Last week, Marvel and ABC announced that J. August Richards would be returning – as Deathlok – in an upcoming arc in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. And the fans rejoiced: “Yay, more J. August Richards!” Followed promptly in some quarters by, “Hey, what is a ‘Deathlok?'”
Well, that second question is a little complicated, because depending on the decade, who or what a Deathlok is changes at old Marvel HQ.
So join us as we take a look at Deathlok’s comic past and our best guesses about what that means for his future on TV.
6. When Marvel Created Robocop… In 1974!
Cast your imagination back to the year 1974: Vietnam is still churning along, Nixon’s presidency is coming to an end, and The Six Million Dollar Man presages the era of our bionic overlords. The nation is primed for a savior, one who will confront the corrupt politicians and War-Wolves bringing tarnishing this once-great nation’s name.
Enter Rick Buckler and Doug Moench’s creation, Deathlok, who made his debut in the pages of Astonishing Tales’s 25th issue during the summer of 1974. And what a debut: an injured soldier rebuilt as a cyborg in the rubble of 1990’s Detroit, he’s the second most famous kill-bot from the Motor City.
When the bulk of Luther Manning’s human bits are destroyed in combat, evil government stooge Simon Ryker crams Manning’s brain (and the surviving half of Manning’s face) into a shiny cyborg body for a new military weapons program. But before you can say “ghost in the machine,” Manning rebels, going after the evil corporate goons and military overlords who have risen to power in the early 90’s, before time travel shenanigans send him back to the then-present, because how else are you going to have him team up with the Thing?
Like Officer Murphy, Deathlok would struggle to keep the human parts of his personality alive, even as the lure of being a shiny, metal kill-monster was constantly tugging at his cybernetic half-brain. And also like Officer Murphy, poor Deathlok just wanted to be reunited with his family, and like Officer Murphy, 2014 will see Deathlok probably get some ill-advised visual reinvention that purists will complain about while everyone else kind of shrugs.
And with that, you now know everything there is to know about Deathlok.
5. Except for the Part Where Deathlok Has Been a Lot of Other Dead Guys
Deathlok has had more reboots and reinventions than Terry Bollea. And like the Hulkster, Deathlok’s next phase began in the 1990s when a once-good man became a hideous monster thanks to sinister corporate manipulations, only to return time and again in new and baffling incarnations.
In 1990, Marvel brought Deathlok back as pacifist-turned-murder-machine Michael Collins in the pages of the character’s new ongoing, Deathlok. The late, great Dwayne McDuffie wrote the character’s reintroduction into the mainstream Marvel U, this time using the fictional conglomerate Roxxon as the heavies who thought it was a good idea to use a person antagonistic to everything they stand for in a nigh-invulnerable cyborg body.
Collins would truck along for several years in the Deathlok identity before regaining his body, but he wasn’t the last character to carry the mantle (or half-face death machine design). Jack Truman, Larry Young, Jack Kelly, and a short-lived The Thing With Two Brains were at some point versions of Deathlok, and more broadly as some variation of the Project Deathlok concept, which alternately saw the creation of brainless cyborg assassins occur both in the present and expanded in the future of the Marvel U.
Now here’s where things could get weird, interesting, or interestingly weird for Deathlok on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
4. “Project: Deathlok” Is a Terrible Idea That Makes for Great Stories
We know J. August Richards’ character Michael Peterson will somehow be transformed into Deathlok in a future episode of ABC’s series about how black science resurrected a bureaucrat from the Marvel movies. Which likely means that the character’s introduction will be both interminably teased as well as mind-numbingly dull when it finally occurs, likely under the auspices of not-A.I.M. heavies, Centipede.
But it has the potential to be so much more.
In all likelihood, the AoS writers will introduce Peterson as some iteration of the Project Deathlok program, potentially sending him after our Gap ad-ready team at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ (although the the spy organization has been responsible for its own Deathloks in the past). And it’s similarly likely that the character’s struggle to maintain his humanity and not re-kill Clark Gregg will form the backbone of most stories involving the Petersonlok.
But oh, man, what if they introduced Project: Deathlok?
While broadly used in the Marvel U to describe the various corporate programs which ended up creating the cyborgs that set out to destroy them, one of the more compelling recent versions of the program saw Deathloks being mass-produced from the corpses of fallen soldiers, back when Norman Osborn was legally appointed as the head of the world’s most dangerous spy organization.
Besides worrying about Peterson’s zombie half-face zombie trying to murder the good guys, could we see multiple zombie half-face cyborgs running around Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Could the introduction of the impending cyborg murderpocalypse be the way to keep the series afloat as a visually interesting and topical source of cannon fodder (as well as some easy monsters of the week)?
More importantly, what if the show’s writers manage to create in Deathlok a character that people actually care about, on a show with a definite lack of those very things?
3. The Vision Connection
Introducing Deathlok in this way also works as perhaps an interesting thematic tie to 2016’s The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron: namely, a nice, meaty artificial intelligence run amok story with the benefit of introducing something like Vision to the shared TV/film universe.
For those of you unfamiliar with Vision, he was the android version of Martian Manhunter with a dash of Red Tornado, who would become a mainstay of the Avengers, husband to the Scarlet Witch, and frequent resident of the scrap heap. More importantly, he was also the franchise’s take on the great sci-fi question: what makes us human?
It’s not unreasonable to expect the AoS writers taking a page from some of Vision’s greatest hits, as he fought a long-running battle to maintain his humanity while under the control of his programming. That’s grist for some excellent, fundamental science fiction stuff there, plus our poor hero, Michael Peterson may, even on the side of the angels, offer the threat of reverting to the dark side thanks to very evil, very persistent programming.
So here, the writers of the story-challenged show have the opportunity for some meaty plotting… only to find out that to use it could hose them from the start like so many cyborg-feeding station nozzles.
2. Because Here’s Where Things Could Get Dumb…
Or less dumb and more… easy and repetitive as we may have to suffer through an arc reintroducing Michael Peterson’s issues and stuff. Again.
For those of you who suffered through the AoS pilot, you’ll recall that Peterson was an accidental superhero, thanks to a secret initiative by the Centipede science goons to create on-demand human weapons. That episode saw Richards’ character struggling with his new, potentially volatile powers as well as spiking rage levels, ultimately giving us the climactic first act where our heroes… attempt to reason with the heavy?
Anyway, it would not be a major surprise if Peterson-as-Deathlok played out more or less the same arc when it’s written into the series: numerous scenes of Richards trying his earnest hardest to be a decent guy while his poorly-CG’d powers cause him to run amok. It’s all too easy to imagine that storyline resurfacing and potentially frustrating given how this is less a character-based story and more plot-based (ultimately kind of throwing the character under the bus).
Reusing Peterson for this particular arc will yet again foist a story upon the character where’s he’s unwittingly turned into a villain and caught in a struggle for his own good, inner nature. And we’ve already seen the character win that battle, and unlike with Hulk Hogan’s “Hollywood” phase, we already know it’s just a matter of time before our hero does a face turn, thus stripping any potential plot of dramatic heft.
Which is why the character needs a broader canvas than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with another civilian identity.
1. Enter: The Deathlok Movie?! Or, Claws of the Wolverlok!
Let’s set the scene: somewhere in the sewers of New York, Captain America hurls his shield at a trying–very-hard-to-kill him Deathlok, only for the would-be assassin to take a flying disc of patriotism to the top lip. As Deathlok falls to the ground, from the shadows emerge… another Deathlok! And another! And another! Until Cap is surrounded, making a final, futile stand against his assassins, before meeting his heroic end.
And so it goes for Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and whatever other characters aren’t under the control of FOX and Sony.
This was the basis of a recent arc of Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, which saw Deathlok kill-squads eliminating Earth’s superheroes and helping usher in a utopia before being hurled back into the past to wipe out the one superhero who could thwart their mission. And among, them, one lone unit regains his conscience, joining our present-day heroes in defeating the wave of killers and restoring a less-than-perfect, but free timeline.
Ladies and gentlemen, here we have the rough sketch of what could be a great future Deathlok film (as well as a way to get Marvel’s first hero of color headlining the latest wave of movies based on their properties). With a dash of Terminator and an extra helping of Robocop, a film based on the Deathlok mini-invasion would be the perfect bridge between the Marvel Cinematic U and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (if it, you know, lasts that long).
Hell, if his rights weren’t tied up in the Marvel/Disney movies, he could somehow make an appearance in the forthcoming X-Force movie out of FOX, serving as the Rosetta Stone that unites the two cinematic universes, so that the Avengers and Also Wolverine movie we’ve all been secretly wanting actually happens.
In the meantime, we’ll have to content ourselves with whatever generic flavor of Deathlok we ultimately get in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: one which probably won’t have nearly as much zombie face as we all clearly want.
Previously by Charles Webb: