Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley's debut issue of Thunderbolts is best known for the huge twist ending that revealed this brand new team of heroes was actually the Masters of Evil in disguise, in their latest plot to take over the world. While their criminal plans set the Thunderbolts on their heroic path, members of the team were eventually swayed away from their past selves to fully adopt their new roles as heroes and Thunderbolts.
We've seen a few iterations of Thunderbolts over the years as new leaders come aboard to take the team in a new direction. Most commonly we saw the villains of the Marvel Universe given a chance to reform, or at least pay off their debt to society with the team. These rotating team goals and rosters saw a number of powerful members move through the team over the years, so today we'll take a look at a few of the most powerful Thunderbolts.
Abe Jenkins began his career as the villainous Beetle, who wore an advanced battle suit, usually against Spider-Man. After he was approached by Baron Helmut Zemo with the plans for the Thunderbolts, Abe refined his suit's designs into the Mobile Armored Cyber-Harness and became MACH-I. The suit was capable of incredibly agile flight and came equipped with many weapons systems.
Abe would be one of the first to begin to follow his heroic instincts and rebel against Zemo's original plans and would become MACH-I full time alongside the heroic versions of the Thunderbolts. Over the years his flying armored suits went through many upgrades and versions, with the latest being the MACH-X version he wore with Winter Soldier's team.
The Venom symbiote has actually been a member of two very different iterations of the Thunderbolts. Following the first team's disbanding, the Thunderbolts were repurposed by the government as a rehabilitation program for criminals, which included Mac Gargan as Venom before he joined Norman Osborn and the Dark Avengers during Dark Reign.
The more heroic Flash Thompson joined General Ross' version of the Thunderbolts as Agent Venom. The militaristic Agent Venom fit in perfectly with Ross' superpowered squad of commandoes, though Flash was having difficulties controlling the symbiote and dealing with the more villainous members of his new team.
Dr. Karla Sofen is an interesting member of the Thunderbolts, in that she is very rarely ever heroic by her own nature. She briefly used the moniker of Meteorite during the Thunderbolts initial ruse, but quickly reverted back to the name of Moonstone. Often she remains with the team to satisfy her own professional curiosity as a psychiatrist or to remain out of prison for her crimes.
Sofen gained her powers through her namesake, a mystical gem that she manipulated control of from the previous Moonstone. The stone gives her enhanced strength, healing, flight, energy manipulation, intangibility, and limited gravity manipulation that make her one of the Thunderbolts heaviest hitters.
7 RADIOACTIVE MAN
Dr. Chen Lu first began his career as a villain to heroes like Thor and Iron Man, which is a testament to the levels of power he was dealing with as Radiation Man. Following Lu's own exposure to high levels of radiation, his body was transformed and he was able to manipulate radiation across all spectrums in incredibly dangerous ways that could potentially kill thousands of people.
Radioactive Man joined the Thunderbolts after years of working for the Chinese government and then the Masters of Evil, and he hoped to reform himself like the other members of the team. Lu's transformation into a hero and the relationships he built with the other Thunderbolts were a highlight of his time with the series, though his rehabilitation eventually failed.
6 LUKE CAGE
After the Thunderbolts program failed spectacularly under the watch of Norman Osborn, a new version of the government's villain strike squad was launched, this time with Luke Cage in charge of the "former" villains. He was placed in charge of the team by Captain Steve Rogers after the Siege storyline in the hopes that Cage would be able to steer the Thunderbolts in the right direction.
His team featured other founding Thunderbolts like Moonstone, Songbird, and MACH-V, and a rotating roster of villains over Cage's time with the Thunderbolts. His super strength and bulletproof skin along with his unique leadership skills made him a great leader of the Thunderbolts, even if that version of the government program eventually failed drastically again.
Erik Josten wore quite a few different identities in his criminal career, beginning with Power Man (later used by Luke Cage), Smuggler, and Goliath (also used by Hank Pym, Clint Barton, Bill Foster, and Tom Foster), though he was known as the size-changing Atlas during the Thunderbolts' debut.
Josten's origins are more similar to the Avenger Wonder Man than Pym's size-changing identities, as his powers came from the same ionic energy experiments that powered Wonder Man. Josten's abilities have been altered over time, but as Atlas, he towers above the rest of the Thunderbolts as the team's physical, if not emotional, powerhouse.
Cain Marko is the step-brother of Charles Xavier, founder of the X-Men, and has featured largely within the X-Men's mythology for years, despite not being a mutant. After Marko found the mystical Gem of Cytorrak and was empowered by the multi-dimensional god of the same name, he became the unstoppable Juggernaut.
The Juggernaut has served as a hero a few times over the years, even joining with the X-Men for a short period of time. Marko joined up with the Thunderbolts under the command of Luke Cage, which resulted in the loss of his powers for a bit, until he was reborn as the most powerful Juggernaut yet.
3 RED HULK
We previously discussed General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross' own version of the Thunderbolts, a team of costumed mercenaries and soldiers he assembled to undertake a series of specialized missions. That team included the aforementioned Agent Venom, along with Deadpool, Elektra, Punisher, and Ross himself.
Of course, Ross could also transform into the Red Hulk, whose name alone is a showcase of his power levels. Not only does Red Hulk have the increased strength, durability, endurance, and enhanced healing of the regular Hulk, but he was also able to absorb energy and rechannel it as heat, all while retaining the mind of General Ross.
Genis-Vell was the son of the Kree hero Mar-Vell, who became the first Captain Marvel on Earth. In order to protect him from the enemies of Mar-Vell, Genis was rapidly grown to adulthood and implanted with false memories to simulate his upbringing. He was initially known as Legacy before taking on the mantle of his father and becoming the new Captain Marvel.
Genis had similar powers to his father, though they were greatly enhanced by his Eternal genes and connection to the Nega-Bands. He worked with the Thunderbolts as Photon, though his damaged cosmic awareness caused insanity and he threatened the whole universe on multiple occasions until an overpowered Baron Zemo split elements of Genis-Vell across the multiverse.
Kobik was one of the more recent additions to the Thunderbolts and was also the reason for the founding of the new team by Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier. Kobik was the result of a S.H.I.E.L.D. project to use remnants of shattered Cosmic Cubes as a failsafe weapon to change reality. Those Cube fragments joined together, gained sentience, and became Kobik, whose confused identity represented itself in the form of a child.
Kobik was manipulated by the Red Skull to kick off the Secret Empire event, but during that time she spent time with Winter Soldier and the founding members of the Thunderbolts as the latest iteration of the team. Kobik was unfortunately shattered again, and while the Cube pieces reformed during Secret Empire to save the day, the near-omnipotent being hasn't been seen since.