It isn’t hard to understand the calculus behind multiple studios’ years-long attempts at turning characters from Valiant’s comics universe into the next big-screen draw. Comic book movies can and often do make outrageous amounts of money because people like watching them. But with each new super solo movie and big crossover event, the core ask—“Hey, come see this movie”—becomes a little bit tougher because there’s a decided way in which many of them feel derivative of one another.
When Sony lost the film rights to Valiant’s Harbinger series last year, the studio chose to pivot away from its earlier plans to build out an interconnected cinematic universe in favor of focusing on a film about Bloodshot, starring action staple Vin Diesel. The character is a soldier who’s transformed into a high-tech killing machine after undergoing experiments that flood his blood with microscopic nanites. Though the experiments rob Bloodshot of his memories and leave him with unsightly, snow-white skin, they also imbue him with a bevy of superpowers like increased strength, a healing factor, and the ability to interface with technology—all things that ultimately made him the ideal focus for a blood-soaked action comic straight out of the ‘90s.
But in 2020, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine how a character like Bloodshot could successfully make the leap to the big screen. It’s not just that Valiant has a relatively smaller profile compared to other comics houses like Marvel and DC, whose films set the standard for live-action comic book adaptations—it’s that everything about Bloodshot, from his power set to his personality to his central motivation, come across like things you’ve probably seen before in the context of other projects. Bloodshot isn’t a cross between Deathstroke, Deadshot, Wolverine, and Deadpool, but the character could easily be mistaken for one, especially given how all of those characters have already made their big-screen debuts.
If the Bloodshot film is going to be a standalone success, simply translating the source material to a new medium isn’t likely to be enough. The movie’s going to need to distill the essence of the character and inject it into a story that feels fresh and like it has something new to bring to not just the superhero genre, but action films at large. The issue is that in the case of Bloodshot, that’s much easier said than done. There’s shooting, there’s blood, there’s explosions, and it all adds up to a story that, if adapted poorly, could feel like a lot we’ve already seen.
Beyond the superficial similarities between Bloodshot and many other super soldier comic book characters, the original Bloodshot comics by Kevin VanHook, Don Perlin, Chris Ivy, and Jade Moede frequently read like over-the-top action movies that made it easy to compare the titular character to people like the Terminator, Mad Max, or RoboCop. After being transformed into Bloodshot by Project Rising Sun (P.R.S.), Raymond Garrison loses all sense of the man he used to be. He quickly becomes one of the organization’s most valuable assets and is sent on the kinds of wet works missions that no normal soldier could ever hope to survive.
When one of P.R.S.’s scientists learns that the Bloodshot initiative will begin seeking out and eliminating genetically-enhanced children, he captures Bloodshot and inadvertently disables some of P.R.S.’s programming that made him such a deadly warrior. Armed with the knowledge that the organization used him to achieve its own nefarious goals, Bloodshot sets out on a mission for revenge and to discover the truth about his real identity.
The earliest trailers for Bloodshot make it clear that the movie isn’t at all interested in downplaying the testosterone-drenched hyperviolence that defined the comics. These are the sorts of films that audiences have become accustomed to seeing stars like Diesel in, and the actor’s quite good at playing these roles. But if Bloodshot wants to be more than just another movie where Vin Diesel simply blows stuff up, it would be interesting to see the story grapple with the relationship that Bloodshot has to the militaristic organizations that turned him into the person that he is.
Plots about governments experimenting on soldiers with devastating outcomes are commonplace in comic books, but Bloodshot has the opportunity to dig into the conceit in a way that most other cape movies haven’t. When you set aside the spectacle of seeing a man being blown to bits before his tech-infused blood stitches him back together, Bloodshot’s story is one about the numerous ways that the military and Garrison’s government robbed him of his humanity in order to make him a “better” version of the soldier he initially volunteered to be.
As Bloodshot, the nanites in Garrison’s blood make him a stronger and more efficient fighter in the literal sense that he’s able to kill people with a greater degree of skill. But by planting false memories into his mind in order to drive him to carry out missions, P.R.S. robs Garrison of his identity and his free will. The program turns Garrison into a weapon that isn’t meant to think for itself or have any sense of agency as it’s wielded to wreak havoc and destruction. Real-world war hawks might disagree that this is precisely what governments attempt to do to civilians when they compel them to join the military, but it’s an idea that’s very present in Bloodshot’s narrative DNA.
From P.R.S.’s perspective, Bloodshot’s initial inability to make decisions for himself is a key aspect of what makes him the perfect weapon. The organization doesn’t need to worry about him deviating from any of their plans so long as he’s under its control. But from Bloodshot and the audience’s points of view, his ability to choose—and humanity by extension—is what makes it possible for him to become a hero as opposed to a mere drone, because he’s making informed decisions based on his assessment of any given situation. That’s not to say that Bloodshoot’s always guaranteed to make the right choice or to act in ways that we might, but there’s a level of faith we’re meant to have in what he personally decides to do because he’s the central character of this story.
Without some sort of critical reflection on the larger implications of the Bloodshot program and what its existence says about what militaries do to regular people, it wouldn’t be hard for Bloodshot to wind up as just another superhero movie lousy with mind-numbing dialogue and lifeless CGI fight sequences.
Co-writers Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2) and Eric Heisserer (Arrival) and director David S. F. Wilson could have a completely different vision in mind, of course, and presenting the public with another movie featuring Diesel playing to type (read: gruff, punchy, über-aggressive) might be the safer bet. But if Sony and the other studios hoping to hit it big with Valiant IP really want to leave audiences with the impression that these movies have anything interesting to bring to the table, they’re going to have to find compelling ways to make these characters feel like breaths of fresh air and not like clutter in an already crowded space.
Bloodshot is set for a February 21 release.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.