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By /Oct. 3, 2023 9:00 am EST

Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is still the poster child of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When he said “I love you 3000” for the final time in “Avengers: Endgame,” it ended an era. That said, the MCU as we know it might’ve not existed if Downey Jr.’s 2000s-era “Deathlok” movie had ever booted up.

Deathlok has long been one of Marvel’s most underrated characters. The publisher’s original 1974 “Astonishing Tales” comics, to which classic eighties movies like “Terminator,” Robocop, and “Escape from New York” owe a debt of gratitude, tell the story of Luther Manning, a U.S. military man who dies and gets resurrected as a cyborg super-soldier. He’s supposed to be a killing machine for a dystopian corporate America, but the man behind the patchwork of human flesh and robot parts still has enough soul left to resist this fate. Yes, Deathlok is basically Robocop with a military twist, but the Marvel series predates Paul Verhoeven’s classic by 13 years, and features time travel and monsters.

The germs of the unproduced Downey Jr.-starring “Deathlok” movie can be traced back to the 1990s, but it really took shape in the early 2000s. Paramount was interested in the project. Steven Paul and Avi Arad, the former head of Marvel Studios, signed up to produce. “Road to Perdition” screenwriter David Self penned a script, and when Paul McGuigan was tapped to direct the feature, he wanted Downey Jr. to play the cyborg antihero.

Today, “Deathlok” is one of Marvel’s greatest unfulfilled “what if…?” projects. It doesn’t have to be. In 2023, the era of AI and social media, this might be the best time to dust off all the old ideas from the unproduced version, rework accordingly, and turn “Deathlok” into the “Black Mirror”-like superhero movie the world needs.

What would have the Deathlok movie been about?

Little is known about the story of the planned “Deathlok” movie. A quick Google search reveals that “Elektra” screenwriters Raven Metzner and Stuart J. Zicherman penned a treatment that leaked online in the early 2000s, but it appears to have disappeared from the record books. Furthermore, those writers were ultimately sacked and replaced early into the project’s development.

Paul McGuigan has also confirmed that David Self’s treatment is the one he was interested in. The director told Gizmodo that their film would have been a “Knight Rider”-esque affair about a man having conversations with a machine. What’s more, the villain was a maniacal professor who wanted history to remember him as the next Leonardo Da Vinci (comics fans might assume this would be Harlan Ryker from the source material, but no confirmation of this exists). In the years since, Marvel VFX artist Constantine Sekeris has shared some concept art for Deathlok’s character design on his Instagram account, as seen above, and it’s gloriously grotesque in a way that the cyborg should always be.

The story details are vague, but intriguing all the same. What we do know, though, is that the film could have been the “Black Mirror” of superhero movies as the creators were out to make people afraid of technology and explore doom-laden concepts.

RDJ’s Deathlok film would have explored the dangers of technology

Science fiction has long warned us about the downside of rapid technological growth. From “Metropolis” to “The Terminator,” some of the most influential sci-fi adventures in history are cautionary tales about the dark side of innovation. “Deathlok” was conceived with similar ideas in mind, and the canceled cinematic adaptation would have honored these themes.

As documented by The Guardian, Avi Avad told The Hollywood Reporter that the “Deathlok” movie was inspired by cell phone technology. Similar to Luther Manning with his cyborg parts permeating his skin, Avad felt that humans and technology would become one someday. “One of these days, [technology is] going to be inside of us. For example, we won’t need a cell phone; it’ll be built in our ear. Now is that a cool thing, or will it destroy us as human beings? Deathlok explores what those consequences will be.”

The late ’90s and early 2000s saw cell phones and computers become more accessible and mainstream. As such, it was a fitting time to bring Marvel’s cyborg and his technophobic message to the big screen. That said, the window to make a topical “Deathlok” movie hasn’t passed yet — if anything, it’s more open than ever.

Deathlok’s themes are still topical

There are a few key ingredients that define the best “Deathlok” stories: technophobia, political paranoia, and bleak dystopias. Now, here we are in 2023, and all of these ideas are at the forefront of the world’s sociopolitical discourse, seemingly on a daily basis. Why isn’t there a “Deathlok” movie in production to capitalize on this hopeless environment?

Technology continues to evolve at a worrying rate, as evidenced by the proliferation of AI replacing humans in the workforce and robots becoming more self-aware. In the world of politics, a former United States president is facing federal charges for obstructing the 2020 election, while the current commander-in-chief’s son is engulfed in numerous scandals. Meanwhile, the rest of the planet is still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a period that saw everyone get a taste of what it’s like to live in an actual dystopia.

A “Deathlok” movie that channels these ideas to create a horrifyingly bleak sci-fi world would resonate with the collective mood right now. Furthermore, it could inject some much-needed darkness into the MCU, which is well-established enough to take some bolder risks.

The MCU needs an injection of bleakness that Deathlok could provide

Technically, Deathlok is already part of the MCU, as a Mike Peterson iteration of the character was portrayed by J. August Richards on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” The show chronicles his journey from family man to Centipede Project test subject to mechanical beast and beyond. However, this is far too small a role to be Deathlok’s permanent MCU legacy, and if the studio wants to resurrect the cyborg with a fresh coat of paint, they can always find Luther Manning’s corner of the multiverse and take it from there.

The MCU is great because it’s a franchise that offers plenty of variation. At the same time, it’s always been hesitant to fully lean into horror, existential despair, and the thought-provoking nihilism that the best “Deathlok” stories are associated with. “Werewolf by Night” and the upcoming “Blade” movie suggest that the franchise’s overlords are open to exploring more genres, but a true “Deathlok” adaptation might be too grim for them.

Oftentimes, critics of the MCU accuse the franchise of having no intellectual depth. That simply isn’t true, but an authentic “Deathlok” adaptation could quash these criticisms for good, as the comics are littered with compelling sociopolitical commentary that’s proving to be timeless. A “Deathlok” movie has the potential to be a film that defines this generation’s fears and anxieties, while simultaneously being an awesome actioner about a super-soldier taking the fight to corporate America, other cyborgs, and dangerous cosmic monstrosities. Who doesn’t want to see that?

 Marvel Studios wanted to make a “Deathlok” movie with Robert Downey Jr. in the early 2000s, and now is the perfect time to consider resurrecting the project.  Read More