Why Marvel’s Thunderbolts Is the Perfect End for MCU Phase 5

Here's why all roads were always headed toward the Thunderbolts in Marvel Phase 5.

Ghost, Abomination, Zemo, Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, US Agent
Photo: Marvel

San Diego Comic Con’s Marvel Studios panel covered a lot of ground, mapping out a whole slate of future projects through 2025.

But first some recap: the first three Phases in the MCU were pretty self-explanatory. Each Phase came to an end with an Avengers movie (and maybe a comedic solo film follow-up to act as a denouement). It was all building towards the big battle against Thanos, and once that was done and we saw some aftershocks via Spider-Man: Far From Home, it was time for Phase 4. While there have been plenty of fun movies and shows this phase, it also feels rather formless, leaving us to wonder what this has all been leading to.

Now we know. Phase 4 ends with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever this November. Phase 5 will quickly follow, starting with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in February and Secret Invasion in Spring 2023. But this phase will only last a mere 17 months. So far, six movies and six Disney+ shows have been announced for this next phase of Marvel storytelling, concluding with Thunderbolts. Then Phase 6 will kick off with Fantastic Four and end with a double-shot of Avengers movies, Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars. While Phases 1-3 were packaged as the Infinity Saga, Phases 4-6 will be known as the Multiverse Saga.

On the surface, it’s a curious choice to make Thunderbolts the big conclusion to Phase 5. Then again, it also makes a bit of sense when linking an era with no Avengers to a climactic Avengers doubleheader in Phase 6.

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First off, you have to look at what each MCU Phase represents. Phase 1 was about the creation of the Avengers. Phase 2 built on that and had the various Avengers come close to building a worldwide happy ending until their hubris got the best of them. Phase 3 broke the team apart right when they were needed the most, as Thanos prepared his assault on the Marvel Universe. Phase 4 has been about the aftermath, showing us a world that doesn’t really have an Avengers team in it. The number of Avengers members who are still active in the field on Earth is enough to count on one hand, and they are certainly not teamed up in any meaningful way.

Fittingly, in the comics, there were two major instances where the world had to survive without the Avengers. In the late ’90s, in the aftermath of the Onslaught comic bookevent, the Avengers and Fantastic Four simply vanished. Long story short, they ended up on an alternate Earth for a year. The important thing here is that while they were all missing and the world was without heroes to trust and look up to (as opposed to that menace Spider-Man and those pesky X-Men), Baron Zemo was able to pull off a big con by dressing up fellow villains as brand-new heroes. They earned everyone’s trust and then proceeded to exploit that trust to take over the world.

It’s actually a plot that we’ve already seen in the MCU. Mysterio’s scheme in Spider-Man: Far From Home was a modified version of Zemo’s and also came to fruition the moment the Avengers stopped existing.

That’s fine, as the Thunderbolts have taken many forms in the comics. Sometimes they’re villains trying to atone for their sins. Other times, it’s a bunch of violent antiheroes banding together to take on missions too big for one to handle. Or it’s about an underground supervillain fight club. Maybe it’s a government program that acts like Marvel’s own version of DC’s Suicide Squad. Then there’s the Dark Avengers route where it’s the government controlling the narrative and pretending their pet monsters are heroes making the world a better place.

That last arc is what I imagine we’ll be seeing in the MCU.

Back in Captain America: Civil War, when the General “Thunderbolt” Ross was threatening the Avengers with the Sokovia Accords, Steve Rogers feared that it would lead to a Thunderbolts-like, government-controlled superhero team. Little did Cap know that that was what the MCU was building to.

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The very first Disney+ Marvel shows more directly set the stage for the founding of the Thunderbolts. WandaVision’s Director Hayward of SWORD is in the bottom tier of Marvel villains, but he is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we’re dealing with. He desecrated Vision, helped drive Wanda further into madness, betrayed his allies, and even shot at children, all while claiming it was to fortify the government to fight for the greater good.

Then Falcon and the Winter Soldier was even more explicit. The government, already showing that they’re shady when it comes to Captain America’s history, lied to Sam Wilson and got him to give up his potential run as the new Cap in order to instead give the shield to someone they approved of and could easily order around. And then, once John Walker proved to be a horrifying disaster as Captain America, they rebranded him as US Agent and used him to their advantage.

All the while, the mysterious Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, played by the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the MCU, has been recruiting the likes of US Agent and Yelena Belova, but we don’t know exactly why. Whatever it is, it doesn’t sound quite as heroic as the Avengers.

Secret Invasion is coming up early on in Phase 5, and while it likely won’t directly follow the comic event of the same name, the aftermath can easily go the same way. In the comics, the Skrull invasion creates a gigantic mess, and thanks to a mix of mistrust and propaganda, Nick Fury’s spot as government big wheel and “boss of all superheroes” goes to Norman Osborn. While I don’t expect to see an MCU version of Osborn anytime soon, somebody else taking that spot could be a way to finally make the Thunderbolts a reality.

And who would complain when the Avengers are nowhere to be found? Which Avengers are even left in Phase 4? Hawkeye is retired and has PTSD. Scarlet Witch is a mass murderer who is possibly dead. Spider-Man has stepped away from being the next Iron Man thanks to magic. Thor, Captain Marvel, and Doctor Strange are off-world. We’re left with Hulk and the new Captain America.

The same Captain America who is getting a movie just under three months before Thunderbolts happens. The fact that the movie is titled Captain America: New World Order, and with Thunderbolts around the corner, this all suggests that things could be getting very dystopian very soon. Captain America might represent our country’s potential, but by contrast, the Thunderbolts will be a dark take on what our government is capable of in the wrong hands.

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But that’s okay. It’s the nature of the Thunderbolts name that at least one member of the team will eventually realize that they’re on the wrong side of history and rebel. Plus, the other superhero team the MCU has been building towards might have a few things to say about the government’s new superhero team, too. Remember when I said that, in the comics, there were two major events where the Avengers stopped existing?

That other time, they were replaced by the Young Avengers. Over the past few years, we’ve seen plenty of potential Young Avengers members pop up in the MCU, such as Ant-Man’s daughter Cassie, America Chavez, Isaiah Bradley’s grandson Eli, the new Hawkeye Kate Bishop, Wanda’s phantom children Billy and Tommy, and Loki’s younger variant.

It’s been my belief that in a world without Avengers, we’re going to be left with two factions trying to take over the mantle. Thunderbolts is the government taking the concept and putting their tyrannical spin on it. The Young Avengers will be the answer to that, where young heroes inspired by those who came before them will stand together and bring hope and respect back to the Avengers name. Perhaps this will even be the plot of the Thunderbolts movie.

Either way, we now know the Avengers will be back in some form in order to put an end to Kang the Conqueror’s imminent reign of terror. You’ll just have to make do with the bad guys.

Thunderbolts hits theaters on July 26, 2024.