After a battle with Onslaught left the world without the majority of the heroes that made it feel safe, Baron Zemo devised a plan like no other in order to rule the world. Zemo gathered Beetle, Fixer, Goliath, Moonstone, and Screaming Mimi, all former members of the Masters of Evil, together to disguise themselves as a new heroic team in order to take advantage of the missing heroes and gain the trust of the authorities and public in general. They were soon joined by starry-eyed young rookie heroine Jolt, who was unaware of her teammate's true identities and hidden agenda. Zemo barely tolerated Jolt, regarding her as little more than a public relations tool, but most of the team quickly grew fond of her and found her idealism infectious. A seeming exception was the amoral Techno, who grew colder than ever after his neck was broken and he returned in robotic form.
Justice Like Lightning
Once the Thunderbolts had established themselves as beloved heroes, Zemo abruptly dropped their deception successfully launched a plan to take over the world by enslaving everyone including the returning Avengers and Fantastic Four. However, the plan was thwarted when members of the Thunderbolts decided they preferred the life of a hero than villain and teamed with Iron Man to put an end to Zemo’s plans. In the end, Zemo fled with Techno, and the other Thunderbolts began a new life on the run as outlaw adventurers, trying to prove their heroism to the public while evading capture.
Veteran super hero Hawkeye, who was sympathetic to the Thunderbolts because of his own outlaw past-quit the Avengers and joined the Thunderbolts as their new leader, enhancing the team's reputation, morale and fighting skills. He persuaded ex-Beetle Abe Jenkins, the team's only known wanted killer, to go back to prison for the sake of the group's credibility-though this parting proved difficult for both Jenkin's and his girlfriend Songbird. Hawkeye also championed the joining of the team's repentant one-time foe Charcoal and led the group to victory over the Crimson Cowl's new Masters of Evil, seizing the Masters’ Mount Charteris complex to serve as the new Thunderbolts headquarters. The facility’s reclusive resident caretaker and mutant machinesmith Ogre, a long-inactive agent of defunct subversive group Factor Three, began providing the Thunderbolts with tech support. Hawkeye began a romance with the cynical Moonstone, inspiring her to change for the better. Jenkins soon rejoined the team as MACH-II, having won a secret early release through covert government work. A bored, lonely Techno secretly imprisoned and impersonated Ogre for a time, eventually sacrificing his artificial life to revive Jolt, who had been shot by the mind-controlled assassin Scourge as part of an anti-superhuman conspiracy led by rogue government agent Henry Gyrich, who was himself under the mental influence of Hydra's Baron Strucker. During Gyrich's conspiracy, Atlas and Zemo were seemingly slain by Scourge, Ogre quit the group, and Hawkeye was estranged from his teammates when they learned that he never had government approval for his work with them and could not authorize pardons for them as he once claimed. Hawkeye redeemed himself when he led the team in defeating Gyrich and secured pardons for the Thunderbolts in exchange for going along with the government cover-up of Gyrich's plot, the catch being that Hawkeye had to go to prison for his own technically illegal vigilante work with the Thunderbolts.
Most of the other Thunderbolts were released, though conditions of their pardon forbade them from public use of costumed identities or special powers. As minors, Charcoal and Jolt became wards of the state and were assigned to the Redeemers, a Thunderbolts-inspired, government-backed super-team whose members included the resurrected Fixer (his human body restored plus memories apparently downloaded from his robotic Techno form), the sonic entity Scream (the sonic soul of Songbird's ex-partner Angar the Screamer) and new incarnations of Beetle (Abe's old enemy Leila Davis), Meteorite (disgraced pilot Valerie Barnhardt) and Smuggler (Atlas' brother Conrad Josten). Captain America mentored the group briefly, but was soon replaced as leader by the new Citizen V, who was secretly possessed by the disembodied consciousness of the slain Zemo. After a power-mad Graviton slaughtered most of the Redeemers, he and his alien P'Tah allies were defeated through the combined efforts of Citizen V, Fixer, Jolt, Moonstone, Songbird, a reborn Atlas (sharing a composite form with his ex-lover Dallas Riordan) and a re-armored Abe Jenkins (now MACH-3). Most of the heroes seemingly died in a climactic implosion, but were actually hurled to the alternate world Counter-Earth, created by Franklin Richards and the Celestial Ashema the Listener. Reunited and uneasily allied with a newly resurrected Zemo (whose disembodied consciousness had been drawn along with them), these Thunderbolts worked to restore peace and prosperity to the disaster-ravaged Counter-Earth. Zemo's Thunderbolts soon became the leading heroes of that world.
Back on Earth, Hawkeye escaped prison and teamed with Songbird on an unofficial secret mission for the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., seeking an ultimate weapon developed by the late criminal billionaire Justin Hammer. In the course of their mission, they teamed with criminals Amazon, Blackheath, Cyclone, Harrier and Skein, whom Hawkeye forged into a new team of Thunderbolts. Together, they neutralized Hammer's weapon and crushed the Crimson Cowl's reorganized Masters of Evil, saving the world and securing pardons for Hawkeye and Songbird. Shortly thereafter, Hawkeye's Thunderbolts and Zemo's Thunderbolts found themselves simultaneously battling an all-consuming void that threatened both their worlds. Once the threat was neutralized, almost all the Thunderbolts reassembled on Earth, though Jolt remained on Counter-Earth to lead the Young Allies in aiding that troubled world. Having cravenly deserted the team rather than face the void, Cyclone was turned over to the authorities by Hawkeye-but the group gained a new addition in longtime ally Dallas Riordan (now called Vantage), who had been serving as a host body for a disembodied Atlas until he regained his own physical form during the void conflict. Amazon and Skein, doubting they could make it as heroes in the long run, returned to their old extra-legal lives. MACH-III and Harrier both decided to return to prison to serve out their sentences for past crimes. Finally, Moonstone reluctantly convinced Hawkeye to leave, too, since he had taught them well and she wanted to prove they could continue their reformation without his guidance. Though wary of the supposedly reformed Zemo’s role in the team, Hawkeye agreed that the revamped team deserved a chance to prove itself and he left, but Songbird secretly agreed to keep him informed, having stayed with the group largely to keep an eye on its less reliable members.
Zemo's new Thunderbolts were successful at first, neutralizing high-profile threats and garnering public acclaim; but the team never fully trusted Zemo, and when they created the global energy-absorbing Liberator project as a potential means of enforcing world peace, Moonstone programmed a secret failsafe into it that would allow her to absorb its vast power if need be. The Avengers, receiving reports from Songbird and having planted Iron Man in the Thunderbolts as a double agent in the guise of Cobalt Man, discovered the failsafe and assumed it was Zemo's handiwork. The Avengers interfered in the Liberator’s test run and accidentally triggered the failsafe, sending a power-crazed Moonstone on a rampage that was halted through the combined efforts of both teams, thanks in part to assistance from Abe Jenkins and Jolt. In the end, Moonstone was left comatose, an embittered Zemo stole away with her moonstones, Blackheath voluntarily returned to prison calling himself Plantman once again, Vantage joined the Commission on Superhuman Activities, Atlas had Henry Pym remove his powers, and the Thunderbolts disbanded.
Paroled from prison early for assisting the Avengers, Abe Jenkins adopted a new armored guise as MACH-IV and began rebuilding the Thunderbolts recruiting Songbird, Erik Josten, and career criminals Blizzard, Speed Demon, Joystick and Radioactive Man. However, a morally conflicted Jenkins struggled as leader, Atlas proved to be unstable since regaining his powers that Dallas Riordan previously absorbed, which now left her confined to a wheelchair once again, and the new recruits slowly began to embrace the group's redemptory philosophy. Songbird, no longer in love with Abe, began to lose faith in the team in general and Jenkins in particular, especially after she and Atlas learned that Abe got the new team’s startup cash from Baron Strucker, who had hoped to set the Thunderbolts up as cannon fodder for an apocalyptic assault on Manhattan. Despite these internal tensions, the Thunderbolts became beloved celebrities again after they saved New York from a Hydra nuclear assault with a last-minute assist from cosmic antihero Captain Marvel, now calling himself Photon, who had returned to life after a raging Atlas beat him nearly to death.
Passage to War
Using the moonstone gems, Baron Zemo looked into all possible futures and found Photon to be a threat to the world. He then displaced Songbird in time by taking her to an opening in space in order to persuade her to join his new cause to save the world. Zemo began a partnership with the Commission on Superhuman Activities after showed them the future and convinced them that he is out to save the world. Once he returned Songbird to normal time and space, Songbird took leadership of the Thunderbolts from MACH-IV. During this time Songbird fired Blizzard because she didn't think he could cut it as a member of the team.
Speed Demon secretly began stealing money in order fund the Thunderbolts. Speed Demon decided to steal from his ex-teammate Nighthawk. This lead to him confronting Speed Demon about it at Thunderbolts headquarters. During this confrontation the Thunderbolts were attacked by a newly reformed Squadron Sinister who wanted to recruit Nighthawk and Speed Demon back into their ranks. The Squadron Sinister managed to kidnap Nighthawk and Speed Demon joined the group in order to infiltrate them. The Thunderbolts teamed with Nighthawk attempted to put a stop to their plans, but failed and the Squadron Sinister escaped. After the battle was over, Nighthawk joined the Thunderbolts and Songbird fired Speed Demon for stealing money and Speed Demon ended up joining the Squadron Sinister after all.
Baron Zemo began recruiting his own group of Thunderbolts that would help him battle Songbird's Thunderbolts. He recruited Fixer, MACH-IV, Blizzard, Man-Killer, Blackout and a comatose Moonstone. Swordsman found out Zemo's plans tried to warn Songbird's Thunderbolts, but failed to warn them before Zemo's group attacked. During the battle the Smuggler used Blackout to return from the Darkforce Dimension and Zemo severed Photon's body into different pockets of time and dispersed those pockets across the Darkforce Dimension in order to save Photon from destroying the world. The team roster would change again as Smuggler and Swordsman would join and upon learning that Songbird only used Nighthawk for his money, he left the team to join the Squadron Sinister.
When the Civil War|Superhuman Registration Act became law, the Commission on Superhuman Activities contacted the Thunderbolts to help capture super-villains and persuade them to join the pro-registration side. Unknown to the CSA, the Thunderbolts had already started capturing super-villains three weeks prior in order to build an army against an upcoming threat from the Grandmaster. Those that agreed to join helped the Thunderbolts recruit more members until there was an army of villains, in which the group was called the Thunderbolts Army.
Zemo was able to convince both Captain America and Iron Man, the leaders of each side in the war over the Superhuman Registration Act, to help him at a crucial point in his battle with Grandmaster. The battle with Grandmaster was felt thought the entire world, due to Grandmaster using the power from the Wellspring of Power to grant people all over the world powers and manipulating them through that power. In the end, Zemo was able to defeat Grandmaster and obtain the power of the Wellspring. Believing Zemo would use the power for evil intentions, Songbird shattered the moonstone gems, sending Zemo through both time and space into the past.
While the Thunderbolts dealt with Grandmaster and the reformed Squadron Sinister, the Thunderbolts Army and other heroes throughout the world battled those that Grandmaster had granted powers. During the battle some of its members were taken control by Grandmaster's power resulting in some members turning on each other. This led various members to doubt they could actually do any good. The Thunderbolts Army quickly dispersed; some returned to their villainous ways while others continued operating under the Superhuman Registration Act becoming federal agents.
Operation: Justice Like Lightning
When Baron Zemo's Thunderbolts were preparing for their battle against Grandmaster, Dallas Riordan met with Songbird privately to discuss the future of the Thunderbolts and candidates for the Fifty State Initiative. Songbird was told that she could take a few of the current Thunderbolts with her when finding a new team.
During a battle between the Pro-Registration and Anti-Registration sides, Goliath was killed by a clone of Thor. This opened the eyes for many and put things in a different perspective, causing some members to leave each side for the other. The Pro-Registration side ended up losing more members than anticipated, causing the Fifty State Initiative plan to be put in action faster than planned. The CSA, with the help of Songbird, gathered Bullseye, Lady Deathstrike, Jack O'Lantern (Steven Levins), Jester (Jody Putt), Taskmaster and Venom (Mac Gargan) to capture the Secret Avengers. Not taking any chances, Mister Fantastic chipped and tagged each member with nanobot technology to monitor their actions. Before the team fought as a unit, Jack O'Lantern and Jester were utilized in an attempt to capture Spider-Man, but were promptly killed by the Punisher in the process.
While the Civil War between the hero community took place, Norman Osborn was placed in a leadership role for the Thunderbolts and had him persuade various villains to join the new group of Thunderbolts on a more permanent basis. Moonstone, Radioactive Man, and Swordsman agreed to join Songbird in the CSA's Thunderbolts. Even though it appears that Songbird is responsible for this new group of Thunderbolts, it has yet to be revealed who exactly is responsible for placing Osborn in the position of leader of the group and for what purposes.
The first official mission as a team was to capture the fugitive Jack Flag, who had come out of retirement and not registered. During the mission Moonstone had the Thunderbolts manipulate the situation to save face with the public and make it look like Jack Flag was indeed a threat to the public. Jack Flag was unable to escape the wrath of Bullseye, whose association with the team is hidden from the public, and was paralyzed by him while trying to escape. Even though their mission was a relative success, there was still much dissension among team members, and it showed even before their next outing. Songbird's constant struggle to regain control of the team from Moonstone; Swordsman's hatred for Osborn; Penance - a tool to be used by Osborn - and so on.
However, the American public demanded action against unregistered vigilantes and the Steel Spider was next on the list. The battle with Steel Spider should not have been difficult, but an impromptu teaming with American Eagle and Sepulchre gave the Thunderbolts more trouble than they bargained for. Despite the extra help, the superior numbers and firepower of Osborn's team proved to be too much. Steel Spider was incapacitated when Venom ate one of his arms, but Sepulchre and American Eagle evaded capture. A sever blow was also dealt to the Thunderbolts when Songbird had the nanotechnology inside Bullseye activated to give him a taste of what he did to Jack Flag.
Misfortune would continue to plague the team when a group of psychics infiltrated the Thunderbolt's headquarters when they planned to be captured. Their goal was to tear the team apart from the inside by invading their minds and turn them against one another. Doc Samson had been visiting the team to diagnose the emotional state of Penance since his part in the tragedy that led to the Superhuman Registration Act. The psychics effectively triggered different responses in each member causing them to act out against one another, including the reappearance of the Green Goblin, and his massacre of several soldiers and nearly killing the Swordsman. Moonstone also suffered serious injuries when she attempted to take on both Samson and Penance. Bullseye, his injuries repaired, ended the fiasco when he killed all the psychics, still in their cells.
Problems came in all forms - or more accurately, shapes - for the Thunderbolts when the shape-shifting race known as the Skrulls unleashed their secret invasion of Earth. First, a brief encounter with Swarm and the return of Swordsman's dead sister, Andrea Strucker, was enough to cause a stir among the team, but when Captain Marvel attacked Mount Charteris, it nearly left the Thunderbolts in shambles. Osborn, as deadly with words as he is with pumpkin bombs, spoke with the man he realized was a Skrull impostor and managed to turn him against his own race, leaving Osborn to take his team into war alongside Earth's heroes for the preservation of the planet. At first, the Skrulls seemed to have the upper hand, but Osborn let loose an out of control Bullseye and Venom, allowing them carte blanche. In the ensuing carnage, Bullseye murdered Andrea Strucker and Osborn allowed her brother to believe the Skrulls were responsible. The Swordsman's rage would know no bounds. The Thunderbolt's participated in the final battle in New York, and that is where Osborn solidified his position when he personally killed the Skrull Queen and ended the war. Osborn was revered a hero, and the President placed him in charge of Earth's defenses, including such organizations as S.H.I.E.L.D. and Project PEGASUS.
With Osborn's new found fame and power, he could not publicly associate himself with a band of reformed criminals any longer so he officially left the group and formed H.A.M.M.E.R. and a new team of Avengers, disusing some old Thunderbolt members as renowned heroes like Hawkeye and Spider-Man. Unofficially, he still remained in command of the group, using them as his Black Ops team for missions too unsavory for his Avengers. To do this effectively he had to restructure the team completely and released Radioactive Man, Swordsman, and Songbird from active duty - nearly resulting in her untimely death at the hands of Bullseye. His new team consisted of Black Widow - which was really Natasha Romanova in disguise - Headsman, Paladin, Ghost, and Ant-Man. After a grudge match with Deadpool, the team recruited Mr. X and a man called Scourge, his real identity only known to Osborn. Again, this new team had difficulties getting along, but Osborn recruited each one for the unique talents they bring to the table.
His first recruit, Black Widow, was about to fulfill her true purpose for being on the team. In H.A.M.M.E.R.'s quest to rid the streets of filth, soldiers threatened the lives of several homeless men and women, leading to the wrath of Songbird. She defeated the soldiers but now had to run from Osborn since she was out in the open again. Black Widow was contacted by her true commanding officer, the former head of S.H.I.E.L.D., and given instructions to blow her cover and save Songbird. The two women met up before the rest of the Thunderbolts could find them with the intentions of outwitting their foes and escape without a fight. Mr. X and Ant-Man weren't about to let them get away so easily, and Black Widow was tracked to a secret base where Nick Fury was waiting. The Thunderbolts promptly arrived, with Scourge as their newly appointed leader, to defeat and capture Osborn's enemies. Safely detained, Osborn revealed he posed as Fury to enlist Black Widow's help, and he was the one who actually placed her on his team, so she could test the loyalty of his team. Luring Fury out of hiding was merely a bonus. Her next objective was to bring him Captain America, which Natasha violently protested. Osborn ordered Songbird's execution as he personally shot Fury in the head. Fury was actually a Life Model Decoy, leaving the real deal unharmed, but his allies were still in grave danger. However, Scourge and Mr. X were taken by surprise by their teammates who suddenly had an attack of conscious and couldn't kill two defenseless hostages. The Thunderbolts fought one another, allowing their prisoners to escape, but Ghost altered the memories of Scourge and Mr. X as to not remember how they were betrayed.
Osborn's next scheme was to brainwash Iron Fist and let him loose against his oldest friend, Luke Cage. The former Heroes for Hire savagely fought each other until Cage could break through to Danny's subconscious and bring him to his senses. Finally on the same page, Power Man and Iron Fist face off against the Thunderbolts until they are teleported to safety with the help of Ghost, Paladin and Ant-Man. Mr. X is haunted from the experience and the overwhelming need to kill began to make him edgy, so he used the teleporter to go A.W.O.L., leaving the rest of his team no choice but to hunt him down. Scourge, Headsman and Mr. X were allowed to fight uninterrupted as the others watched in the hopes the three would kill each other. No one died and Osborn regained his team, although he now suspected there was a traitor among them. Knowing his team is frustrated due to inactivity, Osborn gives them a new mission: terminate the Agents of Atlas!
The Thunderbolts, although striking first, quickly realized they were outgunned by the far superior powers of the members of Atlas, but it appeared as if the Thunderbolts were about to turn the tide in their favor when Scourge critically injured the Uranian. In actuality, the Uranian was distracting the team until he could implant a murderous suggestion within the subconscious mind of Scourge which was intended to be the death of Norman Osborn, but it was Headsman who was killed instead. Unaware one of his own had fallen, Osborn sent the Thunderbolts on a mission to seize the Spear of Heaven during his siege of Asgard. Using the fabled Spear of Odin, Osborn wished to lay waste to all opposing forces, but a confrontation with the Avengers finally brought about the end to this incarnation of the Thunderbolts. Paladin, Ghost and Ant-Man fought to keep the spear out of Osborn's hands while the Avengers made quick work of the rest. Those members who were too injured to escape found themselves behind bars, and leadership of the group was handed over to Luke Cage.
With Osborn out of the way, the Thunderbolts program again offered second chances at redemption with the hope some of the recruits will take it. Both Cage and former Captain America, Steve Rogers, knew not all will turn their lives around, but they're betting some will. Past members the Ghost, Moonstone, Songbird, MACH-V, and Fixer joined with new recruits the Juggernaut, Crossbones and the Man-Thing to round out the group, but before training sessions can even begin, Baron Zemo appeared to return to reclaim the team he founded. Zemo was really Fixer in disguise in an attempt to see how the new recruits would respond under fire, and while some shined and others failed, the Thunderbolts were deployed on their first mission: intercept a group of trolls who recently escape from a prison on Asgard. Since then they have dealt with mutated soldiers, foiled a prison break at the Raft while the Avengers Academy was visiting and fought Hand ninjas in Shadowland. It was in Shadowland that Crossbones discovered a new power to project lethal energy beams and used them against Rogers the first chance he got. Crossbones failed to kill Rogers and was immediately kicked out of the program. Cage chose Hyperion to replace Crossbones without knowing for certain which reality he came from, and even though Hyperion claimed to be a force for good he attacked the team during a mission to stop a herd of mega-life from Monster Island. Juggernaut, Moonstone, Ghost and Man-Thing put Hyperion down without Cage's knowledge, and the Thunderbolts were again short one member.