Right from Phase 1, running up to the arrival of The Avengers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been about delivering hero team-ups. And while there isn’t going to be one in Phase 4, Kevin Feige confirmed at Comic-Con this year that Phase 5 will conclude with a different kind of team-up movie – the currently somewhat-mysterious Thunderbolts, with Black Widow's Eric Pearson working on a script, and Paper Towns and Robot & Frank director Jake Schreier (who also used to be part of the Waverly Films collective with Spider-Man’s Jon Watts) on board.
Who are the Thunderbolts? Why are they assembling before the Avengers? And who’ll be in the line-up? Read on for answers, clues, and extrapolations from what we know so far…
What is Marvel’s Thunderbolts?
It isn’t an exact match, but the simple way of explaining the Thunderbolts is that they’re Marvel’s version of The Suicide Squad: a group of villains – or at least anti-heroes – brought together by third-party schemers in a possibly ill-advised attempt to turn them into a force for good. In Marvel’s case, they were originally assembled by Baron Zemo and the Masters Of Evil, and have sometimes been linked to Hulk regular General Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (hence the name). They made their debut in the pages of The Incredible Hulk in 1996, introduced by writer and artist team Peter David and Mike Deodato. They continued to their own series the same year, created by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley, and have been brought back with a bunch of alternative line-ups in comics ever since.
Who’s been in the Thunderbolts in the comics?
As ever, there have been various line-ups over the years. The first was led by Baron Zemo, who was overseeing Z-listers Fixer, Beetle, Screaming Mimi, Goliath, and Moonstone. They weren’t revealed as those characters immediately though – to begin with everyone thought they were a new group of brightly-costumed superheroes called, respectively, Citizen V, Techno, MACH-1, Songbird, Atlas and Meteorite. Their true identities were only revealed at the end of Issue #1 of their own series: one of the best kept secrets and most successful twists in Marvel’s history.
As far as the MCU goes, characters who have been Thunderbolts members at some point in the comics and have already appeared on screen – whether in the MCU proper, or in adjacent Marvel adaptations – are plentiful. Not all of them are bad guys, and some are more likely than others, we’d suggest. Zemo seems a no-brainer. Tim Roth as Emil “Abomination” Blonsky is about to show up again in She-Hulk, 16 years after we last saw him, which could be significant. Not-my-Cap super-soldier John Walker, aka U.S. Agent, was introduced in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and has already been recruited by insidious government forces. And with Daredevil continuing in his upcoming Born Again series, this could well be an opportunity to utilise some of those Netflix villains who are still alive and often seemed to be being set up for future shenanigans (for example, we last saw Bullseye/Poindexter getting radical super-surgery on his spine).
Really, though, it’s anyone’s guess at this point. Here’s everyone who’s potentially on the board from previous comics line-ups (and an upcoming one too – a fresh Thunderbolts run is about to begin on the page).
Abomination (Tim Roth)
America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez)
Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl)
Beetle (Claire Rushbrook)
Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)
Crossbones (Frank Grillo)
Flash Thompson/Agent Venom (Tony Revolori)
Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen)
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)
Monica Rambeau (Teyona Paris)
Samuel Sterns/the Leader (Tim Blake Nelson)
Shocker (Bokeem Woodbine)
Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko)
US Agent (Wyatt Russell)
Whiplash (Mickey Rourke)
Plus, possibilities from the Defenders series:
Bullseye (Wilson Bethel)
Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir)
Elektra (Élodie Yung)
Luke Cage (Mike Colter)
Punisher (Jon Bernthal)
Characters from the X-Men universe:
Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds)
Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu)
Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones, or the fully-CGI version)
And from Sony’s Spider-Man universe, aka SPUMC:
Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)
Electro (Jamie Foxx)
Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe)
Rhino (Paul Giamatti)
Venom (Tom Hardy)
Ghost Rider! Can you imagine Nic Cage pissing fire in the MCU?
Why did the Thunderbolts form?
The key factor here, and significant for the timing of their arrival in the MCU, is that the Thunderbolts were introduced at a point when the Avengers were absent. In the comics the Avengers and the Fantastic Four had been snapped into a pocket universe during the major crossover Onslaught event. In the films, we’re obviously looking at the depleted post-Thanos Avengers and, in short order, the aftermath of the Skrull situation that looks set to play out in Secret Invasion. In a world largely without Avengers, there’s going to be a tussle to replace them.
The Thunderbolts’ motivations over the years have varied. Zemo’s original plan for them was to exploit the gap in the hero market caused by the Avengers’ disappearance for his own villainous world-domination-type schemes. But it’s also been, like Suicide Squad, a government programme to tackle difficult problems with expendable and deniable operatives. That’s probably the direction the MCU’s Thunderbolts will lean in. Think back to the attempts to manufacture a government-approved Captain America (Wyatt Russell’s John Walker) and sidekick (Lemar Hoskins’ Battlestar), and you might surmise that Thunderbolts will work on similar lines. You’ll notice that the Captain America film that immediately precedes Thunderbolts is called New World Order. The probable trajectory here is the Next Generation of Avengers could face a Trumpian disaster version. But expect some redemptive arcs here and there, and some switching of sides.
Thunderbolts with no Thunderbolt?
How the absence of the late William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross himself will be dealt with remains to be seen. He could be recast; Sam Elliot played him in the 2003 Ang Lee Hulk that pre-dated the MCU, so that might be a fun comeback. But it seems more likely that the Thunderbolts will simply be named in Ross’ militaristic hoo-ra honour by another character. Prime candidate for the latter option would be Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, who we’ve already seen pulling various strings in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and Black Widow. As mentioned above, she’s already recruited John Walker for her own ends, and sent Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) into the events of Hawkeye. While nothing’s yet confirmed, we’d say she’s a pretty safe bet as the MCU Thunderbolts’ handler.