To understand some of the elements of this story, one must dive back into Brian Michael Bendis’s time as the writer for the Avengers.
In New Avengers: Illuminati #2, the Illuminati gathers together the Infinity Gems (in the MCU, they are referred to as “stones”) at the behest of Reed Richards. Having dealt with the gems twice in the Marvel events Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity War, Reed decides that the Illuminati should step in to take charge of the gems to make sure that they can’t threaten reality again. During this time, they discover that the gems “want” to be together and call to each other. Finding all of the gems, Reed tries to will them out of existence, but is unable to. Instead, they are distributed to each member of the Illuminati:
Iron Man – Space Gem
Reed Richards – Power Gem
Black Bolt – Reality Gem
Namor – Time Gem
Charles Xavier – Mind Gem
Doctor Strange – Soul Gem
In a later story arc from Bendis, a villain, the Hood, tries to obtain the Infinity Gems, setting the Illuminati on his trail. (Minus Black Bolt, who died in the War of Kings story and left his gem hidden. Don’t worry, he got better.) However, during the hunt for the Hood, Steve Rogers and members of the various super teams find out the truth about the Illuminati, leading to a heated exchange between Steve and Tony. In the end, Iron Man pretends to will the gems out of existence again, fooling the other heroes and reassembling the Illuminati, this time inviting Steve to be a part of it. The gems are redistributed again:
Namor – Power Gem
Reed Richards – Reality Gem
Iron Man – Space Gem
Steve Rogers – Time Gem
Doctor Strange – Soul Gem
Charles Xavier – Mind Gem
The roster page of New Avengers #2 indicates this distribution of the gems while noting that Charles Xavier is now deceased due to the events of Avengers vs. X-Men, a move that Hickman has said he was partially responsible for and initially opposed, since he planned on using him in this story. One can imagine that Hickman intended to use Xavier to mindwipe Steve in issue #3 rather than Doctor Strange. The Illuminati end up replacing Xavier with Hank McCoy, the Beast, in the next issue.
Issue #2 begins quietly enough, with Reed Richards interrogating the Black Swan, asking her about her actions. Reed tells her that he has seen her (when she thought no one was looking) weeping and crying out for help, and he wonders if her actions haunt her. And if not her actions, then what? The Swan’s response is chilling: “It breaks hope — it crushes what makes us decent and steals what little honor remains. You have… no idea what is coming.”
The Swan’s response is important. For her character, it provides insight into the accompanying despair that is inherently a part of her worldview. She is a being devoid of hope and decency. She has looked into the abyss, and the abyss destroyed all hope for change. As she indicates earlier, her actions are a “necessity.” There is a felt loss of agency. Thematically, the Swan’s words capture the despair, compromise, and loss of hope of Hickman’s story. As we will see in a moment, the Swan’s answer also serves to sway Reed of the necessity of keeping “all options on the table” in dealing with the incursions.
The issue also addresses the bad blood between Black Panther and Namor, with the guards of the Dora Millaje protesting the presence of Namor in Wakanda. In the Avengers vs. X-Men event, Namor, with the power and influence of the Phoenix Force (for reasons that aren’t really important for our purposes), decimated Wakanda with a flood, killing many of its citizens. Namor’s presence in the Necropolis will become problematic later in Hickman’s run, when the Dora Millaje betray T’Challa by revealing that Namor has been regularly coming to meet the Illuminati in Wakanda. The conflict between T’Challa and Namor is going to continue to be a thread throughout Hickman’s run, a conflict which will consume all of Wakanda and Atlantis. This conflict highlights again the loss of idealism and the advent of despair, loss of life, and revenge that grows throughout Hickman’s mega-story.
In a private meeting between T’Challa and Namor, T’Challa is reminded that he was the one who initially resisted the formation of the Illuminati, and Namor wonders if T’Challa was wrong back then, or simply desperate now. T’Challa, for his part, reminds Namor that while they are working together now, his wants will replace his needs, and Namor will die by his hand.
We then return to the opening scene of New Avengers #1, and Reed Richards’s speech, which in that issue ended with the ominous, “Everything Dies.”
Here, we get to see the continuation of that speech, in which Reed makes clear that while he accepts that everything dies, he does not accept the unnatural and accelerated death of everything.
T’Challa is asked about his change of heart regarding the Illuminati, and he makes a comment that encapsulates the spirit of New Avengers: “The future of my people died in my arms.” To reiterate, this book’s message is not one of hope. This book is about living in a world without a future and the desperate compromises that are made in a futureless world.
There is also a brief “blink and you miss it” callback to Bendis’s Secret Invasion. Namor points out that the group has been fooled before, and he asks for everyone to confirm their identities by showing that they possess their gems.
The Infinity Gems will, in fact, be pivotal to this first arc.
The next few pages establish an overarching threat throughout Hickman’s run, providing a dark underbelly to his more hopeful Avengers title. An “event” occurred that caused the early death of one of the universes in the multiverse, which caused a universal contraction that caused a collision between two other universes at the point where the dead universe used to be. This collision started a chain reaction of universes colliding with each other as the multiverse continued to contract and the universes continued to collide at “incursion points.” The location of the first event and the location of each incursion point is Earth. When an Earth collides and gets destroyed, it takes its entire universe out with it. To make matters worse, time is not on the side of the Illuminati. Once an incursion point forms, it only lasts 8 hours, with either one Earth being destroyed, sparing both of their home universes, or both Earths colliding, taking their universes with them.
If Captain America is the symbol of hope and figurehead for Hickman’s Avengers title, here, he serves as a foil for the Illuminati in their first arc. Cap is out of place in this group. This isn’t a group of individuals aspiring to embody the ideals of heroism and following their captain. This is a group of intellectuals and rulers who are concerned with pragmatic solutions and survival. While all of the Illuminati members indicate a willingness to consider “every option” when facing the end of all things, it is only after Tony Stark speaks up in favor of such a morally compromising decision that Cap makes his position plain: “Anthony…what the hell is wrong with you?”
This is an ongoing conflict between the two men, stretching back to the Armor Wars in the 1980s, Operation: Galactic Storm in the 1990s, and the Civil War in the 2000s. These two men are fundamentally opposed in their basic moral frameworks. Tony is very much a utilitarian, willing to compromise if the means justify the ends, while Steve is very much an uncompromising deontologist, allowing for no talk of compromising one’s moral ideals. (There is a really great book by Mark D. White that explores these conflicting philosophies in detail.) As he tells the Illuminati, “I will not tolerate — I will not allow — any talk of the necessity of necessary evil.” For Cap, such decisions always have horrific, unintended consequences.
While Cap refuses to entertain any talk of necessary evil, he then proceeds to drop a bombshell on the Illuminati, “…especially when we don’t have to.” Cap suggests that they reassemble the Infinity Gauntlet and use its power to prevent the incursions. This will ultimately prove fruitless, but it provides a moment of false hope.
Believing he has saved the day and that he has the respect of everyone in the room, Cap launches into a speech to inspire this group, “Now… I want everyone to look at me.” We could stop here and ask how Cap thinks everyone in the room views him. While Hickman’s Avengers establishes him as some sort of founding myth or legend for the Avengers, he is not that to these men. None of them can be fooled by inspirational speeches and “belief.” And yet, Cap continues, “But remember, we shape the world… it does not shape us… If we do not waver, we cannot fail. You just have to believe.” Belief is what Cap offers, and it is found wanting. This conflict between realism and hope will pop up again in Hickman’s New Avengers, particularly in the fight with the Great Society later in his run.
Meanwhile, as Cap talks, Hickman and Epting juxtapose images of the Illuminati, presumably in the future, facing future incursions and fighting through hordes of terrifying creatures, including the previously mentioned “Black Priests.” There is even a scene with Namor slaughtering members of the Squadron Supreme. It is a little unclear, though, when these images take place, because, except for Namor’s battle with the Squadron Supreme (unlike the future images seen at the beginning of Avengers #1), there is little to no correspondence of these images to later points in Hickman’s story. Perhaps they reflect off-camera battles during future incursions, or perhaps these are alternative versions of the Illuminati who themselves tried to address the death of the multiverse and failed. What we can gather from these images, however, is the hopelessness of the situation and the emptiness of Cap’s speech, despite his insistence that “this is all going to work out. I know it.”
Again, these are not Cap’s Avengers.
After the rest of the Illuminati depart, T’Challa and Reed Richards have a quiet conversation. T’Challa tells him, “It appears everything’s going to work out fine,” then pauses, “But we know better than that, don’t we.” Cap’s strong sense of morality and inspirational speeches have done nothing for these thinkers. They know better. This conflict between Cap’s moral values and the intelligence of the Illuminati will become a source of conflict later in Hickman’s run. Reed Richards is one of the most intelligent men on Earth. No aspirational heroism can gloss over the realities he has taken into account: “Infinite worlds. Infinite outcomes. If this could easily be stopped… it should have been stopped.” The problem is two-fold: either something in the fabric of the universe is inherently defective, or there’s an active intelligence at work causing the death of reality. (We find out it is indeed the latter.)
Reed acknowledges that, while they must try the righteous path if circumstances allow, they have to leave all options on the table. Steve Epting does some brilliant panel work to indicate Reed’s thinking back to his conversation with the Swan about the loss of honor that the coming destruction of the universe will bring. Without explicitly telling the reader what is happening, he allows the interplay of the conversation with T’Challa to convey this, and the issue end on an ominous note: “We have to learn how to destroy a world.”
Hickman continues to build on the groundwork Bendis laid down before him, albeit subtly and in ways that don’t overly rely on knowledge of previous canon in order to enjoy the current story. The themes of hope and despair, creation and death, and enemy-allies will carry on throughout Hickman’s run and will build on what happens here.