The History and Future of The Thunderbolts

Justice like lightning is coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Having been set up for years and rumored for even longer, a Thunderbolts film has been given the green light, with Jake Schreier directing from a script by Black Widow writer Eric Pearson. Thunderbolts will certainly be an ambitious team-up film, with (apparently) Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ Val bringing together a group of disparate characters who she’s been collecting over the years.

As with all things MCU, the project won’t be a straight adaptation of any certain storyline, but will more likely focus on the dynamic of forging a team made of people of questionable character. In the comics, the roster of the Thunderbolts has frequently rotated members in and out and been remade multiple times. Many of the characters who might be thought of as “core” members don’t even exist in the MCU at this time. But to get a handle on what the team might get up to, regardless of who is on it.

Origins

The Thunderbolts first appeared in 1996 in Peter David’s Incredible Hulk #449, though the team was created by legendary writer Kurt Busiek. Marvel Comics launched the first volume of Thunderbolts a few months later in early 1997, with Busiek writing. Busiek pitched the Thunderbolts to Marvel Comics following the line-wide Onslaught event that saw the “death” of nearly all of Marvel’s heroes. In the absence of those heroes, Busiek envisioned a team stepping into fill the void, but with one twist: the team is actually the Masters of Evil, led by Baron Zemo, in disguise.

The original lineup consisted of Atlas (Erik Josten), Citizen V (Zemo), Mach-1 (Abner Jenkins), Meteorite (Karla Sofen), Songbird (Melissa Gold) and Techno (Norbert Ebersol). Contrary to a popular misconception, the original team had no association with General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, but rather was named by Zemo who found the moniker “crypto-fascist but friendly”, though the in-continuity public was told the name was inspired by a couple of lines from a poem by 17th-century writer Thomas Randolph:

“Justice, like lightning ever should appear / To few men ruin, but to all men fear.”

Ironically, Busiek lifted the lines from an earlier issue of Captain Marvel and it turns out it’s not exactly clear if they were written by Randolph or not; however, “Justice like lightning” became the team’s slogan and has stuck with most iterations of the team over the last 20+ years.

Thunderbolts Annual (1997) #1

Evolutions

As you might imagine, Zemo’s ruse was exposed and the team became fugitives, went on the run and eventually ended up in Colorado, a place that would go on to become well-associated with the team a decade later when they set their base on Thunderbolts Mountain near Coyote Springs. Of course, the team that occupied that base was a much different one from “the original.

As Zemo’s team was on the run, a few new members joined the roster, including former Avenger Hawkeye. This group, known as Marvel’s Most Wanted, was convinced by Hawkeye that they’d be pardoned for their crimes if they turned themselves in. Unfortunately for them, that didn’t work out and many of them found themselves imprisoned for their past crimes. Eventually, however, many members of the team did reform and went on to perform some truly heroic deeds, including Zemo saving Captain America.

Many iterations of the team came and went over the years (most including Zemo), but the Thunderbolts regained popularity when Warren Ellis took over the book and introduced a new team under the control of Norman Osborn. The team of villains was ultimately viewed as heroes after the events of Secret Invasion. Ellis’ run was short-lived and, eventually after several writers moved on and off the book, Jeff Parker took over that title and the team became the Dark Avengers. Following the Siege event, Luke Cage was appointed leader of the T-Bolts by Captain America; during the Marvel NOW! line-wide relaunch, General Thunderbolt Ross, who was then the Red Hulk, assembled a new team; Bucky Barnes, the Punisher and, most recently, the Kingpin, also assembled their own Thunderbolts teams.

While the names changed, most of the teams had one thing in common over the years: they consisted of a group of villains out to “do some good” while being “handled” by a hero or two. In that regard, they could be compared to DC’s The Suicide Squad, but it would be an oversimplification to conflate the two teams.

The MCU

With so many of the major players associated with the Thunderbolts over the years not present in the MCU, it should be obvious that the team fans get won’t be lifted off the page. What does seem possible, maybe even probable, however, is that the team being assembled in the MCU under the control of Val, might find itself in the midst of some sort of line-wide MCU event and have to step in to deliver justice like lightning and save the day, even if they are morally questionable.

It’s also very likely that the name of the team is an homage to Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross, played by the late William Hurt. It’s hard to imagine the MCU recasting Hurt, who passed away in March of 2022. Rather, it seems likely that they’ll write Ross’s death into an upcoming project and the team will be named in honor of a man who fought like hell to see heroes under the control of the government. So who is Val ultimately working with? And who else will join the team? Phase 4 has a lot to do to answer those questions.

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