The MCU is setting up its own version of the Thunderbolts and already has a solid lineup. There’s just one Marvel figure who needs to join.
Reformed criminals are a staple of comic books, allowing artists and writers to bring popular antagonists back in a way that doesn’t force them to go to jail at the end of every issue. That has readily extended to their various TV and movie productions. DC’s Suicide Squad is perhaps the most prominent example, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe has found multiple ways to express the trend. Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch, for instance, both began their run in the comics as villains, something the Avengers movies and subsequent projects have worked into their storylines. Now comes the Thunderbolts, a formal emulation of the concept that looks headed for a proper entry in the MCU.
There is certainly no shortage of possible candidates for such a group, and early word has cited such examples as Baron Zemo, Taskmaster, U.S. Agent and The Abomination. But there’s another figure for whom the team would feel absolutely incomplete: Frank Castle, the Punisher. And with the Netflix series now more or less in-house at Disney+, a Thunderbolts movie is the ideal place to reintroduce him.
The Thunderbolts debuted in 1997’s The Incredible Hulk #449, named after Bruce Banner’s nemesis “Thunderbolt” Ross. They presented themselves as heroes after the apparent death of the Avengers during the massive Onslaught Marvel crossover of the year previous. At first appearing to be legitimate, they later got revealed to be the Masters of Evil in disguise, led by Helmut Zemo. Despite the twist, their subsequent appearances in the comics often portrayed them as trying to put their dark pasts behind them and rise to the role of heroes.
The MCU has been quietly laying the groundwork for their own variation of them for some time. Most of it has come in the various Disney+ series and likely connects to Baroness de Fontaine, who has been meeting with a number of vanquished MCU antagonists with an offer they can’t refuse. It’s produced a viable laundry list of potential team members, all of whom have a reasonably deep history and fit the profile of well-intended villains who might get induced to turn over a new leaf. Zemo — another member of the Thunderbolts — is currently in prison, making him just one jailbreak short of setting up the team.
The Punisher joined The Thunderbolts in the comics for Thunderbolts Volume 2 #1 in 2012 and made a ready example of the kind of antagonist redeemed that the series thrives on. Castle began his comic-book life as a bad guy in 1973’s Amazing Spider-Man #129, believing Spidey to be a criminal worthy of death. The Wall-Crawler defeats him and shows how he got duped into targeting him. From there, the character developed into an anti-hero like Wolverine: constantly seeking redemption from his darker instincts.
The Punisher series on Netflix embraced the chance to take a mature and measured look at Castle. It eschewed the gun fetish of the comics at their worst and instead focused on Castle’s psychology. Brain injuries made him unable to close the wound of his family’s death, forcing him to turn on criminals as the only means of release. Jon Bernthal leaned fully into his character’s condition, resulting in a Punisher as tragic as he was lethal. He was one of the high points of the Netflix Marvel run.
The Thunderbolts would be an ideal place for him in Phase Four. The sudden cancellation of his Netflix show left money on the table, and participation in a darker, edgier team could integrate him into the larger MCU to the point where creators could take him in any number of directions. Bernthal is also the right choice for the part and understands the character well. But without his own series, a team like the kind the MCU is setting up feels like a natural fit.
A native Californian, Robert Vaux has spent over 20 years as a professional film and television critic: working for such outlets as Collider, Mania.com and The Sci-Fi Movie Page. His favorite superhero is Nightcrawler and his lucky numbers are 4, 9, 14, 16, 36, and 40.