An E-Book By Dr. Dennis Schoolcroft
Author of Shadows, The Dark Side of the Marvels (224 pp. Vanity Universe Publishing, ISBN: 078511565X)
Baron Helmut Zemo had a plan. Even by the very high standards set for the troubled son of a megalomaniacal Nazi scientist, Baron Heinrich Zemo, it was a good one.
The Avengers, the Fantastic Four - indeed, many of the Marvels - had been killed during the battle with Onslaught. The world needed heroes -- and Zemo needed to matter.
In the absence of the Avengers, a new team of heroes made their dynamic debut. They called themselves the Thunderbolts and the public quickly became enamored of these underdogs who worked so hard to capture their imagination. It was a sham that everyone bought into hook, line and sinker...because it was a good plan. Take over the world by gaining the trust of the people before crushing them.
The Thunderbolts were actually supervillains in disguise. Several of Baron Zemo's former Masters of Evil, had taken on new identities. They were known felons with long criminal records: the Beetle, Goliath, Screaming Mimi, the Fixer and Moonstone.
But something funny happened on the way towards world-domination -- several of the Thunderbolts began to enjoy their role as heroes. They began to appreciate the effort it took, the good they could do and the responsibility required to serve as public guardians.
After their ruse was revealed, they rebelled against Zemo's scheme and became outlaws determined to redeem themselves.
Led for a long time by the Avenger, Hawkeye, himself a reformed villain, the Thunderbolts worked hard - made some mistakes, but also did a lot of good. Eventually, they even allowed Zemo an opportunity for redemption.
It was a good plan...
MACH-IV, ATLAS, SONGBIRD
As Mach IV, Abner Jenkins, formerly the Beetle, has had the hardest road of all the Thunderbolts, delivering himself to the authorities for a murder he had committed in his "previous life."
Jenkins earned his parole after helping the Avengers quell a flawed plan for world peace that Zemo had coerced the Thunderbolts into undertaking. With the original T-Bolts disbanded in the aftermath of that confrontation, Jenkins emerged from prison with a bold declaration - he would start a new team of Thunderbolts. Months after this prediction, the New Thunderbolts - Mach IV, Songbird, Atlas and Blizzard made their dramatic debut, saving lower Manhattan from an attack by the Atlantean terrorists calling themselves, Fathom Five. The space-faring flawed hero, Captain Marvel, helped in this endeavor, but he was lost during the battle. In subsequent days, the New Thunderbolts gained two more members. Speed Demon helped defeat a deadly rampage by the Wrecking Crew and the hyper-agile Joystick, who betrayed her employers in the mysterious, superhuman competition, the Great Game to save the United Nations from collapse.
It was during this endeavor that the team's last member, the enigmatic Radioactive Man, arrived to save countless lives.
All of this was just the prelude though, to the events we all witnessed just days ago - the painstaking repulsion of an all-out assault by the terrorist organization called HYDRA.
The New Thunderbolts have barely had the chance to catch their breath, much less reflect on their accomplishments or their goals. The foundation of this new team, Mach IV, Songbird and Atlas, have an even more daunting task ahead of them: showing others how to feel what they felt, think what they thought and do what they did.
Those will be daunting questions for these three. Often, those who walked a similar path make for the hardest judges.
Does Songbird have the patience for those trying to do what she has already done?
Can Atlas control the ionic energy raging within him that has caused problems for so many similarly powered individuals before?
Will Mach IV have the leadership skills necessary to navigate the conflicted personalities he has cobbled together much more by accident than design?
Can lightning strike twice? Can they redeem their new teammates the way they redeemed themselves? Are Joystick or Speed Demon even interested in this cause or is this merely a safe harbor or new scam for them? What happens to those who fail -- ? What if Blizzard can't cut it? What if Radioactive Man's disdain for the United States deters him from placing himself at risk? What if the newly revivied Captain Marvel, now calling himself Photon, simply can't understand the complexity of the human condition? If in the blinding light of success, they all see the shadows of failure, what do Jenkins, Josten or Gold do then...?
Very little is known about Miss Yanizeski other than the obvious: as Joystick, she is an adrenalin-charged, hyperactive action junkie. Her meager public records speak to a quiet childhood and adolescence. Very few remember her, fewer still knew her. The Yanizeski family moved a lot, the father's non-descript job record attesting to a lifetime spent looking for "the big score," and failing to find it. It is documented that Walter Yanizeski was a habitual gambler, often winning and losing five figure sums within a matter of days. Several of the family's sudden moves occurred while Walter fled from outstanding payments owed to his bookies. Eventually, under uncertain circumstances, Janice Yanizeski received a scholarship to the University of Arizona. At some point after her sophomore year, something changed in her. She began to take risks. She also ran tremendous gambling debts. She alienated her family. Then she disappeared and wasn't heard from for three years.
During this absence, her mother, Olivia, passed away from a long illness and her father fled the country.
The next time she was seen, Janice was wearing gauntlets that supercharged an energy truncheon and pounding the living snot out of a steroid case named El Toro Rojo while jumping circles around no less than Spider-Man himself.
Janice wasn't a quiet little mouse anymore. The hellion who had emerged in college took over. Janice was now Joystick and she was a part of the Great Game, a high-stakes competition between superhumans. How apropos, for the woman who had turned her entire life into a complicated game of hide and seek.
But the only person Janice has been hiding from is the one person she refuses to seek: herself. Why does an adrenaline junkie feel such an overwhelming need to compete and to win? That is a question the Thunderbolts should be asking, because an adrenaline junkie is the worst of all possible teammates. Psychologically, her desire for "action" is necessary to fill an emotional void in their lives. Also, the need to place yourself at constant risk speaks to a need to fail as much as to a confidence of success.
If Joystick has only joined the Thunderbolts because they represent a better means of attaining her "action high," what will she do when the needs of her "adrenaline fix" grow stronger?
The outcome is very predictable based on past studies of such behavior. Joystick will do whatever it takes to attain her high, neglecting her responsibilities, her teammates or the public trust to do so. In a fight, the adrenaline junkie is both the person you most want at your side and your greatest liability.
Eventually, inevitably, before Joystick gets herself killed, she is going to take others down with her...
It's a cold life for these cold people. The original Blizzard, Gregor Shapanka, was an accomplished engineer who created a suit capable of freezing water particles in the air around him. He was typical of the ego-driven supervillain, born of jealousy or indignation, performing criminal acts not just for money or power, but for attention and gratification.
Which brings us to Donnie Gill. Why did he become the second Blizzard? Why has he joined the New Thunderbolts? Donnie represents fairly prototypical behavior among many criminals, superhuman or normal: he does this because he doesn't know what else to do.
As a low-level strongarm employee of infamous criminal mastermind, the late industrialist Justin Hammer, Donnie was a foot-soldier who followed orders for a paycheck.
His education level low, his aspirations lower, he was ripe for Hammer's use as fodder in his perpetual cultivation and recycling of supervillain paraphernalia. Basically, Hammer needed someone to fill the suit. Someone stupid enough to confront Iron Man on a regular basis. Someone expendable, in case the suit couldn't be controlled.
Donnie fit the suit. The suit has never fit Donnie.
So here is this regular schmoe, forced into incredibly violent high-stakes situations, with countless opportunities to quit or just walk away - and he is still out there, fighting. Struggling. For what? Why?
Donnie Gill has no reason to be doing what he is doing. He has no reason to become a New Thunderbolt. So why has he? Nothing in Gill's past or the many psychological profiles and interviews done with him upon his numerous arrests attest to the slightest inclination on his part to be a "hero." He has often expressed remorse over his actions, his frustration at feeling like a pawn in the games of more powerful people, but he also has rejected countless opportunities to walk away from "the life."
Is he either the noblest of souls, or the most misguided? Is he a hero or a fool?
Has Donnie Gill come to realize yet, that making the decision to join the Thunderbolts was not the hardest choice of his life, as he most likely thought?
No, the hardest choice will be to stick with it.
Can the Blizzard stand the heat, or will he be left out in the cold?
In my professional opinion, cold days are coming for Donnie Gill...
Jim Sanders was a chemist, highly qualified, but never exemplary. Always just one step slow in his quest for success and recognition.
Until a cosmic entity named the Grandmaster helped him complete a project that imbued Sanders with incredible speed, turning him into The Whizzer.
Along with Hyperion, Dr. Spectrum and Nighthawk, they became the Squadron Sinister, villainous doppelgangers of the other-dimensional Squadron Supreme, who recently spent some time on our Earth fighting alongside the Avengers.
The Squadron Sinister were formed only to fight the Avengers in an intergalactic competition, and only surfaced a few more times before disbanding. Hyperion died, Dr. Spectrum had his power prism destroyed and Nighthawk became a member of the Defenders.
And what happened to Jim Sanders?
He sprinted back on to the scene with a new name, a new costume, but the same arrogance. Speed Demon became like so many others of his kind: perpetual fodder for superhumans to smack down.
So why has Sanders joined the New Thunderbolts? The obvious answer is, to avoid getting beaten yet again. But the deeper answer, perhaps, is that for someone who should be able to outrun the specter of failure, Speed Demon can't seem to run fast enough or far enough to avoid himself. What if Sanders sees the opportunity to run towards a goal?
Will Speed Demon choose to run then?
An ironic aspect of Marvels empowered by superspeed is a lack of patience in the "regular" world, which often moves at far too slow a pace for them. This leads towards a certain arrogance and sense of entitlement among many with such superhuman abilities. They always want to take the fastest way out to avoid any confrontation or the quickest shortcut to solve any problem. The other aspect this power supplies is what I call the "have your cake and eat it, too" syndrome, because speedsters can have their cake and eat it. They're fast enough.
The allure of being a hero will seem like a quick fix for Sanders. But if he attains that, the desire to be more will be equally compelling.
What if Sanders realizes that because of his speed, he is fast enough to have his cake and eat it? What if he realizes, that maybe, he is fast enough to be both a superhero -- and a supervillain...?
The anomaly. The one who does not fit in. The one who is here for his own reasons, and yet whose very presence completely throws the structure and balance of the New Thunderbolts completely out of synch.
Genis-Vell is the son of one of the galaxy's greatest heroes, the alien Kree warrior, Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel. Genis never knew his father, who died before Genis was created and gestated through artificial insemination and Titan science.
Genetically accelerated - aged - by that very same science, Genis was born into the world with an eighteen year old's body and a mind stuffed like manicotti with a lifetime's worth of information and false memories. He knew no other way than what he was made to be - a hero, like his father.
He called himself Legacy. It was a difficult namesake, since his father was an impossible legacy to live up to. It also speaks volumes to this young man's confidence and his insecurities that he would choose such a name and such a path.
Eventually, surprisingly, after a very brief and nondescript career as a superhero, Genis-Vell changed his name to Captain Marvel. He assumed his father's mantle though he had none of the experience and his mettle was questionable, to say the least.
So how did he do?
Apparently, from all reports, he went crazy. He had gained cosmic awareness - an almost omniscient understanding of how reality works - but had none of the requisite knowledge of himself to properly utilize it. He came out of his initial bout of psychosis, but much damage had been done across the galaxy. On many worlds, he is a pariah. On this one, he is both a curiosity and a footnote.
Now he is trying to regain the respect of others while reclaiming his self-respect. He has been reborn as Photon, but has he changed?
It is unclear why he has changed his name, or if he is even aware that he has, for the second time, usurped the heroic identity of another Marvel. It is also unclear if Genis would even care. He is, like so many of his generation, very self-absorbed and very inclined towards superficial rewards.
His vanity belies his considerable awareness, his recklessness contradicts his considerable powers, his fear of failure combats his need for success.
How can one know anything, much less everything...when they don't even know themselves?
He was China's pre-eminent physicist when the Age of Marvels sprang in full-bloom amidst mushroom clouds of radioactive smoke across the world. Dr. Chen Lu was determined to match - even exceed - the powers and abilities of the "Western superheroes."
If the perspective were taken from their side of the Pacific Ocean, Dr. Chen was a self-made hero - China's combination of Captain America and the Fantastic Four all rolled into one.
The Radioactive Man - or R-Man as he is now being called on the Internet - went on to fight the Norse-God Thor and Iron Man on several occasions. He joined the original Masters of Evil. Then the Lethal Legion. Would a man of any heroic intent join groups like that? Even with the longterm goal of protecting his country in mind?
Dr. Chen has shown a proclivity towards avoiding responsibility, often allying himself, indeed, becoming a subordinate, of those with far less power and education than he has. Why has he proven so inconsistent in his demeanor and his decisions? Some scientists have speculated that the radiation surging within his body is tantamount to hormonal mood swings. They say that often, Dr. Chen might not even be in full control of his mental faculties as a result, and thereby is not responsible for many of his actions.
Many respected physicists and physicians in China as well as the United States have written papers on the subject, so if this is true, is Dr. Chen a hero or a villain?
Is the label dependent on which side of the border you live on? Borders are made by man, morals aren't. But are superhumans beholden to borders or morals?
No easy answers. And none may be forthcoming, since Dr. Chen came to the United States for a very specific reason - revenge on the Atlantean terrorists who attacked Beijing. Having accomplished that goal -- will the Radioactive Man choose to stay and confront these issues?
And what of his teammates? How do you live day to day alongside a walking nuclear reactor whose emotions and decision-making abilities may be as unstable as his powers? On the one hand, Dr. Chen is an experienced, educated, reasoned man of science; on the other, he is a nuclear bomb with a perpetually lit fuse just waiting to go off.
Some teammate. And if the Thunderbolts collectively decide they don't want something that dangerous among them...what can they do if R-Man refuses to leave? Where does the 800 lb. glowing green gorilla sit? Anywhere he wants...
The original Thunderbolts were carefully crafted by Helmut Zemo, a mismanaged mind, but still one capable of inventive strategic thinking, accomplished feats of engineering skills and dynamic leadership and oratorical skills that can charm a snake.
He put personalities and powers together like a master chess player, knowing which pieces would go where and why.
His original plans were ingenious, and in nearly all ways, successful - he created a team of heroes the public adores. Except they became a team without him.
So if a criminal mastermind of world-threatening proportions could fail in such an endeavor, how could Abner Jenkins, formerly the Beetle, wearing an often jury-rigged flight harness as Mach IV, hope to succeed?
The team fell in his lap, some joined by hook or crook, moreso than by purpose of design. Their powers and skills are not necessarily complementary and they have little to no understanding of how to fight or live as a group unit.
These are very fragile people. How they handle success is as great a challenge as how they have ever handled failure.
Indeed, in many ways, their recent success could auger an impending failure.
Many who study the Marvels have already looked at this grouping of conflicted personalities, petty egos and perpetual failures and wondered how they could ever hope to accomplish the mandate set forth by their tenuous leader.
In the coming weeks and months, while navigating the long and treacherous river of combat and public opinion, will they find some measure of success and ultimately, some kind of personal redemption?
Unfortunately, though a prelude to a fascinating ride in and of itself, my prediction is that they won't. And as sad as that is for them, it could prove even sadder and more dangerous for those of us living in the shadow of the Modern Marvels...
[Originally published at www.marvel.com, April 2005]
This page was revised on December 4, 2005