Stop Trying To Make Deathstroke The Terminator Happen
Over the past few years, Deathstroke the Terminator has become something of a go-to villain for DC comics. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s one of the most prominent DC characters in media outside of comics. Since appearing as Slade in Teen Titans, we’ve seen that guy on TV shows with Smallville and Arrow, in video games with Arkham Origins and Injustice, and just recently, it was announced that he’s been thrown into the animated adaptation of Batman & Son, a story that already had Ra’s al-Ghul, Talia and ninja man-bats — and that’s even if you cut out the part where Darkseid uses time-rays that he shoots out of his eyes to send Batman back to caveman days, which is understandable if you’re trying to fit something into an 80-minute Cartoon Network time slot.
Point being, we’re living in a time when Deathstroke has risen to become one of DC’s most prominent villains, and arguably one of their most popular characters, but every time I see him, I just can’t get my mind around how exactly that happened — and more importantly, why it keeps on happening.
On one level, there are a few really solid reasons for the character’s continued popularity, and the first one has to do with how and when he was introduced. The Terminator first appeared as one of the major villains of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans, one of the most influential and well-regarded comics of all time. I’ve gone into this before — and voiced my opinion that NTT is just an ersatz X-Men that doesn’t really hold up to the competition — but it’s more than fair to say that it was the book that brought DC into the Modern Age. There’s a reason Wolfman and Perez were given the job rebuilding the DC Universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it’s entirely based on the game-changing popularity of New Teen Titans.
And Deathstroke was right at the center of that. While villains like Brother Blood and the HIVE have stuck around, nobody has enjoyed the popularity that Deathstroke garnered by being the focal point of The Judas Contract, one of the most highly regarded stories of the decade. It cemented him as a fixture of the universe in the way that all great villains rise to prominence: It made him the bad guy who almost won, and inflicted the kind of damage on the team that doesn’t go away when the next storyline starts, giving him a devious, calculated and emotionally vicious quality that added a lot to his character. It made him the focal point of the entire series, and in the years since we’ve seen huge story arcs that revolve entirely around Deathstroke and his family. In short, it made him a big deal.
It also came at exactly the right time for a fan-favorite bad guy whose chief quality was amorality and a desire for revenge to make the transition from super-villain to antihero. It was, after all, a time dominated by the gritty, ruthless protagonist, the heyday of the Punisher and the Suicide Squad, and ol’ one-eyed Slade Wilson was right in there with the rest of them. They even got Mike Zeck, the artist of the first Punisher mini-series (and plenty of other amazing stuff), to do covers just in case readers missed the hint.
All of that roots him in a time when modern storytelling was really cranking up, and you can trace his current prominence in DC’s mass media straight back to that first rise to prominence in comics. It’s a constant reminder of how much they’re still building on those influential building blocks, with creators who came up as fans when those books were coming out.
The second reason is that Deathstroke fills a role in the DC Universe that very few other characters can. He’s the bad guy version of Batman.
This, of course, is a role that other characters have played at various times, from Killer Moth to the Wrath to Prometheus, but most of them are too tied into Batman himself to really work on the kind of scale that Deathstroke does. The one who comes closest is Prometheus, largely because he was introduced as a villain for the whole Justice League and later filled the “Anti-Batman” spot on Lex Luthor’s team of opposites, but when your origin involves criminal parents who get gunned down by cops on the same day of the Wayne murders, there’s no real way of getting out from Batman’s shadow.
Deathstroke, even though he’s pretty intricately linked to Dick Grayson and the rest of the Titans with a lot of well-trodden history, doesn’t suffer from that nearly as much as the others. It might be a function of having his own ongoing series or the idea that the mercenary nature of his character lends itself well to popping up against different opponents, but it’s given him the kind of adaptability that makes a character useful as a threatening enemy for a whole universe. The key factor, though, is that unlike a lot of supervillains, his origin story isn’t tied to a particular hero. He has no motivating clash with a hero, and that gives him a freedom that’s hard to find with most characters who spend most of their time as antagonists.
As a result, he fits the Evil Batman role pretty well. He’s established as a master tactician and a supremely talented fighter, ruthless in his pursuit of foes in the same way that Batman is, just on the wrong side of the law, with a lot more guns and a lot less depth perception. In the same way that Lex Luthor is in many ways the opposite of Superman — manipulative, hateful, jealous and devoid of humanity regardless of his home planet — Deathstroke has that great contrast with Batman, a murderer motivated purely by greed set against a selfless man who doesn’t kill. The dude even had his own English butler, for Pete’s sake, with a name that was somehow every bit as silly as “Pennyworth.”
It was Wintergreen, incidentally. Like the chewing gum.
Given those two ideas, it’s easy to see why Deathstroke seems to crop up a lot in projects like Arkham Origins and Batman & Son, and even Arrow, a show that tries its darnedest to cast Oliver Queen as Bruce Wayne on a TV budget. But at the same time, as obvious a choice as he is for a prime spot, his status as a go-to villain still mystifies me every time he shows up.
Part of it is that, as the link above shows, I’m not a huge New Teen Titans fan. The foundation of Deathstroke’s ultimate badass status leaves me cold, and when you look at it from the perspective of someone who isn’t quite taken with the story, he doesn’t seem like a badass at all. As CA’s Caleb Goellner so bluntly put it in a conversation I had with him the other day, The Judas Contract is the story of a grown-ass man who can’t beat up a bunch of teenagers, so he has sex with an underage girl and sends her to do it instead. Uh, spoiler warning for 1984’s biggest twist, I guess.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that they’re just trying too hard. The connection to Batman has been made abundantly clear on multiple occasions, and every time it’s so laborious that I can’t help but roll my eyes. Wolfman and Steve Erwin started the trend way back in 1990’s Deathstroke #6, in a scene where Deathstroke treats Batman like the proverbial redheaded stepchild of a government mule:
It’s not a “bad” comic by any means, but its a pretty cheap way to get heat for Deathstroke but having him put a relatively effortless beatdown on Batman at the height of his post Frank Miller unstoppable fighting machine period. Believe it or not, I like to see Batman get taken down by an opponent as much as anybody because that’s what makes it easy to believe the stakes of his adventures even when you know intellectually that he’s never really going to lose because that’s not what protagonists do, but this fight veers hard into a blunt assertion to the reader that Deathstroke is mega-rad to the max, without letting it build organically.
It’s the easy way to create shorthand for “super badass.” In fact, it’s so easy that all it requires is typing
JIMMY OLSEN jumpkicks Batman, whose hands do that shaky thing Jim Aparo always drew when someone was getting knocked out.
Jimmy looms over Batman, cold stomping him on the face. Batman is barely able to get a sentence out before he passes out cold and one of his Batman ears has broken off, and he’s also crying like a little baby.
BATMAN: Jimmy Olsen you are truly my physical superior in every way…*
JIMMY OLSEN: Karate class, motherf**ker!
and then waiting for someone to draw that, and then wait for someone else throw it into a listicle of Batman’s most hubris-fueled defeats, or post it on Tumblr as proof against the infallibility of the Bat-God, as though comic books are documentaries of facts and not stories told by actual people.
It’s not that it’s disingenuous, but it is over-the-top in a way that can’t help but underline Deathstroke’s inherent action-figure silliness. He’s a guy with a sword and a gun and a staff and one eye and a luchador mask and armor and belt pouches and he uses a whole 90% of his brain, which means that it’s only 10% less than the rest of us and his name is DEATHSTROKE THE TERMINATOR. He’s a Rob Liefeld character that predates Rob Liefeld, and while I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing — I actually kind of love the Rob’s take on the character, and the scene where Deathstroke reaches into his pocket and pulls out a framed 8×10 of his dead wife is maybe the single best thing that happened in the New 52 until Batman started riding around on a steam-powered dirtbike — it does sort of undercut that gritty, serious tone they’re going for.
Speaking of the New 52, I actually thought that the way Kyle Higgins and Joe Bennett reintroduced Deathstroke in their first issue was actually a really solid way to rebuild the character. It had those same elements — ruthlessness, skill, a character actually saying the words “he’s a major damn badass,” a hilariously massive He-Man sword — in a way that didn’t quite seem so forced while retaining the brutality.
But then there’s Identity Crisis.
Identity Crisis is garbage for a lot of reasons, but the scene where Deathstroke beats up the whole entire Justice League all by himself is where it crosses over from infuriating self-parody to hilarious self-parody. It’s so fanfic that I’m surprised Goku didn’t show up to get stabbed at the end while the guys from Supernatural made out in the background.
And when you get right down to it, that’s the problem. The Deathstroke of Identity Crisis, the character who succeeded where Deadpool failed at becoming a parody of the Deathstroke of New Teen Titans, is really the root of the guy who’s showing up in all this stuff today. That’s the reason he’s so hard to get excited about, because every time we see him it’s the same story of everyone telling us how we’re supposed to feel about him, because they need him in that role. He’s been pounded with a hammer to fit it, and the unavoidable reaction is that I just don’t care anymore.
But maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe the scenes where Deathstroke beats up Batman and is fast enough to stab the Flash are just as valid in defining a character as the ones where Captain America stands up to Thanos or Superman talks someone out of committing suicide. He’s certainly not the only person who’s ever been defined by shorthand. But even so, doesn’t his prominence still put him in danger of being played out in the same way that Superman hasn’t been able to get away from fighting General Zod for the past 30 years? Doesn’t it limit his appeal just by diluting it? I’d argue that even at best, that’s exactly what Deathstroke’s done over the past decade.
And my solution? Easy. Replace him with Jimmy Olsen. I hear that dude’s been taking karate.
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