The big reveal that the Thunderbolts are actually evil at the end of the 1997 comic Thunderbolts #1 is held as one of the best Marvel twists of all time. And now Phase 5 of the MCU will be rounded off by this rag-tag ensemble of villains in director Jake Schreier’s Thunderbolts movie.
Marvel chief Kevin Feige has already teased that Thunderbolts will bring together an eclectic mix of familiar faces alongside new characters. And while it remains to be seen who will actually fill the roster of anti-heroes and villains, one can imagine the likes of Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), US Agent (Wyatt Russell), Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl), and Abomination (Tim Roth) joining forces, among others.
As with the Thunderbolts of Marvel’s comics, fans and critics alike are already calling comparisons between the team and DC’s Suicide Squad. The DC Extended Universe first brought the Suicide Squad to life in David Ayer’s 2016 movie of the same name, followed by James Gunn’s 2021 The Suicide Squad. The maligned cocktail of A-list stars and characters was far from perfect in those films, so here’s hoping Schreier can avoid the same mistakes with Thunderbolts – and maybe channel some of their successes as well. With that in mind, here’s what Thunderbolts can learn from the Suicide Squad movies.
Villains or Heroes?
The Thunderbolts being evil the whole time was such a great twist in the original comic, and the movie could totally tap into that idea in a way that Suicide Squad never did. Marvel doesn’t have to play these characters like villains from the jump, and indeed, for several of the prospective members, their status as villain or hero is a bit up in the air. Yelena Belova and the Winter Soldier, for example, have complicated pasts, but we love them as characters and we know they are ultimately good guys. But the likes of Abomination, Baron Zemo, and U.S. Agent on the other hand really seem to lean more towards the villain side of things. The Thunderbolts movie could truly mine this “which side are they really on” angle for all of the characters before things come to a head in the final act. The Suicide Squad movies, on the other hand, tended to play most of their characters sympathetically, even if they were quote/unquote villains. But you know, there’s nothing wrong with just giving us some straight-up bad guys as our co-leads!
The film could learn a lesson from Suicide Squad’s use of Hollywood megastars. Away from presumed roles for Pugh, Roth, and the rest, Marvel would be wise to enlist more big names – either for cameos or more permanent roles. It’s easy to forget that Suicide Squad was the first time we saw Will Smith and Margot Robbie in the DCEU, thanks to both feeling like they’d been there the entire time. And The Suicide Squad featured a plethora of Gunn favourites and also added household names including Sylvester Stallone and Idris Elba to the mix. Similar to Thor: Love and Thunder bringing Russell Crowe to the galaxy of MCU stars, Thunderbolts could be like an Expendables of grimy (and famous) grunts.
It’s easy to imagine someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger having a part to play, only to be killed off early on for shock value. This was something Gunn nailed in The Suicide Squad with Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker. And we could sit here and speculate all day about a fictional roster, but like The Suicide Squad, Thunderbolts shouldn’t be afraid to go with more obscure teammates from the comics. It was divisive to go for Killer Croc over King Shark in the first movie, while anti-heroes including Javelin and Weasel are hardly top-tier members of a “classic” Suicide Squad lineup. Putting an MCU twist on outlandish Marvel villains like Eel, Porcupine, or Texas Twister would be interesting to see.
Thunderbolts can also lean into the potential of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Similar to how Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury was a cornerstone of Phase 1 to help form the Avengers, Dreyfus has already been having fun with Val as the “evil” Nick Fury in some cameo appearances. Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller was a big win for both Suicide Squad movies, and just as she stepped out of the shadows as the main villain, the Contessa likely has her own villainous motives.
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Get to the Point
The opening act of the first Suicide Squad included jazzy report cards that went through each member’s misdemeanours and served as a crash course on the characters for dummies. Although it helped those who were unfamiliar with Deadshot and company in the comics, it largely pulled audiences out of the action. All of which is to say, Thunderbolts needs to dive straight into the story.
Why not just stick to a linear narrative structure that tells a story that starts at point A and proceeds to point B? There was a lot of bouncing back and forth between flashbacks in the Suicide Squad movies that kind of wore thin at a certain point. It’s OK to trust your audience to figure out who some of these characters are.
Take Suicide Squad trying to tie things to the wider world of the DCEU. As much as having Captain Boomerang foiled by the Flash worked to a degree, several other players were largely lumped under the wings of Batman. This became a problem when Suicide Squad shoehorned Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader into the proceedings to flesh out the backstories of Deadshot and Harley Quinn. You don’t need a cameo from Sam Wilson or Bucky Barnes to establish the villainous drive behind John Walker and Helmut Zemo.
Both Suicide Squad movies went for a unique tone, and while splashes of neon helped differentiate the first outing from the dark DC Extended Universe, other parts just didn’t work. Namely, there was some odd flirting between Harley and Deadshot – which jarred against her abusive relationship with the Joker. Unless it’s WandaVision or star-crossed tragedy like Cap and Peggy or Jane and Thor, we aren’t really tuning in for a love story, so let’s hope Thunderbolts avoids falling into Suicide Squad’s trap of trying to set up unnecessary romantic chemistry between the anti-heroes.
Remember to Include a True Big Bad
We need a singular enemy for the Thunderbolts to fight. Suicide Squad went off the boil by making Cara Delevingne’s June Moone into the de facto villain as Enchantress. Couple this with Amanda Waller and Joker’s own schemes and it felt like villain overkill – ironic in a movie made of villains. At least The Suicide Squad had Starro as a villain, and even though it was a departure from the comics to have the giant Starfish as a puppet of the Thinker, it was just wild enough to work. It’s unclear what the motives of the Thunderbolts will be, but whether it’s going against a singular baddie or the ruling hero class of the Avengers, we need them united against a common cause that makes sense for this particular band of characters.
The first Suicide Squad could’ve made waves in the DCEU if it had gone for the hard R rating many assumed it would. Instead, there are calls for the Ayer Cut to give fans the bloodshed they asked for. The animated Marvel Zombies will be touting a TV-MA rating and there’s plenty of discourse about whether Deadpool 3 will keep the Merc with a Mouth’s R rating once he joins the MCU. But including a truly frightening and vicious big bad as the foe the team are facing could differentiate Thunderbolts from much of the MCU that has come before it. There may be fear around whether R-rated superhero movies can pull in the box office numbers the Marvel movies rely on, but one need only look at the success of Logan or James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, which actually did go full R.
Have Some Fun With the Concept
That said, if there’s one thing inherent in the concept of bad guys having to do good things, it’s the capacity for humor. From what little we’ve seen of Louis-Dreyfus, she’s bringing a similar kind of dark humour to the Contessa that the Suicide Squad movies had. Pugh does the same with Yelena, while the candy-loving Zemo was a comedic addition to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. That sort of black comedy can work well in a story about a bunch of rogues and anti-heroes.
Thunderbolts should also take off the gloves. The first Suicide Squad movie failed to give us deaths that mattered. Adam Beach’s Slipknot got an early demise, which was telegraphed before the movie even came out, before rounding things off with the deaths of El Diablo and GQ Edwards (yep, we had to Google him too). It was hardly the expendable Task Force X we’d hoped for, which presumably led to the opening (sort of hilarious) massacre of its 2021 sequel. Many clocked the twist that there would be two squads in Gunn’s film, but to off Captain Boomerang as well as low-level members like Blackguard and Mongal was a bold swing. The MCU has never been afraid to kill characters, and even if a lot of these deaths have been temporary, Thunderbolts should still be empowered to thin the herd.
Suicide Squad has developed something of a cult status over the past six years, and as the sequel proved, it had enough of a fan base to forget the mistakes of its predecessor. Now that the MCU has largely shed its accusations of having a villain problem, Thunderbolts could be something different from the trope of the one-and-done bad guy or someone like Thanos and Kang playing the long game. Disney is unlikely to copy Warner Bros., but the Suicide Squads can at least serve as a blueprint for what to do and not do when assembling those baddies.
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