Since their earliest days, Marvel's Avengers have been billed as 'Earth's Mightiest Heroes.' But for almost as long, they've faced down equally powerful groups of villains, from the Masters of Evil to the Lethal Legion, and more. But what happens when the Avengers and their enemies are one and the same?
You get the Dark Avengers - a team of ersatz 'heroes' who are actually some of the worst villains of the Marvel Universe masquerading as their own heroic arch-enemies, from Hawkeye to Wolverine, to Spider-Man, the Hulk, and more, all under the leadership of the despotic Norman Osborn.
Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe may be assembling its own version of the Dark Avengers, with seeds of the team potentially planted in both The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Widow.
Despite the inherent changes that may be necessary to bring them to film the story that led to the creation of the Dark Avengers, Secret Invasion, is already on track for adaptation as a Disney Plus streaming show. Coupled with what we know from the clues and Easter eggs that reference the team so far, there's a lot to suggest the comic book history of the Dark Avengers could become very relevant, very soon.
With all that in mind, we'll break down everything you need to know about the Dark Avengers, from their comic book origins to their roster of villains-disguised-as-heroes, and what their potential MCU future could look like.
Who are the Dark Avengers?
The Dark Avengers have their roots in the Marvel Comics event Secret Invasion, in which the alien Skrulls enact a plan to conquer Earth by using their shapeshifting powers to hide in plain sight, even impersonating some of Marvel's biggest heroes.
The Skrull infiltrators naturally sow dissent among the Avengers, who were already split into two factions at the time in the wake of Civil War , with more distrust and even outright hostility brewing among the heroes once the presence of the Skrulls was discovered.
Amidst the chaos, in which paranoia around Skrull infiltrators and imposters hamper efforts to defeat the Skrull invasion, the villainous Norman Osborn (formerly Spider-Man's arch-enemy the Green Goblin, turned corrupt government agent) seizes his opportunity for personal gain by assembling a team of villains to masquerade as Avengers under his leadership.
Drawing on his previous time as the head of the Thunderbolts program, a plan to rehabilitate or at least employ supervillains that took its name from the original Thunderbolts who were villains disguised as heroes, Osborn assembles a few loyal (and verifiably not Skrull) villains to be his enforcers in fighting the Skrulls.
With Bullseye, who takes on the identity of Hawkeye; Moonstone, who takes on the codename of Ms. Marvel; and Venom, who masquerades as Spider-Man all in his command, Osborn intervenes in the final fight of Secret Invasion and personally kills the Skrull Empress, effectively ending the invasion.
Osborn's victory leads to questions over why Tony Stark, who was then Director of SHIELD alongside leading the Avengers as Iron Man, couldn't prevent or even stop the Skrull invasion with all his resources.
Stark is subsequently fired from SHIELD, which is disbanded, and Osborn is promoted to the leader of a new much more authoritarian organization called HAMMER (unlike SHIELD, an acronym which has had several meanings in Marvel Comics, HAMMER never had a definition, with Osborn joking he planned to figure it out later).
Alongside his new veritable army of HAMMER agents and assets, Osborn seizes a version of Iron Man's armor, painting it red, white, and blue and donning it himself as the Iron Patriot (a version was seen in Iron Man 3), and assembling a full team of Dark Avengers to do his bidding.
Starting with Bullseye/Hawkeye, Moonstone/Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers wasn't Captain Marvel yet herself at this time), and Venom/Spider-Man (at this time Venom was Mac Gargan, the former Scorpion), he expands his team to include: Daken, the son of the original Wolverine, as his father's replacement; and Kree warrior Noh-Varr, who he dubs Captain Marvel. He finished his inaugural Dark Avengers roster with two members of the previous Tony Stark-led Avengers team, the Sentry and Ares (the literal Greek god of war, kinda like Thor).
With his personal Dark Avengers now assembled, Osborn begins positioning himself as America's official greatest protector, and his team as the one, true incarnation of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
Dark Avengers Assemble
Though they were created to serve as Norman Osborn's personal enforcers more than anything else, Osborn does lead the team in facing down some actual threats alongside his more sinister machinations, squaring off with magical Avengers villain Morgan le Fay, and later the reality-warping Molecule Man.
At the same time, however, Osborn leads his team to take on the X-Men on their island of Utopia, their first attempt to found a mutant nation, and tries to round up not just the authentic Avengers, but any heroes or villains he deems a threat to his grand schemes of conquest.
As part of these schemes, Osborn allies with a group of villains he nicknames the Cabal, roping the Asgardian trickster Loki into his plans with the promise that Loki would rule Asgard once it was sent back to its own realm from Earth, where it was located at the time as a city floating high above the plains of Oklahoma.
Everything culminates in the story Siege, in which Osborn and his Dark Avengers launch an assault on Asgard. But when it becomes clear Osborn can't take Asgard for himself, he orders the Sentry - arguably one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe at the time - to destroy Asgard. Pummeling the floating city to rubble, Sentry is so overcome with power and violence that he fully reverts to his evil persona the Void, an even greater, cosmic-level threat than Osborn and his team.
Loki, seeing what's become of Asgard, turns on Osborn and begins magically empowering the Avengers and the other heroes - until the Void, sensing Loki's interference, breaks his spells and fully obliterates Loki, leading to the Asgardian trickster eventually being reborn as Kid Loki.
Spurred by the fall of Asgard and his brother's death, Thor rallies the heroes with all his thunderous might, and the Void is eventually defeated, along with Osborn and his Dark Avengers.
But that's not the end of the team.
The second Dark Avengers
Though Osborn is incarcerated for his role in the fall of Asgard and numerous other crimes while serving as director of HAMMER, he's broken out of jail by his minions, including his right-hand consigliere Victoria Hand, founding a new version of HAMMER and assembling a new team of Dark Avengers.
The new team includes evil marksman Trickshot as Hawkeye, South American spider deity Ai Apaec as Spider-Man, genetically engineered mad scientist Toxie Doxie as Scarlet Witch, super-strong female supremacist Superia as Ms. Marvel, mutant villain Gorgon as Wolverine, evil Thor clone Ragnarok, and finally Skaar, the son of the original Hulk who was born and raised on Sakaar (yes, if that sounds familiar, it's the planet on which most of Thor: Ragnarok takes place, and the setting of the comic book story Planet Hulk).
The new team wouldn't last long, however - they're quickly betrayed by Skaar, a sleeper agent among them all along, and once again Osborn is defeated. This time, Marvel history comes a little bit full circle, and Trickshot, Toxie Doxie, Ragnarok, and Ai Apaec are recruited as a new team of Thunderbolts with Skaar as their handler, under the supervision of Luke Cage who was then in charge of the Thunderbolts program.
The former Dark Avengers reclaimed their name, however, and betrayed Skaar and Cage - though they were subsequently caught by Skaar, John Walker (who was the warden of the super-prison the Raft at the time), and longtime Thunderbolt/Dark Avenger Moonstone. During their apprehension, the team was transported to an alternate reality where many of the Marvel Universe's greatest heroes were actually the worst villains of the new reality.
Banding together to take on the twisted versions of the heroes and escape back to their home reality, Doxie gains John Walker's trust by using her skills to regenerate his lost limbs (which had been amputated during a fight in the Siege event) - though she also takes this as an opportunity to psychically subvert him.
Walker brings the team together under his apparent leadership to escape the dark reality and return home, but back on the core Earth, Walker is seen leading the team as US Agent, still secretly under the mind control of Toxie Doxie.
After that, that was kinda it for the Dark Avengers. The team disbanded off-page without any further adventures, despite Toxie Doxie's apparent plans to keep them going with Walker under her power, and a new version hasn't been created since - at least not in comic books.
The Dark Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
The Dark Avengers haven't technically assembled in the MCU - yet - but there's a lot of evidence to suggest a version of the team, or at least an equivalent group of characters who mimic the identities and abilities of the core MCU Avengers for mysterious purposes, has been coming together right under our noses for some time.
Marvel has been teasing and hinting at the idea of a Dark Avengers-esque team since Captain America: Civil War, a movie that laid the groundwork for multiple different avenues for such a group to assemble - perhaps most notably the work of General Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross to corral and curtail the Avengers under his purview, and original Thunderbolts founder Baron Zemo's discovery of a whole team of Hydra super-soldiers who he apparently murdered.
If you're noticing a lot of 'Thunderbolts' in there, it's not so much a coincidence. In comic books, the Dark Avengers grew out of a later incarnation of the Thunderbolts, while the second Dark Avengers team was actually recruited back into the Thunderbolts program later - kind of like Marvel's version of Suicide Squad, though generally less deadly for the recruits. The two titles even shared numbering back and forth, with Thunderbolts being renamed as Dark Avengers with #175.
The original Thunderbolts were secretly members of the Masters of Evil in disguise, led by Zemo who had taken up the mantle of Citizen V, a Golden Age era hero. When their plan to use their heroic disguises to conquer the world fell apart and Zemo was defeated by several of his allies actually going to the side of the good guys, the name 'Thunderbolts' was taken by the United States government.
The government recruited former Green Goblin Norman Osborn to lead a team of supervillains to track down heroes who defied the Superhuman Registration Act that prevented superheroes from operating without government clearance following Civil War - leading directly to the birth of the Dark Avengers when Osborn was promoted again (you remember all that from above, yeah?)
Oddly enough, alongside the Dark Avengers, Osborn had his own team of Thunderbolts as well, who were recruited as his private black-ops squad - among whom was none other than Yelena Belova, the second Black Widow, though this turned out to actually be Natasha Romanova, the original, in disguise as part of a plan to infiltrate Osborn's forces.
And, perhaps even more interesting, Thunderbolt Ross himself once led a version of the team when he was the Red Hulk, which was exactly what it sounds like.
So why Dark Avengers, and not Thunderbolts?
Well, the concept could go either way in the MCU, but there's a core part of the Thunderbolts identity as a concept in which they are secretly villains in disguise. That's somewhat possible in the MCU, but signs point more toward a Dark Avengers-like subversion of the roles of existing Avengers by a nefarious force - not to mention that the Avengers name has a lot more oomph in the MCU and in pop culture than the Thunderbolts, though the studio has made bigger stars of lesser-known characters in the past.
Spoilers ahead for Black Widow.
And who is that nefarious force in the MCU? Well, we're not exactly sure, but whoever they are, their recruiter, Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, has now made two MCU appearances suggesting the formation of a new super-team which she has established is being assembled to combat an unknown threat - maybe something like a Secret Invasion?
First off, she showed up in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, recruiting John Walker to her program and providing him with the costume, shield, and codename of US Agent to serve as her counterpoint to Sam Wilson, the new official Captain America.
Now, most recently, the Contessa makes an appearance in the just-released Black Widow, revealing that Yelena Belova has been in her literal full-time employ (Yelena is on salary) for some time.
And, maybe it will or won't come into play, but there's still technically an Iron Patriot armor floating around somewhere after Iron Man 3.
Not to mention there are potentially more Avengers counterparts coming to the MCU. Kate Bishop (a Hawkeye) will debut in the Hawkeye streaming series later in 2021, in which Yelena Belova will also appear, in order to hunt down Hawkeye at the Contessa's direction. And Jane Foster will take on the role of Thor in 2022.
And that's not even mentioning the Taskmaster, who can mimic anyone's fighting style, and as of the end of Black Widow could be a free agent - as well as an associate of Yelena.
Whatever they're building toward, it seems clear at this point that the MCU is assembling a counterpoint team for the Avengers, consisting of characters such as US Agent and Yelena Belova that are reflections of their original Avengers counterparts Captain America and Black Widow.
It's important to note that in the MCU, neither John Walker nor Yelena are presented as villains. Walker is a misguided zealot and has proven to be both unpredictable and dangerous, but he's a former war hero that believes his path is righteous. And Black Widow gives no indication Yelena is anything other than genuinely heroic, although the Contessa manipulating her to target Hawkeye (who she implied is responsible for Natasha's death) will seemingly set her on a villainous path in the Hawkeye series.
Could the Contessa be working for Thunderbolt Ross, perhaps with the duo standing in for the comic book roles of the characters Victoria Hand and Norman Osborn, a la the Dark Avengers years? In Black Widow the Contessa implies she collects a salary in relation to this new team too, but she's so sarcastic you can't take that at full face value.
Or could the Contessa actually be working for Norman Osborn? With all sorts of rumors about who December's Spider-Man: No Way Home will bring from the previous Sony Spider-Man films (J. Jonah Jameson is already back), you can't rule it out.
And if any of this comes to pass, is it possible the names Thunderbolts and Dark Avengers could both be used in some capacity?
One way or another, there's a team coming together behind the scenes of the MCU, and whether they are called the Dark Avengers or not, they seem to take strong spiritual influence from the comic book concept of the villain team - and that could point to dark days ahead for the actual Avengers.
Norman Osborn's time with the Dark Avengers earned him a place as one of the best Avengers villains of all time.