The Thunderbolts – Underrated and Underappreciated

I wanted to take today to talk about one my favourite teams to ever come out of the Marvel comic universe and that would be the Thunderbolts. Most people aren’t very familiar with them if at all, and those that are familiar tend to view them as Marvel’s Suicide Squad.  While the Suicide Squad did come first by quite a few years, the Thunderbolts have been right smack in the middle of some of the Marvel comic universe’s biggest events and played a big part in the original Civil War.

The Marvel Thunderbolts is a team made up (originally) of Super Villains that masqueraded as heroes and fooled the world into believing they were heroes. It was revealed in the final page of Incredible Hulk #449 from January 1997, that they were a team of villains (the Masters of Evil) led by Baron Zemo.  Throughout their early publication the team became more and more heroic to the point where they ousted their leader Zemo and became heroes in their own right. Eventually Hawkeye led the team and continued to do so for many years. The team went through many re-launches and revamps through their short publication history until Warren Ellis took over the title making the team a black ops government sanctioned team that was tasked with rounding up fugitive superheroes during Civil War. This was by far the most successful run of the team and they even appeared in several tie in runs with Secret Invasion. The team was revamped during the MarvelNow! publications to operate as singular unit functioning outside the law and government sanction.

The team has gone through so many incarnations and revamps that it would take forever to list the teams and their respective rosters. That being said the following three rosters are the most popular from their publication history and have been present for some of the biggest events in Marvel Comic history.

#1 – Zemo and his Thunderbolts

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This first incarnation of the team as stated before were the Masters of Evil masquerading as heroes after many of the heroes had been killed by the Onslaught event.  This team consisted of: Baron Zemo, Goliath, Beetle, Fixer, Moonstone, and Screaming Mimi. As previously stated during their first foray into production, the team donned heroic personas to act as heroes after Onslaught had killed most of the main continuity heroes. The heroic personas they took were as follows:

Baron Zemo – Citizen V

Goliath – Atlas

Beetle – MACH-1

Fixer -Techno

Moonstone –  Kept her name

Screaming Mimi – Songbird

The team’s first mission was to rescue Goliath and kill the Avengers, obviously with the Avengers having been killed by Onslaught the team decided to fill the void left, learn the secrets of the Avengers and SHIELD and sell the secrets to the Criminal underworld.

#2 – Osborn’s Thunderbolts

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The next most popular incarnation of the team is the one that came to popularity immediately after the events of Civil War. This team was led my Norman Osborn and served as the first step to him eventually being named director of SHIELD ( which he renamed HAMMER) and his Dark Avengers. Osborn assumed control over the team and began hunting down the remaining fugitive heroes who avoided the Superhuman Registration Act. One of the heroes that they attempted to take down after he killed Black Knight at a Pro- Registration rally to save the innocent people attending (more on that in a later post) was Moon Knight; at that point the team was made up of the following members:

Norman Osborn (Green Goblin) – Leader

Moonstone – Field Leader

Bullseye

Penance – Speedball from the new Warriors who caused the Civil War

Radioactive Man

Songbird

Swordsman

Venom

This is arguable the most popular incarnation after the team. I say arguably because the original team led by Zemo was fairly popular and their reveal of who they really are is #11 on the Greatest Comic Moments Ever. 

This team went on to repel the Skrull invasion on Washington D.C. during Secret Invasion and was played up to have had a much larger impact on the outcome of the invasion by Osborn. After Secret Invasion the team wen through a few more line-up changes most notably when Luke Cage handpicked the new Thunderbolts from Raft prisoners and became their field leader.

#3 – Red Hulk and the Thunderbolts

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The third most popular team comes from the MarvelNow! run which was a complete revamp of the team and was made up of anti-heroes and a few villains. The team was recruited by Red Hulk and their mission were decided at a turn by turn basis. Each member put their names in a hat and General Ross (Red Hulk) would draw one name out, whoever he drew got to pick the mission and nobody could complain or say otherwise. Once your mission was done your name was left out of the next draw until everyone had a chance to pick a mission and then everyone’s names went back in. The system worked for the entire run with only a few minor hiccups. This team consisted of:

Red Hulk

Punisher

Deadpool

Elektra

Agent Venom

The Leader – After the first issue

Abigail Mercy – Midway through the run

 

Eventually during their run Ghost Rider (Johnny Blaze) would join the team and assist them in some supernatural missions as well as testing their security. One such example was when the team tested if they could take down the Venom symbiote should it become unattached from Flash Thompson (Agent Venom). The battle was a little bit of a one sided event with the symbiote dominating until the Leader stepped in and subdued it. Punisher eventually quits the team and is almost killed by a bomb that was placed in one of his hideouts, in retaliation he goes after the Thunderbolts and takes them down 1 by 1.  The run ends with Ross disbanding the team once the true culprit behind the attempted murder of Frank is revealed.

 

The Thunderbolts are one of my favourite teams of all time and I will admit that while I do enjoy the Suicide Squad the Thunderbolts still rank higher in my opinion. The Squad is great and their chemistry is apparent (sometimes) but the Thunderbolts just have that redemption quality that makes you want to believe in them. They started off being heroes in disguise and liked it so much they kicked out their Super Villain leader to be heroes full time, if that doesn’t just warm your heart than nothing will. Not only are most members great redemption stories, they also battle a lot of personal demons and do a lot of growth in the limited number of issues in each run. My favourite  incarnation of the team is probably the Red Hulk’s but that’s because of Deadpool, Punisher and Agent Venom, not to mention GHOST RIDER!!!! I will admit that I haven’t picked up any of the newest incarnation from the All New All Different Marvel, but I have read that Winter Soldier is the new leader of the team, so that can only be a good thing.

 

 

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Anti-Heroes: More Realistic Than Classic Superheroes

Superheroes provide hope, and idea to strive towards. They’re someone you can always look up to and can trust that no matter what is facing them, they will do the right thing. While this is an admirable stance to take, even if it’s not very realistic. Finding someone who is good for the sake of being good is a one in a million chance. Most people like to think that they are good at heart but when the chips are down and their back is against the wall they will do whatever it takes to win, even if it is sometimes a very morally grey area. I’m not trying to say that I think people are evil, they’re not. People are just people and each person has a breaking point. A point where self preservation takes the driver’s seat and everything else takes a side seat. Some people can reach this point very quickly, while others take quite some time to get there.

If any of you have seen the movie American Sniper, you’re probably familiar with the little speech Chris’ father gives him after saving his brother from a bully. “There are 3 kinds of people in this world, there’s wolves, sheep, and sheep dogs. Wolves try to hurt the sheep and it’s the sheep dogs job to protect them, so are you a wolf or a sheep dog?” I’m paraphrasing the speech, but that’s what it boils down to. This little tid bit is actually taken from a book by LTC retired Dave Grossman titled “On Killing”, the books is quite extensive and dives deeper into the comparison of sheep, wolves and sheep dogs. There is also a quote from Heraclitus that goes like this…

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back”

To bring this back to my main point if Superheroes are the sheep dogs then anti-heroes are like wild dogs. They may attack the sheep on occasion but for the most part they only go after the wolves. There are quite a few heroes that fall into both categories (Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Arsenal), there are also quite a few that stay far past the line (Punisher, Grifter, Deadpool, Red Hood). While superheroes tend to have tragic backstories, anti-heroes tend to have a backstory so caked in violence and blood that it’s amazing they didn’t turn into a villain themselves. Three of my favourite anti-heroes are Deadpool, Red Hood, and Punisher, because of everything that happened to them they still somehow come through in the end (even if just barely).

One of the defining traits that all anti-heroes seem to possess is the innate knowledge that no matter how hard you try, you can’t save everyone every time. This also goes hand in hand with the belief that sometimes in order to save someone you need to use lethal force. One of my favourite lines comes from MarvelNow! Punisher: War Zone, wherein Frank Castle (Punisher) has pissed off the Avengers for the last time. Before the final showdown with the Avengers, Wolverine is approached by Captain America. Cap basically tells Wolverine that because of his close relationship with Frank that he will have to sit this one out. They banter back and forth and the final line comes from Wolverine when he says ” The difference between guys like us and guys like you Cap… is that we understand sometimes… people have to die”. This one line perfectly illustrates what makes anti-heroes so much more relatable than clean cut superheroes, they understand that some people are just bad and they will continue to be bad until they are stopped.

Batman once said “If you kill a killer , the number of killers in this world remains the same”.  While this philosophy might work for Batman and potentially other heroes like him (Superman, Flash, Captain America, Spider-Man, etc) one has to ask how many people died because they refused to do what was necessary. There is a quote from Wonder Woman on her New 52 run that goes like this ” There’s a reason why I don’t have a list of enemies as long as yours, or Bruce’s or even Barry’s, because when i deal with them.. I DEAL with them”. Wonder Woman is one of the few clean cut superheroes who takes lives, but she also doesn’t do it willy nilly. She heavily weighs the cost of her actions against whether or not it’s for the greater good. If the greater good wins she acts, there have been a few exceptions (Maxwell Lord pre Infinite Crisis) for example, where her emotions got the better of her, but they are few and far between.

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One of the questions I get asked quite a bit when explaining comics to people is “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”. Without going into a HUGE debate on the psychology of the two of them there really is no right answer. Batman doesn’t kill the Joker because then Joker wins, but Joker won’t stop until Batman kills him, it’s a catch 22. The animated film Under the Red Hood actually introduced a lot of people to the Red Hood for the first time. Jason Todd (Robin #2) was beat with a crowbar to near death and then blown up by the Joker. Feeling guilty for having brought Joker into it Ra’as Al Ghul revived Jason using a Lazarus Pit. Jason came back but was pretty insane and fled for several years. He begins taking over the Gotham underworld until the final confrontation with Batman and the Joker. The final confrontation has a particular line that hits the issue to the core ” Why is he still alive? Ignoring the friends he’s crippled the graveyards he’s filled…”; Jason delivers that line while pointing at the Joker. Batman tells him that if he kills the Joker he will never stop killing. This is what draws me to Batman as much as other characters like Punisher and Ghost Rider, he is a Superhero, but he is barely past the line between anti-hero and superhero and on several occasions he has crossed that line.

The 2008 film Punisher: War Zone showed us just how gritty and brutal a Punisher film could be if done right. I stand by Thomas Jane and the 2004 film with John Travolta, but Ray Stevenson just looked the part. It also brought a great line from a police detective who tried to “stop” the Punisher. When talking with Detective Soap, he basically says that the reason the Punisher hasn’t been caught is because the police don’t want him to be caught. He gets to do to those guys (mob families and criminals) what cops only dream of getting to do. While this train of thought might extend to superheroes as well normally the police forces of the comic worlds are stuck behind red tape and can’t act on someone they know is guilty. anti-heroes don’t care. They will find out if you’re guilty and they will make you pay.

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I realize it seems like I’m saying anti-heroes don’t have a conscience, but that is very wrong. while some like Punisher and Red Hood have become so jaded they no longer care, some like Deadpool use humour to cover up their true feelings, and sometimes they don’t cover them at all. In Deadpool’s brief stint on the X-Force he quickly came to butt heads with Wolverine. They were tasked with killing the reincarnated Apocalypse, the only problem was that he was reincarnated into a kid named Evan who was still in primary school. Wade immediately objected and voiced his objections, Wolverine and the rest of X-Force knew what a full grown Apocalypse could do and were resigned to killing Evan. Wolverine and Deadpool had some words and Wolverine called Deadpool “…a soulless, spineless, money grubbing mercenary”; as Wade turned to walk away he responded with ” Ya. But I never killed a kid”. This altercation caused Fantomex to regret his decision and clone Evan (it’s get weird just go with it) and teach Evan right from wrong enough to get Evan enlisted in Xavier’s school for Gifted Youngsters.

Superheroes come in all shapes, sizes and abilities; they can be star spangled awesome like Captain America, the big blue boy scout like Superman, or a tortured human like Batman. No matter who they are, superheroes give us something to strive toward. They provide us with a direction to orient ourselves towards, a light to find our way in the darkness. But sometimes the darkness is fought with darkness, while superheroes are the light, anti-heroes are the shade. The grey area between the darkness and the light, not fully dark themselves but not fully light either. They’re willing to plunge their hands in the filth so that others can keep their clean. While most of us strive to be an incorruptible and perfect hero we know that sometimes we’re not perfect. We can’t all be sheep dogs after all, but we’ll be damned if we’re going to become wolves.