There have been rumors and whispers for years about one of Marvel Comics’ most interesting super teams finally making their way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Finally, the development on their film has been confirmed. The Thunderbolts are on their way to the MCU.
Yesterday Deadline reported that director Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank) had been recruited by Marvel Studios to helm Thunderbolts from a script by Eric Pearson (Black Widow). Very few details have been released about the film, though as Deadline notes, it’s likely the film’s protagonists will be current or former supervillains working for the government. The site lists US Agent (Wyatt Russell), Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), The Abomination (Tim Roth), and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) as potential members of the team.
Deadline doesn’t quite get all of their source material facts straight however. They say it’s possible General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross — previously played by the late William Hurt — will be recast for Thunderbolts because the character assembled the first team and that the team was named after him. But while recasting Ross may be a possibility, everything else they said was wrong. In the comics, as the Red Hulk, Ross does in fact form a version of the team in the volume of Thunderbolts that launched in 2012. Rather than just villains, Ross recruits heroes like Punisher, Deadpool, Ghost Rider, Agent Venom, and Elektra who are — like him — willing to dole out justice lethally. But this is actually — depending on what you do or don’t count — the fifth or sixth incarnation of the group. The original Thunderbolts team premiered 15 years earlier and had a much more interesting premise.
The original Thunderbolts were created by acclaimed Marvel writer Kurt Busiek, and they were a result of what we would likely today call “rebranding.” In 1997’s Thunderbolts #1 the citizens of Marvel welcomed the team with open arms. They showed up during a time when the Avengers and Fantastic Four were believed dead, and the only established heroes left were ones the public didn’t trust like Spider-Man and the X-Men. That first issue ends with what is truly one of the best surprise reveals in superhero comics — every member of the Thunderbolts was actually an established supervillain who had disguised themself to win the public’s trust. The leader Citizen V was actually Baron Zemo. The sonic powered Songbird was in fact Screaming Mimi, the gadget-heavy Techno was really the Fixer, the giant=sized Atlas was actually the brutish Goliath, etc. Earlier in the issue we learn the team name comes not from Thunderbolt Ross, but from 17th-century poet Thomas Randolph who wrote, “Justice, like lightning ever should appear / To few men ruin, but to all men fear.’
In the 1962 novel Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Most of the original Thunderbolts learn the truth of this idea. While Zemo stays true to his plan to gain the public’s trust before betraying it, the act of pretending to be heroes has a profound effect on most of the rest of the team: it makes them want to keep being heroes. Most of them eventually rebel against Zemo and later Hawkeye — who himself was originally a crook — takes over the team’s leadership.
Different incarnations of the team have brought with them different concepts. One particularly ill-advised and thankfully short-lived version was simply a supervillain fight club. Some incarnations have simply been Marvel’s answer to DC’s Suicide Squad — supervillains coerced into working for the government. From what has unfolded in projects like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Widow, it does appear that this is the direction the MCU’s Thunderbolts will go in.