?
a) Retconning events that were unexplainable, or merely unexplained.
b) New stories featuring them.

2) What narrative possibilities are eliminated with this retcon?
a) The ones already presented for the 30-some odd years of events.
b) Closing up loopholes without this retcon.

3) What are the consequences in the larger universe?
a) The members of the Illuminati are no longer heroes.
b) The members of the Illuminati are $#*&ing idiots who cause huge problems like World War Hulk, do not even try to prevent problems like Inferno, and basically fail at every effort to improve the world.  They didn’t even prevent another alien invasion!

4) How does this retcon effect all events subsequent to the Kree-Skrull War?
a) The members of the Illuminati are no longer heroes.
b) The members of the Illuminati are #@$!ing IDIOTS.

In short – Is this narratively necessary?  NO!  No no no no no no no no NOOOOO!  The universe was fine without the Illuminati, plotholes and all.  This retcon actively made the universe worse!

I-I just don’t understand.  I see the kernal of an idea that someone thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”  But the execution is an utter failure.  I can see this working if the Marvel Bullpen had come up with it in 1972.  Was this an effort to address the obvious plothole that these people should have been talking to each other all along?  Trying to shoehorn in a retcon of this magnitude is ridiculous, and the result is ridiculous, and I have difficulty understanding how the “creative team” didn’t see the obvious pitfalls of doing this.  I can also see the appeal of the idea of all these heroes turned villain even if that’s overdone.  But the Illuminati are incompetent.  Why take some of the most important people (and generally competent heroes) and turn them into bumbling morons?  The way these stories play out is almost more of a farce or satire of the idea of Illuminati.  Is there a joke here I’m just not getting?

This isn’t a failure like One More Day.  That was a self-contained story with fairly minor ripples in continuity (although oddly it also made a whole bunch of otherwise awesome people impotent failures).  But the idea of the Illuminati is a Pandora’s Box of fail.  As shown with the brief summary that’s been presented in this rant, there is no end to the damage that can be done.  With the Illuminati in theory existing since 1972, and incorporating characters from every major Marvel title, nothing that’s been written is safe from further meddling through this mechanism.  Any story that has already been written can be modified or completely undone.  And the result of trying to use the Illuminati to write a new story is equally problematic as evidenced by “World War Hulk.”

Seriously, what is even the hell?  What the @#$%ity #@$% was the Bullpen thinking when this idea was approved?  Where did it start and how did it end up this parade of failure and suckitude?  How could nobody see the damage this was inflicting on legacy characters and the continuity of the universe (which already has as many holes as Swiss cheese)?  What was the benefit supposed to be?  New stories?  Then tell NEW stories goddamn it and quit retconning old ones.  And tell good stories, not ludicrous revenge fantasies starring a villain Hulk as a God-mode Gary Stu.

There is not enough *facepalm.*  There is not enough *headdesk.*  There is not enough booze.  I have no words to describe how much of a failure the Marvel Illuminati is from a storytelling standpoint and from a retcon standpoint.  When a writer lacks the words to describe something, that demonstrates how serious the problem is.  I can think of words – fail, incompetent, stupid, dumbass, [expletive], waste, moronic, idiotic, poorly thought-out, ill-conceived, terrible, awful, illogical, inconsistent, horrible, contrived…

But all of these seem inadequate.  Frankly, I find this kind of thing to be symptomatic of a larger issue in the two big comic book companies – a complete lack of respect for internal logic and story consistency.  In other words, this was badly written.  And while I know there were ways to write the plot of OMD in a way that wouldn’t have been a complete failure (although I would have still hated it), I don’t think there was any way this could have worked.

In short, I think the Illuminati was an unworkable, bad idea from the start that was made worse through bad writing.  I also think no amount of good writing could possibly make up for the bad premise.

Hey, I just found the right word to describe this: UGH.

Yeah.  Just… UGH.

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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

7 thoughts on “Storytelling Failures – Marvel’s Illuminati”

  1. I kinda wonder if the fact that the Illuminati screwed everything up was the point. Look at the original line-up: It’s a bunch of rich white men. No women there, the only person of colour who was even invited opted out, and they’re all rich. Two of them are actual kings (one of them king of a culture that uses slave labour).

    So this group of rich white guys gets together and decides to secretly save the world. And almost everything they do goes badly. They just screw things up worse and worse.

    I don’t know if Bendis intended that social commentary, but it sure seems that way, doesn’t it?

    Add to that the fact that we know that the various members clearly didn’t always go to each other for help. Of course Xavier never talked to Strange about Illyana – Illyana is Xavier’s student, and he could help her himself. These are all men of pride and ego, and none of them are going to want to admit to needing help with their own things. (It’s possibly worth noting that over in UXM, Bendis has had Illyana start going to Strange in the past for training in magic.)

    I think Hickman, in New Avengers, might have removed some of the social commentary aspects. I find it a well-written book, an exploration of just how much a person is willing to do for a greater good. But while it’s a well-written book, it’s just too dark and cynical for my tastes.

    1. That’s an interesting point you bring up. It reminds me of numerous FF comics (both mainstream and “what if”) that almost outright state without Sue Storm, Reed Richards would be Dr. Doom, and he certainly is acting more than a little Doom-ish as part of this Illuminati group. And I certainly understand these are indeed men of ego, but let’s say that Xavier didn’t tell Strange about Magik, but shouldn’t Strange have damn well asked Xavier what the hell happened when Inferno was over with?

      Sometimes I find the exploration of what a person will do for the greater good interesting, but at this point I feel it’s been not only done before, and with these characters, but overdone in general. Wasn’t the Civil War in this same vein? And there have been two FF storylines I remember just in the past few years where this played out with Reed (one may have been the end result of the Civil War, but the other was entirely in-book when Reed met many of his alternate-universe selves).

      Hell, this is core of Magneto and Xavier’s relationship – two men, perceiving themselves as good, working for the greater good, but one much more willing to go more extreme ends for that good. That’s only been going on for thirty years!

      I don’t mean to rant again. But this is just part and parcel of my rant on “Shades of Gray.” I feel like I’m reading the same stories over and over and over and over again.

      1. Hasn’t Professor X been wandering into morally questionable territory for years now? Wasn’t there a retcon a few years back where it showed a group of X-Men that existed before what’s been historically considered the first incarnation of the team (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Iceman, and Angel) and whose existence he kept hidden because he managed to get them all killed?

      2. I don’t know about that retcon. I do agree Prof X has been getting darker like everyone else. Honestly, I wouldn’t necessarily object if it was done well. I’m reminded of Giles and the season with Glory/Ben and how he “dealt with” Ben. That was morally questionable (at best) but for me, that act didn’t automatically make Giles a villain (it did drop his good-guy status though).

  2. I’m no Marvel Fanboy, but this does sound genuinely terrible, though I believe that I’ve found another three letter word that describes it just as well as “UGH” does.

    Reminds me of something I dub the Jenga Principle, after the wooden block tower game of the same name, which very few people seem to understand. If you’re going to start yanking blocks out of a tower, then you’d damn well better be sure that the remaining blocks have enough integrity to hold the structure up and not cause it to violently collapse. I believe that whoever came up with this particular idea is JPD (Jenga Principle Deficient).

      1. “Or they assume the readers don’t know enough about the universe to realize it’s just collapsed.”

        Readers are kind of like Wall Street investors before the stock market collapse a few years back, then. -_-;

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