Every superhero universe needs a fractious team of supervillains pretending to do good things because someone is making them or paying them to, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally has enough living supervillains to make its own: Thunderbolts is coming to theaters in July 2024.
The big Marvel news out of Disney’s 2022 D23 Expo was reveal of just which bad guys would make up the Thunderbolts movie lineup. So let’s dig into who the Thunderbolts are, and what fans can expect from Marvel’s take on a Suicide Squad.
Who are the Thunderbolts in Marvel Comics?
There have been many, many different incarnations of the Thunderbolts in Marvel Comics canon — but the team started as a bait and switch. Writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley created them for The Incredible Hulk in 1997 (a whole decade after the modern incarnation of the Suicide Squad, so don’t get it twisted), as a new superhero team attempting to fill the hole left by the Avengers’ absence.
Where were the Avengers at the time? Well, an evil psychic being born from Professor X’s suppressed thoughts of — you know what? Don’t worry about it.
The twist was that the Thunderbolts were actually the Masters of Evil in disguise, trying to flimflam their way to power and fame by pretending to be superheroes, under the hidden leadership of a second-generation Nazi: Baron Helmut Zemo. Eventually the “heroes” of the group kicked Zemo out of it and tried going straight for a while before their story petered out — but the idea of a superhero team made of supervillains is just too good a toy to leave in the proverbial toybox.
Sometimes, the Thunderbolts are working to redeem themselves, and sometimes they’re just working for corrupt government leaders. Some members have even been heroes — usually the ones with bad guy pasts — like Hawkeye, Black Widow, Elektra, and Ant-Man. There’s no traditional Thunderbolts lineup, and no tradition of characters dying more frequently than other series’, as with the Suicide Squad. Many, many, many Marvel characters have done a stint on the Thunderbolts, from Abomination to Zaran.
Who are the Thunderbolts in the MCU?
Marvel Studios revealed the full character line up in its panel at D23 2022. Lead by the mysterious and unscrupulous Valentina Fontaine, the team will comprise Ghost, Red Guardian, Yelena Belova, the Winter Soldier, US Agent, and Taskmaster.
Ghost, aka Ava Star, featured as the villain in 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Hannah John-Kamen played a woman who was accidentally given the power to phase through solid matter in a childhood science accident, she worked as a covert SHIELD operative in hopes of getting help finding a cure to her body’s slow dematerialization. When she discovered Hydra’s infiltration of SHIELD, she defected and turned to crime in desperation, finding her goals at cross-purposes with Scott Lang’s. By the end of the movie, she was alive, free, and her condition had been temporarily stabilized.
Alexei Shostakov, played by David Harbour in Black Widow, is one of Russia’s attempts to recreate the US super soldier treatment that created Captain America. He is something of a flawed father figure to Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova, after they time they spent in deep cover as an American family. At the close of Black Widow, he was on the run from authorities alongside the rest of Russia’s Red Room Black Widows, who had been freed from mind control.
In the comics, Taskmaster is a mercenary who can memorize and replicate the physical skills of anyone he observes, a trick he used often to take on the Avengers in their own fighting styles. In the MCU, Taskmaster is all that, but also a brainwashed little girl raised to be an unstoppable assassin with the help of a computer chip in her brain. Introduced in Black Widow, at the end of the movie, Antonia Dreykov’s brainwashing had been broken and she escaped along with Red Guardian and the other Black Widows.
Yelena, as mentioned, considers Black Widow and Red Guardian her family. A younger recruit to Russia’s Black Widow program, she defected and escaped mind control in Black Widow and then sought out the man she thought had killed her sister in Hawkeye. The series ended with her discovering the truth — that Clint Barton was innocent — and fading back into the shadows after having a lot of very flirty conversations with Kate Bishop.
The Winter Soldier
The most venerable Marvel Cinematic Universe of the bunch is Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier. Debuting in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Bucky has appeared in seven MCU movies as well as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Disney Plus series.
When we last saw him, he was still feeling pretty busted up about Steve Rogers not being around anymore, but had made buds with Sam Wilson and forgiven himself for a lot of the murders he did while brainwashed. Oh, and he was still really mad at our next member...
John Walker was chosen by the US Government to succeed Steve Rogers as Captain America, until he bludgeoned a man to death with his shield. So he made his own, new shield, and set out to kill the guys’ allies, until the last minute he decided to save some hostages instead. At the close of the show, we saw him recruited by Valentina de Fontaine for a mysterious troup of superpowered people.
What is Thunderbolts going to be about?
Given the absence of the Avengers in the current MCU, and the Thunderbolts’ telling position as the final film in Marvel’s Phase 5, it seems likely that the team’s original incarnation — in which they posed as superheroes worthy of filling the Avengers’ shoes — will frame the film. Valentina de Fontaine has already been shown in regular contact with US Agent and Yelena Belova (in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Widow), and it seems likely she’ll be spearheading whatever the Thunderbolts’ initiatives are.
For more info on Thunderbolts, we’ll just have to wait until we’re closer to July 26, 2024 — because that’s when it hits theaters.