From the moment Helmut Zemo made his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic book film fans have looked forward to the possibility of seeing his signature team, the Thunderbolts, enter the narrative. And recently, it became (semi) official, as it was reported in the industry trades that the long-rumored project was in active development, with a writer and director attached, and an expected filming schedule of Summer 2023. And with speculation season now in full swing, now’s a great time to look at what the MCU’s version of the Thunderbolts could entail, and what form the project could (and should) look like.
The Thunderbolts is a group that has had several incarnations in the comics, but is best understood to be former villains assuming heroic roles, either at their own behest or at the behest of the government. At first measure, then, it’s easy to understand why one would think of the Thunderbolts as Marvel’s answer to the Suicide Squad. And with two somewhat successful cinematic forays into presenting that kind of team to audiences, it wouldn’t be completely surprising if Feige & Co. decided to go that route. But the original premise for the Thunderbolts, back in 1997 in a story written by Kurt Busiek, was much more groundbreaking, because readers were led to believe that they were in fact new heroes who had stepped up to fill the void in a world without an Avengers team. That is, until the rug was pulled out from under the audience, and the Thunderbolts were revealed to be an elaborate ruse to earn the world’s trust while covering for their villainy. It is that idea that can truly distinguish the T’bolts from the Suicide Squad, because it’s essentially a con job. And a movie based around a con job can allow the MCU to do a full-blown crime caper…with actual capes.
The heist movie is a familiar genre, and in the Ant-Man films, as well as Avengers: Endgame, we’ve definitely seen nods made to those types of films. But a crime caper where all the characters are criminals is far more intriguing, because there is more potential for shifting loyalties and double-crosses, as everyone’s morality is a little more murky. Captain America isn’t really going to abandon the Time Heist for Peggy Carter, for instance. But if one of the characters in a crime caper gets the opportunity to go for dolo and turn on their teammates, that character just might. And that adds another layer of uncertainty to the stakes.
Thinking about the film like a con/crime caper also helps us outline how the story might play out, as well as who the best fit for the Thunderbolts lineup would be, both in terms of MCU characters we’ve seen before, and who we might realistically see introduced in the film. Consider this as a loose blueprint for the Thunderbolts film.
In a world where the Avengers are currently disassembled, various players have a stake in getting a piece of The Next Big Thing in superheroics. With the Sokovia Accords still in effect, but public support for them somewhat on the wane, there is significant interest by the US government in having high profile superhero operatives who can do the PR work while also following deployment and stand down orders with minimal pushback.
Enter Project Thunderbolt. A fully government-sponsored team led by the decorated (but disgraced) super soldier John Walker, the US Agent, and assisted by a cadre of colorful new heroes, recruited through various means by Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a private off-the-books contractor with ties to several intelligence agencies. The Thunderbolts are provided with enough tech and logistical support to become America’s premier superhero team.
But in fact, the Thunderbolts are actually a plan by Helmut Zemo to use the government’s desire for an Avengers replacement to engineer his release, gain the public’s trust, and procure access to the Mother Lode, a top secret storage facility that contains the most advanced and powerful confiscated tech in the world, including a working copy of the Ultron AI.
The Mastermind (Helmut Zemo aka Z) We’ve already seen his penchant for playing the long game in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. His disdain for superheroes, specifically powered individuals, is well-documented, as is his belief that the people are gullible and easily fooled. So would it be terribly shocking if he played up his Batmanesque penchant for contingencies in order to cook up a caper worthy of the prep time?
In the comics, Zemo chose “Citizen V,” a star-spangled fighter of fascists, as his cover identity, but that would be redundant with US Agent at the forefront of this Thunderbolts team. The Z persona, then, would be something slightly different, a swashbuckling international man of mystery who would evoke both Bond and Zorro, and allow him to get his Errol Flynn on.
But how would he get himself freed from international custody? Enter…
The Partner In Crime (Conrad Mack aka Smiling Tiger – new character): Every Danny Ocean needs a Rusty. DiCaprio in Inception needed a Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The Mastermind typically needs a swiss army knife, a character with all the skills to be the #1, but who is content to be the #2. But currently, there aren’t too many folks in the MCU who’d fit the bill. However, the aforementioned Disney Plus series introduced us to an associate of Zemo’s who is well-known in the Madripoor underworld scene, a flashy dresser, and somewhat resembles Sam Wilson, but little else beyond that. This provides a somewhat blank canvas for introducing a backstory, motivations, and the skill set the stories required.
A Black man with a cat motif is going to invite Black Panther comparisons, and I think that’s worth leaning into. He should absolutely pretend to be Wakandan, and interactions around that ruse could easily be played for comedic effect. However, none of that should undercut his core competency and ability to excel in a variety of situations. He pitches Zemo as the asset that Project Thunderbolt needs, because of his contacts and vast knowledge of the inner workings of Hydra and other networks.
The Antagonist (Henry Gyrich – new character): To be clear, Zemo’s scheme is nefarious. But one reason we might be willing to root for him is that it provides an opportunity to defeat an far less likable character. This is who Gyrich is, the government bureaucrat who loves the power that having a fiefdom affords him. And having superheroes that answer to him makes him even more loathsome. With Project Thunderbolt as his crowning achievement, Gyrich’s eventual discovery of its subversion by Zemo should be positioned as an tremendous humiliation for Gyrich, a takedown that the audience should absolutely be rooting for.
The Benefactor/Backer (Valentina Allegra De Fontaine): So far, we’ve been her as the go-between for her unnamed backers and both John Walker and Yelena Belova (more on them later). Her comics counterpart is an espionage operative on par with Nick Fury, so we can expect this character to have her finger in a lot of pies. And she’s more likable and charming than Gyrich. So far, Val seems unlikely to freelance, as opposed to standing in for the interests she represents. But that situation could change, and she, like a lot of spies, would ultimately serve her own interests. Val, then, wouldn’t be an antagonist per se, but she wouldn’t be a full ally either.
The Tech Specialist (Justin Hammer aka “HQ”): Be it a hacker, gadget guy, or man in the chair, every heist needs someone who can make the impossible possible through technological shenanigans, and Sam Rockwell’s Hammer stole scenes in Iron Man 2 with his charismatic performance. When we last saw him, he was in custody, but a role in the Thunderbolts as both their “Q” and their man in the chair (and occasionally, quasi-mission participant via remote piloted armor) can afford him the opportunity to secure his release and step into the “superhero mogul” void that Tony Stark left.
In reality, however, Hammer has been co-opted, and the tech he supplies to the T-Bolts has all been equipped with overrides controlled by Zemo, based on the promise of not only a substantial cut of their score, but access to the Ultron AI, which he believes he can improve upon, and one up Stark for all time.
The Femme Fatale (Yelena Belova aka “the White Widow”): Trained as a Black Widow assassin, Yelena not only has top notch skills in infiltration and diversion, but a master of weaponry and fight skills. And as the sister of a beloved Avenger, she has a built-in avenue to garner sympathy with the public, as the same “red in her ledger” narrative carries over.
But despite her ruthlessness, we’ve seen Yelena’s reluctance to behave strictly as a weapon. This would position her as a possible “change of heart” candidate, someone who could actually grow to enjoy the trappings of being a hero, despite her more cynical exchange with Natasha in Black Widow about not wanting to be celebrated as a killer. She’d be most likely to experience misgivings about her role in the con.
The Thief (Ava Starr, Ghost AKA “Silver Phantom”): On a team with multiple spies, Ghost might seem somewhat redundant, but being able to phase and become invisible makes her uniquely suited to perform side heists while the team is on a mission, as well as be the contingency plan if things go sideways. And her history of being a former SHIELD/Hydra operative means that her orientation tilts towards the morally grey.
Ava’s constant need for quantum energy made her somewhat easy for Smiling Tiger to co-opt, but it’s more so that she’s pretty cynical about who gets to be viewed as a hero, and who gets to be redeemed. The Silver Phantom persona allows her to reinvent herself as someone not cursed by her abilities, but gifted with them.
The Muscle (Emil Blonsky AKA “Agent Gamma” ): Formerly the Abomination, this super soldier turned Hulk nemesis has all the strength one would want. He’s morally compromised, yes, but he’d be willing to work with the government in exchange for some degree of freedom, even if his gamma issues make full freedom unlikely. Wearing a helmet that conceals his identity and outfitted with experimental tech that allows him to siphon off the gamma radiation coursing through him, Blonsky can temporarily maintain a more humanoid form (or even full human) before he goes full Code Green. The Agent Gamma persona gives him a heroic rebrand, and affords him the opportunity to capitalize on some of the goodwill Hulk and She-Hulk have been able to garner.
However, this guy doesn’t want to play nice with authority. Being locked up has embittered him, and as soon as he can get the opportunity to break bad, he will. Zemo has promised him the means to get completely free and start a new life somewhere he can’t be extradited from.
The Fixer (Toni Masters, Taskmaster AKA “Winter Soldier II” ): The cover story for Antonia Dreykov is that she was part of the Red Room’s continuation of the Winter Soldier project as Taskmaster, and after being freed by Yelena Belova, now she wants to do good in the world. The truth is actually more complicated. After being freed from her father’s control, Toni abandoned her surname and decided that she’d become the “Master” of her fate, choosing to live a hedonistic lifestyle funded by her ability to replicate any skill she sees, and sell her services to the highest bidder.
The role Taskmaster should play in the caper is the ability to mimic anyone’s mannerisms or skill set, and with her natural androgyny combined with potential false face tech, she should be able to step into anyone’s identity if need be. As for her susceptibility to fall in with Zemo’s scheme, she absolutely should be willing to go along with the con in service of a bigger payday.
The Inside Man (Rick Mason): A former SHIELD operative turned contractor, he has shown a propensity for acquiring whatever needs being acquired. So while he may not be an official member of the Thunderbolts, he would be an asset to the team.
Mason’s association with Natasha in defiance of The Sokovia Accords put him in a tough spot, as his business ventures were squeezed by the government in an attempt to draw her out. So really, he is working with the Thunderbolts because he has no choice, and if Zemo can promise him a better deal, he might just take it.
The Patsy (John Walker AKA the USAgent): For this con to work, Zemo needs to employ an unwitting ally, someone who is meant to be out in front, loud and flashy, to take attention from, while being oblivious to, the caper happening around him. And John Walker fits the bill. He’s a hothead, but he really wants to do good. He’s not averse to taking extreme measures, but he can still find righteousness in the cause. And so, given the opportunity to show that he can be just as inspiring a leader as Steve Rogers, he can be manipulated into thinking he’s modeling for his teammates a course towards redemption, and that he’s keeping Zemo on a short leash.
In reality, of course, Zemo is running Walker. His compliance tech, already subverted by Zemo. His leadership tactics, anticipated and steered towards Zemo’s contingency plans. His inspiration of his teammates, a way for those teammates to get close enough to gauge his suspicion, and relay what they find to Zemo. And when the day comes for the Big Job, there’s enough doctored evidence secretly planted to make it look like Walker was in on it all along.
The Thunderbolts actually start to make a difference, saving lives and protecting the innocent, and that leads to each of them having misgivings about going through with the Big Job. Walker, as we all know, does want to redeem himself and for the most part wants to see these former villains redeem themselves as well. For Yelena in particular, she begins to understand better what her sister’s legacy was, and that it is a noble pursuit. For Ghost, having people actually see her, as well as look up to her, starts to gnaw at her conscience as well. Other characters have similar existential crises and conflicts.
Additionally, Val begins to suspect that something is afoot, and starts looking into things in order to report her findings to Gyrich. But thankfully, she and he aren’t 100% on the same page, and when it comes down to it, if she won’t benefit from exposing the con, she just might see how things play out.
I mean, it’s a con job, and it’s a superhero film. Some things go wrong when it’s time for our (anti)heroes to pull off the Big Job. There’s infighting and a betrayal or two. Ultron kind of gets rebooted, and they have to put their differences aside to save the world. The (anti)heroes win, and the heist is ultimately aborted it. Or is it?
Ultimately, the setup laid out above would make for an innovative and effective introduction of the Thunderbolts concept to a mass audience, while also providing a distinct enough throughline to stave off the Suicide Squad comparisons. The MCU loves to put its own spin on concepts from the comics, and I think that letting the audience know from the outset that there is a caper afoot still pays homage to Busiek’s original story, but sets up new trajectories for the characters involved that would be tremendously intriguing going forward.