Written by Brian Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev
New Avengers: Illuminati this is not. Where the Illuminati special was one of the more entertaining premises and was executed perfectly, Dark Reign failed to deliver on any of the promise such a grouping of villains should have had. Add some of the worst art I've seen in recent memory and the fact setting this scenario up was apparently the only reason for Secret Invasion's existence and that adds up to one disappointing issue which should have sold me on the entire Dark Reign premise.
At the very least, coming into this issue, I was hoping for some explanations as to why each of these characters were chosen and why they would even give Norman "I'm crazy and lose to Spider-Man every other week" Osborn the light of day. Thankfully, Bendis actually attempts to address these concerns, albeit a little less than satisfactory for my liking.
Let's start with the obvious one - Emma Frost, a good girl for the past 15 years or more and current girlfriend of Cyclops and member of the X-Men. Bendis simply glosses over this in favour of playing up her ties to the Hellfire Club, happily ignoring any of the current goings on with the Hellfire Club and Emma's complete turn around as a character over the past few decades. While, yes, she doesn't play a villain here and her waking up in the middle of the night with cold sweats at the end of the issue plays up the guilt she feels over being associated with these people, I still don't see how or why she would play along with them or even be chosen as a member in the first place.
But, if this was the worst part of the issue's premise, that wouldn't be all that bad. However, we have Namor acting like a complete neanderthal, in both his dialogue and how he was drawn in the issue, the Hood acting like some common thug, waving his guns around while jumping on the table, and Norman being the main focus and Tony Stark of this evil Illuminati group while Dr Doom and Loki simply play bit piece background characters to him.
In fact, Norman has the entire team under his thumb with the threat of a mystery character, whom we aren't even shown on panel. This character would have to be one hell of a power house, as Loki is a god and Doom has stared down the Beyonder and Mephisto, among others. The whole mystery man keeping these characters under Norman's thumb comes off as a cheap, fanfiction-like writing ploy from one of the biggest names in the industry.
As for my guess as to who this is, I'm going to go with the Void Sentry that was last seen (unless I missed the tie-in it was taken care of in) taking over for the Sentry, who took off for the outer space for some quiet time thanks to some Skrull mind games. After the Sentry ripped Doom a new one in Mighty Avengers, I figure an evil version is the only one that could possibly make him reconsider laughing Osborn out of the room.
The final miscue this issue has is the killing off of Swordsman. While not exactly the most beloved character in the world, Bendis simply kills off a character for pure shock value and with as little fanfare as the recent Wasp killing. And for what? To show that Norman is crazy and can kill anyone at random? This could have been accomplished by killing a random guard or secretary in lieu of killing off a character that has seen a fair share of development in Thunderbolts over the past year or more.
The only really surprising and interesting part of this issue was after the meeting ended and Doom and Namor were left to themselves. It was only here that the characters actually felt like the real Dr Doom and Namor as the two discuss what they would do about this situation, which ends with Doom proclaiming they will simply eliminate them all if it came down to it. I was a little surprised Loki didn't stick around with them as Doom was seen making an alliance with her in an earlier issue of Thor, much like he did with Namor at the end of Namor's recent mini-series. Maybe World War Doom for the next big event?
Verdict - Avoid It. The villains teamed up. Emma Frost tagged along for no real reason. Norman is keeping them in line with a mystery character, whom we only see in shadow. This just sort of went through the motions and it lacks any of the impact or entertainment value that the Illuminati specials had. Nothing happens here that needs to be seen. These characters are teamed up and that's about all you need to know in my opinion, making this issue redundant.