Who are Marvel’s Thunderbolts? MCU team’s comic book history explained

Christopher Baggett
Thunderbolts key art

The MCU is getting ready to debut its latest superhero team, but the Thunderbolts’ comic book origin involves one of the most shocking Marvel Comics twists to date.

The next big Marvel twist fans are eagerly awaiting is the launch of the MCU’s Thunderbolts. However, what they bring to the big screen is likely to be markedly different from what fans of comics know. 

The Thunderbolts aren’t nearly as iconic as the Avengers or the X-Men, but they’ve got a nearly 30-year publication history at this point. 

A lot of that staying power is thanks to the team’s incredible debut, a story that still makes many best-of lists for its shocking final page and the way it changed the Marvel Universe forever. 

Who are Marvel’s Thunderbolts?

The Thunderbolts were originally a team of supervillains posing as heroes. Following the Onslaught crossover, most of the world’s non-mutant heroes – specifically members of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four – were believed dead. In fact, they were inside a pocket dimension created by Reed and Sue Richards’ son, Franklin, starting their lives over in a new continuity.

With Earth’s premier heroes gone, the Thunderbolts stepped up. They debuted in The Incredible Hulk #449 before showing up in their own title, Thunderbolts #1, a few months later. But the final page of that issue featured a shocking reveal, unmasking the new heroes and revealing they were some of Marvel’s most notorious supervillains. 

Baron Zemo and the Thunderbolts
The shocking reveal of Thunderbolts #1 remains one of the most memorable twists in comics.

Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil had taken on brand new identities, disguising themselves as a debut superhero team. Their goal was to pose as heroes long enough to earn the public’s trust to gain access to top-secret Avengers intelligence, which Zemo would then sell off. 

The twist came out of nowhere and has often been referred to over the years as the greatest twist in the history of comics. With the only remaining heroes being mutants like the X-Men (who were embroiled in the Operation Zero Tolerance event at the time) and distrusted heroes like Spider-Man and the Hulk, The Thunderbolts became Marvel’s de facto superteam, effectively replacing The Avengers for the year they spent in Franklin’s alternate world. 

The Thunderbolts became heroes while seeking redemption

Zemo’s plan ultimately fell apart due to two factors. First, with the universe at risk of implosion, Franklin Richards had no choice but to bring the displaced heroes back. The return of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four put Zemo’s plan at risk, as the Thunderbolts had not yet endeared themselves to the public the same way the returning heroes would. 

Baron Zemo reveals the Thunderbolts
Realizing his team preferred being heroes, Zemo sabotages the Thunderbolts.

But the Thunderbolts themselves proved the biggest issue. While Zemo remained single-mindedly focused on his plan, the other Masters of Evil found they liked being heroes. They began secretly plotting to betray Zemo and continue their superheroic identities.

Zemo tipped off S.H.I.E.L.D. to their true identities as the Masters of Evil, effectively stopping his strained allies before they could abandon his plan. The team attacked Zemo and fled, now fugitives but still hoping to prove themselves as reformed heroes. 

Every Thunderbolts team in Marvel Comics explained

While the original line-up remains the most iconic, the name Thunderbolts has become associated with many Marvel Comics teams. While they aren’t always teams of villains posing as heroes, redemption and salvation are often themes of Thunderbolts stories. 

Hawkeye joins the Thunderbolts
After a falling-out with the Avengers, Hawkeye joins the outlawed Thunderbolts.

The second iteration featured Hawkeye, who was at the time something of an outcast himself after a falling out with The Avengers. Hawkeye eventually leaves when Zemo returns. Zemo would later lead an army of villains from The Raft at the behest of Iron Man to capture Anti-Registration heroes in exchange for pardons. 

After Civil War, Norman Osborn formed a new team of Thunderbolts to hunt unregistered heroes in violation of the Superhuman Registration Act. Following Secret Invasion, Osborn’s team would form the basis for his Avengers team, with a new clandestine Thunderbolts working as assassins under his command. 

Thunderbolts #157 cover art
Luke Cage briefly leads a team of incarcerated villains as a new Thunderbolts.

After Osborn is removed from power following the Siege on Asgard, the Thunderbolts are reformed as a team of supervillains seeking redemption, this time under the leadership of Luke Cage. Cage’s Thunderbolts effectively disband when the team (and the comic!) are renamed Dark Avengers. 

This opened the door for a team formed under the leadership of General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who at the time was the Red Hulk. Operating in the shadows and away from other heroes, Ross assembled a team of assassins and killers – Punisher, Elektra, Deadpool, Agent Venom, and a brainwashed version of The Leader – to hunt and kill villains. 

When Ross’ team disbands, the original team is inadvertently reformed, this time under the leadership of Bucky Barnes. Bucky had gone underground and resumed the identity of The Winter Soldier after his tenure as Captain America, forming this team to protect Kobik, a girl who was actually a personified Cosmic Cube. The team fractures after Zemo recruits key members to join Hydra in the wake of Secret Empire.

Devil's Reign Thunderbolts
Mayor Fisk recruited a team of villains to be his Thunderbolts, tasked with stopping superheroes.

Two teams of Thunderbolts would follow, both ultimately tied into the Devil’s Reign event. The first, created by Wilson Fisk, was a team of villains operating as enforcers for New York’s superhero ban. When Fisk is ousted and Luke Cage is elected mayor, he puts Hawkeye in charge of the Thunderbolts, using the team to circumvent the hero ban and protect the city. 

The most recent iteration of the Thunderbolts returns the team to Winter Soldier’s leadership. Receiving intel from an underground band of freedom fighters known as the Outer Circle, Winter Soldier forms a team of spies and soldiers – Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, Red Guardian, Destroyer, Black Widow, White Widow, and US Agent – to hunt down Red Skull and his remaining spies. 

Who are the MCU’s Thunderbolts?

The MCU Thunderbolts consist of Yelena Belova, Bucky Barnes, Red Guardians, US Agent, Taskmaster, Ghost, and Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine.

Thunderbolts takes some cues from the comics but doesn’t appear to use one specific line-up.

The new MCU team most closely echoes the recent run under Bucky, though with characters like Ghost instead of Destroyer.

Not much is known about the MCU’s Thunderbolts as of this writing, though early rumors indicate Bucky won’t play a huge role, despite his ties to two prominent Thunderbolts teams in Marvel Comics.