(The following contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Captain America: Civil War)
The ending of Captain America: Civil War leaves the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a dramatically-altered place from where it was even one movie ago. Some might take issue with that statement, given that nobody "important" got killed and no major landmarks got blown up - and geek culture often has a problem processing the idea of emotional stakes as being equal to or greater than "who's still in play?" plot-machinery in terms of importance, but even if you don't care about the web of relationships tying the whole MCU narrative together having been completely rewired it's hard to argue that things are different now - regardless of how many reassuring notes and (presumably) burner phones Steve Rogers sent out to his various former associates offering a pre-emptive "we cool" in case of global emergency.
Captain America is now all but certainly a wanted fugitive for breaking two fellow (now) ex-Avengers (and Ant-Man) out of a high-security prison. Of those three, Hawkeye has a wife and three children who are likely to be A.) pretty upset about all this and B.) in danger themselves (can he even contact them?), Ant-Man is in roughly the same position and Scarlet Witch has likely seen her would-be romance with The Vision scuttled. Speaking of which: War Machine is now partially-paralyzed and Vision's explanation for the battlefield error that resulted in this is that he "became distracted," which is about the last thing you want to hear in terms of self-diagnosis from an android who's probably the most powerful Avenger (if not the most powerful known being on the planet) and supposed to have been incapable of making mistakes based on stress (or emotion.) Black Widow? Also a fugitive - probably with Cap and company but thus far unaccounted for.
Tony Stark still appears to be in charge of The Avengers, at least officially, but what does that actually mean anymore? The "team" is down to Rhodey ("War Machine"), who at the bare minimum will need to learn to walk again using bionically-enhanced legs before he even thinks about flying or fighting, and Vision - who may or may not be hugely compromised at this point. Thus far, Tony's judgment in matters of hero recruitment haven't been great, consisting largely of giving a weaponized high-tech supersuit to a high school kid and asking him to help out in a battle that could easily have killed him. Plus, thanks to the Sokovia Accords, he can't assemble and direct a new Avengers himself anyway: He's answering to the Secretary of State, aka General Thaddeus Ross - a man whose feelings vis-a-vis superheroes have been previously demonstrated by spending over a decade trying to hunt down and "neutralize" Bruce Banner - and having very little compunction about issuing shoot-to-kill orders for Captain America.
Bottom line: If the world suddenly needs a superhero team in the near-future, the world is kind of screwed. And while there's hypothetically time enough to build a new Avengers between now and whatever the sequel formerly known as Avengers: Infinity War Part I, the way things are arranged it doesn't seem likely the heroes of Marvel movies to come like Doctor Strange and Black Panther are going to be the team-joining type - at least not under these conditions. Spider-Man? Maybe - but he seems to have an issue about people knowing his identity and that's probably a condition for government work whether Tony Stark cares or not.
(Speaking of government work, sure was "quirky" for Marvel to hire super-recognizable actor Martin Freeman to play Everett Ross, aka a nondescript anti-terrorism worker hanging around in high-level security areas with no clear role in the bigger story, huh? I bet we'll never, ever hear from him again - especially not in some capacity that reveals him to have been secretly of great importance this whole time...)
Now, granted, everyone and their grandmother already knows that the next Avengers-level threat in the Cinematic Universe is Thanos; and in terms of getting even, a godlike alien monster angling for control over the fabric of reality itself certainly fits the bill as a response to superheroes as emotionally-compromised and self-involved as the once and future Avengers. But what everyone and their grandmother also knows is that the fight against Thanos is scheduled to take two whole films to accomplish, and "Okay, we're all friends again - let's kick this purple guy's ass!" sounds like something that happens in a Part 2 - not a Part 1. So, assuming that (or something close) is the case, what happens before that?
Do The Avengers all fight whatever it is Thanos unleashes (or set's in motion?) independently before reuniting? Does the "Civil War" status quo stay in effect to be used against them? At the bare minimum, you've still got to wonder what the government and Tony Stark (who outright admits he started meddling again in the first place because he couldn't cope with retirement and/or a grownup relationship after all) - neither of whom know about Thanos - are planning to do in the meantime. "Hire new Avengers" would be the obvious solution in the real world, but in a superhero movie, it's the sort of decision that's all but guaranteed to fail spectacularly: Turning The Avengers into the superhero version of a private security firm staffed by, essentially, mercenaries? What if they're unstable? Or unreliable? Or just plain jerks?
Or maybe the answer is already right in front of us, culled from the comics and suggested by plot threads already in motion in the margins of the bigger events playing out in Civil War and elsewhere?
Who (Or What) Are 'The Thunderbolts?'
To explain what The Thunderbolts are/were, why they'd make sense (to the degree that anything would) as a plot element en-route to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first big curtain call and how one would arrive at positing them - as opposed to any of a dozen other scenarios isn't exactly a complicated task... but it is a convoluted one, and it requires learning some (admittedly pretty interesting) comic book history.
In 1996, Marvel pulled off what was at the time seen as a huge "coup" within the industry by wooing then-superstar independent creators Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld - both of whom had risen to fame working for Marvel but had struck on their own out as part of the exodus of talent that formed Image Comics, where they gained even greater fame - back to the fold for a mega-hyped project called "Heroes Reborn." The two creators would be given control and unprecedented creative freedom over five of Marvel's most iconic series: The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor; permitted not only to rework the characters going forward but to reimagine them from the ground up in entirely new continuities of the creators' own design, unmoored from their established histories in the main Marvel Universe timeline.K.
But these would not simply be spin-offs or a "what-if?" side-series playing out while the "real" characters kept on trucking - the Heroes Reborn characters would remain the sole incarnations of themselves in Marvel continuity (and on store shelves), just "relocated" into an alternate universe with no memories of their original selves. So if you wanted to continue reading stories about any of these characters but didn't want to follow these newly-reimagined Lee or Liefeld versions? Tough - you couldn't.
The whole experiment was set in motion through a preceding crossover event called Onslaught, in which the fate of the planet was imperiled by, well... "Onslaught," an energy being manifested from the combined psyches of Charles Xavier and Magneto (the 90s were weird). The X-Men, Fantastic Four and Avengers team up to take the monster down, and when the dust had settled it appeared to all the world that all of the good guys except for the X-Men had been killed (vaporized, in fact) - sacrificing themselves to destroy Onslaught. In "reality" they'd simply been hurled into the alternate Heroes Reborn universe to take part in what amounted to a longform publishing-stunt that wound up being fairly underwhelming and ultimately collapsed on itself; but in the context of the main Marvel Universe? As far as anyone knew, the entirety of The Fantastic Four and The Avengers were dead - and that meant that the world was suddenly running low on superheroes that citizens actually liked - or even at least trusted.
Who was left to turn to? The X-Men, a bunch of mutants that half the world population is either bigoted-against, terrified-of or both? Spider-Man, who the media says is a menace? Vigilante weirdos like The Punisher, Daredevil or Ghost Rider? The Hulk!? And what about readers who wanted to follow the exploits of a hero team, but one set in the "normal" Marvel Universe instead of whatever Lee and Liefeld were cooking up? According to Marvel, the answer to both questions would be The Thunderbolts: A brand new superhero team made up brand new characters, launching to fill the void left by the "death" of The Avengers.
After a soft-debut in an issue of The Incredible Hulk, the heroes calling themselves The Thunderbolts made their debut in April of 1997 in the first issue of their own self-titled series. In the story, the mysterious new team appears in New York and immediately sets about cleaning up an outbreak of super-criminality that's broken out in the wake of so many heroes having seemingly perished in the fight against Onslaught; and true to Marvel's word, they were an impressively cool lineup of exciting new characters: Patriotic swordsman Citizen V, human fighter-jet MACH-1, gadget-master Techno, size-changer Atlas, sound-manipulator Songbird and female powerhouse Meteorite. Where they come from is a mystery, but they manage to kick enough bad guy ass and reassure enough of the frightened citizenry that in no time at all they're being welcomed as much-needed saviors, moved into The Avengers now-vacated headquarters and besieged with offers from the police, the military and the government to make use of the contacts and connections the now-departed earlier heroes had enjoyed.
But where had The Thunderbolts come from and, more importantly, who were they? The citizens of the Marvel Universe wouldn't find out for quite awhile, but readers got their answer on the last pages of the first issue - as Marvel tipped its hand and revealed they'd just pulled off one of the best twists in comic-book history:
They were bad guys. Supervillains - supervillains we'd already met.
Specifically, they were a team of B and C-list Marvel villains assembled by onetime HYDRA boss Baron Zemo (aka "Citizen V"), who'd given new names and costumes to The Beetle (MACH-1), Screaming Mimi (Songbird), Fixer (Techno), Moonstone (Meteorite) and Goliath (Atlas) in an ingenious scheme to infiltrate and undermine the world's governments by masquerading as a trustworthy replacement for The Avengers. And that was to be the book's (brilliant) premise: Following a team of bad guys as they undertook an elaborate scheme that required them to pretend to be superheroes; with the audience "in" on the joke as they battled clueless former colleagues in order to gain the world's trust and made "friends" with equally-hoodwinked good guys who'd been some of their mortal enemies only weeks beforehand - experiences that would lead some of them to begin wondering whether they'd rather forget about Zemo's plan altogether and take this opportunity to start over in life as good guys (uh-oh...).
As you might imagine, once the cat was out of the bag this novel premise turned the book into a gigantic hit for Marvel and one of the most fondly-remembered mainstream superhero books of the 90s. And even though the core premise didn't remain firmly in place for the whole run (only partially because Heroes Reborn didn't really work out and the "real" good guys eventually returned) the melodrama between the characters encouraged by the scenario (including the addition of Jolt, a superpowered teenage orphan who initially didn't know the true nature of her new "family") kept fans coming back as the premise evolved into Zemo turning on the team and various members attempting to join the hero game for real - among other things.
The series would run 75 issues before being retooled into an ill-advised "underground fighting"-themed story that led to quick cancellation. And while several attempted revivals cropped up to varying degrees of success in the ensuing years, the original run is generally regarded as the "classic" Thunderbolts experience.
Okay, Cool Story - But What Does It Have To Do With 'Civil War?'
Obviously, that exact version of The Thunderbolts (i.e. known villains remade as fake new heroes) isn't a great fit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There isn't a 30+ year backlog of minor costumed villains to pull from, for starters, and while Helmut Zemo is a major character as of Captain America: Civil War, he isn't a Baron or a scheming HYDRA master-villain - he's an embittered Sokovian ex-soldier who uses old HYDRA intel and manipulation of the Sokovia Accords to goad The Avengers into tearing each other apart to avenge his dead family. Yes, as of the end of the film he's alive, still angry and thus could plausibly escape to become a deadlier enemy, perhaps even donning his namesake's iconic purple hood from the comics. After all, "trick Tony Stark and Secretary Ross into replacing The Avengers with bad guys" probably isn't a plan he'd be expected to launch.
However, "villains in disguise" (or, subsequently, "former villains making good") weren't the only scenarios where the name Thunderbolts was used. In fact, the name got repurposed for an entirely new venture during a relatively more recent Marvel Comics event: The original Civil War.
Whereas in the film the "war" is largely metaphoric, describing the "brother against brother" breakdown strictly among the now-opposing sides of The Avengers, in the comics it was a global conflict between two huge armies comprising almost every hero on the planet (and then some.) As such, things get quite a bit more heated between the pro and anti-registration contingents, and one of the many "too far" steps taken by the "pro" side wound up being conscripting the (then) current incarnation of The Thunderbolts to round up supervillains, give them a "join the team or go to jail" mandate a'la Suicide Squad and then send the heaviest hitters after Captain America's underground Secret Avengers movement. When the War ended in a victory for the pro-registration side, the team was remade once again and (continuing a series of suspiciously poor decisions on the part of authority figures in this storyline) placed under the command of Norman Osborn - formerly (and, really, always) The Green Goblin.
As you can imagine, that doesn't go well for anyone involved.
The Civil War event was followed by World War Hulk, wherein The Hulk (who'd spent the year adventuring on an alien world in the Planet Hulk maxiseries after having been shot into outer space by his "friends" just before the war broke out) returned to Earth leading an alien army looking to give everybody a big-scale stomping as payback for the whole "shot me into outer space" thing. Then came Secret Invasion, wherein it turned out The Skrulls (alien shape-shifters) had been gradually invading the planet by replacing various authority figures, S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel and superheroes while everyone was distracted by all the infighting - and instead of being a chance for the good guys to (finally) regroup and repel them, Osborn and his Thunderbolts end up with the lion's share of the credit for taking out the Skrull leader. The end result of that? Osborn becomes head of the new S.H.I.E.L.D. replacement H.A.M.M.E.R. (because S.W.O.R.D. was already the name of something else) and promoting the best of the Thunderbolts to be the new "official" Avengers; going so far as to give some the codenames and costumes of the now-fugitive (or "discredited") good guys (Bullseye pretending to be Hawkeye, Moonstone as Ms. Marvel, etc) for the extended Dark Reign storyline.
Conscripting villains (or, perhaps more likely, "enhanced" people of dubious moral character) into a government-backed team to (ostensibly) replace The Avengers? That doesn't just sound like a reasonable guess at the premise of a future Avengers sequel - it sounds like something that would sort of have to happen given the state Civil War left things in: You can't well go breaking incarcerated felons out of a maximum-security prison (as Captain America has now done) without someone coming after you, and since this band of fugitives is comprised of two powerful superhumans (Cap and Scarlet Witch) a pair of elite soldiers (Hawkeye and Falcon) along with one regular guy (unless he gets another Ant-Man suit), that "someone" will probably need to be enhanced/empowered to some degree themselves.
Drafting "bad" Avengers mainly to chase down the "good" ones may or may not be a big enough premise to build an entire Avengers sequel around (though Marvel does love their opposite-of-the-hero villains) but it's certainly more than enough to provide an inciting incident and answer the question of what the world is doing about the whole "fugitive superhero" situation while everyone waits for all the Thanos business to start - especially if the "new" Avengers prove decidedly not up to the task of dealing with alien Titans.
And lest we forget, the man who (based on his position and actions in Civil War) would be in charge of putting that type of arrangement together? Secretary Ross - or, as he was known during his military career: General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross.
But What Would That Look Like?
Incidentally: "Thunderbolt" Ross and The Thunderbolts generally don't have anything to do with one another in the comics - or rather, they didn't until Ross himself became The Red Hulk a few years ago and joined one of the Thunderbolt successor-teams - but that was a coincidence. But his re-appearance in the films? Well... It's certainly interesting that Marvel would go to the trouble of bringing back as well known an actor as William Hurt to reprise a character (but now in a different role, story-wise) from a movie the Cinematic Universe otherwise doesn't much care to bring up, isn't it?
In any case - yes, the question of what The Thunderbolts (or an "Anti-Avengers" team by any other name) would look like in the MCU is a tricky one, given that the lack of a surplus of lower-tier costumed heavies constantly running around to pick from is one of the major differences between the films and the comics. Mostly that's a result of not really needing them: Superhero movie series only have to release a new story every 2-3 years versus once a month for comics publishing, usually with only one or two nemeses being necessary at a time. But it's also likely due to most of the top "all purpose" Marvel villains belonging to the X-Men, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four series - the three franchises that weren't originally part of the shared universe.
But since the "Surprise! I'm actually a familiar bad guy!" angle wouldn't likely be part of a cinematic Thunderbolts in this context, already "established" villains aren't really necessary. New-to-the-movies bad guy with unique, easily-explained gimmicks would probably do the job nicely; and the Marvel canon is well-stocked with guys like The Swordsman, Bullseye, Wrecker, Taskmaster, etc. who are all fairly self-explanatory, plus with Spider-Man back in the family that particular rogues gallery could, under certain conditions, be available too.
And while the movies haven't exactly generated a ton of (still living) minor antagonists, there are a few to pick from: Batroc the Leaper, the French martial-arts expert from The Winter Soldier, would be one. The Abomination, aka Emil Blonksy, the "evil Hulk" from The Incredible Hulk who (according to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is "on ice" in an Alaskan prison, would be another. If the TV shows or Netflix series are in play at all then Agents' version of Crusher Creel, aka "The Absorbing Man" would be a fine fit with an actually useful power-set to boot; as would Will Simpson, the pill-popping Super-Soldier wannabe cop (himself a loose reworking of the comics villain "Nuke") from Season 1 of Jessica Jones. There's also, of course, Zemo himself - perhaps not the nigh-immortal Nazi arch-criminal of the comics but at least established as a "death squad" soldier in Civil War.
Another possibility: Keeping the "Thunderbolts" name (again, what else is William Hurt doing here?) but basing the team more on the "Osborn's imposters" angle from Dark Reign. After all, what would more effectively establish the idea that these are "the bad Avengers" than giving bad guys the (confiscated, per a plot-point established in Civil War) equipment, costumes and names of the Avengers themselves - making it that much easier for audiences without a background in Marvel obscura to "get" that we're dealing with Evil Captain America, Evil Hawkeye, Evil Falcon, etc. And keep in mind: While not technically "confiscated," Captain America doesn't have his shield anymore; which will no doubt have many fans expecting to see a variation on the "U.S. Agent" costume (or nickname) to pop up in some capacity regardless of where the overall storyline goes.
And the storyline is, after all, what's most important. For all the flack Marvel catches for essentially having geo-engineered the entertainment-media landscape into a perpetual hype machine based on which character/storyline will be called up to the majors next (which pieces like this are absolutely both part of and a reaction to), they've typically shown a certain degree of restraint when it comes to the use of cameos, references and cross-promotions within the films themselves. Given how easy it would have been to do otherwise, it's something close to admirable that Civil War "only" introduces two new characters with movies coming up - it's not hard to imagine another studio filling up that already epic airport brawl with dozens of costumed combatants just to see if anyone catches the audience's eye particularly strongly. Marvel is in the game to make money and extend their brands, obviously. But thus far their plan for doing so is to make good films based on good stories and build what branding they can into them, as opposed to lining up next quarter's merchandise prospects and trying to figure out the story later.
So Where Would They Fit In?
On paper, a Marvel Cinematic Universe version of The Thunderbolts sounds like an entirely logical (even predictable) step for the next Avengers sequel - or even the next movie about The Avengers, since as of Civil War those no longer need to be mutually-exclusive. Having now seen The Avengers battle an external threat (Loki), an internal threat (Ultron) and most recently each other, fighting their own evil counterparts is practically a given in terms of likely storylines. Captain America: Civil War comes down somewhat ambiguously on the subject of its own "should The Avengers be regulated?" question since the big breakdown turns out to be caused by Zemo's manipulations rather than a systemic flaw on one side or the other, but the fact remains that an MCU where superheroes have to ask permission to fight bad guys would be a pretty boring scenario. Sooner or later, the "classical" status quo will have to re-assert itself; and few things would more firmly establish Captain America's position as correct (or, at least, The Sokovia Accords as untenable) than having an officially government created/sanctioned Avengers equivalent turn out to be bad guys who need to be put down by the "vigilante" original-models.
Except we already know that a "Dark Avengers" riff isn't the plot of Avengers 3. Even if not still called Infinity War and split into two parts, it's been widely pre-established that the next two Avengers movies will be about Thanos the Mad Titan coming to Earth, collecting The Infinity Stones, loading them into The Infinity Gauntlet and trying to destroy the known Universe - possibly because he thinks it will impress the Marvel Universe's female-presenting embodiment of the cosmic concept of Death itself, on whom he has an unrequited romantic crush (No, really, that's his backstory) - a threat so big it's easy to imagine it taking the entire MCU and two whole movies to stop. Not a lot of room, in other words, for a secondary plot about William Hurt hiring poorly-vetted mercenaries to replace The Avengers.
Or is there?
It's worth recalling, amid speculative moments such as this, that most of the moviegoing public isn't spending anywhere near the amount of time hardcore comics fans and/or cinephiles are staying one step ahead of the Marvel Universe storyline. The same "normal" audiences who were, by many accounts, genuinely surprised when Tony Stark's teenage superhero draftee introduced himself as "Peter Parker" are largely not aware that Thanos, a big purple guy who showed up to look briefly menacing at the end of the first two Avengers movies and issued threats from a chair in Guardians of The Galaxy, is the biggest of big-bads waiting to make trouble in Avengers 3 & 4 - hell, plenty of people likely aren't fully aware that Avengers 3 & 4 are things that are already in the process of happening. So while the reaction from the internet commentariat were Marvel to announce that Avengers 3 was "Avengers vs Thunderbolts" or "Dark Avengers" (or whatever) would inevitably produce reams of text demanding to know what happened to Thanos, most audiences in the real world would likely be closer to: "Oh, there's bad Avengers now? That could be fun."
Logistically, The Thunderbolts might not be enough for a full movie in their own right, this much is true. "Avengers vs BAD Avengers!" sounds cool thematically, but conceptually there's a danger that it reads too much like a redux of Civil War. But as an element of bigger story? They might be exactly what the doctor ordered. Again: It's got to be somebody's job to try and arrest Captain America and the other fugitives, and trying to fend off invasion by a space monster can only be more complicated (and thus more dramatic) if you're trying to do it while also being dogged by a bunch of attackers with their own separate agenda. Scraping with their "evil" dopplegangers would give The Avengers some action/battle sequences for Part 3 that would be, if nothing else, visually and tonally distinct from the Thanos-related spectacles that are likely to dominate Part 4.
Besides, there's nothing that says it couldn't all be part of the same plot - villain plot, that is, not the plot of the film. Thus far, Thanos has been a villain operating largely by proxy: He sent Loki to do his dirty work in Avengers, had his "daughters" overseeing Ronan's actions in Guardians of The Galaxy and is presumed to have been leering from the shadows in all of the other movies. And even though he's supposedly decided to get more hands-on as of Age of Ultron, there's nothing that says he can't still be playing a sneakier game to achieve his ends. Helping to nudge Ross, The U.N., etc into a Thunderbolts state of mind would be a smart play in that context, and it'd be a very quintessentially Marvel-style twist to find out The Mad Titan (or one or more of his emissaries) had already been among us for awhile now - maybe even, say, hiding in plain sight? Perhaps behind the face of a military man who developed a sudden personality change and desire to move up the political ladder after a near-death experience? Or a seemingly-random government functionary suspiciously hanging around all the time (and, even more suspiciously, being played by a well-known, instantly-recognizable actor for no apparent necessary reason)?
Obviously, this is all speculation - however well-informed. Marvel, as ever, is going to do basically whatever it wants with its stories; and it's almost certainly the case that many details of the next (final?) two Avengers simply haven't been decided on yet. But, should The Thunderbolts (or something like them) start cropping up as favorite subjects of the rumor mill... remember where you read it first, True Believer.
Captain America: Civil War is in theaters now. Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther– February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2– May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.