25 years ago, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley introduced a new Marvel superhero team - the Thunderbolts.(opens in new tab)
Promoted and marketed with great hype as a replacement team of superheroes stepping into the shoes of the then presumed dead Avengers and Fantastic Four (sound familiar, Death of the Justice League?), as it turns out, there was much more to the story than fans expected - and 1997's Thunderbolts #1 became the greatest trick Marvel Comics ever pulled.
So what was the Thunderbolts' big secret, how did Marvel pull off keeping a secret until the day a comic book went on sale (a practice publisher's rarely event try to pull off anymore), and how is it still resonating to this day? We've got the answers to all your questions right here because it looks like the Thunderbolts are in the news again.
(More on that later.)
Don't reveal the shocking Thunderbolts secret!
Along with Citizen V, the original Thunderbolts consisted of MACH-I, Techno, Atlas, Songbird, and Meteorite. They made their debut in January 1997's Incredible Hulk #449 (opens in new tab), aiding the title hero in a fight. They then got their own Tales of the Marvel Universe one-shot a short while later.
And through both of these early appearances, there was little to no indication given about the true nature of the team (I promise we'll spoil it – we're building anticipation! For almost 25 years!).
But then, in April 1997's Thunderbolts #1, the truth was revealed.(opens in new tab)
The Thunderbolts weren't new heroes – in fact, they weren't heroes at all. Rather than a team of new characters designed to step into the shoes of the Avengers, the Thunderbolts were actually previously introduced supervillains in disguise as part of a plan to conquer the Earth.
At the lead of the team was Citizen V, who was secretly Baron Helmut Zemo using the identity of a hero his father, WWII villain Heinrich Zemo, had killed. The rest of the team was comprised of members of his Masters of Evil, a villain team dating back to 1964's Avengers #6 (opens in new tab).
MACH-I was in fact Beetle, using a new suit of hi-tech super armor built by his teammate, Techno. Techno, who designed most of the team's gear (and helped adapt and disguise their powers and appearances) was actually the Fixer.
Songbird was Screaming Mimi, who wore a harness that turned her sonic scream into hard-light constructs. Atlas was actually Goliath, a size-changing villain who originally used the name Power Man (he was Power Man before Luke Cage used the name, but he was actually the fourth guy to call himself Goliath. He's the only Atlas, though).
And finally, Meteorite was Moonstone, using pretty much exactly her same powers of flight, intangibility, and energy manipulation, but pretending to be slightly nicer than her usually jerk self – though she was secretly Zemo's most loyal enforcer and his insurance plan against betrayal from the others.(opens in new tab)
In August 1997 following the team's debut earlier that year, writer Kurt Busiek told Wizard Magazine that he had initially envisioned the concept of villains disguised as heroes as a plot for Avengers (a title he later took on as writer when the Avengers returned from their 'Heroes Reborn' pocket dimension), in which disguised villains would slowly infiltrate and replace the team.
"The actual origin of Thunderbolts came when I used to live in New Jersey and drive to New England to visit my parents. To keep myself awake, I'd give myself books to write, and work out about two to three years of continuity," Busiek said at the time. "One trip, I assigned myself Avengers and came up with the plan that the Masters of Evil would ultimately conquer them by posing as new heroes and slowly replacing them. At the time, I thought it was a neat idea, and filed it away."
Busiek then revived the concept when the absence of the Avengers and Fantastic Four left room in the Marvel Universe for a whole new team to debut, with the publisher diving in wholeheartedly for the secret.
Part of why the secret of Thunderbolts was so impactful was that back in the day, fans actually didn't know there was a twist coming in Thunderbolts #1 at all - let alone that the characters who had been billed as Marvel's next big thing were in fact the same villains who had, in the '80s, literally destroyed the Avengers Mansion and nearly killed several members in the story Avengers: Under Siege (opens in new tab).
Marvel also let the secret lie, not hyping it for months in advance as the publisher might do today, allowing readers an open road to speculate on how the Thunderbolts would fit into the Marvel Universe.
Both of these approaches were rare (and still are) in an age when publishers often tease surprises and plot twists for months only to reveal the surprises themselves before the book hits the shelves or can be widely read. DC's reveal of the identity of the Next Batman is an example from early 2021, and Marvel themselves didn't even wait a day before telling anyone who would listen the Scarlet Witch was seemingly murdered in X-Factor #10 in June.
Thunderbolts became a best-seller as well as a massive hit among fans and critics alike because of and not despite the secrecy, and it might never have broken out like it did if Marvel didn't sit on the genuinely shocking reveal and not telegraphed it beforehand.
Lightning is striking again... and again... and again
Naturally, the original Thunderbolts line-up couldn't last – no honor among thieves, etc.
When it was revealed that Zemo's plan for world domination went much farther than some of his teammates previously thought, Songbird, Atlas, and MACH-I turned on him, while Fixer and Meteorite stayed by his side. However good won out, Zemo was defeated, and the remaining team members decided to stay on as heroes, led by Hawkeye of the recently returned Avengers.
Over the years, the Thunderbolts have become a Marvel Comics mainstay, with various versions of the team organized under slightly different premises often a staple of Marvel's line. Though the overall concepts behind the various incarnations of the Thunderbolts have sometimes been wildly different, the team usually consists of villains working as heroes, often under the pretense of reformation.(opens in new tab)
Most recently, a new version of the team was brought together as the personal enforcers/protectors of the Kingpin, with the team starring in the Devil's Reign: Villains For Hire (opens in new tab) tie-in limited series, and another new heroic iteration of the team will form in the wake of that event, again featuring Hawkeye.
The original Thunderbolts reveal also had the added effect of returning Baron Zemo to prominence as a Marvel Comics villain. Baron Heinrich Zemo was introduced in the '60s as a primary foe for Captain America and the Avengers, a role his son Helmut Zemo (the current Baron Zemo) inherited through the '70s and '80s.
Zemo was relegated to the wayside through the '90s, until Thunderbolts brought him back to the spotlight, leading to an ongoing presence as a top-level Marvel villain since. Zemo has even made it into the MCU, played by Daniel Bruhl in Captain America: Civil War.
Bruhl reprised the role for Disney Plus' The Falcon and the Winter Soldier with a somewhat more comics-influenced look. We're still holding our breath to see how/if the MCU could handle the surprise of its own eventual Thunderbolts reveal, playing up a now nearly 25-year-old secret, but reportedly they're going to try.
Marvel has elevated the Thunderbolts to a mainstay part of its universe, with 25 years of history to go on. And despite the great stories that have often come from baking a big surprise into a character or team's introduction since the Thunderbolts pulled it off, few stories have come close to matching the power and pomp of the classic moment when Baron Zemo reveals the truth about his Masters of Evil and their heroic disguises.
Will Marvel be able to do it again? Time will tell.
Before they became the Thunderbolts, the Masters of Evil were the villains of 'Under Siege,' one of the best Avengers stories of all time.