Having spent years underground with hiding espionage sleeper agents among the superheroes and governments around the world, the Skrulls have finally unleashed their intent of war upon the Marvel Universe. Recovering from the emotional and psychological damage inflicted upon them during their latest conflict, the Thunderbolts are even less trusting of each other than they were prior, in particular the already tense relationship between Swordsman and Norman Osborn. Unexpectedly, Swordsmans' formally dead sister Andrea, whom he had sought to resurrect through dealings with Osborn and Arnim Zola, has returned right at the dawn of the Skrull-Earth war, casting obvious suspicions on her true identity. To make matters worst, Captain Marvel has also suddenly returned from the grave with a severe identity crisis. Bursting through Thunderbolt Mountain and incapacitating the Thunderbolts he finds Osborn waiting for him, drinks in hand, and ready to talk.
The Thunderbolts lie unconscious in the remnants of Osborns' office as Norman informs Captain Marvel that he knows a thing or two about hearing voices with individual desires in his head, as well as not being sure if his real identity is "really pink...or green" – the only person that can discern who he truly is himself. Norman casts an eye at his fallen comrades and voices his suspicions that although he believes that this Skrull was sent to kill them all, he knows that as a Skrull implanted with the memories of Mar-Vell can't. He asks the Skrull if the Mar-Vell from was a conscious decision on his part or if it was assigned for him – the Skrull concedes it was the latter, the question clearly invoking strong doubt within him as he has powered down and become solemn in reflection. Maintaining the upper hand, Norman wheedles what further information he can from the intruder, such as if he was a sleeper agent made to believe he was Captain Marvel and if he knew why he was here until the attack order was given – did he believe he was the Mar-Vell. The Skrull, emotionally broken and tearful confirms that this is true. Norman tells the Skrull that he is sorry for what he has gone through – must still be going through, and with that the Skrull takes off into space. By this time a Thunderbolt response team has arrived at the scene and inquire what's happened. Informing them that they'd know they were under attack if the base had been outfitted with Oscorp communications rather than Starktech, Osborn gives the order to revive the team, find Venom (who was flung from the mountain upon Mar-Vells' arrival) and to prepare the Zeus for launch. Should anyone do anything suspicious the guards have their orders to shoot them on sight – They are at war.
Aboard the Zeus, bound for Washington D.C., Norman briefs the team on the situation at hand – that the earth is under attack from invisible enemies and that a majority of first unit responders have been crippled because of their dependence on Starktech equipment (which has been fully compromised by the invading aliens). Should any one member of the let down the team in any way then they will be killed personally by Osborn. Swordsman and Andrea have a brief aside on how glorious it is to be joined in battle once more, allowing Moonstone to approach Osborn and instigate that Andreas's appearance at this time is highly dubious – Norman snidely concurs that the thought was not above him – and questions as to why he hasn't killed her yet. Norman points out that having crucified Andreas against a wall during his Goblin episode the other day, Norman doubts even his sister changing back into Skrull form upon her death would do little to prevent Swordsmans' fragile mind from snapping – it's not worth the potential damage he could wreck. Moonstone is given her orders to tail Andrea to determine how she is communicating with her Skrull superiors and locate them. Once that's done she is to kill the Judas Goat in front of her adoring 'brother' and use her psychic training to direct his rage at the Skrulls. If she doesn't convert into her true form then she'll just have to kill Andreas to. The pilot announces thirty seconds to the drop point and Norman address his team on their one advantage over the other superhero groups – they already distrust each other so they should have no trouble in taking out any team mate acting suspiciously, with good reasons or they will be perceived to be a Skrull themselves and killed. That said, he grabs a rifle and states it's their turn to show the bureaucrats what they can do when they get out of their way. Songbird and Moonstone take flight. Chaos is rife all over the city as Skrull dreadnoughts reduce buildings and the military to rubble and smouldering wreckage. Penance and Osborn look into the remnants of the capital; people run in fear and the dead pile up all around them. This sight causes Penance so much grief and pain that he unleashes a blast that cripples an enemy ship. The Zeus and Moonstone swoop in to finish the job, sending it spiralling to the ground as a camera crew captures the whole affair, filming Norman as he gives the order for Songbird to ensure the ship lands in the river. The Skrulls have already reacted to the unforeseen assault and have raised their shields to full power. Thinking on his feet, Norman orders the team to concentrate their fire on the same spot and ploughs the Zeus at ramming speed right into the heart of the oncoming vessel. The Thunderbolts infiltrate the ship in order to capture as many prisoners as they can so Osborn can discover every aspect of their plans – however Venom and Bullseye are to not hold back and promptly begin their assault on the Skrull armada. Andrea leads her brother away from the rest of the team, saying she does not feel safe around them, with Moonstone stealthily in tow.
The fleet captain of the Skrull ship voices that the presence of the Thunderbolts means that their Mar-Vell either fell or turned traitor, which would hardly be surprising given he was given the guise of a Kree. The mother ship has already analysed their collective weaknesses and has dispatched the appropriate help in the form of two gigantic Super-Skrulls. On of the pair, composed of Songbirds and Atlas's (the Thunderbolts original Giant Man) combined powers targets Songbird and throws her into the Washington Monument – she raises a force field just in time, but the shock still sends her falling. The second Super-Skrull tares through the infiltrated Skrull dreadnaught and slams Venom right through the deck, sending them both tumbling to earth. Venom quickly recovers but the Skrull is hiding amongst the gathered crowd, not that this is going to stop the symbiote as he descends upon the onlookers indiscriminately. Back aboard the dreadnaught the Skrull captain orders the images of Venom to be broadcast as soon as he starts killing the innocent people, however he is interrupted by the emergence of Swordsman and Andrea who demand he surrender. A blast from behind knocks-out Swordsman and Moonstone approaches the Skrulls enquiring what they can offer her to switch sides – South America would be a good start.
In the bowls of the ship, Bullseye has taken out both the Skrull warriors and his armed escorts, stating that things are about to get a lot more interesting. Elsewhere Radioactive Man and Penance are holding their own against the retaliation forces. Radioactive Man jeers that their use of radioactive weaponry against him are to no effect, when suddenly the radioactivity within him begins a critical mass reaction. He pleads for Penance to get his back to the Zeus before he takes out the entire city, but Penance is having troubles of his own – the Skrulls have launched a psychic attack, causing him to envision the zombified victims of Stamford. Norman is now completely alone in the battle. A familiar voice behind him makes him break out in a panic and eight Spider-Men in various famous guises of his costume fill the corridor mocking him. One speaks up that they exposed him once as a psychotic murderer and they'll easily do it again. Osborn breaks down in a fit of manic laughter.
Mainstream (as Thunderbolts now is) spin-offs to limited series story arches are usually, with a few exceptions, something to avoid as they add little to the main proceedings other than perhaps some minor depth to the individual characters and teams concerned. Secret Invasion has been no less reserved than those major series before it (although certainly less so that the all consuming Civil War machine), but because of various reasons such as the X-men Divided We Stand migration and the Brand New Day crisis of Amazing Spider-Man (that has prevent Spidey being used anywhere else outside of this little world other than the New Avengers – again with some minor backlash to fit both stories coherently), the use of other comics to tell the broader story outside of the main mini-series has been sidelined to three 'essential' titles; Mighty Avengers; New Avengers and Thunderbolts (feel free to argue if you think this isn't the case). To my pleasant surprise this tie-in is very good and helps flesh out the war of the Skrulls, which is too epic to contain within just one title. Thunderbolts #123 doesn't feel force and slots into the central storyline very comfortably. We also get a gimps look inside the workings of the Skrull armada via the captain of the fleet-ship of this issue. In essence this is an essential read for anyone currently following Secret Invasion.
The teams mistrust and general dislike for each other is taken to a new level of enjoyment for the reader as it is their only advantage over the Skrulls, as no members (Songbird and Radioactive Man, and possibly Penance) will hold back if they even suspect another member of foul play. This issue is rife with highlights, as is becoming a custom of this title; Venom and Bullseye gleefully being given permission to finally vent the malicious monsters inside them; Norman suiting up for war and leading the team competently into battle, finally able to take full control over them first hand – and doing it competently; the Skrulls manipulation of Penance, Venom, Osborn (a great revel on the last page) and Radioactive Man; Bullseye killing his keepers and disappearing off for yet unknown deeds...I could go on. Never does the issue feel forced or struggle to hold its own, it maintains its high octane enjoyment throughout. I doubt the reasons behind the use of the Thunderbolts title as a main driving force in Secret Invasion is for naught, and that the team and title are about to truly come into their own.
A new team has taken over the title during the course of the Secret Invasion, both art and writing. I did initially fret that with Ellis absent for four issues, the title would loose its edge and impact – turning into just another short-lived piece of excellence. This is however, not the case here. Gaga clearly understands the characters and their relationships, and where Ellis was going with each one. As such it doesn't read like a different author has taken over writing duties and remains every bit as enjoyable as Ellis' work. The art work my be slightly less dark and gritty as Deodatos' in previous issues, but this is just a minor gripe as I was so taken with his style. Blanco does a superb job in illustrating the action, cast and backgrounds.
A limited series tie-in that doesn't disappoint, this is a highly recommended read for anybody whether they are reading Secret Invasion or not.