According to Disney CEO Bob Iger, Marvel Studios is currently working on what he called “a new franchise beyond Avengers.” That doesn’t mean the Avengers films are coming to an end with next year’s Avengers 4. Rather, it simply means the Marvel Cinematic Universe will grow again. Marvel believes it has another potential franchise in the works, something that could rival the Avengers.

It’s important to remember that this “new franchise” is entirely separate from Disney’s proposed purchase of the bulk of 21st Century Fox. Should that deal be approved, Marvel will gain the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Iger has already indicated those two franchises would then join the MCU. But the very fact Iger is willing to talk so openly about the X-Men and the Fantastic Four suggests this is something else, and something new.

Is it possible Marvel is pivoting to set up a Thunderbolts movie?

The Thunderbolts In A Nutshell

Created by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley back in 1997, the Thunderbolts were initially presented as a brand-new super-team similar to the Avengers. They came together at a time of crisis, when the bulk of the world’s heroes were believed dead in the wake of the “Onslaught” event in Marvel Comics. But the first issue upended all assumptions, revealing that the Thunderbolts were actually a group of super-villains and the whole thing was a massive scam.

Since then, Thunderbolts has traditionally explored the tricky question of whether a villain can ever be redeemed. Some Thunderbolts members – indeed, some Thunderbolts leaders – have viewed the team as little more than a means to an end. Others have desperately sought to make amends for their past evils. The conflict between these two groups has frequently left the Thunderbolts divided against one another, while heroes like the Avengers have been confused as to whether or not to trust them. Hawkeye became one of the Thunderbolts’ most important leaders; as an Avenger, he gave them a sense of legitimacy, while the project tallied with his personal belief in the importance of second chances.

How Marvel Has Moved Into Thunderbolts Territory

[Credit: Marvel Studios]

Marvel Studios has struggled to create great villains. The studio has tended towards twisted mirror images of the main heroes. So Iron Man fights a man in armor, Ant-Man takes on Yellowjacket, and Doctor Strange clashes with dark sorcerers. Phase 3 has seen Marvel switch this up somewhat, pitting heroes against mismatched opponents. Phase 3 villains have generally been better developed as characters, with arcs of their own and a fascinating depth in terms of their motives.

Marvel movies seem to be introducing Thunderbolts characters and concepts. In Captain America: Civil War, Daniel Bruhl’s Baron Helmut Zemo, was a vengeful man and successful manipulator who pushed Iron Man and Captain America into conflict. Crucially, he was not killed off. As Black Panther told Zemo, “The living are not done with you yet.”

[Credit: Marvel Studios]

One key member of the Thunderbolts is the Ghost, and a gender-swapped version of this character is introduced in Ant-Man & the Wasp. The MCU version of the Ghost appears to have gained her powers through exposure to the Quantum Realm, and her motives are so far unrevealed. It’s unknown whether or not Ghost will survive the film, but if she does, that will mean two members of the Thunderbolts are in play. Meanwhile, another important Thunderbolts team member is the villain Moonstone, who usually clashes with Carol Danvers. With Captain Marvel clearly important to the post-Phase 3 MCU, it’s only a matter of time before Moonstone makes her MCU debut.

Finally, some incarnations of the Thunderbolts have been based at the Raft, a prison for superhumans. That particular prison was introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Thunderbolts Would Be A Radical New Direction For Marvel Studios

[Credit: Marvel Comics]

The first three MCU phases centered upon the heroes, but Thunderbolts would be a change in focus. If Marvel does develop a Thunderbolts movie, the studio will need to ensure its villains remain deep and fleshed-out. The time for Marvel’s “villain problem” is over.

And yet, the core concept of Thunderbolts – the message of hope and redemption – is worth projecting onto the big screen. The MCU has always insisted people can change. Tony Stark can transition from being a selfish, egotistical jerk to Earth’s greatest defender, Black Widow can ditch her background as an assassin and become an Avenger. Thunderbolts amplify that message of transformation a hundredfold.

The franchise could even become home for second-tier Avengers, with both Hawkeye and Black Widow linked to the team. There’s no evidence either Scarlett Johansson or Jeremy Renner are coming to the end of their contracts (unlike Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., or Chris Evans), so those two may want to continue their MCU roles.

The signs are positive for a Thunderbolts movie. The concept is a strong one, the team is popular in comics, and the MCU has begun toying with ideas that are important to Thunderbolts. If this is indeed Marvel’s next direction, Ant-Man & the Wasp will be crucial. We’ll just have to wait and see how that film handles the Ghost.