Well, we just had 22 pages worth of plot, so it's only fair that we get 22 pages worth of Punching in... Blood Sports
Incidentally, the previous issue promised this one was going to be called Blood and Circuses (which would have been appropriate), the cover says KILL DERBY (which certainly got MY attention), and the interior says Blood Sports (which is literal), you can take your pick as to which is better. I know which one I'd choose.
Anyway, last time, the Thunderbolts took a good week off, after their youngest (?) member was shot and abducted at school, and taken to a secret base where he was ceaselessly tortured. And when they finally opted to go after them, that the Imperial Forces (a distant 4th for Major Thunderbolts villains), were substantially crueler than they'd expected; abducting and brainwashing people into medieval serfdom or else just using them for target practice, all for the benefit of the 1%. Furthermore, the Imperial Forces leader revealed himself as William Taurey and that the Imperial Forces are, in fact... The Secret Empire.
The Secret Empire is effectively the third branch of HYDRA, the first name of Marvels premier villainous organizations. While AIM is concerned with Mad Science based evil, and HYDRA itself is more of COBRA (but based on a different kind of serpent, and also nazi-ier), the Secret Empire is alllllll about subterfuge. They were introduced in Stan Lees first attempt at a major crossover storyline back in the '60s (it was a mess, but definitely ambitious) as a misdirect to hide the return of the seemingly destroyed HYDRA, and brought back in the 1970s when it was discovered to have been secretly run by Richard Nixon who then committed suicide and caused Cap to cease wanting to associate himself with America. They've shown up a few other times since then to a greater or lesser degree, culminating with the poorly received Secret Empire storyline from a few years ago that turned a bunch of superheroes into nazis because of Cosmic Cube nonsense.
Anyway, long and short is that this stories villain is a compatriot of Richard Milhouse Nixon, a man who Henry Kissinger described as "a madman".
And he's also not *terribly* creative as a supervillain, as his master plan here is to use giant weaponized tuning forks to murder all the poor people so that the Ultra-Wealthy can rule America and... I guess... hope that a lot of vital infrastructure takes care of itself.
Most civil engineering projects can be accomplished if you yell "FASTER, YOU FOOLS!" at a cringing henchman.
Anyhow, the Thunderbolts got suckerpunched in the last issue and have now woken up in a vast death arena, where Taurey is going to have them publicly executed for the delight of his toiling workers;
This ain't Hawkeyes first day on the job and is completely underwhelmed.
Anyway, as expected, the Secret Empires genetically mutated mini-boss squad, The Brute Force pour into the arena for a rematch against the Thunderbolts (they did very poorly last time, despite the Bolts concern) as well as a whole bunch of heavily armored shock-troops, just to make it a fair fight.
Taurey promises 10,000 credits worth of corporate scrip and a one-month long promotion to anyone who kills a Thunderbolt, which is all the incentive they need. And we then get 22 pages worth of Arena Death Fight, which the Thunderbolts keep INSISTING they're having a hard time with, even if nothing about the art implies it's anything but a victory lap for them.
Anyway, watching the attempted execution of several criminals-turned-vigilante, two teenagers, and a publicly beloved superhero, is also Citizen V, who still knows that she doesn't like
the Thunderbolts for helping tarnish her familys name, but also knows that she likes the Secret Empire a lot less for unrepentant acts of super evil, associations with Richard Milhouse Nixon, and the fact that she just watched them murder, like, two dozen people as target practice for a doomsday device. And while she *could* jump into the fray to help the lesser of two evils triumph over the greater of two evils, she instead calls in some ringers, and heads off to take care of the Shriekquencer while the entire Secret Empire is crammed into this one room.
During the fight, Hawkeye decides to take a page from Moonstones playbook, and separates one of the soldiers from the rest of the melee and tries to convince him to work along with the Thunderbolts, escape the arena and overthrow Taruey and the empire... only to be immediately
betrayed and literally stabbed in the back by aforesaid soldier the moment it became convenient to do so.
Moonstone gently reminds him to play to his strengths (shooting arrows and snarky comments) and leave psychological warfare and manipulation to the experts.
Following that, the Bolts wind up with their backs against the wall, the Brute Force and soldiers have them outnumbered... when that phone call Citizen V made earlier comes through, and charging through the wall comes...
US Agent and the Jury! Turns out that V was trying to solve all her problems at once; calling the Juries toll-free number to reveal what she said was the Thunderbolts' base, rightly counting on John and his ro-buddies to correctly identify the monarchists and their mutant murder-men as being the greater threat than the Thunderbolts, and then also arresting the Thunderbolts, as that'd what Edwin Cord, Asshole Billionaire, pays them to do. Surprisingly; Edwin Cord, noted billionaire and asshole who hates superheroes, is not associated with the Secret Empire. Genuinely did not see that coming.
Anyway, now that the Thunderbolts have been joined by a bunch of jabronis who they beat before, and easily, this existing group of jabronis they've beaten before, and easily, proves themselves to be no trouble whatsoever.
Taurey realizes his elite death squad is getting their asses handed to them, and the deadly superweapons he used to knock out the Bolts before are drastically underperforming (can't really trick Songbird with a sound-based weapon twice), and he frantically runs out of the arena to call for his own back-up from the real
leader of the Secret Empire; someone who he knows hates the Thunderbolts more than (almost) anyone else in the world...
Unfortunately, despite the dramatic reveal of his final trump card; this really does not work the way Taurey was expecting; Zemo didn't actually expect any kind of success rate from the Empire, he was just hedging his bets with supporting various megalomaniacal organizations because he respects the hustle of trying to take over the world, he has less than no loyalty to Taurey, and he has very publicly ceased caring about the Thunderbolts, even if they did betray him; he wants to focus all his hate and wrath on subjects he feels are more worthwhile. So he hangs up on Taurey without so much as a "Smell Ya Later" and tells him if he can't even handle some dweebs that Zemo doesn't care about, he really deserves to get thwarted.
Meanwhile, Dr. Hesperus Chadwick realizes that this whole Secret Empire plan is rapidly falling apart, so he goes off to grab the plans for the Shriequencer so he can flee the Cornwallis Base and start up his own Mad Science lab elsewhere... only to run into Citizen V, who gleefully informs him that she just destroyed the prototype, all the design documents and the computer files related to the weapons design... and also filled his lab with enough bombs to completely detonate the entire base.
Between Vs bombs, the severe damage that the fight in the arena is doing, and the fact that Songbird overloaded every circuit in the base reflecting the sound-blasters, Cornwallis base is soon in complete shambles; most fo the commanders attempt to escape only to be captured (Taurey has a private jet and the Bolts are too exhausted to chase him, but as he leaves he swears vengeance on the Bolts for ruining his vision of a perfect utopia and also avenging Dr. Chadwick
Hawkeye has absolutely no idea who Dr. Chadwick is; this is the first he's heard the name.
And that's about it for the Imperial Forces; the bulk of them are going to either go to jail or intensive psycho therapy for either their terrible crimes or to be unbrainwashed, depending on how culpable they were, William Taurey is going back to the bottom of the list of Major Thunderbolts Antagonists, Hawkeye is going to get a hold of Captain America to let him know to be on the lookout for Royalists and a certain little Miss Takahama is going to have some private counselling sessions with the teams resident Evil Therapist, Moonstone about why she's missing so much school.
And also, as they arrive back at their base, the Bolts are surprised to find a whole fleet of flying motorcylces that have been literally giftwrapped for them, at which point Hawkeye says "Okay, this is getting ridiculous, all superheroing is on hold until we figure out what the hell is up with thi base!"
Which will finally be answered in the finale issue of Kurt Busieks run of Thunderbolts...
Don't Call it a Come Back