Last week at Disney’s D23 Expo, we were treated to an exciting offering of MCU surprises and announcements by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. One such surprise to come out of the panel was the reveal of the character roster for the long anticipated Thunderbolts film. The team includes Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost (seen in Ant-Man and the Wasp), David Harbour’s Red Guardian (seen in Black Widow), Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova (seen in Black Widow, and more recently, Hawkeye), Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier (last seen in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier), Wyatt Russell’s US Agent (seen in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier), and Olga Kurylenko’s Taskmaster (seen in Black Widow). Also present is Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (seen briefly in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Black Widow), seemingly acting in a Nick Fury-esque role. This lineup announcement was instantly met with widespread elation by fans of the characters. But very quickly, another sentiment started to be shared by many across the web: most of the characters’ powers and abilities are seemingly very similar.
At face value, the MCU’s Thunderbolts members do, indeed, have similar power-sets. But we aim to take a deeper dive into the composition of past superhuman teams in the franchise, the context in which they were assembled, and the types of conflict that varying villain archetypes have presented the heroes with. Of course, there’s also the matter of other beloved MCU villains/anti-heroes (such as Zemo or Abomination) being absent from the roster, and many “Thunderbolts” comic alumni (such as Moonstone or Red Hulk) who also deserve to be introduced to the MCU’s adaptation of the team, but we won’t be discussing either of those issues here. We aim to examine purely the facts of what is, and not what should be.
First, let’s take a look at the existing three main teams in the MCU, in addition to the Thunderbolts, and the abilities the members have to offer.
- Iron Man (Iron Man armor, Genius Intellect)
- Captain America (Super Soldier, Shield)
- Thor (Flight, Mjolnir, Super Strength, Lightning)
- Hulk (Hulk Alter-Ego, Genius Intellect)
- Hawkeye (Archer, Sword)
- Black Widow (Black Widow)
- Wanda Maximoff (Chaos Magic)
- Pietro Maximoff (Super Speed)
- Vision (Flight, Super Strength, Intangibility, Mind Stone)
- War Machine (War Machine Armor)
- Falcon (EXO-7 Falcon)
- Black Panther (Heart-Shaped Herb, Panther Suit, MMA)
- Spider-Man (Super Strength, Wall Climbing, Web Shooters, Spidey-Sense)
- Ant-Man (Shrinking, Growing)
The Guardians of the Galaxy
- Star-Lord (Blaster, Jet Boots, Pilot)
- Gamora (Super Strength, Super Agility, Bionic Enhancement, Assassin)
- Drax (Super Strength, Knives)
- Rocket Raccoon (Bionic Enhancement, Lots of Guns)
- Groot (Tree-like, Body Manipulation)
- Groot (Small, Good at Pushing Buttons)
- Nebula (Super Strength, Super Agility, Self-Healing, Bionic Enhancement)
- Mantis (Empathy, Emotion Manipulation, Sleep Manipulation)
- lkaris (Flight, Super Strength, Laser Eyes)
- Kingo (Energy Projectiles)
- Gilgamesh (Super Strength, Energy Armor)
- Thena (Energy Weapons, Super Agility)
- Druig (Mind Manipulation, Telepathy, Possession)
- Makkari (Super Speed)
- Sprite (Illusion Shapeshifting, Decoys)
- Phastos (Ability to Create Constructs)
- Sersi (Matter Manipulation)
- Ajak (Healing)
- Yelena Belova (Black Widow)
- Taskmaster (Photographic Reflexes, Weapons Mastery, Assassin)
- Red Guardian (Super Soldier, Shield)
- US Agent (Super Soldier, Shield)
- Winter Soldier (Super Soldier, Bionic Arm, Assassin)
- Ghost (Quantum Mutation, Intangibility, Invisibility)
As you can see, while past teams have had incredibly diverse power sets, the Thunderbolts do, in fact, have a more restricted set of powers and abilities, with a big focus on physical strength and close-quarters combat. But that alone isn’t a problem, as there’s another important piece of context to consider: why and how these teams were formed.
The Avengers were brought together by Nick Fury thanks to The Avenger Initiative, which was prompted by the realization that Earth needed heroes to protect humanity from global threats. Fury selected the candidates for the team based on the knowledge of what each individual had to offer, and their ability to work together. The Guardians of the Galaxy, on the other hand, came together by chance. After meeting, some of their motives began to align, and by the time they defeated Ronan the Accuser, this ragtag bunch of cosmic outlaws found a sense of family with each other. There was never a guiding force hand-picking the Guardians based on their powers, abilities, or synergy with one another. Looking at The Eternals, they weren’t just selected by a third-party, like the Avengers – they were actually created by a higher power, Arishem, to have the exact powers and abilities necessary to carry out their mission.
The Thunderbolts formation, while not entirely known yet, seems to be in line with how The Avengers were formed. We’ve already seen Valentina Allegra de Fontaine recruit Yelena Belova for a mission, and make contact with John Walker, getting him a new suit, and telling him to “keep your phone on”, to be available when she next tries to contact him. As for the remaining four revealed members, they’ll likely be recruited similarly.
On stage at Disney’s D23 Expo, Kevin Feige had this to say: “You know, one thing in the Captain America film is that there currently is a world without the Avengers. Sam Wilson finds himself as Cap at a time where there’s not an organization of Avengers. But just because there’s not an organization of the Avengers, doesn’t mean there’s not a group of superheroes in the MCU. Not a group, perhaps, as lofty as The Avengers, but there’s a group and they’re called the Thunderbolts. The Thunderbolts are finally coming through the screen and they are a ragtag bunch.” So, the formation of the Thunderbolts seems to be similar to that of the Avengers, partially due to filling the hole left by them. The main difference is that, while Fury had pure motives to bring heroes together, we don’t entirely know Val’s motives. What we do know, is that she’s willing to stoop to a lower level of recruiting misguided individuals that fit more of an antihero archetype. Therefore, its possible that she has an ulterior motive aside from just forming a team to subdue a threat. So its definitely possible that she recruited each team member based on the instability, chaos, and moral ambiguity they bring to the table, rather than their powers and abilities.
The final big piece of context to consider is what kind of antagonist the Thunderbolts will be facing. We currently don’t know who it is that they’ll be up against, and again, we’re not going to speculate based on comic runs. Instead, we’d like to examine past MCU antagonists, which we’ve categorized into three main archetypes: Clone, Big Bad, and Psychological. Of course, some antagonists have traits of more than one of these archetypes, but we’ve tried to focus on the main drive of the conflict between the protagonists and antagonists, to be able to give them one category. Please keep in mind, this categorization is subjective.
The Clone archetype is an antagonist that basically does the same thing as the protagonist. Sometimes they’re more skilled, or sometimes their powered suit is a bit different, but they generally have the same powers and abilities.
- Iron Monger
- Winter Soldier
- Yellow Jacket
- Agatha Harkness
- John Walker
The Big Bad archetype is an antagonist who is usually much more powerful than the protagonist(s). Most of the time, a Big Bad will have an army. Also, usage of an Infinity Stone is usually a surefire way to tell if someone fits this archetype as well.
- Red Skull
- Scarlet Witch
The Psychological archetype is antagonist who primarily tries to trick or manipulate people in an advantageous way. They like to be one step ahead, and always outwit the protagonist(s). They enjoy being in control of the narrative, and sometimes starting infighting among protagonists.
- Supreme Intelligence/Kree
- He Who Remains
* Loki is included twice, because although he typically falls into the Psychological archetype, in Avengers he fits the Big Bad archetype, wielding an Infinity Stone and leading an army.
** Eternals is an incredibly unique scenario, because while Kro could be seen as the antagonist, he ends up being more of a secondary threat. The main conflict ends up being psychological, but not necessarily due to one nefarious individual. Its more due to the team’s realization of their mission’s purpose, which leads to infighting.
There are several other antagonists that couldn’t be easily categorized into the main archetypes. Either they have a combination of attributes from multiple archetypes, or they just don’t fit into any of them. There’s also definitely a few antagonists we’ve left out- who are mostly secondary- but here’s the remaining big ones.
- Aldrich Killian
- Flag Smashers
- Sinister Six
- Tracksuit Mafia
- Arthur Harrow
Again, this is a subjective way at examining these characters, but its a great way of breaking down and analyzing the relationships and conflict between heroes and villains. Having ruled out the the Eternals’ unique situation, when we look at the antagonists of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, we can see that most of the time, they tend to be up against a Big Bad. But looking back at the powers and abilities of those teams, they’re generally well suited for that kind of conflict. The Thunderbolts, being more boots-on-the-ground, wouldn’t measure up as well. Thats where the issue seems to lie with public reception of the team’s power set. We’re seeing recruitment similar to the Avengers, and we know they’re going to fill a void where the Avengers are missing, and we’re used to seeing past teams fight Big Bad type antagonists… but that doesn’t all work for the Thunderbolts. If we examine what kind of antagonists individual boots-on-the-ground characters have fought in the past, we can see a decent amount of the time its been a Clone archetype. But, more recently, we’ve also seen precedent for groups of Clones, with Black Widow fighting multiple Black Widows, Winter Soldier and US Agent fighting super soldier Flag Smashers, and Hawkeye and Kate Bishop fighting the Tracksuit Mafia. So we’ve seen groups of antagonists that somewhat resemble the clone archetype, or at least are equal in power to more grounded heroes.
So will the Thunderbolts be up against a Clone-type group of antagonists? It easily could be the case. Will they be up against a Big Bad? Probably not, but who can say for sure? Will they be up against a Psychological threat? They already have a team composition that allows for a psychological threat to spark infighting, so its somewhat likely. However, answering these questions is not the goal of this examination. Our goal has been to make a case for the seemingly redundant powers and abilities that the Thunderbolts bring to the table. As we’ve shown you, on the surface they may be lacking a bit in unique powers and abilities, but more context is needed to know if that’s really an issue. It all comes down to the motive of their leader, their ability to work together, the type of antagonist they face, and the ways in which they have to combat them. So for now, we’re just excited to see all of these characters coming back, and we trust that Jake Schreier will knock his first MCU film out of the park when Thunderbolts releases in theaters on July 26th, 2024.