Deathlok

When they look at your favorite character, they don’t think of cool designs and/or powers— they think of that all-important male 18 to 34-year-old market demographic. That Holy Grail of modern marketing that makes studio executives go weak in the knees. Based on this, it seems odd that a lesser character would be seriously considered for the big screen treatment. After reading the script, the choice seems odder yet. Does it workr

The script jettisons a great deal of the comic book character’s storyline and design. In the comic, Deathlok was Colonel Luther Manning, a soldier badly injured in combat who then volunteered for an experimental program that replaced much of his body with robotic parts. Not quite human any longer, Manning becomes an unwilling pawn to various agencies. Think of the “Six Million Dollar Man” crossed with the original “Terminator.” There were actually four different versions of Deathlok, but this involves time travel and considerable tinkering with character, which I won’t even try to sort out here.

This script is a very loose adaptation of the comic. What remains is Luther’s name, the name of the antagonist, the cyborg aspect and the theme of self-determination. Everything else goes into the trashcan. “Deathlok” purists, assuming there is such a thing, will be disappointed. In fact, apart from the title page, the name Deathlok appears only once in the script, and that is a note from the writer’s acknowledging a moment as being a nod to the comic.

Now here is the shocker: These changes are all for the best. What the screenwriters do really well here is take the core of the character and start from scratch with a new story. Unlike many other superhero adaptations, they don’t rush through the origin story to get to another story in which the superhero slugs it out with a supervillain who has conveniently arrived on the scene. This script is entirely the origin story and a new one at that.

Luther Manning is a corporate trainer, married to a woman with a son from a previous marriage. After he gets a big promotion at work, they go out to celebrate. But the evening ends badly when they are involved in a bad car accident. Luther suffers horrible dreams and wakes in a hospital. He is discharged shortly, but isn’t quite himself. He is having terrible pains, weird lumps form under his skin and his hearing seems to becoming hypersensitive. Frightened, he heads back to the hospital to see the doctor who treated him. The hospital has no idea who this doctor is and has no record of Luther being a patient. Paranoia quickly starts to set in with Luther.

What has happened is that the crash was no accident. A secret government agency deliberately crashed into Luther so that they could use him as a guinea pig in their nanotechnology experiments. The agency has been testing this project on volunteers from the military but wants to know what happens to a normal man. The nanotechnology basically starts to rebuild Luther from the inside out. He now has a computer wired into his brain, liquid metal armor that can appear when needed, greatly improved vision and hearing and the ability to generate weapons pretty much out of thin air.

The man behind this project is called Modok. In the comics, Modok is a major villain, a guy who is basically all head, with a tiny body. He used high-tech toys to let him float around rather than walk. It no doubt saved him from toppling over from the weight all the time. You just can’t be taken seriously as a villain if you’re incessantly falling on your face, of course. In the script, he’s a normal man, brilliant and very much the architect of everything that happens to Luther. At least at the start of the script.

I’m still very much surprised at how I enjoyed this script. The Deathlok character was one that really never interested me much and judging by the fairly short run of the comic book solely focusing on the character, no one else clicked with him either. But by throwing out virtually everything but the basic premise, screenwriters Metzner and Zicherman are able to create an involving story. The key is Luther. They really take their time and develop him as a character. He’s a hardworking guy who wants nothing more than to make his family happy, as far from a soldier as you could imagine. So when this process starts to take over his body, he has no idea what to do. He really has to try and figure out how to work with the computer now sharing his skull to make something of all his new abilities. Then, with the character firmly established, it becomes clear that the process could overwhelm Luther’s mind, turning him into a soulless automaton. Making us care about Luther adds all the needed weight to this predicament, sucking the reader right in. Most superhero movies are uncomfortable stories, trying to mix too many elements while trying not to offend fans and simultaneously attract non-fans, the mainstream audience. “Deathlok” neatly sidesteps all this. because it isn’t a hugely popular character, making wholesale changes to the story is more palatable. There aren’t legions of fans working themselves into a lather over something like organic webshooters.

The script also makes a real attempt to ground this idea in reality. It leans on the emerging technology of nanotechnology to make the story seems somewhat reasonable, but then it imposes limits on Luther. There are limits to resources and energy and Luther has to recognize that. It adds some real intelligence to the action sequences so you don’t feel the need to turn your logic center off. There is a prevalent theme about what the intrusion of machines into our lives is doing to us. Luther is obviously suffering an extreme case of this, but it’s still and a nice area to explore.

My only real complaint with this script is the ending. Its ambiguousness leaves the door wide open for a sequel, yet it ultimately feels tacked on and undermines some of the previous good work. It’s the pat Hollywood ending to send the audiences home with a warm fuzzy feeling. Here, it just feels badly disjointed when compared to the rest of the script.

Paramount hasn’t really been moving on this story and I think the main reason is cost— The script looks to be the recipe for seriously pricey flick. Heavy use of CGI will be necessary, as will numerous expensive set pieces. That factors back into the little known nature of the character. Can a studio in its right mind actually produce a hideously expensive movie based on a little known character in this day and age, the relative success of “Hellboy” notwithstandingr It’s definitely a gamble. But having read the script I’m now willing to say it’s worth it. This could come out of nowhere and be one of the all-time great superhero movies. Or it could continue to gather dust, awaiting the possibility of funds. Time will tell. This undated draft is credited to Raven Metzner and Stuart J. Zicherman (who are also responsible for the coming “Elektra” and “Nosebleed” efforts), based on the Marvels Comics character. Lee Tamahori (“Die Another Day,” “XXX2: State of the Union”) has been linked to the project as director and Marvel has said on its most recent quarterly conference call that they are aiming for – at earliest – a 2006 release date.

Rating: B+
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