Marvel and DC’s rivalry often reveals itself in the brands’ dueling versions of similar ideas. In 1987, DC relaunched a minor team of soldiers called the Suicide Squad and recast their ranks with supervillains. A decade later, Marvel formed The Thunderbolts. Their first appearance involved antagonists disguising themselves as heroes, but following iterations saw reformed evildoers attempting to use their gifts for good. Like Suicide Squad tried and failed to do, Thunderbolts can borrow from Hollywood’s history of violent “men on a mission” movies.

Thunderbolts comes across as a minor effort in Marvel’s grand cosmology. It’s a consequence of the brand launching more projects than any reasonable person could keep up with. Thunderbolts could get lost in the shuffle, but the recent chaos in the studio might give projects room to breathe. Thunderbolts needs to feel appreciably different from the Marvel model to matter.

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The MCU’s Thunderbolts lineup differs slightly from the usual comic book cast. They’ve got Yelena Belova, Bucky Barnes, U. S. Agent, Taskmaster, Red Guardian, Ghost, and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine as a handler. The team is notably lacking in superpowers. Ghost is the most unorthodox member. Taskmaster has a version of her comic counterpart’s mimicry, though only used to replicate skills one could learn through years of practice. Almost everyone else imbibed some iteration of the super soldier serum, with Bucky’s vibranium arm as a special add-on. They’re all just spies, soldiers, or assassins in fancy outfits.

The powers are only part of the equation. Almost all of these characters come from a military background. Taskmaster, Belova, and Red Guardian are Soviet agents. Bucky was an army man before H.Y.D.R.A. picked him up. John Walker and de Fontaine are still linked to the American intelligence industrial complex. Even Ghost was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. These aren’t supervillains. They are enemy combatants on a black ops mission. That’s why Marvel can’t make Thunderbolts like a superhero movie.

Thunderbolts can take inspiration from classic movies

Old Hollywood coined a term to describe the gritty action movie subgenre Thunderbolts should fall into. They were called “Men on a Mission” movies. In sharp contrast to heroic war movies depicting impossibly valiant soldiers serving their countries, Men on a Mission movies send haunted, violent, and morally questionable warriors to almost certain death for the good of others. Many of their tropes follow naturally from Spaghetti Western films. J. Lee Thompson directed one of the earliest examples in 1961’s The Guns of the Navarone. Beloved early examples include The Great Escape and Kelly’s Heroes. The genre evolved over the decades from The Inglorious Bastards to Inglourious Basterds. Though most Men on a Mission movies occur in the Old West or World War II, the options are limitless.

The Dirty Dozen


Robert Aldrich


Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller


Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes

Release Date

June 15, 1967

The Dirty Dozen follows Lee Marvin as OSS Officer Major John Reisman, who is tasked with training 12 of the Army’s worst convicts for a suicide mission. He must train, excite, and arm these violent men before following them deep into Nazi-occupied France with the promise of either a brutal death or a pardon at the end of the quest. The film was celebrated for its combat scenes, cast of likable characters, and grimly amoral atmosphere. Narratively, The Dirty Dozen is extremely straightforward. The pleasure comes from watching terrible people cynically fight and die as tiny cogs in a massive machine. Thunderbolts can learn its priorities from The Dirty Dozen. A needlessly complex narrative will detract from the draw. Chemistry and action need to come first.

The Magnificent Seven


John Sturges


William Roberts, Walter Bernstein, Walter Newman


Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson

Release Date

October 12, 1960

One of the finest Westerns of the era follows seven gunslingers defending a poor Mexican village from bandits. Adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Sturges’ epic introduces its heroes with a bang. The strongest element of The Magnificent Seven is its human drama. The action works, but the crossing motivations of the gunslingers keep things engaging. Though they’re complicated figures, these cowboys are near the moral peak of the era. Thunderbolts has to find chemistry among the assembled villains. These characters were imagined elsewhere, but as they’re reintroduced for their team-up vehicle, they must find compelling ways to clash and come together.

Thunderbolts could reinvent the Marvel formula with a new tone, moral ambiguity, unique presentation, and a new mandate for action set pieces. The classic Men on a Mission movies could be a guide demonstrating everything they’ll need to make something groundbreaking. As Marvel struggles to innovate, it remains to be seen whether Thunderbolts will embrace its potential. Look at Suicide Squad. Maybe Marvel can actually deliver on the promise of Dirty Dozen with superheroes.


The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a sprawling movie and television franchise that weaves together individual stories of superheroes including Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and many more. The first film in the franchise, Iron Man, was released in 2008. The MCU has garnered critical praise and financial success, earning billions at the box office and becoming a cultural phenomenon.

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