Phase 4 Theory: The Thunderbolts Initiative
“I found something 40 years in the army never taught me: Perspective.”
This quote is particularly importan for where the Marvel Cinematic Universe heads to in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame. Not necessarily because it’s a cryptic line that could potentially set up the things Secretary Ross has been doing in the shadow of the MCU for many years, but because it’s really telling of how Marvel Studios operates in terms of storytelling. When you think about it, it’s always about keeping a “perspective” in the belief that all their individual stories eventually condense and fit into the structure of a larger plot. So, in their own way, Marvel Studios tells their stories exactly as the comics would even if the beats differ. They have their own individual characters with their own individual stories which then set up elements and plot points that will eventually interweave with other characters in a larger event. Now that the “The Infinity Saga” concluded back in 2019, many fans are left to wonder exactly how Marvel Studios will move forward heading into Phase 4 and Phase 5 in terms of the stories they’ll tell next, and we believe that the answer actually dates all the way back to 2008. You remember 2008, right? It is when a little-known Marvel Studios introduced the MCU with Iron Man.
Now, the first film of the MCU’s Phase 4 is Black Widow, and while the film might be chronologically set in the “Infinity Saga Timeline”, we must acknowledge that this film will be hoping to accomplish the equivalent of what Iron Man did back in 2008. This film will kick off a brand-new story that will eventually build up towards a larger plot down the line. I have reason to believe that Black Widow will set the seeds for the possible introduction of the Thunderbolts in the MCU the same way Iron Man set the seeds for the Avengers Initiative all the way back in 2008. Before I get into that discussion, let’s delve into some background info.
“Who are the Thunderbolts?”
In the comics, the best way to describe the Thunderbolts is essentially a group of “reformed villains with the best intentions”. Think Marvel’s Suicide Squad, and General Ross is their Amanda Waller. Don’t get it twisted: there have been heroes that have been a part of the Thunderbolts (i.e. Hawkeye, Luke Cage, Elektra), but the members of this infamous group have been mostly villains. Now there have been different groups with the same mantle but they have had different leaders (most notably; Baron Zemo, Norman Osborn and Red Hulk).
With the Avengers sort of disbanded following Avengers: Endgame, there might be some who may want to capitalize on the opportunity to become the next enhanced superteam. So now that you have a basic understanding of who and what the Thunderbolts are…
“Let’s discuss the Thunderbolts Initiative”
There are many possible teams inside Marvel Comics lore that could “replace” the Avengers in the MCU but, right now, the Thunderbolts seem like the most plausible choice as the next superteam to take center stage, mainly because some of its seeds have already been planted way back in 2016.
“Enter Secretary THUNDERBOLT Ross”
Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross was brought back into the MCU in 2016 after his last appearance in The Incredible Hulk back in 2008. During his absence, he became the Secretary of State and has served as a sort of secondary antagonist in Captain America: Civil War. I, for one, don’t necessarily believe in coincidences, especially when it comes to Marvel movies. Nearly everything Marvel Studios does in their films, whether it’s the introduction of a new character, an easter egg, or something as subtle as a name drop, has a payoff in some way or form. Now sometimes, that payoff can come in the short-term or it can be long-term. Secretary Ross’s recent appearances in the MCU, and especially his upcoming role in Black Widow, seems like it could be one of these long-term payoffs.
Now, don’t be fooled. Just because Thaddeus’ nickname is “Thunderbolt” and he led the Thunderbolts at one point in the comics, it doesn’t mean that that’s where the Thunderbolts got their name. (In comic lore, the group received their name from Baron Zemo, who organized the first Thunderbolts). Though ironically enough, given his position of power as Secretary of State & with the Avengers out of the way, I could see Secretary Ross capitalizing on the opportunity and he could very well become the “Nick Fury” for this new phase of the MCU, mainly organizing/running the Thunderbolts from a position of power. Who could become a part of these Thunderbolts?
Well, I have a list of possible candidates
“CANDIDATE #1: TASKMASTER”
With his introduction coming up in the upcoming Black Widow movie, Taskmaster could potentially be a viable candidate to join the Thunderbolts. His comic counterpart has an interesting ability, which is he possess a photographic memory and reflexes, where he’s able to duplicate nearly any physical act he sees after seeing it done by someone else only once. Based on what we’ve seen from the trailers, he may very well possess this ability, where he imitated the movements from Black Panther, Black Widow, Captain America with his shield, and Hawkeye with his bow and arrow. Someone with this ability, in my view, is far too interesting of a character simply write as a one-off, so I’m willing to bet that Taskmaster may continue in the MCU following his appearance in Black Widow.
“CANDIDATE #2: BLACK WIDOW (YELENA BELOVA)”
Also being introduced in the upcoming Black Widow movie is none other than fellow Black Widow, and Natasha’s sister, Yelena Belova. While in the trailers we’re shown a sort of sibling bond/rivalry between the two, Yelena has served her time as an antagonist to Natasha and the Avengers in the comics: we have witnessed her joining forces with the likes of AIM and even being in the ranks of the Thunderbolts. Now, Yelena’s fate in this film is something I have previously discussed here on Murphy’s Multiverse (POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THAT ARTICLE SO BEWARE), but ultimately, considering that this film is supposed to be a passing of the torch from Natasha to Yelena, I could see Yelena being a part of the Thunderbolts down the line following her debut in Black Widow.
“CANDIDATE #3: BARON ZEMO”
What team would be complete without a leader? And who better to lead the Thunderbolts than the man who single-handedly manipulated the Avengers into their disbandment in Civil War? Baron Zemo is a well-trained soldier and a dastardly mastermind with an incredible “will and patience”. His upcoming appearance in the Disney+ show; The Falcon and The Winter Soldier could set up Zemo to eventually gather the attention of Secretary Ross and have him work under the radar as the leader of the Thunderbolts, similar to how Zemo operated in the comics with the original Thunderbolts. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me for Zemo to take up this role and join the Thunderbolts in this fashion.
“CANDIDATE #4: GHOST”
Introduced as one of the antagonists in Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ghost is an interesting character with an interesting background. Her powers of quantum intangibility were a result of a Quantum accident involving her parents, which resulted in their deaths. Since being adopted by Bill Foster, S.H.I.E.L.D. had taken advantage of Ava and her powers, training her as a stealth operative that would carry out covert missions on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D. prior to their fall in 2014. Since then, she’s been presumably in hiding until 2018 when the events of Ant-Man and the Wasp took place, where she was forced into hiding once again after those events. We don’t necessarily know what happened to Ava following Avengers: Infinity War (2018) & Avengers: Endgame (2019). If Ghost was snapped, then she would probably still be alive and in the state where she left when the snap occurred. If she wasn’t, then she wouldn’t have received her quantum healing molecules that helped keep her stable since Ant-Man was trapped in the Quantum Realm for five years and everyone else was snapped. That might be a cause for concern since she might believe that everyone abandoned her again, and this might push her to the becoming a villain once more.
HOWEVER, in an interview, Hannah John-Kamen (the actress) had mentioned “that Ghost didn’t die” and that we could see her again in the MCU. If I had to bet, we could probably see Ghost return as a member of the Thunderbolts.
“CANDIDATE #5: ABOMINATION”
Remember Emil Blonsky from The Incredible Hulk? Well, last time we heard from The Abomination was in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Agent Coulson casually mentioned that Blosnky was in a cryo-cell in Alaska at a secret facility known as The Vault: this facility was under “then-General, now-Secretary” Ross’ supervision, as explained by Coulson in Marvel’s One Shot: “The Consultant”. The World Security Council, along with General Ross, had even considered putting Abomination on the Avengers Initiative program before Agents Coulson & Sitwell, along with Stark, forced Ross to disagree with the decision and keep Blonsky in cryo-sleep.
Now this detail is really important because if Ross wanted to have Blonsky be a part of the Avengers, his “new perspective” could be to eventually develop his own Avengers-esque team, starting with Emil Blonsky. Back then, the Avengers themselves stood in the way of his plan, but by having the Avengers out of the way, his plan can now come full-circle.
“CANDIDATE #6: JUSTIN HAMMER”
We all remember Sam Rockwell’s interpretation of Justin Hammer from Iron Man 2 (2010). He was one of my favorite things about the film. The quirkiness, the smugness, the many ways he tried to imitate Tony Stark. The last time we saw him was at Seagate Prison during the Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King. Now, the reason why I mention him is that he is essentially the anti-Tony Stark and he actually had a connection with “then-General” Ross. Since Tony Stark is dead following the events of Avengers: Endgame, one might assume that Ross might pull some strings to get Hammer Industries to work in developing weapons for the Thunderbolts.
Plus, Sam Rockwell had actually shown interest in reprising his role as Justin Hammer last year during a Reddit AMA.
“CANDIDATE #7: SONGBIRD”
Melissa Gold aka Songbird has yet to be introduced into the MCU. However, our very own Charles Murphy had actually made a “Connecting Imaginary Dots” article where we can see from some interesting set photos from The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and we ALSO see a character donning a purple mohawk, similar to what Songbird dons in the comics. That article does a really good job in describing who/what Songbird is, but the most important thing we need to know about her is she has “acoustikinetic abilities” (she can use her vocals to generate her powers) and she has an interesting relationship to both the Thunderbolts and Baron Zemo.
“WHY THESE CHARACTERS AND WHY NOW?”
Like I said earlier, nothing Marvel does is done by pure coincidence. All of these characters, in some shape or form, have been a part of the Thunderbolts. And with potentially 5 of these characters already having a major presence in both the Black Widow movie and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Disney+ show, the chances of something bigger being developed are certainly high.
Besides, following the events of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home and considering that:
- Tony Stark aka Iron Man is dead.
- Steve Rogers passed the mantle of Captain America on to Sam Wilson aka Falcon.
- Thor is now off-world with the Guardians of the Galaxy.
- Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow is dead.
- Bruce Banner is seemingly out of commission due to his snap.
- Hawkeye is with his family.
- Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are both still wanted criminals by the Sokovia Accords.
- Spider-Man has been branded a criminal.
The world might no longer trust the Avengers, but the world also recognizes that there will always be threats that normal law enforcement alone will not be able to stop. So, by the time Phase 4 kicks into high gear, it might be time to introduce a new team of “heroes” to the MCU. And who better than some of Marvel’s best villains?