Who Are MCU's Thunderbolts? Team Members, Origin & Comic History Explained – Screen Rant

Marvel Studios is reportedly working on a Thunderbolts movie, with production to begin in 2023. Here’s all you need to know about the Thunderbolts!
Marvel Studios is reportedly working on a Thunderbolts project; here’s all you need to know about this team from the comics and their prospective MCU members. Back in May 2018, then-Disney CEO Bob Iger teased Marvel was working on a major franchise beyond the Avengers. “We’ve plotted out Marvel movies that will take us well into the next decade,” he revealed. “I’m guessing we will try our hand at what I’ll call a new franchise beyond Avengers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t see more Avengers down the road.” Naturally, that’s led to intense speculation about just what this franchise would be – and recent reports may have given a major clue.
There are now reports Marvel will begin production on a Thunderbolts movie in 2023. In the comics, this is a team traditionally comprised of major villains – some of whom are seeking redemption by reinventing themselves as heroes, while others have their own agendas. The news isn’t actually much of a surprise because recent Marvel films have featured villains who are members of the Thunderbolts, and the studio has stopped killing the bad guys off. One of the main purposes of The Falcon & the Winter Soldier appeared to be to reinvent Baron Zemo to make him a little more comic-book-accurate; in the comics, he’s the Thunderbolts’ founder and, generally, their leader.
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Comic book readers will be familiar with the Thunderbolts, but general audiences will probably know a lot less. Given that’s the case, here’s a full primer on the Thunderbolts, including the Thunderbolts’ origin, their members, and what to expect from them in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s future.
Modern readers may find it hard to believe, but back in 1996, the X-Men were Marvel’s biggest franchise, and sales of the Avengers and Fantastic Four books had been struggling for years. Marvel came up with the bold idea of relaunching those particular franchises, using the X-Men crossover “Onslaught” to remove most of their non-mutant heroes from the main continuity and reboot them in a new universe, thereby ditching the decades of continuity they felt new readers were finding overwhelming. This left the main Marvel Universe without many of its greatest champions – and then Marvel began teasing a replacement for the Avengers, a team who would step out of the shadows to defend the world in the absence of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Marvel gave the Thunderbolts a strong marketing push, but the first issue ended with a shocking twist; it turned out the Thunderbolts were nothing but a con. Every member of the team was a villain operating under a fake identity. It was a shocking twist, not even hinted at in marketing for Thunderbolts, and readers were stunned. The Thunderbolts’ origin story was nothing like what they’d been expecting.
There have been many iterations of the Thunderbolts since 1996, but they’ve always been composed of villains or characters with a rather shady sense of morality. Some Thunderbolts members have always been unrepentant, simply using the team to their own end; classic Spider-Man enemy Green Goblin ran the Thunderbolts at one time and was ultimately able to orchestrate his ascension to leadership of SHIELD off the back of the role, launching the so-called “Dark Reign” era. But other Thunderbolts found themselves being redeemed in the eyes of the public and came to enjoy being heroes. The best example of the latter is Songbird; originally a z-list villain called Screaming Mimi, a sonic manipulator who has now served alongside Avengers as an accepted superhero. The Thunderbolts are often compared to DC’s Suicide Squad in that the U.S. government has gradually come to rather like the project, and several recent iterations of the team have been assembled as a black ops team.
This team’s central theme has always been redemption, ever since the Thunderbolts’ origin. All the best Thunderbolts stories see the team wrestle with the issue of redemption, with some choosing to put their criminal – and sometimes downright evil – pasts behind them even as others cling to their own Machiavellian schemes. That means the Thunderbolts are quite a unique group in that they often wind up turning on one another. It’s been true from the beginning when Baron Zemo began to realize his plan was backfiring and attempted to blackmail several Thunderbolts members by threatening to reveal their true identities to the world. Matters were complicated when the Avengers and the Fantastic Four returned, and it didn’t take the real heroes long to figure out the Thunderbolts’ scam. In a delightful twist, Hawkeye – a former villain himself – decided to step away from the Avengers and lead the Thunderbolts in an attempt to reform their members.
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The Thunderbolts were reinvented by the U.S. government due to the Superhuman Registration Act, becoming a program that forced captured villains to help police the superhuman community. Baron Zemo initially led this version of the team, but he always had an agenda of his own, and he was soon exposed. Norman Osborn was placed in charge of the Thunderbolts, and under his leadership, the team impressed the government. Osborn played a key role during the Skrull “Secret Invasion,” and he was able to maneuver himself into a position of authority where he took charge of SHIELD itself. There have since been other versions of the team, with one led by Luke Cage and another by Red Hulk, both aiming at actually redeeming supervillains. The latest Thunderbolts team was formed by the Kingpin, currently Mayor of New York City in the comics.
Marvel Studios has already introduced several Thunderbolts members in the MCU, most notably Baron Zemo, who played a key role in Captain America: Civil War but was reinterpreted to become far more comic-book-accurate in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier; Zemo even now wears his iconic purple mask. The MCU’s version of Ghost made her MCU debut in Ant-Man & the Wasp, albeit much more sympathetic than her comic book inspiration; the MCU’s Ghost had gained powers after being exposed to energy from the Quantum Realm, and she had been rendered unstable on a quantum level, forcing her to go to extreme lengths in order to find a way to heal. And Black Widow introduced a third key member of several Thunderbolts teams, Taskmaster, again given a much more sympathetic origin story because she was a victim of abuse who had been turned into an assassin by her father.
Several major Marvel heroes have been members of the Thunderbolts, including Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier, both of whom led Thunderbolt teams on occasion. U.S. Agent has been part of the Thunderbolts on occasion as well, and even Yelena Belova’s Black Widow is associated with them – although it turned out she had actually been replaced by Natasha Romanoff herself, who had used that identity to infiltrate the Thunderbolts and keep an eye on Norman Osborn.
Little is known about the MCU’s Thunderbolts right now; initial reports have simply suggested that the Thunderbolts film will begin production in 2023, so Marvel is presumably quite a way away from confirming anything. Still, given their members in the comics, it looks as though the studio has already begun preparing for it, with Baron Zemo in particular changed to presumably play a major role. But it’s possible the MCU’s Thunderbolts are already assembling because both The Falcon & the Winter Soldier and Black Widow featured a shady government operative recruiting operatives – specifically both Yelena Belova and U.S. Agent, both characters tied to the Thunderbolts in the comics. Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is a complex figure in the comics in her own right, a former lover of Nick Fury who was secretly a high-ranking Hydra agent, so she’d be perfectly suited to be responsible for the MCU Thunderbolts’ origin. Black Widow‘s post-credits scene ended with the Contessa asking Yelena Belova to target Hawkeye, so if she is indeed involved in Thunderbolts, there may be more clues in Hawkeye.
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Tom Bacon is one of Screen Rant’s staff writers, as well as a Peer Mentor for new writers and a member of the Care Team, offering support and a listening ear to members of the Comics group. A lifelong fan of major franchises including Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Marvel, Tom is delighted his childhood is back – and this time it’s cool. You can find him on Twitter @TomABacon. A graduate of Edge Hill University, Tom remains strongly connected with his alma mater as a volunteer chaplain. He’s heavily involved with his local church, and anyone who checks him out on Twitter will swiftly learn he’s into British politics too.

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