With the official announcement of a Thunderbolts film in the upcoming film slate of Marvel Studios, many have begun to theorize how both the film and the team will fit into the developing landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though after some time reflecting on the news, it seems possible that Thunderbolts will not simply just “fit into” the landscape of the MCU, but rather become a critical lynchpin for the narrative direction of many franchises within the shared universe.
From my perspective, Thunderbolts will be the coup de grace in ushering in an interpretation of the comic-inspired Dark Reign storyline to the film version of Earth-616. In this piece, I will be mapping out the road that hypothetically leads to the formation of this massive status quo change, how the team can function in the midst, and the catalyst of their downfall.
This part of the MCU storyline is the easiest to trace as it has already begun. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Valentina Allegra de Fontaine has very much been positioned to become the figurehead of this new arc. This is especially the case with the passing of Thaddeus Ross’ actor William Hurt and the impossibility to have Norman Osborn exist outside the Spider-Man bubble of the MCU. As seen in Black Widow and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Val is in the midst of forming partnerships with characters that have morally gray allegiances in Yelena Belova, John Walker, and (potentially) Helmut Zemo. Logic greatly dictates that these are the first steps towards the formation of the Thunderbolts team, and is seemingly all but confirmed with the film announcement earlier this week.
Audiences should absolutely expect to see Louis-Dreyfus back in the numerous Marvel Studios projects throughout 2022. Ms. Marvel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and especially She-Hulk (a superhero legal-based series that is bound to have ample amounts of morally gray characters) feel like natural points for where Val could show up next. One specific concept in my mind is Julia Louis-Dreyfus making a surprise appearance in a Thor: Love and Thunder post-credit scene to recruit a scorned Ares after the decimation of Olympus at the hands of Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher. While Val can certainly be involved in recruiting more characters beyond 2022, there needs to be a turning point for this storyline at some point and there is a natural point at which this can occur.
The MCU has often made major alterations to their interpretations of comic storylines but ultimately kept similar ramifications to the future of their stories. With that in mind, Marvel Studios has the perfect opportunity to use the upcoming Secret Invasion as a means to launch their version of a Dark Reign like the comics. No matter what direction Marvel takes with this series, it would be a logical decision for it to end with Val and her fully actualized team of “approved” heroes taking the place of Norman Osborn in the comics and being the ones who very publicly eradicate the threat of Skrulls.
This event can serve a two-fold purpose for the immediate future of the MCU. Firstly, Secret Invasion could very well be seen as the last straw for the world as its citizens have had to deal with growing dangerous threats to their lives since “The Blip” and have officially turned on the superheroes that have saved them many times before on a large-scale level. Secondly, people within positions of power would only trust and allow the government-sanctioned Thunderbolts team to regulate the issues that arise on Earth.
The Dark Reign
And from there, the MCU version of the Dark Reign can commence and could play a major role in a large swath of future projects. The Thunderbolts team can and should be present in different forms in essentially any project-based predominantly on Earth. For instance, the Thunderbolts should be the main opposition for the Hulk(s) on Earth within the World War Hulk film rumored to be in development (assuming it takes those cues from the comic event).
As well, they should serve as a foil for whatever political espionage mission Anthony Mackie’s upcoming Captain America film. Essentially, the new status quo for pure heroes post-Secret Invasion should be dealing with their ostracization from societal acceptance and working towards proving the trust they should deserve from the general public.
Another angle I would further develop in this Dark Reign is the bureaucratic mission to prevent young heroes from becoming active in the world as has been developed in the likes Spider-Man: No Way Home and Ms. Marvel. This would set the stage for the Young Avengers to form as a counter-response towards the world generally losing faith in the Avengers team that has been instrumental in saving the world numerous times.
Meanwhile, the Thunderbolts film can serve as an exploration of the core team of reformed villains as they deal with the very public spotlight attached to them and how they react to it. Some fully buy into the Kool-Aid of their role as heroes, while others grow skeptical that what they’re doing is actually the “right thing”. There is certainly lots of room to play with this type of social commentary through the lens of bombastic superhero action within the MCU, both in the film itself and in the duration of this phase of the MCU.
However, this storyline won’t last forever as the status quo and much like the comics, a new Heroic Age can rise in its aftermath. In terms of how Marvel Studios should sunset Dark Reign, I would use the formation of a new official Avengers team and film (not to be confused with the Young Avengers) as the means to end this phase. Specifically, the Siege comic storyline should be adapted with Val completely breaking bad and using her influence and team to begin an attempted conquest of places that serve as “threats” to the safety of the rest of the world (i.e. New Asgard, Wakanda, and Ta Lo).
At this point, the world needs the Avengers and their reuniting with a fresh line-up could serve as a massive event that would be satisfying both emotionally and commercially. From there, the stage can be set with an Avengers team leading the charge in whatever the endgame of the multiverse saga will be within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As well, the Thunderbolts team could still exist within the framework of the MCU as a place for villains and anti-heroes looking to reform their image, but this time without the baggage of being a front for Valentina’s nefarious scheme.
In addition, the idea of a prejudiced world against super-powered individuals can still ruminate beyond the end of Dark Reign and into the introduction of mutants in the not-too-distant future. Ultimately though, no matter what specific direction they take when it comes to Thunderbolts and its surrounding future projects, the stage is set for Marvel Studios to transition its universe into a new long-term dynamic that can be as defining as the Infinity Saga.