Why The MCU’s Thunderbolts Missed The Opportunity to Succeed

Summary

  • The Thunderbolts could have been better introduced in the MCU following Avengers: Infinity War.
  • The premise of Avengers: Infinity War provided a path for the Thunderbolts to replace the Avengers.
  • This would have been a more accurate adaptation of the team’s purpose, as opposed to the planned MCU iteration.


The Thunderbolts movie is one of many upcoming projects coming down the pipeline for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There will be some notable changes to the team when it’s adapted, however, and that’s mainly due to the premise and characters involved. Unfortunately, this change in the entire modus operandi reflects the fact that the group is being introduced too late.

The origin of the Thunderbolts in the comics came when there were no Avengers, ironically due to one of the heroes’ most controversial storylines. This won’t be emulated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, despite there previously being the perfect opportunity to do so. Thus, the team might not be able to showcase what makes them so special, and instead come off as a mere imitation of a team from DC Comics.


The MCU and Comic Book Thunderbolts are Very Different

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In the universe of Marvel Comics, the Thunderbolts were initially made up of characters who were formerly villains. Formerly known as the Masters of Evil (the enemies of the Avengers), these characters masqueraded as heroes in an attempt to gain the public’s favor. Led by a disguised Baron Zemo, they sought to take advantage of the fact that the Avengers were seemingly no more. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were “killed” off, alongside the Fantastic Four, by the power of the mighty Onslaught. With Earth’s champions gone, Zemo realized that the world still needed champions, positioning his “Thunderbolts” as the Avengers’ replacements.

This isn’t at all the case for the team in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with their corresponding movie set to introduce a far different take on the concept. In the MCU, the Thunderbolts will seemingly be more of a paramilitary team featuring grounded characters who are based around espionage. These include the Winter Soldier, the Yelena Belova Black Widow and Red Guardian from the Black Widow movie. Surprisingly enough, Zemo is not a main member of the team, and the concept of reformed villains being used as heroes is absent, as well. This is a major shift from the concept’s initial premise, even though there was already a way to emulate the source material.

Infinity War Created the Best Way to Introduce the Thunderbolts

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Currently, there isn’t a defined team of Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nevertheless, the team is still supposedly active, and those around the planet can rest assured that the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are protecting them. There were still dark times in the past, however, such as the fallout of Avengers: Infinity War. This saw half of the planet’s population being “blipped” away by Thanos’ use of the Infinity Gauntlet. The surviving Avengers remained active, but they were clearly a defeated team protecting a fallen planet. Given these circumstances, this was the perfect time for the Avengers to disintegrate as another team took their place.

The Blip presented a similar situation to the “Heroes Reborn” storyline in the comics where the Avengers disappeared. Shaken by what happened to the world and its people (including some of its biggest heroes), former criminals and villains might have been inspired to make a difference and be their own version of the Avengers. Some of these might have been previously introduced villains, while others might be introduced as members of this “Thunderbolts” group. In fact, the team might even be put together by Thunderbolt Ross in place of the Avengers, presenting them as true “heroes of the people” due to the government keeping them on a tight leash. Of course, this might have contradicted the potential presence of a certain villain, though he would have been perfect for a redemption of his own.

A More Accurate Thunderbolts Movie Could Have Redeemed Zemo

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As mentioned, the veritable leader of the Thunderbolts in the comics (or at least their original incarnation) was Baron Helmut Zemo. He is a frequent foe of the Avengers and Captain America, but he’s portrayed far differently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He was instrumental in dividing the Avengers and pitting them against each other in Captain America: Civil War, as he blamed the team for his family’s death at the hands of Ultron. Many have noted that, though an interesting character, this take on Zemo is essentially the villain in name only. That actually presented a potential direction for his further development if the Thunderbolts movie had come out sooner.

Zemo might have blamed himself for the Avengers being unable to defeat Thanos, as he was the one who helped to destroy the team’s cohesion in Civil War. Seeing the disarray that the world was in, he would want to make amends in some way and try to protect the planet that he now felt guilty towards and protective of. Thus, the Thunderbolts might have been a way for him to outright replace the Avengers, as he would now finally see them as the heroes that they were. Even then, his attempt to turn over a new leaf might ultimately fall flat.

One potential direction would be that the Thunderbolts are simply overwhelmed, being unable to fight off against a threat that might have otherwise been of little challenge to the Avengers. Both Zemo and possibly Thunderbolt Ross would realize that the team was set to be a failure, as too many of its members were simply villains at heart who cared little about doing the right thing. From there, Zemo would stand down and even willingly choose to go to The Raft to serve a sentence, thereafter speaking with Captain America and noting how he was a true hero. This might not have been the version of Baron Zemo that comic book fans were used to, but that’s already the case with the Thunderbolts as a whole, anyway.

The MCU Thunderbolts are Too Removed from the Source Material

Ghost and the Thunderbolts in the MCU.

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As things stand, the Thunderbolts team being introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is essentially nothing like the version from the comics. None of the characters are even founding members from comic books, making it even more questionable as to why the name was chosen. It’s somewhat similar to the Defenders, which in the MCU is a team of street-level heroes. These heroes share a group name with a “non-team” from the comics made up of completely random heroes. In that case, however, the Defenders of the comics were always a C-list at best team with little marquee value or importance.

That’s not the case with the Thunderbolts, however, with the team being the first chance for many of its members to shine. The version in the MCU won’t feature any such “reformed” villains beyond Ghost from Ant-Man and the Wasp, and it’s highly likely that she’s around against her own desires more than anything else. This has the effect of turning the Thunderbolts into essentially Marvel’s version of DC’s Suicide Squad team. That team, also known as Task Force X, is made up of criminals and villains who are enlisted by Amanda Waller (by the threat of bombs in their necks) to go on dirty, dangerous and gritty missions that protect the world at all costs. Those villains don’t really have a choice, but what set the Thunderbolts apart was the fact that they were either pretending to be heroes or actually wanting to reform and be good guys.

It definitely feels like the MCU isn’t using the Thunderbolts concept to its fullest potential. The best chance at emulating their comic book origins has already passed, though the fact that the Avengers are rather unknown in terms of roster at the moment presented another possibility. Sadly, it won’t be taken in the way it should be with the Thunderbolts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe embodying something different from their comic book counterparts. In many ways, they’re simply an espionage-based version of the Avengers in the same way as the Defenders were street-level Avengers. It’s too bad given what could have been, especially since the premise is supposed to be about bad guys trying to be good.

Thunderbolts releases in theaters on July 25, 2025.

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Marvel Cinematic Universe

Created by Marvel Studios, the Marvel Cinematic Universe follows heroes across the galaxy and across realities as they defend the universe from evil.

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