The MCU is in a bit of a weird place lately. The Avengers as we knew them are basically gone following the events of Avengers: Endgame, and Marvel is still building towards the debut of iconic teams like the Fantastic Four and X-Men. This world needs protecting, and that responsibility might just fall on the shoulders of the Thunderbolts. But why are the worst villains on the planet suddenly fighting to save it?
With the recent news that Paper Towns’ Jake Schreier has been tapped to direct a top-secret Thunderbolts movie, as well as Kevin Feige confirming that Thunderbolts will mark the end of the MCU’s Phase 5, it’s a good time to brush up on this history of the team in Marvel’s comics and why they could be a major game-changer in the MCU. These are the topic we cover here:
- Who Are the Thunderbolts?
- The Thunderbolts: The Origin of the Original Team
- The Many Incarnations of the Thunderbolts
- The Thunderbolts Marvel Movie
The Thunderbolts: The Tumultuous History of Marvel’s Twisted Super-Team
Who Are the Thunderbolts?
There have been many incarnations of the Thunderbolts over the past 25 years. There’s only one common thread linking every version of the team – they’re villains masquerading as heroes to further their own agenda. But though the various leaders of the Thunderbolts often have their own agendas, the team has a surprising habit of becoming a force for good. In the act of pretending to be heroes, the Thunderbolts often find themselves genuinely becoming heroes in the process.
Still, even at their most heroic, the Thunderbolts are more extreme and brutal in their methods than most superhero teams. The Thunderbolts’ mission is best summed up by their slogan of choice – “Justice, like lightning.”
In the act of pretending to be heroes, the Thunderbolts often find themselves genuinely becoming heroes in the process.
The Thunderbolts: The Origin of the Original Team
The Thunderbolts were originally created by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley. Following an early teaser appearance in the pages of Incredible Hulk, the team made their proper debut in the first issue of The Thunderbolts in 1997.
Led by a mysterious, patriotic hero named Citizen V, the Thunderbolts make their debut in the aftermath of a devastating conflict with Onslaught. In this period, the Avengers and Fantastic Four have vanished (the premise behind Marvel’s short-lived Heroes Reborn initiative), leaving a power vacuum the Thunderbolts are only too eager to fill.
However, despite presenting themselves as worthy successors to the Avengers, the Thunderbolts are hiding a dark secret that’s revealed at the end of The Thunderbolts #1. They’re all villains in disguise. Citizen V is actually Captain America’s nemesis Baron Zemo. Many of Zemo’s teammates are former Masters of Evil members using new costumed identities. Even 25 years later, that twist ending is widely regarded as one of the most memorable moments in Marvel Comics’ history.
But though Zemo forms the team in order to win the public’s trust and gather secrets about the superhero community that he can sell to the criminal underworld, the Thunderbolts find themselves warming to the idea of being superheroes. That shift continues even as the Thunderbolts are discredited following the return of the Avengers and Fantastic Four. By the time the team finally dissolves, even Zemo himself begins to flirt with the idea of redemption.
The Many Incarnations of the Thunderbolts
Though Zemo’s version of the Thunderbolts disbands following the events of Marvel’s 2006 Civil War crossover, that crossover also paves the way for a brand new incarnation of the team. After the victorious Tony Stark becomes director of SHIELD, Norman Osborn is tasked with leading a new version of the Thunderbolts comprised of incarcerated supervillains like Venom, Bullseye, Penance and Thunderbolts veterans Songbird and Moonstone.
That team is similar to DC’s Suicide Squad in that it’s a government-sanctioned black ops unit charged with hunting down heroes who violate the Superhuman Registration Act. Also like the Suicide Squad, the Thunderbolts are kept under strict surveillance and fitted with remote-controlled devices to prevent them from defying orders.
Osborn’s Thunderbolts eventually graduate to join the Dark Avengers.
Against all odds, Osborn’s team succeeds and even become international heroes thanks to their role in repelling a Skrull invasion (learn more about the MCU’s version of that story here). Osborn usurps Stark’s position at SHIELD and transforms it into HAMMER. Many of his Thunderbolts graduate to the “Dark Avengers,” a team where these villains usurp the names and costumes of heroes like Spider-Man, Hawkeye and Wolverine. Even Osborn steals Stark’s tech and rebrands himself “Iron Patriot,” though the Green Goblin side of his personality doesn’t stay buried for long.
Osborn forms another new version of the Thunderbolts during this period, one that can carry out the missions too dirty for his public-facing team of Avengers. However, both teams implode after Osborn’s true nature is finally exposed in 2010’s Siege.
Since then, the Thunderbolts have undergone a number of evolutions and transformations. Luke Cage briefly lead the team as a more law-abiding alternative to the Osborn era. General Thunderbolt Ross, in his guise as Red Hulk, assembled a squad of skilled assassins that included Punisher, Venom, and Elektra. The Winter Soldier formed his own Thunderbolts that included many veterans of the original team. And most recently, Wilson Fisk spearheaded multiple versions of the Thunderbolts during his tenure as mayor of New York City.
Marvel Cinematic Universe: Every Upcoming Movie and TV Show
The Thunderbolts Marvel Movie
Following a handful of appearances in animated projects like Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers: Ultron Revolution, the Thunderbolts are making their live-action debut in an upcoming MCU movie. According to reports, Paper Towns’ Jake Schreier has signed on to direct the film, with Eric Pearson (Black Widow) penning the screenplay.
Beyond that, very little is known about this secretive project, apart from its July 2024 release date. We don’t even know which specific version of the comic book team is being adapted for the MCU. As with so many past MCU projects, it’s likely the Thunderbolts movie is drawing inspiration from several different incarnations.
It does seem safe to assume Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo will be involved. Zemo has already been portrayed in a more sympathetic light in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2021’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and the Thunderbolts movie may see him continue to seek redemption for his past by spearheading a team of would-be heroes.
It’s also very likely that Julia Louis Dreyfus’ Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is a major character in the movie. We’ve seen Contessa appear in several Phase 4 adventures already, recruiting characters like Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova and Wyatt Russell’s John Walker to her mysterious cause. Contessa may be responsible for forming the Thunderbolts in response to the dissolution of the Avengers, hence why she wants a Black Widow and a Captain America of her own. But given the character’s often treacherous nature in the comics, it’s hard to say which side Contessa is truly on.
Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Contessa are two characters likely to appear in the Thunderbolts movie.
2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may have been setting up the Thunderbolts movie, too. Tim Roth’s Abomination is briefly seen taking part in a superhuman fight club before being escorted home by Benedict Wong’s Wong. This former Hulk villain is seemingly being rehabilitated, which could pave the way for his involvement with the Thunderbolts. Perhaps we’ll learn more when the character returns in the upcoming She-Hulk series.
Finally, there’s a possibility the team is somehow connected to William Hurt’s General Thunderbolt Ross, hearkening back to Marvel’s 2012 Thunderbolts series. Sadly, Hurt’s recent passing means Ross himself probably won’t be appearing in the movie, but who knows — maybe we’ll learn the team is named in his honor.
In short, the MCU Thunderbolts are shaping up to be a fusion of several versions of the comic book team. As with the original incarnation, Baron Zemo is likely a major player in this story. As with the post-Civil War version, the team is probably a government-sanctioned alternative to the Avengers, rather than simply being a group of disguised villains. The real question is how heroes like Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Thor will react to seeing this new team arrive on the scene.
Thunderbolts Release Date
It was announced at San Diego Comic-Con 2022 that Marvel’s Thunderbolts will conclude Phase 5 of the MCU when it is released on July 26, 2024.
We don’t know who will be in Thunderbolts yet, but we can take some guesses. As noted above, these characters all seem like good candidates to join the MCU version of the team: Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl), John Walker (Wyatt Russell), and Abomination (Tim Roth).
What MCU characters do you want to see join the Thunderbolts? Vote in our poll and sound off in the comments! And be sure to check out all the new Marvel movies in 2022 and beyond.
Note: This article was originally published on June 16, 2022 and updated on July 26, 2022 with the latest news about Thunderbolts.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.