Who Are The Thunderbolts? by Jerry Whitworth
With the return of Baron Zemo (played by Daniel Brühl) in the upcoming The Falcon and Winter Soldier and Thunderbolt Ross’ (portrayed by William Hurt) role in Black Widow (2020), rumors have swirled that the Thunderbolts are being brought into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The hero hunters who played a critical role in 2006’s Civil War Marvel comic storyline and ascended Norman Osborn from Spider-Man foe to global threat, the Thunderbolts have drawn comparisons to DC Comics’ Suicide Squad. However, both groups owe much of their genesis to the Dirty Dozen. A 1967 film based on the novel of the same name by E. M. Nathanson, The Dirty Dozen featured a star-studded ensemble cast including Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland. The film presented Project Amnesty, a secret mission during World War II where the Army’s worst prisoners (including those on death row) were trained to be commandos and take on a suicide mission where those that do their job and survive would have commuted sentences. Prior to the creation of the Thunderbolts, Marvel adapted the concept for the team Freedom Force.
Predating the supervillain laden version of the Suicide Squad by over a year, Freedom Force featured mutant terrorist Mystique brokering a deal with the US government for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to be pardoned for their crimes by performing dangerous missions. Over time, the group gained new members in Spiral, Spider-Woman, and a trio of government-sponsored mutants from World War II in Crimson Commando, Stonewall and Super Sabre. After a series of disastrous missions where members were severely injured or died (Mystique’s wife Destiny among the fallen), Freedom Force fell apart as the group’s government liaison Valerie Cooper founded a replacement team in X-Factor. In the wake of Civil War, a new group called Freedom Force was founded as part of the Fifty State Initiative. In regards to the Thunderbolts themselves, their roots are in the Masters of Evil.
Formed by Nazi scientist Baron Heinrich Zemo soon after Captain America was revived from being frozen in ice and joined the Avengers, the original Masters of Evil consisted of the Black Knight, Melter, and Radioactive Man. Defeated, Zemo returned repeatedly with new members until he eventually met his demise against the Captain. Many took up the Masters name in the ensuing years with Heinrich’s son Helmut arguably the most notable. During the sprawling storyline “Under Siege,” Helmut formed a veritable army of villains who took over Avengers Mansion and nearly defeated the team of heroes. Years later, when it appeared the Avengers had died in battle, Zemo re-assembled some of his Masters to pose as heroes known as the Thunderbolts. However, the disguised villains came to like playing the role of hero and turned on Zemo, electing villain-turned-hero Hawkeye as their leader. Despite its popularity, the book’s title was reformatted after seventy-five issues (dubbed by the fan community as the “Fightbolts”) and the new direction was a commercial failure. The team and its title returned again-and-again but wouldn’t find success again until Civil War.
In the wake of a tragedy where the New Warriors died combating a group of villains along with hundreds of bystanders, Iron Man spearheaded the Superhuman Registration Act (SHRA) where all superhumans must be registered with the US government and heroes would become trained agents of the law. In response, Captain America founded the Secret Avengers who rebelled against the United States. As heroes flocked to the Captain’s side, Baron Helmut Zemo was commissioned by Iron Man to institute the Thunderbolts again in order to capture villains to bolster their ranks and to combat unregistered heroes. When Zemo inevitably made a power play with his army of villains, the Baron was taken down by one of his own and Norman Osborn assumed his role in leading the Thunderbolts.
Norman Osborn formed a much more trimmed version of the Thunderbolts, his team composed of Moonstone, Bullseye, Penance (Speedball, survivor of the New Warriors tragedy), Radioactive Man, Songbird, Swordsman (Andreas von Strucker of Fenris), and Venom (Scorpion). During the events of Secret Invasion where the Earth dealt with a Skrull invasion years in the making, Osborn postured the Thunderbolts and himself into largely usurping Iron Man’s authority gained during Civil War. In the aftermath, Osborn headed up H.A.M.M.E.R., a replacement agency for S.H.I.E.L.D., where he lead the Dark Avengers (government-sponsored villains posing as the Avengers) as Iron Patriot and turned the Thunderbolts into H.A.M.M.E.R.’s den of assassins.
Lead by the Black Widow (Natasha Romanova posing as Yelena Belova) for a time before being replaced by Nuke in the guise of Scourge, Osborn was inevitably revealed to be using his position toward his own gain and the Thunderbolts were taken down. Captain America tasked Luke Cage (who reformed from an earlier criminal lifestyle to become a hero) with reforming the group in order to offer an attempt at redemption for the villains. Composed of the Juggernaut, Crossbones, Moonstone, Ghost, and Man-Thing, the group proved to work well as a unit and a secondary team (referred as the Underbolts by Moonstone) is formed headed up by Thunderbolts founders Songbird (Screaming Mimi), Mach V (Beetle), and Fixer (Techno). In time, the Thunderbolts merged with the Dark Avengers. With the name left vacant, several individuals adopted it over time with Red Hulk and the Winter Soldier picking it up before Zemo returned back in his guise of Citizen V to lead it for the Kingpin (who had become the mayor of New York). Targeting the Punisher, the anti-hero was forced to align with Black Widow, Moon Knight, Ghost Rider, and Rachel Cole-Alves to take down Zemo’s team.