The Comics History and MCU Future of Marvel’s Illuminati

You might have heard the term “Illuminati” before when folks talk about Marvel and wondered how it all relates to the comics or the MCU. Several secret groups in history have the name Illuminati, both real and fictional. (But mostly fictional).

The modern idea of the Illuminati refers to a clandestine society of a small group of all-powerful individuals, who secretly control the world. In our real world, this idea is rubbish. But in Marvel’s comic book universe? The Illuminati are the real deal. And their power is spreading. And we finally met them in the flesh in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

But before we get too far into a discussion of the MCU’s live-action Illuminati in Doctor Strange 2, let’s take a deep dive into the history of their comics counterparts and answer the big question now on everyone’s minds. Who are Marvel’s Illuminati?

The Origins of Marvel Comic’s Illuminati: An Alien Catalyst
Comic illustration showing the first appearance of the Illuminati in Marvel, from New Avengers #7. The Illuminati may soon appear in the MCU, as teased by the Doctor Strange 2 trailer.
Marvel Comics

Writer Brian Michael Bendis created the Marvel Illuminati, and they first appeared in 2005’s New Avengers #7. It was his idea that the Illuminati were secretly a part of the Marvel Universe for decades, going back to the early ‘70s. In his mind, this shadowy group of six heroes formed after the events of the Kree Skrull War, which took place in the pages of Avengers. (This Kree/Skrull war occurred in Avengers #89-97, from 1971-72.)

Tony Stark founded the Illuminati when he realized how close Earth came to annihilation. This came in the aftermath of the alien Kree and Skrull Empire’s conflict. He gathered together those he believed in as the leaders of the super-powered community and they became the first members of Marvel Comic’s Illuminati.

Who Were The Original Members of Marvel’s Illuminati?
Comic panels showing the first meeting of the Illuminati, in New Avengers #7.
Marvel Comics

Tony Stark chose the following Marvel heroes as the founding members of his Illuminati team: Namor of Atlantis, Black Bolt of the Inhumans, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men, and Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme. They met in Wakanda, home of the Black Panther. Stark hoped to get the world’s most technologically advanced nation to listen to his proposal. He also wanted King T’Challa to join as a member of the Illuminati.

It was Iron Man’s idea that the leaders of these disparate super-powered individuals form a sort of mega-group. He believed that together, the Illuminati, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Inhumans, and the Atlanteans could prevent almost any disaster. But no one bought into Stark’s dream initially. The rest of the group knew that too many differences would keep such an unwieldy group from functioning. However, these leaders agreed to meet together in a secret think tank whenever a crisis arose. If nothing else, they could share information and help steer events. All but Black Panther were a part of this Marvel “Illuminati” team, as Stark coined it. T’Challa saw the entire endeavor as faulty from the start.

In comic panels, Namor is disgusted at the council's decision to exile the Hulk.
Marvel Comics

As the years rolled on, the group gathered in secret to influence events. Neither Tony Stark’s fellow Avengers, nor Xavier’s students, nor Reed Richard’s family knew of this mysterious cabal. But there always comes a breaking point. The original Marvel Comics version of the Illuminati stayed intact until the group voted to exile the Hulk from the Earth to another planet, to prevent any more damage from him on this one. Namor, once the Hulk’s Defenders teammate, was revolted at such an action. He was the first to leave the group, and it soon dissolved. (All of this backstory is covered in 2006’s New Avengers: Illuminati one-shot).

A History of the Illuminati in Marvel Comics

Marvel’s Illuminati have had several iterations in Marvel’s comics, despite not being around for too long. Here’s a history of where they’ve appeared.

Marvel’s Civil War Temporarily Resurrects the Illuminati 
Superheroes square off in Civil War.
Marvel Comics

The group came together once more when Iron Man announced the Superhuman Registration Act. This law was all about the American government’s registering of super-powered individuals. Really though, it was an effort to keep track of them and control them. Stark tried to get the rest of the Illuminati to get their respective groups to back the SRA publicly. When all the Illuminati members disagreed except for Reed Richards, it marked the next official end of the group. Not long after, the superhero Civil War occurred (the basis for the events in the MCU’s Captain America: Civil War). But circumstances would force them back together before too long.

Marvel’s Infinity Gems and the Illuminati in New Avengers
Reed Richards tasks his Illuminati compatriots with hiding an Infinity Gem. We may see the MCU Illuminati in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Marvel Comics

Soon, readers learned that each member of the Illuminati received one of the Infinity Gems (what the MCU’s Infinity Stones are called in the comics). Originally, Reed Richards thought it best to use the gems to destroy the gems. But unlike the MCU, in the comics, the gems can’t be destroyed that way. So the group decided to each member of the Illuminati would take an Infinity Gem and hide it without the other members knowing where the other had hidden it. (This event plays out in New Avengers: Illuminati #2, from 2007).

World War Hulk: The Hulk Takes Revenge
Bruce Banner gets revenge on the Illuminati in World War Hulk. We may see the MCU Illuminati in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as part of the Illuminati in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.
Marvel Comics

The decision to exile the Hulk would come back to bite the Illuminati in their rear ends. Bruce Banner found his way home again, and they would all learn that Hulk’s phrase “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” was no joke. Hulk arrived on Earth and sent a transmission for the world’s authorities to hand over the Illuminati’s Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Mister Fantastic to him. Who is going to say no to the Hulk?

The Jade Giant gives the citizens of New York City 24 hours to evacuate before the start of World War Hulk. Only Namor, who voted against exiling Banner, escaped unscathed. Hulk forced Marvel’s Illuminati members to do battle with each other in a gladiatorial ring in Madison Square Garden, but he stopped short of allowing them to kill one another. Hulk felt he’d made his point to the world. But in doing so, Hulk exposed the Illuminati’s existence. (All of this occurs in 2007’s World War Hulk #1-5) Oddly enough, down the road, when Hulk gained super-intelligence in the comics, he joined a later iteration of Marvel’s Illuminati himself.

Secret Invasion: The Illuminati Are Exposed
The Skrull version of the Illuminati council.
Marvel Comics

Tony Stark called the group together yet again when he learned about the secret Skrull invasion of Earth. After the heroes of the Marvel universe thwarted this Skrull incursion, the heroic community (including the recently returned from the dead Steve Rogers) discovered that Tony Stark and other heroes he considered friends had formed the Illuminati behind his back. Despite his initial anger, Rogers eventually joined a new version of the group, realizing it was for the greater good that they include him. Captain America would later come to regret that decision. (All of this takes place in 2008’s Secret Invasion event series).

Multiversal Mayhem: Black Panther’s Secret Wars Illuminati Team
Black Panther finally joins the Illuminati, prior to Secret Wars.
Marvel Comics

The most recent version of Marvel Comics’ Illuminati arrived in 2015. Black Panther, who decreed that the Illuminati were a bad idea way back in the beginning, formed the group this time. He knew a Multiversal war lurked on the horizon (in Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s 2015 series Secret Wars) and that a group of the Marvel Universe’s most prominent figures was the only way to stop it. Unfortunately, the only way to stop another Earth from crashing into theirs was by building an ultimate weapon—a weapon that would destroy the other Earth.

When Cap learned of this doomsday weapon, he revolted against the group. But Doctor Strange cast a spell to remove all knowledge of the Illuminati from his mind. Ultimately, the Illuminati stopped the Multiversal incursion. Then the council grew to include other high-profile members from the Marvel universe. Beast, Medusa, Hank Pym, and Captain Britain all joined the Illuminati at certain points. Now it is only a matter of time before Marvel’s think tanks forms once again to figure out a way to solve an unsolvable problem.

The Illuminati in the MCU
Captain Carter, Black Bolt and Captain Marvel of the MCU's Illuminati
Marvel Studios

The MCU Illuminati of the movies differed greatly from Marvel’s Comics version. Although they did share a few prominent members. Mainly, Professor Charles Xavier, Reed Richards, and Black Bolt of the Inhumans. (Namor was not among them). These powerful characters were essentially the Avengers of Earth-838.

Although the MCU’s Illuminati may have been a group in addition to the Avengers, not in its place. It’s unclear. Ultimately, the members of the MCU’s Illumanti in Doctor Strange 2 were Baron Mordo, Captain Carter, Captain Marvel Maria Rambeau, and as mentioned Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans, Reed Richards, and Professor X.

How Did the MCU’s Illuminati Form? Superior Iron Man Could Be Key
The amoral superior Iron Man. We may see this version of Iron Man in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as part of the Illuminati.
Marvel Comics

One prominent member of the Illuminati we did not see was Iron Man. However, there might have been an Iron Man in the Illuminati who died, much as the one from Earth 616 did. The Ultron drones suggest Stark at least existed on this world at some point. The Illuminati’s creator in Marvel’s comics was Tony Stark after all. And the look of the Ultron drones looks a lot like the comics’ Superior Iron Man.

Tony Stark reigns supreme as the Superior Iron Man.
Marvel Comics

If you’re wondering who the heck Superior Iron Man even is, imagine a version of Tony Stark that is all ego and zero morality. That happened to Tony in the Axis series from Marvel Comics, back in 2014—all thanks to a spell that removed his moral compass. In fact, he had his own comic series, aptly titled The Superior Iron Man, back in 2014-2015. He wore silver armor and used all his intellect to take over the world. Eventually, of course, the real Tony would retake his personality.

The look of the Ultron drones definitely matches the Superior Iron Man armor from the comics. Fans were fervently hoping that Tom Cruise, who famously nearly played Tony Stark in the 2000s, was portraying this version of Iron Man in Doctor Strange 2. But despite the inclusion of Cruise as Superior Iron Man being an early idea from Multiverse of Madness writer Michael Waldron, it was ultimately not meant to be. But that doesn’t mean there never was a Superior Iron Man on Earth-838 at some point. Or elsewhere in the Multiverse.

The Illuminati council convenes in Marvel Comics
Marvel Comics
Who Was the Illuminati’s Professor X in the MCU?
Patrick Stewart as Professor X in the X-Men films. Professor X may appear as part of the MCU's Illuminati in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
20th Century Studios

Perhaps the biggest question so far with the MCU’s Illuminati revolves around the appearance of Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier in Doctor Strange 2. When Charles glides into the Illuminati chambers, he’s in his gold hoverchair from X-Men: The Animated Series. In fact, we hear the familiar chords of the classic cartoon theme song play when he does so. In the film, Xavier repeats lines of dialogue he spoke in X-Men: Days of Future Past. But the chair and the old theme song evoke the ’90s cartoon. Multiverse of Madness writer Michael Waldron has said in an interview with Variety that Earth-838’s Xavier combines elements of the Fox films’ Charles and the animated series. However, something in the credits possibly hint at more.

Key art from the upcoming Disney+ series X-Men '97.
Marvel Studios

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness credits Professor X’s musical cue as “X-Men ’97 Theme.” If they somehow tied this Xavier to the one we meet in the film, this would explain why Marvel Studios has an active hand in the X-Men ’97 revival. For all we know, it’s a prequel/sequel to Multiverse of Madness in some form. If the Marvel Studios Multiverse expands to not only include pre-MCU Marvel films, like the Sony Spider-Man films, but also animation? It might be the coolest thing Kevin Feige has ever done.

Professor X's yellow hovercraft from Multiverse of Madness (1)
Marvel Studios
The MCU Illuminati and Future Movies
The MCU's Illuminati
Marvel Studios

Sadly, the Illuminati met their ends at the hands of the Scarlet Witch in the film. So, if the cabal is to continue on Earth-838, they’re going to need a big membership drive. But what about an Illuminati for Earth-616? Our Stephen Strange knows a good idea when he sees one, and might form an Illuminati of his own on his Earth. Perhaps something more akin to the original comics lineup?

The members of the MCU’s Earth-616 Illuminati could include Doctor Strange, an Earth-616 version of Black Bolt, whoever Reed Richards turns out to be, (John Krasinski or another actor), and the eventual Earth-616 versions of Professor X and Namor. Only Iron Man is left out of the equation, but perhaps Ironheart could take his place? Bruce Banner is another possibility as well. The Illuminati may have found their start in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but we feel they may twist their shadowy fingers into many MCU movies to come.

Originally published on February 17, 2022.

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