Translating awesome comic villain to a different medium can be a tricky affair, as I’ve noted before. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking what is in the comic panels and filming it, but usually it’s more challenging than that. What we just accept in comics can be ridiculous and silly in live action if it isn’t done just right. We’ve gotten outstanding versions of classic villains like the Joker and Magneto on the big screen, but live action television hasn’t had a ton of success in that arena. Well, this time they got it dead on; taking an underappreciated DC villain and doing him right.
Arrow has brought in a lot of great villains from the DC Universe, with many borrowed from Gotham, and they’ve almost all been serviceable reinventions. Serviceable, but never outstanding. Well, season two has put an end to that streak by taking Oliver Queen’s partner in crime from his first season island flashbacks and transforming him into what is possibly the most badass villain ever in a comic book show.
Before I get into the how’s and why’s, let’s take a look at Slade Wilson as a character. Deathstroke the Terminator is a mercenary who was first introduced in 1980 where he was set against the Teen Titans. To put this in perspective, Slade has only low-level superhuman abilities gained from supersoldier testing during his stint in the Vietnam War, making him like a lethal Captain America in terms of pure physicals. You’d think this would be a mismatch since the Titans primarily consist of metahumans, but Wilson has a level of tactical intelligence comparable to Batman’s (if not superior) making him a match for just about anything he puts his mind to. He’s one villain even the Dark Knight doesn’t want any part of, and that is a rare find.
His most prominent television role to date was as a primary antagonist in the original Teen Titans cartoon, where he went by Slade since Deathstroke was deemed age-inappropriate. While he was more or less intellectually on par, the show failed to capture the things that make Slade Slade, instead framing him as general criminal mastermind archetype. No backstory, no nothing. And losing to Robin in a one-on-one fight? Just no. Deathstroke has appeared here and there in other shows like Smallville and Young Justice, but they never really took the time to build him as a character. He’s always been treated as kind of generic.
And let’s not even talk about video games. Okay, let’s. He’s been featured in recent fighting games like Injustice: Gods Among Us, which is cool, but his big featured story role was going to be in Batman: Arkham Origins. Well, that didn’t turn out so good. He was a pretty unchallenging early boss battle and spent the rest of the game locked up. The trailer had implied that we were going to get a lot more. What do we have to do to get this character his due?
In Arrow, Deathstroke was first teased in Ollie’s deserted island backstory with a thug in the familiar mask who tortures him. But that was just his ex-partner. Later, we met the real Slade Wilson (played awesomely by Manu Bennett, who was previously known as Crixus on Starz Spartacus series) as an agent battling terrorists who befriends and trains Ollie and kills the masked torturer.
Alas, I knew him.
While once again Wilson’s origin, and personality bear little resemblance to his comic book counterpart, Arrow ended up crafting a fantastic reinvention of the character when he turned up in the present day Starling City as the greatest threat in the show thus far. They took the things that make him a formidable villain and changed his motivation to make him into something nightmarish. What the Arrow is faced with is a man driven psychotic by a chemical that has given him superhuman abilities and is holding a serious grudge. Having had time to think everything through, Slade is in no rush to dish out his cold serving of revenge.
While this isn’t the Slade Wilson from the comics at all, it’s pretty clear that the writers did their homework. Green Arrow and Deathstroke had a particularly contentious relationship in the years prior to the New 52 reboot. Oliver Queen is possibly the only hero that Wilson actually hated, stemming from an incident where he single-handedly wrecked an entire Justice League team (including Green Lantern and the Flash, but no Big Three) prior to Ollie stabbing him in his empty eye socket with an arrow from behind while he was attempting to usurp GL’s ring through force of will. Wilson lost his shit for the first time and later left his mask with an arrow through the eye socket and a note warning that “we’re not done”. On the island in Arrow, the moment was homaged minus the note, which is pretty cool.
While not exactly a mercenary, on the show Slade has become kind of a catch-all villain; manipulating other characters like chess pieces and taking on a role in the story as a looming threat that Ollie and his team are utterly incapable of matching. He pops up from time to time just to show that he can take them out anytime he wants, and then he vanishes and can be seen sometimes just watching his prey. He also shows up as part of Oliver Queen’s daytime life, befriending his family to make things even more unnerving for the hero.
So Ollie is faced with a character who is –as Deathstroke likes to state in the comics- stronger, faster, and smarter in addition to being utterly obsessed and deranged. It’s not a good place to be. But after a lot of episodes full of threats both forthright and veiled, the audience can stop taking a villain seriously.
Sure, he kidnaps Arrow’s sister, but he just lets her go after spoiling his secret identity. Sure he said “To kill you now would be a mercy. You cannot die until you have suffered the same way I have suffered, until you have known complete despair. And you will. I promise.” But that’s what they all say, more or less. Usually, they’re just blowing hot air. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.
Well, all of the threats and menace found fulfillment last week. Spoilers in this paragraph if you aren’t caught up. At the end an episode that was based around Roy Harper losing his mind after having been exposed to the same drug that made Slade the way he is, Deathstroke crashed his way back into the forefront of our attention, ramming a truck into the car carrying Oliver and his family and then recreating the scene from the island where a terrorist forced Ollie to choose which woman to shoot between Black Canary and Shado, this time using his mother and sister. Mrs. Queen bravely steps up as Ollie again freezes and gets a sword in the guts for her trouble. The hero watches his mother bleed out, completely helpless.
The eyes are the windows of the soul, and this guy’s are frickin’ empty.
And that, friends, is how you build up a villain to terrifying proportions. It’s not enough to be a threat and be crazy and unstoppable; you’ve got to make the good guys really feel it. To be a truly great comic villain you’ve got to take something from the hero; preferably something that they can never really get back, or at least not without some crazy comic book magic.
The Joker took Batgirl’s legs and Robin’s life. Magneto ripped the adamantium out of Wolverine’s body. The Green Goblin killed the love of Peter Parker’s life. The Governor took Rick Grimes’ hand, wife, and child (in the comics). Deathstroke has done on television what his character -for all his badass awesomeness- never done in the comics; he’s scarred a hero in a way that he may never completely recover from. Shit just got real.
So now that we know Slade Wilson is not messing around, the question is what the hell is the Arrow going to do about it? That’s what makes this version scarier than the source material. The original character may be an unstoppable sociopath, but he is a reasonable man and a professional first and foremost. This guy has all of the capabilities, but none of the ethics. He just wants to inflict pain on Oliver Queen and slowly destroy everything he holds dear. He’s several steps ahead of the hero, he’s got superpowers, and he is driven by pure psychopathic obsession. He’s the perfect villain to kick this show to the next level.