Marvel has announced the roster of the upcoming Thunderbolts movie. And although it includes pretty much all the characters who were rumored for the film, there are some surprises and some notable exclusions.
Confirmed for the movie team are Taskmaster, US Agent, Ghost, Red Guardian, Yelena Belova, the Winter Soldier, and Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine – nearly all of whom have some comic history with the Thunderbolts team.
But there’s no Baron Zemo – perhaps the comic book character most associated with the Thunderbolts (as the team’s original founder). And there’s no apparent surprise twist in the somewhat redundant roster of spies and super-soldiers, something the concept of the Thunderbolts has often relied on in comic books.
So how does the roster of the MCU Thunderbolts relate to the team’s comic history – and what are the key aspects of the Thunderbolts from comics that it seems to lack?
Let’s get into it.
How the movie Thunderbolts relates to comics
Thunderbolts concept art featuring the full line-up #D23Expo pic.twitter.com/ed1aCknv6ASeptember 10, 2022
We’ll go ahead and address the elephant in the room right off the bat: the MCU Thunderbolts revealed at D23 are not the original version of the team in comics. In fact, none of the MCU Thunderbolts were part of the original team at all (and believe us, we’ll get into that).
That said, almost all of the team members do have a history with different eras of the Thunderbolts – although few of them actually overlap. And the apparent concept behind the team – a group of apparently government-led black-ops superheroes organized under one of the world’s top secret operatives – does relate to several of the Thunderbolts’ comic incarnations.
And of course, some of the MCU Thunderbolts are indeed villains or former villains, and most of the others have checkered pasts at the very least. No less than three of them – Bucky, Yelena, and Taskmaster – have been the victim of mind-control/brainwashing. But the similarities and differences aren’t quite obvious from a glance.
First, the team and how each of them ties into the Thunderbolts in comic books:
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The Winter Soldier
Believe it or not, despite his surprise inclusion in the MCU Thunderbolts, Bucky Barnes AKA the Winter Soldier actually has the closest connections to the original comic book team.
There’s his longtime connection to Baron Helmut Zemo as the son of the villain who cost him his life as Bucky Barnes in comics (the original Baron Heinrich Zemo, of course), leading to him becoming the Winter Soldier.
But more than that, Bucky actually led the Thunderbolts (opens in new tab) for a while after the story Avengers: Standoff! (opens in new tab)in an incarnation of the team that included many of its original members reassembled.
Although her presence in the MCU may be understated so far, with only an appearance in the somewhat underwhelming Ant-Man and the Wasp under her belt, in comics, Ghost has a long association with the Thunderbolts in the era of the team that eventually became the Dark Avengers.
In that incarnation of the Thunderbolts, the team was a group of criminals who were volunteering for a rehabilitation program meant to turn them into superheroes which was led by none other than Luke Cage.
And the next character on the roster has a connection to that era too.
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John Walker AKA US Agent was the first character we saw recruited into the Thunderbolts by Contessa Valentina, back in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And as we said, he’s got a longtime connection to the comic book Thunderbolts as well – just not the original team.
US Agent was initially the warden of the Thunderbolts working with Luke Cage back when the team was meant to turn supervillains into superheroes. And he stayed on when they became the Dark Avengers.
Now, he’s part of the current version of the Thunderbolts, who are the only superhero team allowed to operate in New York City in Marvel Comics without possible repercussions, once again under the purview of now NYC mayor Luke Cage.
Speaking of which, that incarnation of the team was founded by the Marvel Comics version of New York City’s previous mayor, Wilson Fisk AKA the Kingpin, who is soon to make his own return to the MCU in the Echo streaming series.
This version of the team initially included mostly criminals, including Taskmaster in a brief tenure as a Thunderbolt. Now, the NYC Thunderbolts have been revamped by Luke Cage into actual heroes – the only ones allowed to operate in New York City thanks to laws put in place by the Kingpin.
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Oddly enough, Yelena Belova’s stint as a comic book Thunderbolt didn’t actually involve Yelena at all. The Yelena who joined the third incarnation of the Thunderbolts was actually Natasha Romanoff in disguise.
That was back when the team was a group of brutal black ops agents working under Norman Osborn (who was retired from being the Green Goblin at the time and working for the government). Natasha joined to spy on the group for Nick Fury, although unbeknownst to her Osborn was aware of her ruse.
Red Guardian is one of the few characters on the MCU Thunderbolts who has no direct comic book connection to the team. But given his MCU connections to Yelena and his status as a super-soldier, he seems to fit right in with the other selections for the team on the big screen.
Countess Valentina Allegra de Fontaine
Like Red Guardian, Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Val for short) has no direct comic book connection to the Thunderbolts. However, the team has often had an overseer or organizer of some kind, be it the original team’s leader Baron Zemo; the third version of the team’s vicious spymaster Norman Osborn; the fourth version of the team’s organizer Luke Cage; or even the recently ousted former mayor of the comic book New York City Wilson Fisk.
What’s missing from the MCU Thunderbolts?
For starters, as we mentioned, we expected to see Zemo front-and-center in the line-up. After all, in comics, he’s the person who brought together the original team.
And of course, it’s that original team, who were revealed in the first issue of the original Thunderbolts comic to actually be the villainous Masters of Evil in disguise pretending to be superheroes as part of a plan for world domination, who set the pace for later versions of the Thunderbolts often include surprise twists in the concept or roster of the team.
Now, we’d be silly to suggest that a twist or a surprise would be immediately visible in the MCU roster. It would hardly be a twist if you could see it coming, right?
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That said, we were hoping to see some characters from the original comic book Thunderbolts in the roster as new inclusions – especially Songbird, who later became an Avenger. And so far, there’s really nothing to signal a connection between the MCU Thunderbolts and the original comic book version at all … so far.
But Marvel Studios is also known for misdirection, from changing the content and context of scenes in its trailers to preserve surprises, to downright lying about or hiding what they’re planning (Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man: No Way Home, anyone?). And if there’s any place to employ that, it’s with the Thunderbolts movie.
We also can’t pretend we can predict what the Thunderbolts movie will be like in terms of plot and tone – we’re just at the very tip of the iceberg of the reveals. However, we can use a bit of imagination to speculate (or at least hope) something more is going on with the roster.
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Marvel Studios also doesn’t generally double-dip – and coming out with their own Suicide Squad-like team well after Warner Bros. have already established their version of the team, it seems like a stretch to imagine the MCU simply doing their own take on that idea (especially since The Suicide Squad director James Gunn once pitched his own version of the Thunderbolts to Marvel Studios).
We also need to mention that with the inclusion of Yelena, Red Guardian, and Taskmaster, Thunderbolts is coming off as something of a Black Widow sequel, but without Natasha, of course.
With that said, however, Rachel Weisz’s Melina is also a notable exclusion…. but given the Black Widows’ penchant for impersonation/disguise… is she? That’s a discussion for another day.
But what’s ultimately missing from the MCU version of the Thunderbolts is the Zemo of it all. Not just the man himself (although we’re hoping he shows up), but the nature of what makes the team unique in Marvel Comics – its ability to surprise readers with shocking twists that shake what we know about the characters and the team.
There’s always the chance Zemo is still a big part of the movie – it needs a villain, after all. And perhaps there’s a deeper twist than simply adapting the big surprise from comics to be had by making a new version of the team.
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We can’t help but imagine the possibilities of once again reuniting Bucky and Zemo, especially if there’s some further twist to Zemo’s previous manipulations of the Winter Soldier to be uncovered. Bucky was apparently deprogrammed from his Hydra brainwashing by Shuri in Wakanda – but what if there’s something more lurking there, thanks to Zemo?
That’s all speculation of course, but what we’re getting at is, Marvel Studios can bring some much-needed punch to its Thunderbolts movie by embracing the team’s comic book roots – especially the element of surprise that makes the team unique in a world of Avengers, X-Men, and other powerful superhero teams.
The original Thunderbolts #1 is the greatest trick Marvel Comics ever pulled.