Spencer: New Avengers hasn’t really been a title with an antagonist, at least in a traditional sense; the Illuminati are trying to stop the Incursions, but such a mysterious, primal, multiversal threat can be hard to fathom, and they largely act as the impetus behind most of the title’s action rather than the “big bad”. Instead, the Illuminati mainly grapple against themselves, dealing with matters of morality and conscience. In New Avengers 24, Jonathan Hickman and Valerio Schiti skip ahead eight months from the climatic final pages of issue 23, giving them time to establish the Cabal as a group of horrific, homicidal monsters. In a way, they may be serving as the more physical, black-and-white antagonist this title’s been missing, but that seems to be far from their only purpose. Both the Illuminati and the Cabal have done horrific things with a noble goal in mind; the methods of these two groups, and how the world at large have responded to them both, is where the differences lie.
Last we saw the Illuminati they had all failed to destroy the Great Society’s world — all except Namor that is, who grew tired of his teammates’ piety and decided to assemble his own group known as the Cabal (comprised of the Illuminati’s greatest enemies: Black Swan, Maximus, Thanos, Proxima Midnight, and Corvus Glaive) to fight the Incursions. Issue 24 skips ahead eight months to find that the Cabal has destroyed Wakanda and are using it as their base of operations — and the world just stood by and let them do it. The Cabal are doing their job of destroying Earths, but they’re taking too much glee in it, sadistically and needlessly torturing their victims. Namor’s growing sick of it, and approaches Doctor Doom in hopes of working together to stop the Cabal and start ending Incursions themselves; Doom refuses, offended that he wasn’t Namor’s first choice. Besides, Doom’s got his own plans, as his scientists have used a chunk of fallen Earth from the Latverian Incursion early in the series to hack into the Mapmakers’ systems. With it may even come knowledge about the origin of the Incursions!
Artist Valerio Schiti has always had a way with facial expressions, and his work makes it heartbreakingly clear where Namor’s head is at, painting a startling contrast between the smug, arrogant Namor of old and the weary, nearly defeated version sitting down to dinner with Doom:
Namor’s become a fascinating figure across these past few issues in general, with his willingness to sacrifice his morality to do what the other Illuminati couldn’t coming across as refreshing, even as it alienated him from the group. Now he’s finding himself alienated from his new team as well: Namor’s a man too moral to stand with the Cabal, but too willing to kill to be with the Illuminati. He’s alone at the end of the world, and he’s running out of options, especially since his alliance with the Cabal isn’t long for this world; even if he doesn’t break away, Thanos has sensed his weakness and won’t stand for it. The problem is that I imagine Namor’s involvement is the one of the only things keeping the Cabal from just destroying Earth-616 and removing it from the wheel of Incursions once and for all.
In that sense, one way or another the Cabal are almost definitely going to become a physical threat that must be overcome, which is unusual for New Avengers. Hickman doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to establishing the monstrousness of the Cabal, giving a good portion of the issue’s real estate over to their sadistic torture of the X-Men of Earth-71202, but they’re still the ones setting out to do what the Illuminati once did, saving the universe from being destroyed by the Incursions. Does the fact that monsters like the Cabal are doing what the Illuminati spent most of this series plotting to do themselves make the Illuminati look worse by comparison? Is the ruthlessness of the Cabal a vision of what the Illuminati could have become if their consciences hadn’t stopped them, if they had gone forward with destroying worlds?
Regardless of the answer, the inhabitants of Earth-616 have shown who they’re backing, even if it’s by their own inaction:
Thanos, who in very recent history nearly took over the world, destroyed Wakanda and made it his base while he and the rest of the Cabal went out and destroyed alternate Earths, and nobody has done anything about it; if that’s not at least some form of approval, I don’t know what is. Hickman’s Avengers 35 shows that the Avengers are hunting the Illuminati, meaning that they still don’t approve of their actions; why are they so determined to hunt down their former friends when creatures of much greater evil are doing the exact same thing and getting away scott free? Does this go beyond some form of reluctant allowance to perhaps mind control or blackmail?
The last piece of this puzzle is Doctor Doom. Doom may not (usually) be as monstrous as the Cabal, but he’s still arrogant and selfish, and while he might just have the power he needs to end this Incursion situation once and for all, he’s also more than likely to use that power to his own benefit at the same time. Would it be worth it to end the Incursions?
So yeah, I guess the question at the heart of New Avengers has shifted from “What will the Illuminati do to save the universe?” to “What will the Illuminati allow others to do to save the universe?” Drew, are you happy with this (kind of) new focus? Are you digging the Cabal, or are they too traditional a threat for this title? Is this broken Namor tugging at your heartstrings, or does he deserve to be in this position? Do you find it weird that Namor can fly? Cause that throws me off every single month.
I’m definitely enjoying this new focus — it honestly feels like the Illuminati have been grappling with the moral implications of their situation forever, with no real change in that situation. Moreover, showing their role so effortlessly filled by a bunch of supervillains shows just how dark their moral grey area has gotten. They’re destroying one Earth to save two Universes — in a cold numbers game, it’s the relatively moral thing to do, but isn’t that exactly what the Builders were trying to do way back in Infinity? The exact same justification the Illuminati were using to destroy Earths suddenly feels less noble when we see Thanos doing it.
I think this series has largely been about putting Marvel’s smartest heroes in the place of supervillains and seeing how they react. Their reluctance to destroy other Earths didn’t stop them from stockpiling bombs (a notion that shocked and terrified the Great Society), just from pulling the trigger. Or, as Namor puts it, “they loved their damn piety to the point of extinction.” It’s an interesting thought — I think a lot of superheroes would sacrifice themselves to do the moral thing, but it’s kind of shocking to think that they would sacrifice two whole universes, as well. That is, the last issue found them willing to stand by and allow the death of not just Earth, but the entire Universe AND the Universe that was smashing into ours — they’d passively kill hundreds of trillions because they couldn’t stomach actively killing a handfull of billions.
In that light, I suppose it’s not much of a surprise that they’d also be willing to stand by while the Cabal kills Earth after Earth. I haven’t been keeping up-to-date on Avengers, so I may not know what intel they have, but it seems entirely possible to me that they wouldn’t even know what’s going on in Wakanda. The Illuminati knows, and they’re trying to deal with it themselves. Ultimately, I think keeping it simple, just turning the tables on the Illuminati, is a much more effective illustration of the villainy of making all of these bombs.
I’m most curious to see what their plan would be after they secured the bombs, though. Is this now some kind of suicide pact, where their plan ends in allowing two Universes to smash into one another? If so, why not continue to allow smaller numbers of people to die? It kind of frames them as super-villains again, actively working against the group that has been saving the Earth for the sole reason of disagreeing with the act of doing so. Or maybe they just want to take over for the Cabal, though that seems like a rather remote possibility. Or maybe they have a new solution to their problem — one they couldn’t come up with when they were stressed by the pressures of dealing with each new incursion.
It seems possible to me that “bombs aren’t the best solution” might be some kind of moral Hickman is building towards. History is full of shitty tactics in war, but we’re only able to judge that with the space and time to second-guess those decisions. The Illuminati suddenly has that time (with the extra motivation of the old tactic now being used by supervillains), and they just might have already come up with something better. At least I hope so. As much as I enjoyed the past 24 issues, they were largely just variations on questioning the morality of the Illuminati’s actions. I don’t think we need quite as much time to consider the morality of what the Cabal is doing.
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