A team-up of super villains hasn't been a groundbreaking idea for comic book plots in many decades, but when Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley debuted the Thunderbolts in the pages of The Incredible Hulk #449 — and later their own solo series — they did it with finesse and the right amount of secrecy. The team's first appearance consisted of new heroes Citizen V, Mach-1, Meteorite, Atlas, Techno, and Songbird, and arrived on the scene in the Marvel Universe after it was believed that the Fantastic Four and the Avengers had died, so the world needed a major superhero group to fill the void. This is when the rug was pulled out from under us and the team was revealed to readers as a group of supervillains in disguise.
Citizen V, the charismatic and patriotic leader of the group, was actually the Captain America enemy Baron Zemo, and his team was composed of other villains acting as heroes. Mach-1 was actually Beetle, Meteorite the villain Moonstone, Atlas the Zemo henchman Goliath, Techno aka Fixer, and Songbird who was actually Screaming Mimi. The Thunderbolts weren't actually a group of heroes; they were the Masters of Evil in disguise!
Initially, this team was put together and carried out by Zemo to fulfill his nefarious deeds, existing in the vacuum of fewer super teams, but in the end the villains began to get a taste for their fake heroism and started to like it. As one might expect, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers returned and the jig was promptly up, but that didn't stop the Thunderbolts that wanted to stay on the side of good. The group continued to operate in the Marvel Universe even after their identities were revealed, coming to blows with other villains, heroes, and gaining some new members and friends, such as Hawkeye, along the way.
Reformation remained a huge factor in the Thunderbolts as a unit moving forward as other iterations of the team would be formed that was still populated by villains, but this time they were villains seeking to make amends in their lives (at least some of them). The "New" Thunderbolts would arrive in 2004 when former member Abe Jenkins, aka Beetle aka MACH-IV, reformed the team, bringing along Songbird and new recruits Blizzard, Speed Demon, Joystick, and Radioactive Man. This group of characters would face off against powerhouse villains like The Purple Man and Genis-Vell aka Captain Marvel.
Throughout the many 2000s-era events at Marvel, the Thunderbolts take part in the Civil War and assemble an entire "Thunderbolts Army" featuring many characters at the disposal of the US Government, including Batroc the Leaper, Bullseye, Bushmaster, Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, Lady Deathstrike, Taskmaster, and Venom. Norman Osborn would then reassemble the team to aid in the Secret Invasion plot and throughout the Dark Reign banner. Following the end of Dark Reign, Luke Cage would lead a version of the team at the behest of Captain America which saw villains Ghost, Moonstone, Juggernaut, Crossbones, and also Man-Thing, serve as members.
Marvel would reinvent the concept once again after this, housing the team with anti-heroes rather than villains as General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross put together his own team for a time including himself (as the Red Hulk), plus Deadpool, Elektra, Agent Venom, The Punisher, and Ghost Rider.
Another hero would lead the team after this with Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier himself, leading the group consisting of Fixer, Atlas, Moonstone, MACH-X, and Kobik. The two most recent versions of the Thunderbolts have gone back to the well in a few ways with one being lead by Zemo at the behest of Mayor Wilson Fisk with their mission being to kill The Punisher. Marvel's recent King in Black crossover sees Fisk buy the trademark to the Thunderbolts name outright and assemble a team of villains to help the city while the heroes were being conquered by Knull.
It's unclear if the Thunderbolts will appear in the upcoming The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but considering the association that both Bucky and Zemo have to the group, it makes sense why the team would least be set up in the new series.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuts on Disney+ beginning Friday, March 19th.
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