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Friday, September 2, 2016

Panel Vision - History of Deathstroke: A Plea Against Modern Deathstroke

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Edited by Robert Beach 

It’s starting to look like the DC villain Deathstroke will appear in next year’s Justice League and will more than likely be the villain of Ben Affleck’s solo Batman film.  I’ve been hesitant to address this news because, frankly, I’ve been holding out the hope that it was all some elaborate misdirection meant to obfuscate the real villain being Clock King, Dr. Destiny, or someone else, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. If that bit of misplaced optimism wasn’t an obvious enough giveaway, I’m not terribly excited over this Deathstroke news. I get the sense I’m an outsider in this particular arena. 

Most Bat fans are salivating at the notion of Deathstroke making his second live-action debut while a good number of more moderate comic fans are happy to see their favorite Teen Titans villain make it to the big time. Even some older fans out there are happy to see Deathstroke’s return to culture prominence. To understand this along with the character’s future, we need to look at his past, so let’s dive into the history of Deathstroke to see why I’m the only one not thrilled about his adaptation. 

The best way to understand Deathstroke is that he’s a blend of Captain America and Batman as an amoral mercenary. He first popped up in the pages of Teen Titans during the epic Marv Wolfman/George Perez run that defined the team as we know them in popular culture.  This is the era of folks where Cyborg, Raven, and Starfire arrive as mainstays of the team. 

He was drawn into the team’s orbit when his son Grant got super powers and adopted the name Ravager to fight the team. At the time, Deathstroke was a random badass character. Established as a major threat, he could conceivably hold his own against the Titans, though it took a significant effort from him. Deathstroke remained one note as readers didn’t know anything about him as a character. 

Later, it was revealed his real name was Slade, though he also goes by "the Terminator," making all 3 of his names synonyms for “kill somebody.” This is the era where he came into his own as part Batman, part Captain America. It was revealed Slade Wilson had joined the US Army young and become a master of all forms of combat and warfare, even rescued an SAS officer named Wintergreen who became his butler.  

Later, Slade added a dash of Cap when he signed up for a secret experiment to give him enhanced physical abilities. The experiment worked, and in the wake of its success, Slade chose to go solo, becoming a deadly globetrotting mercenary. 

Going back to Slade’s kid Grant, his children becoming ill-fated costumed characters has always been a big part of his mythos. Grant was killed in his fight with the Titans. Slade’s younger son Joseph, who’d been rendered mute by a super villain, briefly became the superhero Jericho before later going crazy and trying to blow up the President.  

Even his daughter, Rose Wilson, succumbed to the family curse. She briefly reformed as the anti-hero Ravager before slipping right back into the family business as a killer in her own right, even gouging out her eye to be more like her dad. 

The main reason Slade got big as a villain was through his follow-up appearance in Teen Titans in a beloved story called ‘Judas Contract.’ This is where Slade convinced the Titans’ recent ally Terra to betray the team for him. It’s a well-told story with big emotions and big stakes that have made it a cornerstone of Titans mythology similar to the Dark Phoenix Saga or Days of Future Past for the X-Men.  

From then on, Deathstroke became a key element of their mythos, appearing again in Titans Plague and Titans Hunt before getting his own comic. I’ve heard from a lot of older fans the 1990 Deathstroke book is a sharp blend of character, action, and politics similar to John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad run with elements of Breaking Bad. 

Everything I just described of Deathstroke's comprises his history before my time in comics, as well as influencing the version of the character from Teen Titans the animated series. When I started seriously reading books in the mid-2000s, the character underwent a radical shift in tone and structure that even managed to alienate hardcore fans. It all started in 2004 with the event comic Identity Crisis.  

I don’t have the full time to devote to Identity Crisis’s many garbage elements, but Deathstroke’s role in the comic is unforgivable in that category. He shows up at the midpoint to defend murderer and rapist Doctor Light, which is already out of character. He then manages to beat the entire Justice League without breaking a sweat. It’s an incredibly contrived moment that rings false, especially when he’s able to “override” Green Lantern’s ring through narrative hand-waving. 

This scene sets the tone for Deathstroke from that point up to about now. In a major way, it ended up the precursor to something I’ve come to call "Batmania," the cultist fan obsession with Batman from 2008 to 2011 that focused on the fantasy of Batman as a character that’s rich enough to hurt anyone and damaged enough to excuse that behavior.  

I may dedicate a full piece to Batmania at a later date, but Deathstroke became the villain side of that obsession. In this era, Slade was revamped from a shitty dad super mercenary with a moral compass to a straight evil Batman riff. His super powers were radically downplayed; the amount of work he had to take on heroes was minimized, and all writers played up the idea that he could kill anyone so long as he had “time to plan.” 

This was the era I knew Deathstroke. Most notably, the story where he formed a team of villainous Teen Titans of his own, he succumbed to the fan conception of him as evil Batman pretty completely. It’s an insufferable era that has all the flaws of Bat fandom of the time, magnified by the morality switch.  

At least in Batman’s case, you could make the argument that having him beat anyone is part of the story of the human spirit. With Slade, that just isn’t the case. His ability to wiggle his pinky finger and completely negate any super powers like Batman is part of fandom’s obsession with punishing the parts of the superhero mythos that don’t conform to the dark and gritty faux-mature aesthetic that informed the preferred version of Batman from 2008-2011.

That particular obsessive part of fandom started to decay with the release of Dark Knight Rises and the failure of Beware the Batman, even though the ill-fated Batman CGI show featured Deathstroke as a major antagonist.  Still, there have been new standard-bearers for the toxic fandom of Batmania like the Arkham Origins and Arkham Knight video games, which prominently featured Deathstroke. Most recently, there was Batman v. Superman, which was all about punishing Superman for the crime of not being Batman. 

That’s the big reason why I’m not psyched about Deathstroke being in the new Batman movie. I don’t like what he’s been made to stand for. There was, at one time, an interesting character in Deathstroke, yet he’s been smothered under the layers and layers of sophomoric obsession with showing that comics are serious.

Making Deathstroke and Batman these twin insurmountable forces that can destroy anything that isn’t equally dark and brooding is the wrong approach, both for the characters and the DCEU overall. It cuts right to the heart of the DCEU’s biggest problem: it demands the trappings of maturity for the adult respect without offering the depth and content of truly adult storytelling. Still, maybe there’s a third act waiting in the wings. The current Deathstroke ongoing comic has taken some major steps to revamp the character, and his role on Arrow also took steps to distance him from the recent version of the character. 

What’s more, Ben Affleck is certainly capable of creating well-written films with interesting characters, so maybe his take on Deathstroke will be more nuanced and imaginative. If this is just set-up for the ultra dark, ultra deadly “I can murder the Justice League, but some rich boy in a bat suit is too much for me” version of Deathstroke, it seems like WB is committed to more of the same mistakes.    

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