The Civil War is over. The Fifty-State Initiative is in effect and with it a whole new global police force of super powered individuals are ready to make the world a safer place. One such task force is the Colorado based Thunderbolts: Songbird, Radioactive Man, Bullseye, Moonstone, Mac Gargan/ Venom III, Penance and Swordsman, headed by the newly appointed Norman Osborn. Despite a near PR catastrophe only just being avoided during their first mission, the team is swiftly making its way into the limelight and earning the publics respect and admiration. However, it is clear that the group cannot function as a unit, with fractures and rivalries already forming. Elsewhere the former Spider-Man fanatic Oliver "Ollie" Osnick (A.K.A. the Steel Spider) has once again reappeared, this time with a whole new and more advanced suit
Atop the night bathed roofs of Phoenix, Arizona, the Steel Spider is making his way back to his apartment following his encounter with several armed thieves. Cautiously, he enters the building from the roof access doorway and makes his way quickly to the disheveled room down the corridor. Oliver is clearly in pain, taking several moments to collect himself before peeling back his gloves to reveal blood stained and raw knuckles. Throwing the soaked gloves onto the table, he sets about removing the rest of his costume and collapses on the couch. He plays back his missed calls; his bank pushing for a face-to-face about his recent expenditure; his accountant imploring him to call back; his tear-choked girlfriend (no longer willing or able to accept his duel-life) ending the relationship. Oliver listens to these with mounting despair.
The door to Robert Baldwin's onsite accommodation (more like a prison cell than a bed-sit) opens and Norman Osborn enters. Osborn remarks on the drab décor and insists that Robbie stop acting like some prisoner. Robbie shakes off this gesture of kindness, only to have Norman throw a sarcastic comment back at him about the wounds and scars covering his body. Osborn moves the discussion to the topic he set out to breach – about how his hesitation in the field may have been the result of his suit causing him too much pain to fully concentrate. Robbie insists that he is wrong; pain helps him focus, putting the otherwise grey world into colour. Clearly Osborn does not sympathies, and again tries to plead common sense into the kid by telling him that while he (Robbie) is under his custody it is his duty to ensure he (Robbie) is well cared for – this suit will probably kill him if he continues. Glibly Robbie mutters that he'd wear it permanently were he able, and that he would rather die than forgive his sins. Norman finally relents and leaves, informing Robbie that the team will be briefed later and suggests that he eat something today. Outside the room Osborn is joined by his secretary, to whom he demands a further psychiatric evaluation from a psychiatrist he can blackmail to write whatever he is told – that Robbie is too unstable for field duty and needs to be kept on suicide watch. Andreas Strucker (A.K.A. Swordsman) catches up to Norman as he enters his office, demanding to know the whereabouts of the sword hilt placed under Normans protection. Osborn cuts him off mid-sentence, to which Strucker responds indignantly on how some corrupt businessman has no right to silence a man of such noble heritage. Calmly Norman retorts that Andreas made a deal with him in regards to the hilt and his services to the team – that the clone of his sister, the skin of whom is wrapped around the hilt so Andreas can activate his powers, will be completed by the time his one year contract is up, and should he ever address him in such a tone again then he will see what remains of Andreas' sister disposed of permanently. That said, Norman tells him to get out of his office.
Moonstone is lounging in the corridors as Andreas heads to his quarters. She enquires how it went with the esteemed director. He feels like is life is now devoted purely to reviving his sister, and now that Osborn controls that he no longer feels human what with having to constantly grease his way into Normans favor lest the cloning be stopped, further mentioning how you never know which Osborn you're going to get, having seen him mere hours ago standing alone in the corridor laughing manically. Moonstone doesn't seem phased by this piece of information, on the contrary she considers it perfectly normal behavior considering the medication he's on. Intrigued, Andreas pries further. Moonstone tells of how Norman's bipolar disorder requires a large and complex mix of medications, but sometimes he actually gets placebo medication. She shoots Andreas a sly, knowing look and implies her influential ties with certain key members of the onsite staff. Should Osborn be sent to the asylum then all his more recent orders will be countered, while the older ones (such as the ones used to contract the team) will still stand, sp long as the replacement director doesn't provide an obstacle – should a more sympathetic person take office then Songbird would hold more influence than either her or Strucker. That is unless Songbird was to be fatally wounded in the field. Andreas seems hesitant, not wanting to be used as another pawn on a leash, but she assures him that she wants for him and his sister to be reunited and safely out of the country, in exchange for him helping her become the new director of the Thunderbolts.
On his reservation, Jason Strongbow (the American Eagle) is putting the finishing touches to his helmet when his friend Steve enters with bad news. It transpires that the thieves the Steel Spider stopped last night were actually Andy Bear and his crew, and now that most of them are out of E.R. they're arming up a posse to hunt the vigilante down. Steve is sure that if a fellow hero were to ask the Steel Spider to lay low and ease up on the harsh justice then the problem would dissipate quickly, before innocent people get hurt by a mob or gunned-up thugs. Jason states it isn't as easy as it sounds, seeing as he neither knows the guy, nor would be able to last within the city limits in costume without the super-cops coming down on him. Steve asks who he's trying to kid – he was working on his costume not more than two minutes ago, that there is a code of honor among most people in costume, and that he'd be saving lives (the reason for him becoming a hero) by taking the Spider out of commission. Jason takes a seat, broods for some time, and then asks for a beer.
Jillian Woods answers her phone, and is informed that the Roxxon Corporation (owners of several government contracts in the Middle East) would like to meet her for an interview about joining their security division: Roxxon Blackridge, as a security advisor. She admits that she doesn't understand what they are actually implying. The representative asks if she goes by Shadowoman or Sepulchre nowadays. Jillian asks is this has anything to do with the Registration, telling him that although she is not registered she hasn't worn the costume in years or even acted in a suspicious way. He reassures her that they are not with the Registration Act, on the contrary they are looking to bolster their security by enmploying unregistered persons. They can arrange a meeting in Phoenix tomorrow, no wire-taps, no tapes, and no strings. Her role would be to wear the costume around their business clients and stand where they are able to see an non-lethal display of her powers periodically, just to let them know her powers are active. Many clients are uneasy about working with government-registered heroes, and that is where she and her ilk come in. Tours last four months on, four months off, during which leave she has the right to travel worldwide. When she decides to move on, they will personally see to arranging a registration card so she can return to the States. Jillian agrees to take the address for the meeting and downs her wine in one.
A large image of the Steel Spider taken from security feeds last night is projected for the Thunderbolts as Norman delivers the background Intel. Since Spider-Man's return to the side of the angels (i.e. act of civil disobedience), Oliver has been "causing severe structural damage to the bones of minor criminals" throughout Phoenix over the last several weeks. Although he is not attributed with special powers, Norman warns the team that his suits arms have been out fitted with small-arms, non-lethal weaponry, in addition to the arms themselves being dangerous. Essentially, he is everything the public is afraid of: a passionate vigilante with combat skills, an arsenal and the ability to deal death and violence at a whim. His predictable patrol patterns have made him an easy target – the team is to go in the following afternoon so as to take him down in daylight in front of the public. During this rant of why people and fellow illegal heroes need to see what happens when people defy the order of things (via a public beating to set an example of them) he refers to the target as Spider-Man twice. Songbird calls him up on this, backed u by Chen (Radioactive Man). Norman gets defensive and asks why he would refer to the Steel Spider as Spider-man and demand they all shut up. Sweating profusely, Norman turns away and tries to collect himself. Andreas asks why Bullseye is not with them, only to have Osborn wheel on him and lay down how he is their safety net. Bullseye is only there to clean up the mess once things get out of hand, and that is not an option this time. They are to spend the next few hours studying "Spider-Man" and devise a battle plan. He corrects himself furtively and turns to the schematics of the Steel Spiders' arms now displayed before them, clearly shaken.
At his apartment, Oliver is putting the finishing touches to his latest arm modifications – a revolver. As the news plays out an article on Spider-Man still being at large, Oliver says that Peter shouldn't worry, because he's still here too.
The story is finally coming to ahead. After four solid issues of setting the pieces and developing the characters, the stage is set for a showdown between the Thunderbolts, the Steel Spider, and an unsuspecting Shadowoman and American Eagle. Despite a somewhat slowly paced arch, the story is well planned and concrete, allowing the readers to empathies with the heroes and understand their motives (Oliver, Jason, and Jillian) even if we knew nothing about them prior. And because they are minor characters, there is no telling what will happen to them because their ultimate fate will cause little but ripples amidst the MU, much like the fight with Jack Flag. By using these less than iconic, but equally understandable, likeable, honorable Z-listers, the Ellis has the reign to dispatch them as he sees fit, and it is because of this that we are most hooked in – we just cant predict what will happen, whereas if the Thunderbolts were to go against the New Avengers then the outcome would be fairly predictable.
The backstabbing, squabbling, self-serving and betrayal at work within the team itself is also a main driving factor in why this comic is so good. Nobody can trust the person seated next to them, meaning the team can hardly function as a coordinated unit in the field. I look forward to seeing how the final two- part fight coming up will fall apart as each member deviates from the battle plan, and chaos is bound to ensure. Easily the best team dynamic since the New Avengers.
Moonstone is easily identifiable as the central villain of the piece – instilling further problems by taking Osborn off his meds, and conscripting Swordsman to the murder of Songbird in order to facilitate her own ascent into power, in addition to her own self-centered arrogance make her an instantly dislikable character, but you cant wait for her to next rear her head to see what part of her plan she will next set in motion. Osborn is equally a delight to read, if not for his egotistic and evil nature, then because for the first time in some years he looks set to travel down the green path once again (without Stark interference [see Civil War: Front Line for more details]). Yes, Osborn is free of his medication and its subsequent effects on his psyche are already appearing, much to the confusion of some of the team. When Andreas mentioned that he saw Osborn laughing insanely in the corridor I couldn't help but feel a rush of adrenaline and anticipation (as well as a chill run down my spine for the creepy idea of it). The all-caring public facade and fatherly kindness he displays around Robbie Baldwin (albeit intersperced by occasional snaps) are a nice touch considering his back-story, and it will be interesting to see where this will lead him, but it's the truly psychotic, paranoid, Spider-Man obsessed Goblin persona that we all love the most about him.
A great fourth issue to add to a fantastic arch (to this point), which really needs to be read as a whole or in chunks I think, as newbies simply wanting action and to see certain characters will probably be disappointed if they take it one issue at a time. The art is sensational to.
Beautiful artwork to accompany a brilliant character piece that will no doubt have an impressive climax.