Upon their initial debut, the Thunderbolts were hailed as the most popular superheroes in the Marvel Universe, beloved by the general public as they stepped up as the latest super-powered team to appear in uncertain times. However, after receiving their own comic book series, the final page of Thunderbolts #1 revealed that they were really the villainous Masters of Evil, masquerading as heroes under the leadership of the nefarious Baron Helmut Zemo. With a plot twist that big and the Thunderbolts moniker ubiquitous with villains seeking redemption, it’s easy to forget how the original roster was able to maintain their secret upon their introduction.
Before the Thunderbolts went on to star in their own series by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley, they debuted in 1997’s The Incredible Hulk #449, by Peter David and Mike Deodato Jr. The team was led by the seemingly patriotic hero Citizen V, along with the armored MACH-1, gadget specialist Techno, super-strong Atlas and enforcers Songbird and Meteorite. In the twist ending, Songbird and Meteorite were revealed to be Screaming Mimi and Moonstone, MACH-1 was the Spider-Man villain Beetle, Atlas was longtime Avengers villain Goliath, Techno was revealed to be Fixer and Citizen V was Zemo himself, with the team assembled by Zemo to impersonate superheroes and gain the public’s trust.
With perfect timing, Zemo enacted his plan after the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men were killed during their epic battle against the almost-omnipotent villain Onslaught. While the deceased heroes were reborn and recovered in a pocket universe developed by Franklin Richards, there was a noticeable void in publicly recognized super-teams in the Marvel Universe left in their absence. Proclaiming that they would deliver “justice…like lightning,” the Thunderbolts quickly gained public support while their true identities remained a secret, with Zemo plotting to eventually be trusted with government and S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets that he could then sell to villains.
Busiek had developed the idea for the Thunderbolts as a group of heroes that would steadily join the Avengers, replacing the true heroes until they had secretly taken over the team for themselves. Busiek shelved the idea believing readers wouldn’t be pleased either their favorite Avengers being replaced or the reveal that an entire established team were secretly villains in disguise. However, after many of the Marvel Universe’s marquee heroes were temporarily killed off all at once with Onslaught, Busiek revisited his previous idea by reimagining the concept as a completely new team of costumed personas taking advantage of a world without the Avengers.
While the team was initially successful, Zemo’s plans would fall apart with the unexpected return of the recovered heroes from Franklin Richards’ pocket dimension. Impulsively, Zemo revealed the identities of the team to the world, to ensure that the Thunderbolts would maintain unity by not making a true attempt at redemption upon the heroes’ return. This would backfire disastrously as most of the Thunderbolts turned against Zemo in the face of his outing them, while Zemo and Techno attempted to use brainwashing to turn the Avengers against the rebellious Thunderbolts before being defeated.
Since then, the Thunderbolts have been co-opted as a government program recruiting reformed supervillains pursuing legitimate redemption, with Songbird — one of the team’s most visible, long-running members — having totally rejected her past as Screaming Mimi.
Over 20 years later, the reveal of the Thunderbolts’ true identities remains one of the biggest plot twists in modern comic book history, a testament to Busiek and Bagley’s storytelling abilities while taking advantage of the contemporary landscape of the Marvel Universe following Onslaught.
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One of the biggest twists in Marvel history was the reveal of the true identity of the Thunderbolts, and here's how the team pulled it off.