Illuminati #4 (of 5)

by

Or – “This Meeting of The He-Man Woman Hater’s Club Will Now Come To Order.”

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I’ve complained in the past about Brian Bendis’ take on certain Marvel icons, how his Captain America is a bit too casual and conversational, how his Doctor Strange talks more like a barber from Ohio than a man who has seen the depths of a thousand parallel planes, how his Reed Richards is an inattentive stereotypical absent-minded professor type with no social skills whatsoever… Essentially, Bendis has an ability to boil the characters down to a central essence, and make that essence seem real. With the icons of the Marvel Universe, frankly, I don’t always WANT to know that side of their personalities, preferring to enjoy their triumphs over their own petty humanity. This issue does everything that I hate about B.B.’s characterization, with some of Marvel’s most iconic and beloved characters, showing the truly annoying, human, petty, and bitter sides of them… and I have to say, I loved it.

Previously, on The Illuminati: The movers and shakers of the Marvel Universe came Ill1.jpgtogether after the Kree-Skrull War, in the interests of keeping each other informed on their various areas of expertise. Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four. Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans. Namor, Scion of the Seven Seas. Professor X, mutant telepath, and leader of the Uncanny X-Men army. Iron Man, brilliant inventor and patron of the Mighty Avengers. Together, they’ve delivered an ultimatum to the Skrull Empire that very nearly ended in disaster, (and possibly set up the current Skrullapalooza at Marvel) collected the Infinity Gems resulting in a near-disaster, and confronted the Beyonder about his true origins, which very nearly ended in disaster. So far, they’re 0-3 for results, but at least the stories have been interesting. The latest issue takes place in the recent past, as the first two arrivals have a private conversation about why Stephen has such a long face…

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32 times. Heh… I also really like the way Stephen tries to explain the relationship of Sorcerer Supreme and protégé to an uncomprehending Mr. Fantastic. I assume the conversation would go much the same if Reed were explaining hyper-tachyonic gluons in theoretical astrophysics. As they have their discussion, the rest of the group arrives, and has a long, beautiful conversation that I just couldn’t bear to chop up or summarize, so I apologize in advance for the size of this image…

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There is just so much awesome going on in this sequence. Iron Man unintentionally remarking how hot Clea is, then wilting under Strange’s scrutiny, the entire discussion of Lilandra, even Black Bolt’s mime act. I honestly don’t always like when Bendis does this with these characters, but this time rang true for me, as a group of friends letting down their guard when they know nobody is looking. And “I can’t get hockey scores in the astral plane” is a truly wonderful line. Reed explains to Tony that being married ain’t all picnics and beer, reminding them that when he screws up, Sue has a tendency to just walk off. “She gets up and leaves the building without saying anything.” Iron Man asks where she goes, and Reed replies, “Oh, I KNOW where she goes.” At that precise moment, Namor steps up to the table, and I can feel the chill go through the room. “The reason your wife leaves you,” Namor says, as everyone goes quiet, “is because you keep her in a CAGE.”

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Awkwaaard. And I’m frankly stunned that Namor openly admits to trying to steal Reed’s wife like that. It’s a totally ballsy Namor move, completely without fear (and Iron Man’s “I’m not here” face is priceless. Reed tries to change the subject, and Iron Man jumps in, reminding them what they’re talking about. “Clea is a–” he starts, as Reed interrupts. “That’s right. Can we get back to THAT?” Heh. Professor X hopes that isn’t the reason they’ve called a meeting, but Iron Man wants to interject. “I can top all of you. I slept with Madam Masque, so…” I love the look on the other five members’ faces, a complete lack of knowledge as to who the heck that is, and he explains that she has a “metal face. Kind of looks like Doctor Doom?” Namor looks at him like he’s complete insane, asking “Why would you sleep with a woman who looks like Doctor Doom?” HA!

Iron Man quickly changes the subject to the real reason for this meeting: Noh-Varr of the Kree, aka Marvel Boy. This is, apparently, right after the events of his miniseries (which was published 8 years ago, or so) and Iron Man is concerned about his status. He doesn’t want to let the boy go, as he has declared war on mankind, but worries that keeping him prisoner will anger the Kree. Namor offers a solution… “So let’s beat the $#!+ out of him and teach him not to speak unless spoken to.” HA, again! Iron Man actually accepts that suggestion, but puts forth another: that Charles Xavier “convince” him to think differently. Xavier is taken aback that Tony would even consider something so unethical, replying that he would never do that…

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That subtle hint of menace, of power restrained, is awesome, reminding me of the moment when Doctor Strange confronted The Hulk… Iron Man suggests that maybe Xavier SHOULD change the entire world, but Charles retorts “You think like a programmer.” He explains that the mind doesn’t work that way, but Reed Richards is intrigued, and asks why not? Xavier explains that he could make Reed wear a dress and call himself Sally, but his mind would fight it, and eventually his mind would react. It might hurt others, or himself… Most importantly, Charles isn’t willing to cross that moral line of distinction yet, setting up the conceit that we know will end this alliance after their Hulk solution. They decide to just talk to the lad, though Namor points out that they have to talk to him in a language that he understands.

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The Namor solution: swift and blinding violence. When Noh-Varr fights back, Namor puts the screws to him, smashing Marvel Boy halfway through a wall. As Noh-Varr rises, he finds that he’s not in his cell any longer. Instead he looks up to see Black Bolt and Professor X in front of the city of Attilan, surrounded by the thousands of varied forms of the Inhumans. “I thought you’d like to see how your ancestors envisioned what the Earth should and could be. Maybe you didn’t know the long, rich history between your people and ours… Maybe you just needed to see if for yourself… but the Kree and this planet have a LONG legacy, a connection that goes back thousands of Earth-years.”

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“I can make this conversation end any way I see fit.” Once again, the troubling implications of what these men are doing become very clear, as Namor again thrashed M.B. “Do you understand yet?” yells Namor. “You are the direct descendant of those who wished to protect this world, NOT invade it. This world is NOT yours to conquer.” Driving his face into the concrete wall, Namor drops him, and Noh-Varr falls at the feet of Mr. Fantastic. “I’m really sorry about Namor,” he says, “but he is who he is. As you are. As I am.” Reed explains that this is Noh-Varr’s second chance, and shows Noh a memory from long ago, of a man he respects and admires greatly…

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Reed explains that his people haven’t really evolved enough to understand their place in the universe, that they waste resources, fight petty, silly wars, killing those who might make a difference in senseless border conflicts, even destroying the planet itself in the name of comfort and indulgence. “But for Mar-Vell, all he saw is that this world needed protection. Not because of who we ARE… but who we might become, if only given the chance to blossom and grow. HE could see this, and we couldn’t even pronounce his name right.” Noh-Varr takes this as proof that he SHOULD conquer, and put the useless planet to work for his beloved Kree empire, but Reed points out how that simply ain’t gonna happen. “What you could be doing is applying your amazing talents to something that genuinely effects change.” Noh-Varr asks if the naked pointy-eared man will be hitting him again, and the scene shifts…

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It’s fascinating how Iron Man is most comfortable in that boardroom setting, where he’s obviously the boss behind the big desk. Tony explains that they weren’t around the first time he ran amok, but they are watching now, and if he tries anything stupid, he’ll be squared under a giant iron thumb. “But the news is, for all your immature crap, we are very happy to see you. The world… the entire world… would be very happy to see you. That is, if you learn to play nice.” This reminds me of Woody’s moment with Sid the toy torturer in Toy Story, actually. Iron Man offers him the chance to play it straight, to be a hero, or spend his entire life in a cell. The Illuminati appear before him, and Noh-Varr asks if they’ll let him go if he says he’ll behave. “No,” says Professor X. “You put yourself in here. You figure a way to get yourself out.” Noh-Varr is stunned that they want him to break out, but once again misses the point…

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The six men return to their lives, leaving Noh to ponder their words. Reed, for his part, returns home and greets his wife. “Susan… I have a hard question to ask. I need you to make a choice, and I need you to make it right now.” Oh, no, he’s not going to bring up Namor, is he? “Tomorrow… would you like to go on a date, just the two of us… or would you like to take the kids on a picnic and have a family day? Or both?” Sue smiles beatifically, as we see Reed taking his lesson learned. For Tony Stark, it’s a different world, leaving him alone, with only his reflection in his helmet for company. Doctor Stephen Strange floats in his sanctum, meditating, but only able to focus on his isolation. It’s a sad moment, but the book ends on an up-note, as Marvel Boy seems truly to be considering their proposition… His last words as we fade to black are “Captain Marvel.”

It’s an ending that would have carried more weight if they hadn’t done the abysmal “Civil War: The Return” one-shot. To have Noh-Varr come to his senses and become the new Captain Marvel would be interesting, but since they’ve already revived Mar-Vell, I wonder how they could effectively pull that story moment off. Still, it’s an effective story, balancing the Illuminati’s tendency for brutality and high-handedness with a target who really kind of deserves a spanking for his hubris. The humanity of the characters resonates with me, and I see a little bit of what this series was intended to do: humanize the icons who seem to be more than human. I get that, and I even like it, here. But there’s a line between feet of clay, and just being a jackass, and hopefully they can balance it effectively. The story and dialogue were fascinating and fun (especially the “Women: Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Shoot ‘Em Into The Negative Zone” discussion) and I really liked every one of the Big Six, even Herr Stark. Still, the overtones of power corrupted and manipulation behind the scenes are still troubling… Jim Cheung’s art is stunning, especially his rendition of Mar-Vell, and overall, it’s a 4 out of 5 star winner from the House of Ideas. I’ll be very surprised if we don’t revisit the stories of Mar-Vell and Noh-Varr soon (like in next summer’s big crossover, mebbe?) and I’m looking forward to seeing them play out.

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