In the fourth Phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some fans have noticed that many projects don’t seem to be moving in the same direction. While Wandavision offered a creepy detour into the realm of television and Loki set up multiversal conqueror Kang, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier kept things grounded while Shang-Chi opened entirely new worlds for the MCU to explore.
In the first three phases of the MCU, the direction was relatively obvious. The fledgling film studio spent time setting up an epic crossover between the Avengers, Earth’s mightiest heroes, by introducing viewers to Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America before bringing them all together. As the Avengers’ story rolled on, it became clear that one overarching villain was lurking in the darkness of space: Thanos, the Mad Titan.
After defeating the Mad Titan once and for all in Avengers: Endgame, the survivors largely went their separate ways. Iron Man, Black Widow, and Vision lost their lives in the battle against Thanos’s Black Order, Captain America returned to his rightful time period in the 1940s, and Thor and Hulk took off for solo adventures.
What is the MCU about now? Well, some eagle-eyed fans think Marvel Studios could be setting up the Thunderbolts.
Who Are the Thunderbolts?
In the comics, there are a few different “evil Avengers” teams. One is the Dark Avengers, brought together by Spider-Man villain Norman Osborn. In a long comics arc called Dark Reign, Osborn became the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., usurping the role once held by Nick Fury. He instated his own brand of control over the organization. Many fans think the MCU Thunderbolts film, which is coming in 2024, might borrow heavily from the Dark Avengers plot in the comics.
After the Skrull-filled Secret Invasion storyline, the government officially disbanded the Avengers. Conveniently enough, the MCU will have its own Secret Invasion on Disney+ in 2023, which could offer a great chance for the Sokovia Accords to take center stage again and for antagonists like the Department of Damage Control to publicly discredit the Avengers.
In the comics, Osborn filled the void left by the Avengers with his own team of secretly assembled doppelgangers. Osborn made himself the leader of the team, taking over the mantle of both Iron Man and Captain America by becoming the Iron Patriot, an armor-clad beacon of American values… who secretly was only in it for the glory.
The MCU doesn’t currently have a Norman Osborn, given Sony’s ownership of all characters related to Spider-Man. Instead, the closest comparable character seems to be Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, or Val for short, who first appeared in Black Widow to recruit Natasha Romanov’s sister, Yelena Belova. That story, which took place before the events of Avengers: Infinity War, indicated that Yelena and Val have been working together for years.
Val might have contacts in the Department of Damage Control, the organization that has served as an antagonist in Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man Homecoming, and She-Hulk. In fact, it’s possible that she’s been orchestrating events behind the scenes in the MCU for years, trying to create a superhero team worthy of rivaling Nick Fury’s Avengers team.
The MCU hasn’t revealed much about Val’s backstory yet. In the comics, she’s a triple-agent who works within S.H.I.E.L.D., even becoming Deputy Director, before infiltrating Hydra and becoming the (undercover) supervillain Madame Hydra. In reality, she’s always been loyal to Leviathan, the Russian equivalent of S.H.I.E.L.D. that MCU fans might remember from Agent Carter.
So, Val wants to make her own Dark Avengers team. Who is she going to recruit?
At the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson becomes the one and only Captain America, carrying Steve Roger’s shield and serving as a beacon of light and truth for the world. Fans are ecstatic to see Sam leading the Avengers in future movies, but the series did more than just give us a new heroic Captain America: it also gave us the villainous US Agent.
John Walker was the government’s pick to succeed Steve Rogers, as he’s a decorated military veteran who knows how to follow orders. He’s also short-sighted, temperamental, and completely loaded with an unstable super soldier serum created in an underground lab in Madripoor. After his brief scuffles with Sam and Bucky in Prague and D.C., Walker is publicly disgraced. That is when Val swoops in and offers him a chance to serve his country.
US Agent would be the logical pick to serve as a dark reflection of Captain America. He and Sam have a shared history of animosity, and John actually has the same set of superpowers and life experiences as Steve Rogers. What he’s missing is the heroic heart and selfless nature–traits that Sam and Steve share, but that John is woefully lacking.
The other “confirmed” member of the hypothetical Thunderbolts team is Yelena Belova, who will likely be the MCU’s go-to Black Widow. Natasha Romanov tragically lost her life in the battle against the Black Order, sacrificing herself to secure the Soul Stone for the Avengers. Val recruited Yelena to hunt down Clint Barton by telling her that the archer was somehow responsible for Natasha’s death.
We saw the results of this conflict in Hawkeye, the Disney+ series, with Yelena taking on Clint and his protege, Kate Bishop. While Barton managed to talk Yelena down and convince her he never hurt Natasha, she’s still bitter about losing her only family. She’s also clearly on Val’s payroll.
Unlike John Walker, Yelena isn’t morally corrupt–she shares many of her sister’s best traits. She’s brave, she’s fearless, and she’s willing to listen to reason when presented with new information. She’s not a vain or shortsighted glory-hog like John Walker. Still, her impulsive personality and short temper make her a natural fit on a “Dark” Avengers team.
Speaking of Clint Barton, another person close to him could serve as his dark counterpart. His brother, Barney Barton, has been the superhero (and sometimes supervillain) Trickshot in the comics, as the Dark Avengers version of Hawkeye. There was little mention of Clint’s family in the Disney+ series, but the one deleted scene showed that Clint and his mother lived out of her car and ran cons on unsuspecting passersby.
The potential for Barney Barton to be the disgraced older brother of Clint, eager to prove himself as the superior archer, could make him an excellent antagonist in a potential second season of Hawkeye. It would also give the Thunderbolts their archer and could create a compelling dynamic for Clint and the Avengers.
Emil Blonsky has reappeared in the MCU recently, with a cameo in Shang-Chi and a full-on story arc in She-Hulk. While Blonsky swears he’s been rehabilitated during his time in The Cube, the raging monster under the surface is always ready to burst forth. It’s quite possible that he’ll become the Dark Avengers’ go-to Hulk stand-in.
Abomination’s powers rival the Hulk’s in many ways. He’s a massive, super-strong fighter who can defeat entire armies and only gets more powerful the angrier he gets. With Blonksy’s history of “just following orders,” it’s not hard to imagine him listening to Val and falling in line with an evil team of Avengers.
In the post-credits scene for Thor: Love and Thunder, we see that Zeus survived Thor’s attack on him in Omnipotent City. He’s livid that the God of Thunder made a fool of him. Zeus calls on his mighty son, the demigod Hercules, to go bring Thor down a peg and prove to the mortals of the realms that the gods are still worthy of respect.
Hercules in the comics is a narcissistic hothead, but he’s still a hero at his core. While he’s often shortsighted and can put people in danger by simply not paying attention when he’s out fighting bad guys, Herc wants to help people at the end of the day. He’s a recurring rival to Thor in the comics, and the two are said to have comparable physical strength. He’d make the obvious Dark Thor for Val’s growing Avengers team.
Finally, there’s the question of who could act as an evil version of Tony Stark. Iron Man battled numerous villains who used armor like his own in the MCU, including the Iron Monger and Whiplash. However, the most obvious comic book counterpart to Iron Man is the Iron Patriot–a name MCU fans first heard in Iron Man 3, though it was applied to the heroic James Rhodes in that film.
Perhaps the Thunderbolts initiative could involve Val reaching out to Justin Hammer, the disgraced antagonist from Iron Man 2 and the generic-brand knock-off of Tony Stark? There are also other characters who could theoretically appear in the role, like Toni Ho, the daughter of Ho Yinsen–the man who helped Tony Stark build the first Iron Man suit back in Iron Man 1.
Whatever the case, audiences will likely meet the candidate for “Evil Iron Man” in the upcoming Disney+ series Armor Wars. Until then, it’s fun to theorize the ways an evil reflection of the Avengers team could come to the rescue–or threaten the “real” Avengers.