Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Not an Avengers World

The Avengers vs. X-Men crossover storyline from 2012 gets a lot of flak on the internet (perhaps rightly so) for being schizophrenic and other problems you’d expect from having so many writers on it. But two parts of it stood out as being awesome in my book (in no particular order): (1) Kieron Gillen’s AvX tie-in work in Uncanny X-Men (of course, his whole run there is amazing as well), and (2) Brian Bendis’ New Avengers #29 tie-in issue. Today I’m focusing on the latter and its evolution, and will return to the former hopefully soon.

This one issue of The New Avengers that is so good that I had to pick up every other Avengers and New Avengers issue in the AvX line to try to get more of it. But why? It’s because this issue takes a look at the clandestine group known as the Illuminati. Each member possesses an Infinity Gem, which Thanos tells us “with only one you become a god”. So as we know, with great power comes great responsibility, so the idea is that these are the only people in the world that can be trusted with ultimate power. The issue centers around the question of “if we have ultimate power, why not use it to stop the Phoenix from destroying the planet?” It’s full of nuance, as we can see that not everyone even agrees that the world will be destroyed, with Mr. Fantastic and Namor independently arguing that the Phoenix actually will make the world a better place. It’s a great, deep philosophical read, with some solid art from Mike Deodato.

So I tried to find something else like this in the AvX storyline and failed, but luckily, the team at Marvel apparently employs telepaths, so someone there said “what if we make a whole comic with this team and this kind of stuff?” And with that, I saw this tagline teased randomly throughout various Marvel comics:

To prevent the collision of our universe with another, the most powerful and brilliant team in the Marvel Universe – the Black Panther, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, Mr. Fantastic, Namor and the Beast – must assemble to confront an infinite legion of parallel universes.

With that, I was instantly sold and had to check out Jonathan Hickman’s awesome (in progress) run on New Avengers. It’s the foil of Hickman’s also solid run (also in progress) on Avengers, and while we’ll also come back to that series at a later date, it’s sufficient now to say that Avengers embodies the best and brightest of what the Avengers have to offer ideologically, and this essay will focus on how the Illuminati embody their foil: what happens when the best and brightest do when they throw ideology out the window.

Everything Dies

Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic) gets the first line in the series, telling us:

Everything dies. You. Me. Everyone on this planet. Our sun. Our galaxy. And, eventually, the universe itself. This is simply how things are. It’s inevitable, and I accept it.

It’s intentionally a bit misleading, because we get the second half of that line in the next issue:

What I will not tolerate — what I find unacceptable — is the unnatural acceleration of that end. Which is why T’Challa summoned us here, as the untimely end of everything is what we now face.

Regardless, it sets the tone of the series in a very dark way. This isn’t the happy-go-lucky Avengers comic book series, where everything will be ok if we all stick together and work hard. This is the “how do we stop everything from going to hell in a handbasket” comic book series. But there are two problems that are in the way of painting this bleak picture:

  1. The Illuminati possess the Infinity Gems, giving them the power to do anything in the universe (literally).
  2. Captain America is on the team, who is the epitome of hope and a morally strong value system.

These problems become the basis of the initial story arc. We see T’Challa (the Black Panther) faced with a situation that is too great for him to solve on his own when he faces the Black Swan, a mysterious woman who destroys a planet oddly hanging over the skies. In response, he reluctantly calls the Illuminati for help. Since the death of Professor Xavier during AvX, we see the Beast join the team in his place, making up the team listed in the blurb above (plus Captain America).

The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario

The premise is straightforward. Something (later, it’s very strongly hinted to be the time paradox caused by Wolverine in Age of Ultron) has caused other universes to begin collapsing towards the universe our heroes inhabit. Once another universe collapses towards the one our heroes inhabit (known as an “incursion event”), they have eight hours to deal with it. Reed Richards talks to the Black Swan and decides that there are only two possible outcomes:

  • Our heroes destroy the incoming Earth on that universe, sparing both universes (but obviously at the cost of an Earth)
  • Our heroes do nothing, resulting in the destruction of both universes

Since there is only eight hours to do this, it puts the Illuminati in a variant of the ticking time bomb scenario. The classic ticking time bomb scenario boils down to the question of “is a country ethically permitted to torture someone for information that could be used to save many lives”, while this variant is the question “what is ethically allowed to be done to save the lives of two entire universes?” It’s a huge question, and quickly we see Captain America standing alone in refusing to accepting that any unethical behavior is possible, telling us:

I will not tolerate — I will not allow — any talk of the necessity of necessary evil. I have spent my life on that line and every time I’ve seen someone cross it, death and horror and shame was what followed. So I refuse to entertain it, especially when we don’t have to.

The other members quickly reject his argument, saying that time is simply too much of a factor here (making this a ticking time bomb scenario), so when the next incursion comes, Cap puts a plan into motion to find a better outcome:

  • Use the Infinity Gems to “push away” the other universe, sparing both universes as well as both Earths

Surprisingly, it’s an idea that the other members haven’t even considered, but this is likely because (as we saw during AvX) it’s something they’ve mentally put off the table. Cap ends the discussion with a reminder of why he’s the embodiment of hope, and such a mismatch on this team:

Now, I want everyone to look at me. Yes, this is massive. Yes, it is night. But remember, we shape the world, it does not shape us. If we do not waver, we cannot fail. You just have to believe. Believe in the cause, believe in each other. This is all going to work out. I know it.

The Slippery Slope Argument

Cap succeeds in making this best case scenario a reality, but in doing so, the Infinity Gems are lost. The team meets to decide what to do next, and Cap ominously warns the team against the course of action they want to take:

I’m sorry, but I won’t allow this to happen. I know you people. You’re going to build a machine or some kind of weapon without thinking if you should — just because you might need it. And then the debate will turn from should we build this, to under what doomsday scenarios is it acceptable to use the thing? And then slowly, one by one, you’ll convince yourselves. We’re doing this for the right reasons. There’s no other choice. It’s the lesser of two evils.

This of course is the slippery slope. The rest of the team feels that this course is the only course, so they promptly kick him out of the team and erase his memory, which is definitely some dark stuff but in line with what we’re building up to for this team.

All of this happens in the first three issues, and I’ve spent a lot of time moving very slowly here because this sets the tone for the rest of the series. This slippery slope turns out to be exactly true, and the rest of the team doesn’t disagree with it — the disagreement is over whether or not it’s ok to do this or not. The next incursion shows up in short order, so the team has to decide how far they’re willing to go to save the world. We see Tony Stark building a Dyson sphere (for as of yet unexplained destructive reasons), Dr. Strange working on a spell to basically summon Cthulhu to destroy a parallel universe’s Earth, and (the winning idea) Mr. Fantastic and T’Challa successfully reverse engineering the Black Swan’s planet destroying bomb to make one of their own. Unfortunately for them, the Earth that they encounter is populated, but very fortunately for them, they don’t have to destroy it themselves, because someone else is familiar with this problem and shows up:

The ethical question then becomes “do we stop Galactus or not”? As Galactus is able to destroy an undefended world in minutes, they realize they don’t have the time to stop him, and escape the dying world. We see Cap’s prediction come true already, as doomsday weapons are being built, and the team debating how they convince themselves that this is ok. Namor and Black Bolt are already at the end of the slippery slope, needing no convincing to do whatever it takes to save their world. Black Bolt at least seems to be more practical in the matter, taking Galactus’ herald Terrax back with them, since he knows about the incursions and could be useful to them (an idea which has borne no fruit so far, since he’s been dead silent since).

We see our heroes slide down the slope a little more when the next incursion shows up, as they debate whether or not to bring their new bomb with them:

Black Swan: I am very proud of all of you.

Beast: I’m sorry, but I think you’ve made the common mistake of confusing expediency with desire. Needs and wants, as it were.

Namor: Yes. Like these fools here need to do whatever it takes to save their world, but want to still feel like heroes when they wake in the morning.

Tony: We don’t have time for this. Are we taking the device?

T’Challa: Do we have any other choice?

Black Swan: Good. The wheel grinds men down or sharpens them into weapons. You’ve built a knife, now you have to find the courage to get it bloody.

This exactly confirms Cap’s prediction, and when our heroes learn that the parallel universe’s Earth is uninhabited, it becomes straightforward for them to decide to destroy it. Yet we see T’Challa, who has been uncomfortable with this all along, finally fall off the slippery slope when he’s the one that has to detonate the bomb:

Namor: What are you waiting for?

T’Challa: I’m not waiting. I’m remembering who I used to be.

After he detonates the bomb with that powerful line, he works with Reed to build as many of these bombs as possible, without any particular morality getting in his way. He hasn’t lost his conscience, but now it’s been relegated to a background role, consuming him with guilt. But as our morally bankrupt team gets a break from incursions for a little while to deal with a different problem: each other.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

During Avengers versus X-Men, a Phoenix-possessed Namor floods Wakanda (T’Challa’s home country) and destroys much of their infrastructure. This divides the two of them from the start, but while Wakanda prepares for war in retaliation, Namor sees the bigger threat of the incursions and sues for peace. T’Challa doesn’t know what to do, since he personally wants to kill Namor, but also agrees that the incursions are a bigger problem (which is why he summoned Namor and the Illuminati there in the first place). T’Challa also asks his countrymen for peace, as well as his sister (the Queen), but perhaps is not as persuasive as he could be. It could be said that there is not much he can do, since it has become a matter of honor for Wakanda that is ingrained into their culture and society, but since the Queen is his sister, it seems like he certainly could bring her in the loop on the incursion situation.

The matter of trust is another one that foils this series against Avengers. In Avengers, everyone communicates with everyone else, including alien species and characters known to be untrustworthy. But here, nobody tells anybody outside of the Illuminati (their wives, friends, etc) about what’s going on. This is with the sole exception of (ironically) Black Bolt, the one member who can’t actually talk because his power is that he emits sonic blasts when he talks. He curiously does not tell any of his five wives about the incursions, but instead confides in the appropriately named Maximus the Mad, whose power seems to be that he’s awesome at building things. Additionally, this appears to be only because Maximus knew about the meetings in the first place by tracking where Black Bolt goes, and putting the pieces together on his own.

The Namor and T’Challa situation devolves into a variant of the prisoner’s dilemma. The classic prisoner’s dilemma is short enough and interesting enough to present in its entirety:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. Here’s how it goes:

If A and B both confess the crime, each of them serves 2 years in prison

If A confesses but B denies the crime, A will be set free whereas B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)

If A and B both deny the crime, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison

The paradox of the situation is that because both people are selfish, they will both confess (hoping that the other will not) to try to get out scot free. However, since both confess, this is actually worse for them than the case where neither do. There’s a ton of research on this problem and related problems, and is a fairly basic game theory example, which T’Challa almost explicitly names (referring to it as “game theory for nation building”). Yet this evolves past the classic prisoner’s dilemma to what is known as the iterated (or repeated) prisoner’s dilemma, where the prisoners now know each other and have had to do this game repeatedly, and now the notion of trust enters the game.

Trust is exactly what the team lacks, so Wakanda’s destruction of Atlantis, while seemingly redeeming their honor, sows a seed that will shortly be reaped.

Mutually Assured Destruction

The problem the participants of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma face is twofold: (1) a lack of trust, and (2) that there is iteration. The latter means that Wakanda doesn’t simply destroy Atlantis and that’s the end of that. It means that Namor is still on the table and that this will have repercussions. T’Challa is aware of this, but seems to put little effort into breaking the cycle, and it comes back to him in spades fairly quickly. Immediately after Atlantis is destroyed, the Infinity crossover event begins (still in progress but wrapping up soon). We see the Avengers leave to fight an unknown alien race known as the Builders, who we later learn are here to destroy all Earths, which will stop all future incursions. Of course, this is the only Earth our heroes actually care about, so they’re not willing to let that happen.

Simultaneously, Thanos and his army notice that the Earth is now undefended (because the Avengers leave the Earth to fight the Builders), so he makes a play for Earth. His forces are repulsed from Wakanda, but find no resistance in the now-destroyed Atlantis. His general, Proxima Midnight, is looking for the last Infinity Gem, and offers to let what is left of Atlantis live in exchange for knowledge about where the Gem is. Of course, Namor doesn’t know where it is, but knows that whatever he tells her is the place she will send Thanos’ entire army, so he gains his revenge by telling her it’s in Wakanda. As expected, Thanos sends his full army to Wakanda and as of right now, it’s currently overrun (but we’ll learn its final state soon enough).

In parallel to the invasion of Wakanda, we see another incursion come to Earth, and our heroes come together again to encounter the Builders, ready to destroy the parallel universe’s Earth with their appropriately named World Killer ship. They do so, but are unable to destroy our heroes’ Earth, so they implore our heroes to do so on their own. The Illuminati return to Earth, to find their arsenal of world destroying bombs as well as Black Bolt in the hands of Thanos.

The Infinity crossover ends in two weeks, but the theme of New Avengers is well-established by this point, summarized excellently by this quote:

Nothing is unbreakable. Nothing lasts forever. Not the bravest. Not the strongest. Not the smartest. Nations fall. Nations crumble. And sometimes, that’s the very best of what the world has to offer.

Perhaps most ironically of all, it is Captain America and the Avengers returning from space that is the last hope of the Earth. It is certainly appropriate that it is the symbol of hope and the team that actually works together and trusts one another that will be the ones who save it from Thanos, but as there are sure to be more incursions, it looks like this will not be the end of the Illuminati.