Are the Thunderbolts Finally Headed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

A new comic book series suggests a possible cinematic appearance from Marvel's most treacherous superhero team.
Marvel Thunderbolts Mcu

Marvel Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry examines how Marvel’s new Thunderbolts comic could indicate their arrival within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Where does your anticipation rest with the Marvel Cinematic Universe? We’re a year into Phase 4. With WandaVision, Loki, and SpiderMan: No Way Home in our rearview, the Multiverse seems to be the paramount threat facing The Avengers’ next iteration. However, some recent Marvel Comics news has us wondering whether the big cosmic dimensional shenanigans are just smoke and mirrors, distracting us from the true enemy lurking closer to home.

This week, Marvel announced their Thunderbolts relaunch, kicking off with a new first issue and a new roster on May 25th. The team features a few familiar faces for those keeping up with the Disney+ shows: Clint Barton, Monica Rambeau, America Chavez, Power Man, Persuasion, and Gutsen Glory. Writer Jim Zub and artist Sean Izaakse are positioning the team as “official” New York City protectors, mopping up the streets left in shambles after the Wilson Fisk war depicted in the recent Devils Reign comics.

Who Are the Thunderbolts?

Traditionally, the Thunderbolts were a team of reformed supervillains. They first appeared in 1997’s The Incredible Hulk #449, written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Mark Bagley. When the Avengers were supposedly killed during the Onslaught event (uh, basically, the X-Men’s Professor X and Magneto had their psychic energies smashed into one ginormous killing machine somewhat reminiscent of the Doomsday creature that killed Superman), Baron Zemo convinced his Masters of Evil cohorts to put on shiny, wholesome new costumes. Working under Zemo’s command were psychotics like Fixer, Beetle, Screaming Mimi, Goliath, and Moonstone.

However, in 2009, after Norman Osborn redeemed himself in the court of public opinion by killing the Skrull queen during the Secret Invasion climax, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mike Deodato Jr. twisted the Thunderbolts concept into the Anti-Avengers or Dark Avengers. In that peculiar saga, the squad contained such doppelgangers as Iron Patriot (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), Ms. Marvel (Moonstone), Spider-Man (a Symbiote wrapped Scorpion), Hawkeye (Bullseye), and Wolverine (Logan’s evil son Daken).

With the American people and the government’s support, Norman Osborne dismantled S.H.I.E.L.D. in favor of H.A.M.M.E.R. (an acronym with no meaning, which perfectly aligns with the organization’s selfish true nature). They established martial law and even declared war against the Asgardians. Eventually, the Avengers appeared and smashed Norman Osborn into a coma. Captain America reinstated the original Thunderbolts program, hoping the leftover baddies would find redemption through good deeds. Lol.

The Thunderbolts Comics Make Way for the Movies

A new Thunderbolts title is not direct confirmation that they’ll appear in the MCU, but it does indicate that these are characters the comics company wants front and center. It’s similar to the news that Sam Wilson will be fronting a new Captain America book (Symbol of Truth) alongside Steve Rogers. With Anthony Mackie currently wearing the mantle in the MCU, Marvel needs to make sure Sam Wilson is carrying the shield on the page, too.

Marvel Comics generally has a push-and-pull relationship with Marvel Studios. If Black Widow is hitting theaters, the comics division requires a new number one issue, a Taskmaster spin-off, and a Winter Guard spin-off hyping the film’s supporting cast. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is on Disney+; let’s get them a new mini-series as well. The same goes for Hawkeye.

We should look at what’s happening along the MCU fringes, never mind the Multiverse. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier introduced Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and reestablished Zemo (Daniel Brühl) as a conniving menace. The two never share screentime, but it’s easy to imagine them uniting over their desire to supplant the Avengers.

Valentina successfully recruited the new/evil/dimwitted Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), to her mysterious, unnamed syndicate during her first batch of appearances. The next time she materialized, it was during Black Widow‘s end-credits scene, drawing the White Widow (Florence Pugh) under her wing so she could sic her on Clint Barton in his Disney+ series.

Valentina’s Anti-Avengers

With an anti-Captain America and an anti-Black Widow on her team, can an anti-Avengers force be too far behind? We’ve also recently seen the Abomination (Tim Roth) re-appear during ShangChi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He’s a good brute to throw against the Hulk or She-Hulk. If Marvel Studios has revived this beast after his lackluster appearance in The Incredible Hulk, you can bet they’re planning to mine more story there.

In the comics, Valentina started as a Soviet sleeper agent working within S.H.I.E.L.D. She wormed her way into Nick Fury’s heart, betrayed him, and then betrayed her spymasters by jumping ship and joining Hydra. She quickly worked her way up that poisonous ladder, becoming their figurehead, Madame Hydra. And then she betrayed them, too. It’s hard to make friends when you’re such a treacherous snake.

Marvel’s upcoming Thunderbolts comic doesn’t quite jive with the MCU Valentina’s secret machinations, but can we really trust what we see on these early covers? The Thunderbolts are rooted in deception. Jim Zub and Sean Izaakse undoubtedly have a few tricks up their sleeve, and it’s probably foolish even to think that these heroes are who they say they are.

Frankly, though, it doesn’t matter what’s going on inside Thunderbolts when it comes to the Marvel movies. What’s most important and most telling is that the Thunderbolts are back. The branding is out there for us to consider. Ever since Valentina and Zemo squeezed into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, fandom Thunderbolts speculation started simmering. The new comic does its job by keeping us reading between those cinematic lines.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)