This past weekend, Upgrade hit movie theaters nationwide. The film directed by Leigh Whannell shows how a man named Grey Trace recovers from violent crime and paralysis with advanced technology that makes him a sort of vigilante superhero. Cool as he is, he’s just a new addition to a long list of iconic bionic people. Here’s some of our favorites.
Propositions of replacing bodily organs with machine parts have seduced audiences with the fantasy of going past biological limits. Upgrade represents the latest version of this fantasy, which—as the list below shows—has been a long-lived staple of speculative fiction. Why aren’t characters like, say, Robotman or Tony Stark on this list? Cliff Steele’s only got a small percentage of organics in that dark gold machine body of his and, in most of his iterations, while Iron Man’s armor and his flesh are distinctly separate. Cyborgs are all about the fusion of organic and inorganic, and the tension that the fusion provides. This list is just a sampling of borg love. Please put your favorites in the comments below
The theme song, the track suits, the sound effects. There were other cyborg characters before Col. Steve Austin hit the airwaves, but The Six Million Dollar Man popularized the idea of man-plus-machine operatives on a massive scale. The 1970s series also leaned on the advancement of technology to lay the groundwork for these kinds of characters getting upgrades to their non-organic components. Speaking of upgrades, let’s talk about OSI’s other major operative.
The main character in the Six Million Dollar Man spin-off got her bionics two years after Steve Austin, which meant that she could run faster than him. Since she wasn’t a full-time agent, Jaime Sommers had a different work/life balance than Col. Austin and offered a different kind of heroic archetype, too. The thing that might be most important about Jaime is the idea that she lived a remarkably well-adjusted life after becoming a cyborg person—so much so that she helped train Steve Austin’s son when he received bionics after suffering a piloting accident. The lively, liberated Bionic Woman wasn’t a tortured heroine, which makes her different than most of the other folks on this list.
The DC Comics stalwart uses the shortened form of cybernetic organism for his codename, which is fitting given all the changes that Victor Stone had gone through over the decades. First appearing in DC Comics Presents #26, then as part of the New Teen Titans series in 1980s, Cyborg served as a natural foil for teammate Changeling/Beast Boy. Vic could change his appearance and abilities with new components while Gar Logan did the same with shape-shifting abilities. But Cyborg often felt angst about his hybrid existence and Changeling tried to cheer him up with jokes and heartfelt friendship. After Teen Titans got adapted for television, their goofy-vs-grumpy dynamic morphed into a bond that no inorganic barrier could separate. Whether he’s portrayed in various continuities as a Titan or Justice League member, Victor Stone’s been a hero who thrives on the bleeding edge of technological advancement.
His stiff, implacable gait and the terrifying sound of his assisted breathing help make the Dark Lord of the Sith one of the most terrifying presences in the Star Wars universe. Those traits are, of course, by-products of the life-support armor Anakin Skywalker was grafted into after his fateful battle with one-time mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. Vader may have had to change his lightsaber fighting style after donning the armor, but his fearsome command of the Force remained intact.
One-half of Nathan Summers is constantly at war with the other. The metallic body parts of X-Men member Scott Summers’ time-displaced son are the consequence of a plot hatched by Apocalypse. The mutant supervillain wanted to kill Nathan Summers as a baby but time travel intervention saved his life, planting him in a future where he learned how to use his power and become a total badass.
One of Marvel Comics’ earliest iterations of a cybernetic character was also among its darkest. The first version of Deathlok was a soldier whose body was repurposed as a computer-driven killing machine against his will. With the possible exception of mass-produced squads used by the American military in various comics stories, subsequent versions have all almost had the same “human mind vs. AI programming” conflict which has made the character a potent example of what we sacrifice by giving ourselves over to technology.
If this guy is the Mortal Kombat character you love to hate, chances are it’s because you’ve gotten Kanoball’ed to death one too many times. The evil mercenary was the first man-machine Kombatant in the classic fighting game franchise, paving the way for more robotic characters like Cyrax and Sektor. You can argue over whether his moves are “cheap,” but we can all agree that Kano enjoys being a jerk who pulls your heart out over and over.
“I have a fight computer in my head. You’ve already lost this fight.” Midnighter’s signature line obscures the fact that much of his body has been re-worked with bleeding-edge enhancements. But the enhancements and fight computer wouldn’t amount to anything without his sadism-but-in-a-good-way mindset. He first appeared as part of the Wildstorm imprint’s hardcore superhero team the Authority but has gone on to become one of the nastiest fighters in the DC Universe.
The itinerant collective of hybrid lifeforms are probably Star Trek’s scariest antagonists. It’s not because they’ve got a flying cube filled with foreboding technology, either. The Borg make chills run up your spine because they erase identities wholesale. They take their victims’ knowledge, leech away their free will, and use their bodies as drones, scrubbing away the individuality that makes the universe special. They’re an upgrade that breaks what’s good about organic life.
Snake gets all the love, but the playable protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance has one of the most interesting arcs in Konami’s long-lived franchise. He started off as a whiny inversion of Snake’s terse macho toughness but later wound up housed in a cyborg body that made him more frightening and formidable. When war chews you up and spits out a machine-trapped remnant of your former self—which also happened to franchise characters Grey Fox and Olga— slicing through everything that moves suddenly seems like an acceptable way to hold onto your humanity.
When Crystal Dynamics revived the hallowed Deus Ex video game series years ago, it delivered a playable character whose capabilities could grow exponentially. But no matter how much you upgraded Adam’s stealth, accuracy, or hacking attributes, he never achieved anything close to happiness. He’s just another cog in a world where the enmity between augmented and non-augmented people gets uglier by the day. We know, we know… you didn’t ask for this, Adam.