Who are the Illuminati in Marvel Comics?

With all magical possibility at its doorstep, it’s no surprise that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has some tricks up its sleeve. But the biggest and baddest of them all has got to be the appearance of the Illuminati, one of Marvel Comics’ most intimidating super-teams. On top of that, nearly every member of Multiverse of Madness’ Illuminati is an Easter egg for longtime fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or comics.

Who are the Illuminati in Multiverse of Madness? Who were they in Marvel Comics? And what exactly is so scary about an Incursion? Here’s all the Marvel Comics history — and Marvel Cinematic Universe history — that went into the Illuminati in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

[Ed. note: This post contains significant spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.]

Image: Marvel Studios

If you’ve seen Multiverse of Madness, then you know. While exploring an alternate universe in search of the Book of the Vishanti, Doctor Strange meets the heroes of Earth-838, an intimidating cabal made up of Karl Mordo, Captain Carter, Captain Marvel, Black Bolt, Professor X, and Mister Fantastic. Considering that two of those characters have never appeared in Marvel Cinematic Multiverse movies before, it’s a pretty fun reveal.

Together, Mordo tells Strange, these heroes are known as the Illuminati.

Who are the Illuminati in Marvel Comics?

Doctor Strange, Mister Fantastic, Iron Man, Professor Xavier, Black Bolt, and Namor — the Illuminati — sit around a table in New Avengers #7 (2005).

Left to right: Doctor Strange, Mister Fantastic, Iron Man, Professor X, Black Bolt, and Namor at a meeting of the Illuminati.
Image: Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven/Marvel Comics

The word Illuminati immediately conjures the specter of conspiracy theories and Assassin’s Creed games, but Marvel’s Illuminati aren’t just a secret cabal of world leaders. They’re a secret cabal of world leaders who are also superheroes.

Originally created by writer Brian Bendis and artist Alex Maleev, the Illuminati initially formed as a sort of United Nations of superhero factions, a collaborative body between the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, Wakanda, Atlantis, and Earth’s magical community.

But the idea of open cooperation almost immediately broke down. The group evolved into a collection of powerful men who occasionally convened to try and preempt what they considered grave threats to Earth’s safety, using methods they didn’t want anyone to know about — methods that weren’t overly heroic. Among the Illuminati’s greatest hits are the time they accidentally provoked a secret Skrull invasion of Earth, the time they put the Hulk on a rocket into space until he got so mad he came back with an entire space army, and the Incursion era.

But before we talk about Incursions, let’s talk about who was in the Illuminati, because Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness reflects the comic book lineup pretty accurately. The limited and shifting ranks of the group were formed from super-intelligent heroes, like Iron Man and Mister Fantastic, and heroes who were leaders of a nation, like Black Bolt, Professor X, and Namor. In Black Panther’s case, he was both. Heroes of cosmic power (Doctor Strange) and venerated leadership skills (Steve Rogers/Captain America) have also been roped into the group from time to time.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some of these characters have never been introduced, and others have, but their actors are no longer under contract. And so, for its Illuminati, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does a frankly incredible job of knitting together some very deep cuts from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, references to comic book-only details, online fan campaigns, and a cartoon from the 1990s. Let’s unpack everything that’s going on here.

Who are the Illuminati in Doctor Strange?

Baron Mordo, the Sorcerer Supreme

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo in Doctor Strange.

Mordo in 2016’s Doctor Strange.
Image: Marvel Studios

Who even is that? It seems that in Earth-838, after Stephen Strange died, the responsibility of safeguarding magic itself fell to his fellow student under the Ancient One, Karl Mordo. In “our” universe, he’s a bad guy, but in Earth-838, he seems to be as responsible as that world’s Strange was irresponsible.

Played by: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Where he’s from: This one’s easy: He also played the character in 2016’s Doctor Strange, where he was destined to become Stephen Strange’s nemesis.

Captain Carter

Captain Carter (center) and the Howling Commandos in WHAT IF…?

Captain Carter and the Howling Commandos in What If…?
Image: Marvel Studios

Who even is that? Presumably on Earth-838, Peggy Carter received the super-soldier serum that created Captain America in the main Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the Captain Carter timelines we’ve previously seen, she used her new abilities on behalf of the United Kingdom, then reemerged in the modern day, just like Steve Rogers in the original timeline we know.

Played by: Hayley Atwell, who has played Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger, Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and Avengers: Endgame.

Where she’s from: Captain Carter, voiced by Atwell, made her debut last year in the animated series What If…?, which featured her origin story and her efforts to save the entire multiverse.

Monica Rambeau, Captain Marvel

Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel.

Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Who even is that? It seems that in Earth-838, instead of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) being caught in an accident that gave her superpowers, her best friend, Maria Rambeau, was blasted with Tesseract energy and now protects the cosmos as Captain Marvel.

Played by: Lashana Lynch, who played Maria Rambeau, Carol’s best friend and fellow test pilot, in Captain Marvel.

Where she’s from: Maria’s turn as Captain Marvel was inspired by Marvel Comics canon, in which Monica Rambeau (Maria’s daughter in the MCU, played by Teyonah Parris in WandaVision) became Captain Marvel years before Carol took on the mantle.

Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans

Black Bolt (Anson Mount) and Lockjaw, a bulldog the size of a rhino, stand in the middle of a busy city street in Inhumans.

Anson Mount (right) as Black Bolt in Inhumans.
Image: ABC

Who even is that? It seems that in Earth-838, just as it is in the main MCU, Blackagar Boltagon is king of the Inhumans, a secretive society of long-lived, human-adjacent, superpowered individuals created by aliens. (Marvel Comics has a lot of those.) His signature ability is that his voice is so powerful, even a whisper can shatter a battleship.

And yes, that’s his actual full name.

Played by: Anson Mount, from Marvel’s Inhumans.

Where he’s from: Most folks have cast these events to the shadows of memory, but Marvel Studios, partnering with ABC TV, tried to get an Inhumans series off the ground in 2017. As a production, almost nothing about it worked, but the choice of Anson Mount to play Black Bolt was, and still is, inspired. It’s nice to see him get a chance to really flex his vocal cords.

Professor Xavier of the X-Men

Patrick Stewart as Professor X/Charles Xavier in X-Men.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Who even is that? It seems that in Earth-838, the X-Men exist and Professor X is at their head. Where are they in the MCU? Well, it’s a long story, but basically, back when the company wasn’t doing so hot, Marvel Entertainment sold the exclusive film rights to the X-Men and all associated characters to 20th Century Fox, who still held the rights when Marvel Studios was getting the MCU off the ground. For legal reasons, X-Men characters were barred from appearing in the MCU until Disney purchased much of 20th Century Fox’s holdings in 2019. This is the first time a core X-Men character has ever appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Played by: Patrick Stewart, from 20th Century Fox’s (first) X-Men franchise. Does this mean he’ll play Professor X when and if the character appears in the main universe of the MCU? Well, it’s the multiverse, so anything could happen. However, Marvel Studios hasn’t announced any official plans to make an X-Men-focused film as of yet.

Where he’s from: Earth-838’s Professor X seems to be pulling from several sources. The character is originally from Marvel’s X-Men comics, and Patrick Stewart took on the role in 2000’s X-Men and its two sequels, as well as Logan and X-Men: Days of Future Past. But the yellow hoverchair and the telltale theme that plays when he first appears both point to a third source entirely: 1992’s X-Men cartoon series, which introduced an entire generation of kids to Marvel’s merry mutants.

Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four

“Everything dies,” Mister Fantastic/Reed Richards says, “This is simply how things are.” in New Avengers #1, Marvel Comics (2012).

Image: Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting/Marvel Comics

Who even is that? It seems that in Earth-838, Reed Richards is the seasoned superhero Mister Fantastic! Judging by the movie’s dialogue, on Earth-838, Reed’s wife and children are also around. Following comics lore, this would imply that Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman, Reed’s wife), Valeria Richards (their super-intelligent daughter), and Franklin Richards (their reality-warping son) are denizens of Earth-838.

Played by: John Krasinski, who has long been a fan favorite to take on the role of Mr. Fantastic, and has even expressed excitement about the possibility himself. After four somewhat ignominious attempts to build a film franchise on the Fantastic Four, Marvel Studios is currently developing its first in-house Fantastic Four movie. However, the production recently lost its director. It’s unclear whether Krasinski is truly Marvel Studios’ pick for Reed Richards in their new Fantastic Four movie, or if his appearance in Multiverse of Madness is just a treat for fans.

Where he’s from: Reed Richards is the leader of Marvel’s so-called First Family, the superhero team that kicked off the transformation of Timely Comics into the Marvel Comics we know today. After accidental exposure to unique cosmic radiation, he developed the ability to stretch and morph his physical form.

He’s famously among the most super-intelligent people in Marvel canon, and in the comics, he was a central member of the Illuminati during the Incursion Era.

What is an Incursion?

“Goddess,” Black Panther swears in horror as another Earth, huge and ominous, appears in the sky above Wakanda in New Avengers #1 (2013).

Image: Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting/Marvel Comics

Only the most difficult threat the Illuminati ever faced. The final great tale of Marvel’s problematic power brokers was a multi-year epic penned by Jonathan Hickman (House of X/Powers of X) and drawn by all manner of great artists.

This time, the Illuminati converged because Black Panther had discovered that the boundaries between parallel earths were beginning to fail, specifically at the point in the universe where Earth existed. “Incursion events” would occur at random intervals. A parallel Earth would appear in the sky, at which point the people of both Earths would have mere hours before their planets collided and destroyed the entirety of both their universes. The only way to stop an Incursion was to destroy one of the two Earths caught up in it.

This left a group of the smartest thinkers and biggest political movers in Marvel’s superheroic community with a terrible challenge: Was there a way to keep their world safe without killing another? And if not, was there anyone among them who could murder a world to save two universes? In the end, Marvel’s greatest heroes compromised their morality to save the universe — and failed anyway. The Incursion era ended in probably the greatest Marvel Comics crossover event of the new millennium: Secret Wars, the story Avengers: Endgame wishes it was.

It seems like the Incursion Era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Earth-838 began and ended with its Doctor Strange, who caused the multiversal barriers to weaken and accepted his execution by Black Bolt as punishment. But here’s hoping the Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps the Illuminati and the Incursion Era safe in a back pocket for use in its main setting someday — they’re ideas that deserve even more than the alt-universe feature they got in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

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