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Time for a brief primer in comic book history. Specifically, we’re looking at the ’90s — the “Dark Age of Comics”, as I like to call it — primarily defined by three massive trends.

First and foremost was the double-whammy of “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns”, both released in the late eighties. Both came out to overwhelming critical and commercial acclaim, and of course the comic book industry took exactly the wrong lessons from these successes. Thus the entire industry became drenched with dark, gritty, brooding, violent, absurdly angsty new characters and nihilistic overhauls of existing characters. Basically, take the campy and kid-friendly “Silver Age” comics of the ’50s and ’60s, and imagine the exact opposite of that.

The second big trend was the comics speculator bubble, as industry fans and the media discovered the value of older comics, particularly the debut issues of popular characters. Thus the industry became flooded with new characters and storylines, all with their own “#1 issues”, limited editions, variant covers, collectible trading cards, and other such gimmicks. Never mind that the actual content is shallow and forgettable, just slap on a holofoil cover and it’ll sell millions before the suckers realize it’s worthless. Which happened somewhere around 1996 and led directly to Marvel going bankrupt, but I digress.

The third major trend came from the ongoing tyranny of the Marvel/DC duopoly, in addition to the (rapidly obsolete, yet still technically functional) Comics Code Authority. Thus a wide variety of comic book luminaries left to start their own companies, where they could create their own characters on their own terms. For instance, this is exactly how and why Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio went on to found Image Comics.

While the Dark Age of Comics tends to get a lot of flack (and rightly so), it wasn’t completely without merit. After all, this was the era that brought us Deadpool, Venom, Spawn, Hellboy, and the iconic (albeit controversial) Death and Return of Superman. This was also the time in which Frank Miller stepped in to redefine the character of Daredevil and craft pretty much all of the character’s best-known material.

But then we have the duds. Perhaps the most notorious would be “Youngblood”, a superhero team created by Rob Liefeld on the conceit that real-life superheroes would be treated like celebrities. The entire series was a horribly drawn mess, the characters and storylines were too over-the-top angsty to take seriously, and I doubt there’s one comic book fan in a hundred who would know Badrock from Psilence. Liefeld was forced out of Image Comics in 1996, and while the Youngblood brand has limped on since, that was pretty much the last time anyone heard or cared about Youngblood.

Another dud was the Ultraverse, complete with its own animated TV show made in a transparent attempt at ripping off the contemporary X-Men animated show. While I admit this was an ambitious attempt at a huge shared comic book continuity, sales slumped until Marvel purchased Malibu Comics in 1994. The Ultraverse has been buried ever since, and various legal/contractual issues have (allegedly) made its revival impossible.

But then we have Valiant Comics, founded in 1989 by former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. This company has passed through a lot of hands in the time since, but they’ve quietly kept up a steady pace of output. Some of their IPs — most notably Shadow Man and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter — were even adapted into video games by Acclaim Entertainment, who owned Valiant at the time.

Basically, Valiant Comics has developed a stable of superheroes with a viable shared continuity, even though they’re not terribly well-known in the mainstream. In other words, they’re a perfect alternative for anyone who wants to play in the sandboxes of Marvel or DC, but can’t get the rights. (A prominent example — and a serviceable introduction to the Valiant Universe in general — is Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe, a webseries by the creators of “Super Power Beatdown” at Bat in the Sun Productions.)

Which brings us to 2012. The Avengers tops every box office chart and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is on its way to global domination.

With every studio in Hollywood scrambling to copy Marvel’s success and build the next cinematic superfranchise shared universe, of course Hollywood eventually came knocking on the door of Valiant Comics. In point of fact, Columbia Pictures announced in March of 2012 — only two months before The Avengers had been released — that they had acquired the rights to Bloodshot, a Valiant character who could only have been created at the peak of the Dark Age in 1992. In 2015, Sony and Columbia had announced that they were building Bloodshot up to be the start of a five-picture saga, expanding the Valiant Universe into its own cinematic superfranchise.

So here we are, nearly ten years after the movie was first announced, and Bloodshot is finally available. Why the long delay? I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Ghostbusters (2016) — two of Sony’s other failed efforts at cinematic superfranchises, both high-profile humiliating failures — had something to do with it.

When we first meet our eponymous antihero, he’s a lone wolf Marine in the Middle East, completing a rescue mission before going home to his wife (Gina, played by Talulah Riley). Long story short, Gina is kidnapped and murdered by a psychopath (Martin Axe, played by Toby Kebbell), who then proceeds to shoot our protagonist in the face.

Through some mysterious unknown means (Bloodshot is an amnesiac, you see), his corpse is delivered to Rising Spirit Tech, a cutting-edge cybernetics company led by CEO Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce). While the company has years of experience in prosthetics for injured military personnel, the newly-christened Bloodshot is their first success in bringing a dead soldier completely back to life. This was accomplished by infusing Bloodshot’s blood and organs with specialized nanites that instantly heal any wound.

So basically, what we’ve got here is an antihero with Wolverine’s origin story and temperament, Punisher’s skill set, Deadpool’s unkillable healing factor, and more brooding angst than all three put together. And again, his name is Bloodshot. To repeat, this is a character who could only have been invented at the peak of the Dark Age of Comics. If he only had disproportionately tiny feet and utility pouches strapped across his entire body, he’d practically be the Dark Age personified.

Anyway, the amnesiac Bloodshot starts to remember more about the man who killed his wife and goes off in search of revenge. Because the trailers have already spoiled this point, I don’t mind telling you that Axe is dead by the end of the first act, at which point RST puts Bloodshot back into a coma and reprograms his memories so their next intended hit is the man who killed Gina. A woman, by the way, who may not even exist.

(Side note: If a woman exists for the sole purpose of getting killed, and she’s only killed as a motivation for a male character, but the woman and the murder were entirely fabricated by the villain, does that still count as fridging? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.)

The premise had potential. The character is so insanely OP, it makes perfect sense that the only antagonist who could plausibly stand a chance against him is the organization that made him. And of course the basic notion of cybernetic people as corporate property is nothing new (see also: Robocop, Upgrade, freaking Hobbs and Shaw, etc.), yet it still has potential for good character drama and thought-provoking science fiction in addition to thrilling action. And in this particular case, we’re left with the intrigue of who Bloodshot is being tricked into killing, and why.

So, with all this potential, why does the film still feel like a mediocrity?

Well, let’s start with the main character. He doesn’t have Deadpool’s sense of humor, he doesn’t have Wolverine’s good heart, and he doesn’t even have the conflicted morality of the Punisher. There’s never the least bit of doubt as to what he’ll do in any given scenario, we already know he’s going to survive anything that anyone can throw at him, and his only two settings are “anger” and “angst.” All of this makes for a character who’s not the least bit fun to watch.

Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that by nature of the premise, the protagonist of our story has very little agency. With a few exceptions in the third act, his actions are determined pretty much entirely by the supporting cast around him, and that’s a pretty big fucking problem.

Speaking of the supporting cast, it’s… fine. Eiza Gonzalez plays KT, a woman whose tracheal pathway was replaced with a rebreather that makes her immune to inhalants and literally dependent on RST to breathe. Alex Hernandez plays Tibbs, a blind man whose optic nerve has been retrofitted to take in visual data from any number of cameras in numerous directions at once. And there’s Dalton (Sam Heughan) our generic heavy, who’s been outfitted with all sorts of prosthetic limbs. These characters and their powers are all certainly interesting, but there’s never the least illusion that any of them could stand a remote chance against the indestructible Bloodshot. And while the actors are all serviceable, none of them turn in an especially noteworthy performance.

Guy Pearce is probably the standout of the supporting cast, uniquely capable of playing a charming and charismatic CEO before turning on a dime to play an immoral mad scientist bastard. God knows this is hardly new ground for the actor, after Prometheus and Iron Man 3. The problem is that he’s visibly straining against the script. The performance here is obviously so much more layered and complex than the character was designed to be, and for all of Pearce’s talents, he’s not capable of elevating the material to where he needs it.

Oh, and I suppose I should also mention Lamorne Morris, who appears as a socially inept tech genius. It’s a pathetic trope and Morris’ performance is suitably mediocre for the picture, but I was so grateful for any effort at comic relief that I honestly didn’t care much.

Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t help that all of these actors were working off of Vin Diesel, who looks like he’s sleepwalking through another rendition of the same routine he’s done umpteen times already. I can’t possibly stress enough how little fun it was to watch this character.

(Side note: Did I mention that the film was produced by Neal Moritz, late of the Fast and Furious franchise?)

But what about the action? Honestly, it’s not great. Going back to the Deadpool comparison, that movie compensated for the protagonist’s invincibility by making the action scenes funny as hell. Without that sense of humor, the only way to make a palatable action scene with an immortal protagonist is to go all-out and subject him to all manner of over-the-top stunts that nobody else could ever walk away from.

What we get is a shootout scene, a chase scene, and a climactic battle in an elevator shaft. That’s not very much in terms of creativity or scale. And God knows the obnoxious speed ramping, the frenetic editing, and the dodgy CGI character models don’t exactly help much.

I want to place a lot of the blame for this on screenwriter Jeff Wadlow, most recently responsible for Truth or Dare and Fantasy Island (2020), those notorious bombs out of Blumhouse. But at least Wadlow had co-writer Eric Heisserer — he of Arrival — to help punch up the script. No, I think the bigger problem here is with Director Dave Wilson, here making his cinematic debut after a background in VFX and video games. This is the exact resume of a director-for-hire who was there to take orders from the higher-ups. In this case, that would mean Producer Vin Diesel, the higher-ups at Valiant Comics, and the delusional suits at Sony who thought they could wring a superfranchise out of this.

It speaks volumes that in numerous scenes, Steve Jablonsky brings out more emotion and drama than Wilson does. A score is at its best when it complements the action, but when the music is doing all the heavy lifting, it’s a sure sign the director fucked up.

I don’t know if Bloodshot needed to go deeper into the intellectual sci-fi angle or deeper into the brainless action movie angle, but either one would’ve been better than this half-assed mediocrity. The supporting cast is trying so hard and Steve Jablonsky put in an especially noble effort, but the writing and direction aren’t giving anyone here anything to work with. This would be disappointing enough for a misguided Deadpool knockoff, but for the attempted start of a grander Valiant Comics superfranchise? Fuck outta here.

I suppose this might be worth a streaming rental, but even then, there are so many other better movies out there you could try instead. For example, the aforementioned Ninjak vs. The Valiant Universe.

Yes, that indie fanmade YouTube miniseries had better action, more pathos, and more effective use of its source material than the Vin Diesel blockbuster. Dead serious.

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