Movies are supposed to tell us something about who we think we are. Sometimes, what they show us is a condemnation of the choices we’ve made. This spring’s superhero fil Bloodshot accomplishes that … although it might have done it entirely on accident.
Fiction stories are supposed to hold a mirror up to reality so that we can consider some aspect of our culture through a different lens. They don’t always; tons of pop culture content is forgettable and meaningless. We still come to the theatre with expectations, though; we enjoy it when the stories we consume ask the occasional ‘what it?’ questions. Generally, how would [something about our society] be different if [something] was real? It helps us examine our lives.
Lately, it seems like we’ve been getting our what if? fix mostly through science fiction and superhero stories. Nothing wrong with that, especially now that mind-blowing special effects are cheap enough that a low-budget, low-expectations, ‘filler’ film can have the same effect that a big-budget summer blockbuster had twenty years ago. That’s great for us and great for filmmakers who want to try something new or show off their potential.
That’s why I was happy to drop four quid renting what was supposed to be this spring’s big special effects superhero film: Bloodshot. It debuted mid-March, so our local theatres were all shut down by the pandemic before we could get out to see it. I knew nothing about the comics the character was based on; I’d only seen the trailer. Vin Diesel looked like he was having a blast in it and the effects were entertaining, so when it appeared as a rental option, I was in.
My spoiler free take? Yeah. See it. Everyone in the cast seems like they were having loads of fun on the set. There’s more natural humour in the performances than you’d expect to find in a C-list superhero film. The effects are good, the settings are pretty … It’s fun.
Hmmm. Welll … except for one thing.
I know, I know … Why must you always find something to complain about?
No, I’m not changing my rating. I meant it: Bloodshot is a fun film. I only object to one small element and I’m confident my minor gripe has nothing to do with the work of the movie’s writers, cast, or crew. I suspect it goes back to the film’s source material. In faithfully translating the original comic book story to the big screen, the writers (accidentally?) highlighted a key difference in society’s tastes and attitudes from when the character was first written (i.e., the late 1980s) and when the movie version came out thirty years later.
If you haven’t yet seen the movie, go rent it. Otherwise, minor spoiler warning for the movie’s plot. Okay? Okay.
The setup is simple: big, bold, and brash U.S. Marine Ray Garrison gets killed in the line of duty doing dangerous military stuff. A high-tech corporation reanimates Ray’s corpse with crazy-powerful technology. Now superpowered, Our Ray deserts his employer to get revenge on the Totally Evil Person whom he remembers had killed his spouse. After securing vengeance thanks to his superhuman ability to regenerate from otherwise-lethal damage, Our Ray learns – to his horror – that his ‘spouse’ never existed. Instead, his employer plants fake memories in his brain between missions and engineers his ‘reanimation’ so that Ray will run off and murder enemies of the corporation for … reasons … because Ray has been programmed to believe that each new target was actually the Totally Evil Person who’d killed his spouse. Ray get angry about having been used, then gets revenge on his employer.
That’s the part that rings slightly hollow for me as a 2020 viewer. To be fair, the setup is completely fine for a superhero story. Hell, it’s darned near a carbon copy of 1987’s smash hit RoboCop. A hero gets killed in the line of duty, high-tech corporation reanimates his corpse with crazy-powerful technology, then messes with his mind to make him kill bad guys for … reasons. I’m not in any way trying to accuse the original comic book writers of cribbing off of a more popular property; I’m just saying if you’re going to re-interpret a classic, you’d do a lot worse than taking your inspiration from a beloved and time-tested masterpiece.
Which reminds me … I should probably shift to a more commercially viable writing style. Is anyone interested in funding my business book pitch about a teenage vampire romance with elves and robots in it?
And … ah … that’s what kinda bugs me. RoboCop nailed how late 1980s audiences felt about our corporate overlords. Scandal after scandal throughout the 1970s and 80s had driven home the idea that megacorps would do anything for a profit, including finance murder. Whether officially sanctioned or rogue, sleazy business executives with big budgets would sell out anyone to make a bigger payday, while corrupt government officials would always look the other way. Ordinary citizens suffered so jerks with MBAs could do cocaine on their yachts with all of our pension money. Consider the Iran Contra Affair, or the Keating Five scandal, or the all five seasons of Miami Vice.
For context, the dystopian Cyberpunk genre of the 1980s grew directly out of our collective distrust of how technology, money, and power would all but completely alienate us non-privileged folks from the rich and the powerful. As Lawrence Person said in Notes towards a post-cyberpunk manifesto: ‘Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.’
That sounds an awful lot like the story, plot, and setting of our hero Bloodshot, doesn’t it? Like, maybe the writers had a firm grasp on popular culture and wrote a story that would resonate with audiences. Little wonder, then, that Bloodshot is one of Valiant’s top-selling titles.
The trouble is, Bloodshot’s movie debut waited until 2020, when the special effects capability caught up with the artists’ vision. There’s no harm in that, it’s just … well … the zeitgeist has changed over the last thirty years. Oh, we still have zero faith that our corporate overlords or government ‘representatives’ will do the right thing by us, even when millions of lives depend on it. We still believe that technology is exploiting us at mega-scale and that we’re unable to protect ourselves from the many harms it’s inflicting on us. We’re all feeling alienated right now as we stream movies in our quarantine bunkers. What’s different from how we felt in the 1980s, though, is how we’ve come to accept these dystopian traits as endurable facets of modern life.
This is … fine.
See, the Ray Garrison character from this spring’s action movie isn’t shown dying in the late 1980s or early 90s; he’s presented as a contemporary American. So, when he ‘awakens’ from his death as a superhero and takes stock of his new life, his angry, violent rejection of his new reality rings just a bit contrived, at least for someone that was clearly working in the 2010s.
After all, what does he ‘wake up’ to? He discovers that he has a stable, full-time job … with subsidized housing … subsidized medical care with no out-of-pocket or out-of-network expenses … an immortality plan that eliminates the needs for life- and disability insurance … immunity from the plague … and all he has to do is accomplish the same tasks that our fleet of flying murder robots have been doing in the Middle East for the last twenty years? Put another way, he’s inherited every possible advantage that our modern aristocracy already possesses without having to ‘break in’ to the top 1%.
This goes way beyond the simple ‘wish-fulfilment’ aspect of superhero stories and hits us right in our modern sense of existential dread. Right now, there are hundreds of millions of people who – if woken up in Ray Garrison’s position – would gleefully kill for a chance to have his job and live his life instead of their own.
That’s a damned sad indictment of the state of our culture. Kudos to the writers of the original Bloodshot, though … they and the other cyberpunk futurists were right about almost everything they predicted, except for what the cumulative effect of all these intolerable forces would do to us over time. We didn’t rebel against our dark future; we grudgingly accepted it. In return, we got Netflix on our iPhones and settled in to envy the supervillains.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.