Marvel Studios is officially working on a Thunderbolts project; here’s all you need to know about this team from the comics and their prospective MCU members. Back in May 2018, then-Disney CEO Bob Iger teased Marvel was working on a major franchise beyond the Avengers. “We’ve plotted out Marvel movies that will take us well into the next decade,” he revealed. “I’m guessing we will try our hand at what I’ll call a new franchise beyond Avengers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t see more Avengers down the road.” Naturally, that led to intense speculation about just what this franchise would be.
It’s now no secret that Marvel will begin production on an MCU Thunderbolts movie in 2023. In the comics, this is a team traditionally comprised of major villains – some of whom are seeking redemption by reinventing themselves as heroes, while others have their own agendas. The news isn’t actually much of a surprise because recent Marvel films have featured villains who are members of the Thunderbolts, and the studio has stopped killing the bad guys off. One of the main purposes of The Falcon & the Winter Soldier appeared to be to reinvent Baron Zemo to make him a little more comic-book-accurate; in the comics, he’s the Thunderbolts’ founder and, generally, their leader.
Comic book readers will be familiar with the Thunderbolts, but general audiences will probably know a lot less. Given that’s the case, here’s a full primer on the Thunderbolts, including the Thunderbolts’ origin, their members, and what to expect from them in the MCU Phase 5’s future story.
Marvel’s Thunderbolts Team Origin & History Explained
The Thunderbolts’ origin actually occurred off the back of the X-Men. Modern readers may find it hard to believe, but back in 1996, the X-Men were Marvel’s biggest franchise, and sales of the Avengers and Fantastic Four books had been struggling for years. Marvel came up with the bold idea of relaunching those particular franchises, using the X-Men crossover “Onslaught” to remove most of their non-mutant heroes from the main continuity and reboot them in a new universe, thereby ditching the decades of continuity they felt new readers were finding overwhelming. This left the main Marvel Universe without many of its greatest champions – and then Marvel began teasing a replacement for the Avengers, a team who would step out of the shadows to replace the original Avengers in defending the world. Marvel gave the Thunderbolts a strong marketing push, but the first issue ended with a shocking twist; it turned out the Thunderbolts were nothing but a con. Every member of the team was a villain operating under a fake identity. It was a shocking twist, not even hinted at in marketing for Thunderbolts, and readers were stunned. The Thunderbolts’ origin story was nothing like what they’d been expecting.
There have been many iterations of the Thunderbolts since 1996, but they’ve always been composed of villains or characters with a rather shady sense of morality. Some Thunderbolts members have always been unrepentant, simply using the team to their own end; classic Spider-Man villain Green Goblin ran the Thunderbolts at one time and was ultimately able to orchestrate his ascension to leadership of S.H.I.E.L.D. off the back of the role, launching the so-called “Dark Reign” era. But other Thunderbolts found themselves being redeemed in the eyes of the public and came to enjoy being heroes. The best example of the latter is Songbird; originally a z-list villain called Screaming Mimi, the sonic manipulator has now served alongside Avengers as an accepted superhero. The Thunderbolts are often compared to DC’s Suicide Squad in that the U.S. government has gradually come to rather like the project, and several recent iterations of the team have been assembled as a black ops team.
Thunderbolts’ Story In Marvel Comics
This team’s central theme has always been redemption, ever since the Thunderbolts’ origin. Most Thunderbolts stories see the team wrestle with this issue, with some choosing to put their criminal – and sometimes downright evil – pasts behind them even as others cling to their own Machiavellian schemes. This means the Thunderbolts are a unique group in that they often wind up turning on one another. It’s been true from the beginning when Baron Zemo began to realize his plan was backfiring and attempted to blackmail several Thunderbolts members by threatening to reveal their true identities to the world. Matters were complicated when the Avengers and the Fantastic Four returned, and it didn’t take the real heroes long to figure out the Thunderbolts’ scam. In a delightful twist, Hawkeye – a former villain himself – decided to step away from the Avengers and lead the Thunderbolts in an attempt to reform their members.
The U.S. government reinvented the Thunderbolts after the Superhuman Registration Act, becoming a program that forced captured villains to help police the superhuman community. Baron Zemo initially led this version of the team, but he always had an agenda of his own, and he was soon exposed. Norman Osborn was placed in charge of the Thunderbolts, and under his leadership, the team impressed the government. Osborn played a key role during the Skrull “Secret Invasion,” and he was able to maneuver himself into a position of authority where he took charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. There have since been other versions of the team, with one led by Luke Cage and another by Red Hulk, both aiming at actually redeeming supervillains. The latest Thunderbolts team was formed by the Kingpin, currently Mayor of New York City in the comics.
Thunderbolts Members Already In The MCU
Marvel Studios has already introduced several Thunderbolts cast members in the MCU, most notably Baron Zemo, who played a key role in Captain America: Civil War but was reinterpreted to become far more comic-book-accurate in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier; Zemo even now wears his iconic purple mask. The MCU’s version of Ghost made her MCU debut in Ant-Man & the Wasp, albeit much more sympathetic than her comic book inspiration; the MCU’s Ghost had gained powers after being exposed to energy from the Quantum Realm, and she had been rendered unstable on a quantum level, forcing her to go to extreme lengths in order to find a way to heal. And Black Widow introduced a third key member of several Thunderbolts teams, Taskmaster, again given a much more sympathetic origin story because she was a victim of abuse who had been turned into an assassin by her father.
Several major Marvel heroes have been members of the Thunderbolts, including Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier, both of whom led Thunderbolt teams on occasion. U.S. Agent has been part of the Thunderbolts on occasion as well, and even Yelena Belova’s Black Widow is associated with them – although it turned out she had actually been replaced by Natasha Romanoff herself, who had used that identity to infiltrate the Thunderbolts and keep an eye on Norman Osborn.
Everything We Know About MCU’s Thunderbolts Movie
Little is known about the MCU’s Thunderbolts right now, although it is finally officially in development. Jack Schreier, director of Robot & Frank and Paper Towns, is set to direct, while Black Widow writer Eric Pearson is developing the script for now. Since production on the film is still a way out, the actual villain roster and cast for Thunderbolts have yet to be announced, but there’s a good chance they will feature plenty of familiar faces. Marvel Studios has already been preparing for the Thunderbolts’ debut, even retconning Baron Zemo’s timeline in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, presumably to help him play a major role in the team’s foundation. Other probable MCU Thunderbolts appearances include Yelena Belova, U.S. Agent, and the shady figure who’s been seen talking to them throughout Phase 4, Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Val is a complex figure in the comics in her own right, a former lover of Nick Fury who was secretly a high-ranking Hydra agent, so she’d be perfectly suited to be responsible for the MCU Thunderbolts’ origin. Initial reports have suggested that the Thunderbolts film will begin production in 2023, meaning it could arrive in 2024 at the earliest.
Thunderbolts Is The MCU’s Answer To Suicide Squad
On paper, the concepts of DC’s Suicide Squad and Marvel’s Thunderbolts are very similar; both teams use villains (apologetically or otherwise), antiheroes, and outcasts to do dirty work that the government and the world’s regular lineup of squeaky-clean heroes would rather avoid. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad showcased how successful this concept can be, even spawning the hit spinoff series Peacemaker to its own acclaim. In light of this, it seems that Thunderbolts is Marvel’s attempt to capitalize on a similar idea. Where Marvel may be able to set itself apart, however, is the fact that most if not all of the villains likely to be featured on the Thunderbolts team have already been well-introduced in the MCU. This will remove the need to spend time on characters’ backstories and motives in the Thunderbolts movie, and can allow Marvel the extra narrative room it needs to make a movie good enough to compete with The Suicide Squad.
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