The Thunderbolts – When Bad Guys Go Good
Ah, villains. Where would we be without the assorted opposite numbers of our heroes, testing them at every turn? A heck of a lot less entertained, that’s where. Batman’s night job would be as dull and repetitive as a 9-to-5 cubicle gig. Wolverine would probably use those claws of his for litter-picking and topiary. Luke Skywalker might’ve stayed on Tatooine forever, becoming an ever-greater terroriser of the common-or-garden(desert?) Womp Rat.
In the earliest days of comics as we know them, a hero’s rogue gallery was a relatively black and white affair. By today’s more multi-faceted standards, antagonists were usually thoroughly evil, moustache-twirling sorts intent on making the titular character’s life a living hell through overcomplicated schemes and overdramatic monologuing. ‘Twas a simpler time, for sure.
For all their usefulness in providing a foil for heroes, however, sometimes a villain decides they’ve had enough of the darkness and wish to walk in the light for a while. They forsake their evil ways and turn over a new leaf. That brings us to Marvel’s Thunderbolts, who are currently celebrating their 20th year of existence as a team (yes, 1997 was twenty years ago now. Yes, it’s a slightly terrifying thought).
The concept of a “redeemed villain” was hardly a new one by the time the Thunderbolts were dreamed up by the demented geniuses at Marvel – indeed, there had been examples of this trope since the earliest days of the superhero genre, though these instances were few and far between during the formative years. It certainly owes a debt to DC’s Suicide Squad, who were first brought together in The Brave And The Bold #25, way back in the dark ages of 1959 – almost unrecognisable in both roster and MO during their first run compared to the modern-day incarnation.
The Thunderbolts are altogether a rather different beast to Task Force X, however. They began life as a group of villains (namely the subtly-monikered Masters of Evil) headed by none other than Baron Zemo, intent on taking advantage of a world heavily depleted of superheroes after a titanic conflict with the powerful entity known as Onslaught. In the first issue of Thunderbolts, the Masters of Evil disguised themselves as a new group of superheroes intent on filling the void left by the disappearance of the Avengers and co. and gaining the public’s trust. In actuality, of course, world domination was the plan, and it was looking much easier to achieve with so many heroes apparently having been killed. The twist was not actually revealed until the very end of the issue, in what is widely regarded as being one of the most unexpected and clever reveals in Marvel’s long history.
Unfortunately for Zemo, things did not go as planned. His band of cackling ne’er-do-wells began to see the appeal of playing for the other side, eventually teamed up with Avengers and the Fantastic Four (having recently returned from the pocket dimension in which they had been trapped) to overthrow their leader and embrace their new lives as warriors of justice, despite Zemo’s attempt to out their villainous personas and ruin their chances of becoming heroes.
The roster of the Thunderbolts changes fairly often, but the core concept remains that it’s composed mainly of “reformed” villains looking to atone for their sins, whether by intent or coincidence.
Thunderbolts deals heavily with the theme of redemption – the idea that within all of us, there is the potential to make amends for our past evils and become a positive force in the world. It’s a powerful and moving concept; possibly the most famous movie series in history, Star Wars, is essentially a story about the redeeming of Anakin Skywalker back from the darkness, putting right the wrongs he enabled during his time as Darth Vader. Its presence in pop culture is inarguable.
The team’s rejection of Zemo’s dastardly plans laid the foundation for this theme of redemption, as these former villains attempted to turn their lives around and use their abilities for good. This thread has been carried throughout the existence of the team, as members come and go. Sometimes “traditional” heroes such as Hawkeye join and even lead them for a time.
Comics are among the longest-running, most complicated and nebulous forms of entertainment out there. Entire story arcs can often take years to fully explore before the entire storyline is rebooted by some event or another. Team rosters shift, alliances are forged, broken and re-forged, and nobody ever seems to age. In the real world, characters can be dropped due to poor sales or as part of a political manoeuvre – take Marvel canning their Fantastic Four line and killing off the X-Men, both currently under the Fox umbrella in the movie industry, for example. This writer suspects they’ll be back in one form or another eventually – but perhaps not until those characters are brought back into the Marvel cinematic fold.
The Thunderbolts have been cancelled before, but they’ve risen each time again. The latest incarnation is currently headed by the Winter Soldier AKA Bucky Barnes – a man on a quest to atone for the crimes of his past. Barnes is an interesting spin the trope, however, in that his misdeeds were not his fault, but rather a result of his time as a puppet of that ever-reliable bastion of nastiness, HYDRA. Nonetheless, the man who blazed a dark trail through the 20th century will always carry those scars, and seek to heal them.
The Thunderbolts look set to provide an interesting and unconventional pit-stop for many bad guys, looking for a change in career prospects, for many years to come. There have been rumblings of a film or perhaps TV adaptation in the works for the team, which this writer thinks would be a great idea (confession time – I didn’t know all that much about them before I wrote this article, but I’m now highly interested in reading more about them).
Marvel has proven its partnership with Netflix can produce high-quality, engaging comic book drama goodness in its buildup to The Defenders – it could be the perfect home for another band of misfits looking to do some good in the world.
Further reading: read about the Thunderbolts at the Marvel Wiki.