The final stand between Earth and the Skrulls is heading rapidly towards a climax. Heroes and villains alike have gathered at Washington DC to fend of the last waves of the alien invaders, among them and leading the charge on the Skrull invasion fleet are the Thunderbolts. With a group of journalists and cameramen conveniently standing by, Norman Osborn makes an impassioned speech for his team of rag-tag misfits to fight for their country.
Amidst the heat of battle, a journalist reports on the event as it unfolds – her top story; Norman Osborn: Earths Mightiest Hero. Catching up with Osborn as he skewers a Skull goon with the Stars-and-Stripes the reporter questions him for comment. Norman is happy to oblige, but first advises her to move back to a safe distance as the Thunderbolts, having just taken down the last of the Skrull fleet armada are in the process of "pacifying it" . From behind them the downed ship explodes with a hell-storm of fire.
The interview is now underway. The reporter asks why the Colorado based Thunderbolts responded to the call of war over the Avengers, to which Osborn is quick to undermine Tony Stark whom had S.H.I.E.L.D. fitted with Starktech technology in the aftermath of the Superhuman Registration Act Civil War. When the Skrulls compromised Starktech it allowed them easy access to Earths' defences that gave them the edge they needed by crippling any attacks thrown at them. Fortunately for everybody Tony Stark had no authority over the Thunderbolts so Norman was able to fit the team with his own (Osborn is careful to put emphasis on his patent) Oscorp Tech, so when the call to arms came he and his team were ready and in a strong position to answer it "with pride". Onscreen the report is accompanied with the summaries "Starktech Compromised" and "Oscorp Tech Safe". Teary-eyed, Osborn recounts how he'd advised the CSA against such widespread distribution of Starktech, and if he had fought harder then perhaps the invasion could have been averted – the world has only him to blame. Norman breaks down as the screen reads "CSA Ignored Osborn". Recovering, Norman allows that after seeing to the President's safety the Thunderbolts are returning to the heart of the battlefront.
Within the ravaged battleship Bullseye, Venom, Radioactive Man, Songbird, Moonstone, Swordsman and Penance are disposing of the remaining Skrull crew – by this point no more than a disorganised and panicking rabble, desperate for escape. Aboard the bridge the admiral admits the futility of the situation, reasoning that they may have lost this battle but there is no reason for a dishonourable death – he give the command and the crewmen ritualistically swallow a small capsule, causing them to collapse dead with their flesh liquidating from them with an acidic hiss. As the field leader, Songbird is questioned by Osborn what they may be up to – all she can suggest is ritual suicide, however both Osborn and Radioactive Man doubt the validity of a race of warriors committing such a shameful act of cowardice. True enough, the melting flesh from the crew begins to seep into a singular, amorphous blob of putrid green acid. The Thunderbolts hurry from the ship with the creature right behind them. Norman refuses to let the situation slip back out of his favour – luckily Songbird comes up with a plan to disrupt the cohesion of communication within its cellular structure. By blasting it with a sonic blast in tangent with an assault from Radioactive Man they manage to kill the skrull legion. Whilst Songbird and Radioactive Man are preoccupied, Moonstone takes Osborn aside and states her opinion that the friendship and shared ideals of redemption held by the two wanna-be heroes could jeopardise everything both she and Norman are striving for. Norman admits he is in agreement with her, and that he will handle the situation in due time. Radioactive man approaches them and voices that the beast was easier then expected to kill, possibly because it was merely a suicide bomber of-sorts. Handing him a congratulatory pat on the shoulder Osborn tells Radioactive Man that he ended his role in this battle in style – now it's time for him to return to Thunderbolt Mountain for medical examination. Radioactive Man is at first indignant, until Norman guilt's him into standing-down due to the number of civilians he could likely endanger is the Skrulls hit him with another radioactive weapon - Thunderbolts 124 – however, Songbird is unconvinced that there is any issue about Radioactive Mans' abilities. Despite her objections Norman shouts her down and rounds on her for being the least effective of the team against the Skrulls and that if they weren't already a man-less then he'd be sending her back to base too – this is countered by her accusations of being left to fend of the Super Skrull on her own earlier (Thunderbolts 123) Once again Osborn fobs her off, throwing her claims into insignificance by comparing her minor inconvenience against those suffering all around them. Realising she is in a loosing situation Songbird strides aboard the Zeus, mentioning in passing that this isn't the end of the conversation and should Osborns follow-up points not be to her liking then the media will get a whole new side to the story about life in Thunderbolt Mountain under his reign. Norman silently watches her walk away.
Swordsman squares up to Osborn, adamant that he remain in the fray [after Andreas was incapacitated by a traitorous Moonstone, his sister (Andrea) was killed by Bullseye in Thunderbolts 124, however the blame was pinned on the Skrulls], but Norman admits he wouldn't dream of removing such a driven soldier from the fight. The two men stare each other out for any sign of ill- content, before a satisfied Swordsman boards the Zeus. Cameras look on and the reporter from earlier capture the Thunderbolt team, having secured the nation's capital and secured the life of their President, heroically taking off for ground-zero – Manhattan – as a mass of cheering spectators applaud them.
The Zeus soars above the wreckage of New York. Skrull war ships hover forebodingly above the smouldering tower blocks as war rages on the streets below. Taking in the devastation, Moonstone seems relatively unphased – casually questioning where they should begin. In response Osborn points out a massive energy blast in Central Park, where the superheroes are squared-up against the remaining might of the Skrull armada and their queen (still in the guise of Spider-Woman). The Zeus docks, causing Spider-Man and Hawk- Eye (now dressed as Ronin) wheel around to see Norman Osborn and Venom matching towards them. There is a pause as the bitter enemies' eye each other up, until Norman breaks the tension – having his squad take point, with orders to only attack the Skrulls. Venom takes umbridge at this, indignant to let Spider-Man slip through his claws when the moment is so ripe, but Osborn will not allow his team to loose face and commands Venom to obey. Iron-Man gives the rally to arms and the two armies leap into action. Osborn finds himself standing alongside Nick Fury and remarks that he should be in jail – Fury feels the same way about Osborn. As the pair open fire the Yellow Jacket Skrull giants-up – Norman gives the order for Venom to take point and bring the Skrull down, however, Venom is too busy stalking Spider-Man to take notice, only to be caught off guards by the giants' fist as it slams him into the ground. Cursing the symbiote's stupidity Osborn calls on Bullseye, giving him express orders to take what ever he needs from the Zeus that'll allow him to kill the Super Skrull. Bullseye gleefully bounds into the ship and emerges with a rocket-launcher. Armed, Bullseye takes perch in a nearby tree and selects his target: Dare Devil and Spider-Man. Grinning wickedly he fires the missile, hitting the target dead-on: exploding in the giant Skrulls' eye and sending it toppling lifelessly to the ground. Elsewhere Iron-Man is still having troubles with his compromised armour and following a brief discussion with Thor he flies off, while a TV crew and a smug Norman Osborn watch as he retreats from battle.
In the War Room the President and his war committee watch the report as Iron- Man disappears into the horizon, causing them to speculate on how, after allowing the Skrulls to compromise world security, Tony Stark is fleeing from the mess he made. The President turns to his staff and demands that after the situation is over he wants to see Osborn personally. Back on the battlefield Norman leads the Thunderbolts to the frontline – guns blazing.
This issue takes place roughly between the second half of Secret Invasion 7 and the first half of Secret Invasion 8, and helps pull the larger strands of the Secret Invasion plotline together. As is often the case, this tie-in arch has more substance than the mini-series itself, drawing upon characters and their interpersonal relationships in order to flesh-out the larger narrative. We can see how Norman's manipulation of the media throughout the war (in addition to the prior engagement with the press 50 State Initiative installation back in Thunderbolts 110 through Thunderbolts 111) allowed him to sway popular opinion, thus sealing himself a certifiable future in the aftermath of the Skrull invasion. Some readers are quick to dismiss the Dark Reign re-structuring of the MU as unfeasible as Norman is too closely associated with the atrocities of his past to be either embraced by the public, or entrusted with power by authorities. Yet through the last 15 issues of the Thunderbolts Norman has managed to turn stigmatisation away from him and onto the meta-humans (especially Tony Stark), albeit thanks to the public now doubting former superheroes because of the Stanford incident and the subsequent civil war, and governments distrusting Stark's decisions to take control of global security (both in terms of heading S.H.I.E.L.D. and outfitting the world with Stark Tech equipment). Sure, it' implausible for a known psychopathic murderer and madman to be given the key to global security, but it does make some sense after reading this title – plus this is fictional people.
So onto the actual issue. Another well-rounded story arch that neatly ties with the main mini-series without convoluting the major story – like happened with several titles during the Civil War run. The art is up to its usual high standards, with good attention to detail on facial features and shadowing. The story is essentially just a vessel to broaden the Secret Invasion to something more global, more threatening, but for what little substance there is on offer is made up for in the continuously gripping character dynamics. What Cage is able to do so well (as did Ellis before him) is keep the characters true to their origins – that is to say, true to the developments of their characters following the story lines from the last five years; Venom, now with the amoral Mac Gargan as host, is much less calculating and acts purely on instincts – meaning its up to Osborn, with whom Gargan holds great respect for after the events of The Last Stand (Marvel Knights: Spider-Man#1-12) to keep the monster in line time after time; Bullseye is a mad dog off his leash and yet he too is honourable to Osborns requests; Osborn has secured his revenge against Tony Stark after his humiliation at his hands during the civil war (Frontline), and despite building up a team built on distrust, blackmail and bribery, Norman has the allegiance of only those he sees as beneficial to himself – choosing to keep Penance, Swordsman, Songbird and Radioactive Man in the dark on certain maters, and by manipulating the media has converted a once demonising public into an adoring fanbase. Moonstone has attempted to overthrow both her superiors at every step without falter, and Swordsman now has nothing to loose after the one reason he had to remain a part of the team has been destroyed. Penance, Radioactive Man and Songbird are the only ones desperately trying to claim redemption, and yet thanks to Osborn they are the only ones who have come away with less than what they started. With this current roster only having been around for fifteen issues, it is easy to argue that this isn't sufficient enough time for lapses in character traits, but it's the consistency between both issues and writers over these last two years that proves that the crew know what they are doing with this title.
The best plot point in this issue for me was when Radioactive Man, having stopped the Skrull suicide wave, is sent back to base on the rounds that he has the potential to wipe out the entire city if anything were to go wrong in Manhattan. Easy enough to read without taking in the bigger applications of this decision – Osborn states on numerous occasions during the arch that this is a battle for patriotism. As Dr. Chen is not American/cannot be passed as one, he is banished from any incidences which could rob America (and especially Osborn) of its mantle as the true saviours of the planet - subtle and very effective touch.
It's truly a shame that after two years the team as we know it is disbanding for bigger and brighter things, as this underground hit has been one of the best titles on the market for some considerable time. Let's hope that the upcoming team of rag-tag mercenary hit men have the same outstandingly scripted relationships and foibles as their predecessors.
With one final arch to go until the team disbands, it's good to know that after only a short run a once underappreciated title could go on to become one of Marvels top sellers. Roll on Bringing Down the House and Dark Avengers – Thunderbolts as we know them, you will be sorely missed.