Two weeks ago, news broke that The Raid director Gareth Evans would possibly be heading up a Deathstroke film project for Warner Bros. Pairing a superhuman assassin with the guy who made a movie full of close-quarters combat set pieces seems like a match made in heaven, right? But, really, Deathstroke is the perfect character to headline a twisted, ongoing family psychodrama for the small screen.
The problem with Deathstroke as a character is that, up until very recently, he’s primarily been used over the years as a foil. Slade Wilson’s first appearance in old DC continuity was as a enemy for the Teen Titans, someone masterful enough to surreptitiously manipulate, stalk, and take out the whole team. Ever since then, he’s either been shown as a coldhearted killer who sometimes does the right thing in very brutal ways, or the ultra-competent supervillain only bested by heroes on their A-games. The guest appearances and solo series he’s had over the years only gave brief glimpses inside Slade’s head but the latest Deathstroke title pretty much lives there. Launched last year, Deathstroke—written by Christopher Priest with art by Joe Bennett, Carlos Pagulayan, Jason Paz, Jeromy Cox, and Willie Schubert—offers intense thematic focus on the psychological make-up of an extremely detached supervillain. That makes it great fodder for a television adaptation. Allow me to break down some of the elements that demonstrate why Deathstroke could be a great TV show.
From the very beginning, one of the most interesting things about Slade Wilson was the fact that he’d already lived a very full life. He was already a husband, a father, and the world’s deadliest assassin before becoming a supervillain. With Slade, you have a central character that dodges the annoying “young person coming into their own” plot beats that show up in way too many superhero adaptations. He still has an existential crisis to contend with—more on that in a bit—but it’s the problem of a man who thought he had himself all figured out.
Somewhere in his late teens, Slade Wilson decided that he wanted to get really good at hurting and killing people. Secret military experiments gave him enhanced strength, speed, healing, and mental capacity, setting him up to become one of the planet’s deadliest humans. Those improvements had no effect on his heart and soul, though, and his pursuit of blood money made a shambles of his marriage and child-rearing.
Flashbacks in Deathstroke show jarring scenes of abuse, neglect, and self-centeredness, foreshadowing the eventual violent break-up of the Wilson family. There’s a bleak irony in the fact that Slade’s skills as a killer couldn’t stop horrible injury to one son and the death of another. The regret and estrangement over these events informs his relationship with daughter Rose, who also inherited his enhanced DNA and followed in his footsteps. But, because Slade is who he is, his idea of daddy/daughter bonding is getting into a fight with Batman and Robin.
Recent issues of Deathstroke have peeled back more layers of Slade’s early life, showing him suffering the same kinds of abuse he’d later torment his sons with. It becomes clear why he lied about his age to go off to the military, and why he submitted himself to painful super-science. This is a kid who wanted to make sure no one—especially his abusive dad—could hurt him.
After Slade and former wife Adeline divorced, their son Grant tried to emulate Deathstroke and underwent treatments to became an assassin called the Ravager. He died fighting the Teen Titans, a tragedy that’s haunted the assassin for his entire life. Deathstroke’s vendetta against superheroes began in the aftermath of Grant’s death and that special grudge against the Teen Titans came to head in last summer’s Lazarus Contract storyline. In it, Slade steals Kid Flash’s superspeed powers and uses the connection to the Speed Force to try and change the timeline so that Grant doesn’t die.
When he realizes that he can’t, Slade has an epiphany that leads him to realize his son’s death is a direct result of the kind of person he’s been. Deathstroke resolves to be a better person and begins his twisted redemption by creating a new team of young heroes that he mentors in his own gruff way. Right now, the status quo of Deathstroke is a man hanging in the balance and readers are waiting to see whether Slade is lying to himself about the kind of man he can be.
Deathstroke isn’t just the most fearsome, evil-aligned badass in the DC Universe. He’s also the biggest asshole about it. He adheres to a code of conduct but that doesn’t stop him from being an amoral, sleazy, mocking, and smug antagonist. I’m leaving out all of the messed-up soap-opera-style sex, romance, and double-dealing that also happens in the series, because you should really read it yourself if you’re not already familiar. I think you could attach impressive talent to a TV adaptation that takes cues from the comics, shows Slade as a sociopath, and later walks the audience through his efforts to recover from past behaviors. Even with all the Peak Superhero Content whizzing around us nowadays, a look inside the emotionally tortured life of a supervillain still feels like something that we haven’t seen yet. A Deathstroke TV show would be a great, high-profile way to make it happen, tethered to a fictional universe filled with popular characters people already know.