Spencer: As I’m sure most of us do, I love the big, climatic final battles that usually come at the end of superhero stories. That said, I’m perhaps even more fond of the moments before the final battle, the calm before the storm, the time where the heroes prepare and steady themselves for the horrors to come. Many heroes use this as an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve lost or to visit with their loved ones, but the Illuminati — as pragmatic as ever — mainly use it to steel their resolve and to prepare to do the unthinkable. After all, for them this is only the final battle if they lose; if they win, they get to continue on dealing with an infinite number of Incursions. No wonder they’re so grumpy.
In less than two hours the Illuminati will have to face the Great Society — the DC Comics-inspired heroes of an alternate Earth — when their two worlds meet in an Incursion; this issue deals with how the team prepares for that event. Stephen Strange returns, ready for battle after having sold his soul; Beast explains the plot to our newbie-Illuminati, Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Strongest There Is); Maximus helps restore Black Bolt’s strength to its pre-Infinity levels; Tony Stark nearly breaks down to Black Swan, threatening to send a telepath into her mind to rip all her secrets out.
Man, Tony’s not looking or acting his best — that “Resilient” written on his shirt is painfully ironic, isn’t it? I don’t know where he got those injuries, but I don’t think it matters; I feel like writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Valerio Schiti are using them to represent the toll fighting the Incursions has taken on Tony, using them as a physical manifestation of his mental turmoil, and man are they effective — the guy looks positively unhinged.
Tony’s unraveling sanity actually seems to be seeping into Hickman’s other titles, as it easily explains his especially cruel and aggressive tactics in Avengers 29 (on sale now!). Moreover, there’s been a running theme recently of Tony letting the Illuminati’s existence slip: Avengers 28 saw him bringing Bruce Banner into the fold, 29 followed by [SPOILER ALERT] revealing their existence to the entire team, and now he’s talking about bringing a telepath in to interrogate Black Swan. I don’t know where this is leading — if it’s even leading anywhere at all — but I’m certainly concerned for dear ol’ Iron Man.
Meanwhile, if Tony’s falling apart in the face of another Incursion, then Black Panther is hardening. T’Challa communes with the spirits of the previous Black Panthers looking for advice on not only how to combat the Incursions, but how to somehow keep his integrity while doing so. He doesn’t quite get the answer he’s expecting.
T’Challa has often served as both the viewpoint character of New Avengers and the conscience of the Illuminati (in the absence of Captain America), so it can be easy to forget that he too has a ruthless side. Wakanda is a golden city with wonders that could save the world, but the Wakandians keep those discoveries to themselves; ultimately, they’re always going to be more concerned about protecting their own than anybody else.
That sentiment gets a bit ridiculous here — if the universe burns then Wakanda is most certainly going to burn with it — but the message behind it is clear: anyone who isn’t Wakandian is expendable. T’Challa isn’t in an easy situation, but it is disheartening to see him embracing this mantra more wholeheartedly than ever. One of the biggest themes of New Avengers has been how the actions the Illuminati take have the possibility to turn them into monsters, but it’s even more frightening to think that the members of the Illuminati always had the potential to be monsters, and the Incursions are simply an excuse for them to give in to their baser instincts.
As the “calm before the storm,” this issue is notably slower than a typical New Avengers, but Hickman ends the story with the Illuminati and the Great Society finally ready to fight. It should be fun, right? After all, we expect our heroes to fight when they first meet, and what’s more exciting than a big “Marvel vs. DC” match? The thing is, I don’t think Hickman wants us to get our kicks from their fight; after all, he closes the issue on T’Challa’s words: “What’s worse than facing villains with the fate of your world hanging in the balance? Facing heroes.” “Let’s you and him fight” may be the standard introduction between two groups of heroes — even the official Justice League/Avengers crossover made extensive use of it — but Hickman seems to want to show us how legitimately horrific it can be when heroes are forced to fight each other.
After all, there’s no third-party manipulating these two groups they can eventually rally together to defeat; the only way this conflict is ending is with one group of heroes losing, and the “winners” losing theirs souls in the process. I can’t help but think of the Joker’s famous expression here: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Moreover, it looks like it could quite likely be the Illuminati who come out as “winners”; the Great Society may be stronger or more clever, but the Illuminati have now proven that they will stop at nothing to protect their people — Doctor Strange even literally sold his soul to do so — and while that may be great for their universe, it doesn’t bode well for their morality.
Patrick, you look like a man who’s just had an experience — what did you glean about the Illuminati by watching them navigate the calm before the storm? What do you make of Tony’s meltdown? Do you want a Lockjaw plushie as much as I do?
On the subject of Tony’s meltdown, I’m not sure we’re supposed to see “resilient” as ironic, necessarily. Spencer, you mentioned how troubling that moment is that T’Challa puts his mask on reiterates the “fuck everyone else” mantra, and all the rest of the Illuminati seem to have adopted their own form of “if it comes down to them or me, I choose me.” Tony is the only one refusing that dichotomy — obviously he still needs to survive, and actions speak louder than words, but it’s actually encouraging to see someone break down in the face of the Incursion menace. It’s Tony’s humanity that’s resilient.
One of the things I love about this series is that Hickman stubbornly refuses to give any of the Illuminati a moral pass on this one, but he’s also not particularly quick to condemn them as heartless genociders. T’Challa and Namor should have torn each other limb from limb by this point, something a previous Black Panther points out to our Wakandan king. That’s always subtext floating just below the surface of this team, but Hickman makes a specific point to bring it up, even when it seems least crucial to the situation at hand. Who cares that he hasn’t killed the Atlantean yet? There’s a very real possibility that the two-planets worth of Atlanteans are about to die.
That’s why we’re allowed to care about these characters at all. Think about it: even properly dramatized, with two issues of introduction for the Great Society, how invested in this DC-esque Earth are you really? A little, certainly, but it’s not hard to see the flow chart that Hickman is working from, and now he just happened to hit the “Incursion that has other heroes” square. That’s not ineffective, but it is the next logical step in the natural emotion progression. Plus, for as much as we know the characters can hem and haw about their response, they absolutely have to fight back, so it’s not the most sincere drama. T’Challa and Tony might be looking for options, but they ultimately have no agency here — except where Namor the Goddamned Submariner is concerned.
Namor and T’Challa are the heart and soul of this series (not respectively, together they make up the heart and soul). They form an inconvenient friendship, but a friendship nonetheless. Both of them should have no say in this, and yet they defy the wills of their ancestors and their people to maintain this relationship. I don’t know how that applies to the Incursions, but it vaguely suggests hope in the face of a hopeless situation.
Also suggesting hope: artist Valerio Schiti, whose work is marked less grim than the recent Rags Morales or series regular Mike Deodato. A playful exchange between Beast and Bruce Banner or a similarly playful (if not all that interactive) exchange between Namor and Strange is allowed to be lighter, cartoonier, simpler. Both Morales and Deodato would hide half of every moment in the shadows, but Schiti presents his characters plainly in the cold light of day. Even the mildly cartoony abstractions let the reader sympathize with these characters directly.
So it sure does look like our heroes are going to have to kill some other heroes, huh? I wouldn’t jump to Hickman’s conclusion for him just yet. The man is an absolutely genius when it comes to long-term plotting, and he’s been playing this song in one form or another since Marvel Now! launched. Even when his issues devote so much time to dwelling on the darkness, there’s still hope. Weird, twisted, incomprehensible hope.
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