Superpowers may seem like a gift to many, as they can be used to protect the innocent, take down the baddies, “privatize world peace,” and heal the sick. However, for some, the life of a superhero isn’t all that glamorous, seeing that most villains seek to end the existence of their arch-nemesis — and in some comic book timelines, that actually happens.
Then again, some don’t want to be superheroes at all but just good people who choose to do what is right even in the face of overwhelming odds. One of those superheroes is Deathlok from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He wanted nothing more than to be a good father to his son but was nearly crushed under the overwhelming burden of trying and failing to be a superhero.
Before we can dive into Deathlok as a character from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show, it’s worth discussing the character’s origin rooted in comic book lore. The reason for diving into the comic book history of Deathlok is because the title of ‘Deathlok’ is actually derived from several different characters from the Marvel Comics Universe.
Admittedly, they’re all scattered across different universes and their respective timelines, having nothing else in common except being turned into cyborgs against their will and sharing the same name. The first Deathlok was Colonel Luther Manning, who appeared in Astonishing Tales #25 in 1974. He was originally conceived as an anti-Captain America, a super soldier whose experiment went terribly wrong and whose remains were repurposed to make a cyborg super soldier.
The second iteration of the character, John Kelly, appeared in Marvel Comics Presents #62 in 1990. He was a Vietnam vet who volunteered for a CIA project called “Deathlok,” which was actually based on reverse-engineered technology from Luther Manning’s body. Unlike the previous version, he was given autonomy, but after he resisted mission objectives, the internal CPU in his brain fried the surrounding tissue, killing him in the process.
Luckily, his consciousness was downloaded into the internal storage, and he was later returned to life by the next Deathlok, Michael Collins, who appeared in Deathlok #1, also in 1990 — several months before Marvel decided to publish the transitional story featuring John Kelly as the main character. Michael Collins was a computer programmer-turned-killer cyborg who managed to reprogram the machine body from within to follow his commands.
And that’s where ABC Studios, Marvel Television (now defunct), and Mutant Enemy Productions got the idea for Michael “Mike” Peterson, the Deathlok from the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series portrayed by the incomparable J. August Richards. Unlike the first two iterations of the comic book character, Peterson’s Deathlok is loosely based on Michael Collins — a regular person struggling to reconcile with his newly weaponized body and a desire to avoid violence as much as possible.
Instead of being a trained warrior and a hardened killer, the Deathlok from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a dedicated father of working-class origins who suffered a back injury, which cost him his job and his marriage. Even after the hard times had struck, Mike and his son Ace, who remained in his custody, only grew closer. Wanting nothing more but to provide for his son, Peterson took an offer of a treatment that could help put him back to work.
He was treated with a Centipede Serum, which utilized the unstable Extremis technology, the same one we’ve seen in 2013’s Iron Man 3 film. And just like with the antagonists of that film, the Extremis-derived Centipede Serum granted Mike enhanced powers, including strength and durability. Later, during a field trip with his son, Mike used his powers to save a woman from a burning lab seconds before the lab exploded.
For better or worse, his heroics caught the attention of both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Centipede Group — a HYDRA-funded science program. Luckily, S.H.I.E.L.D. got to him first, and they managed to stabilize the Extremis in his system to the point in which he wouldn’t spontaneously combust or give into fits of violent rage. Mike was further trained with other S.H.I.E.L.D. cadets while his son was taken to live with Mike’s sister Mandy.
Unfortunately, he was later severely injured in an altercation with Centipede forces, who captured him, treated his burns, replaced his destroyed limbs with cybernetics, and implanted an ocular implant as means of control. The show’s later episodes revealed that the rest of his body was also cybernetically enhanced. Running the Centipede Project, HYDRA made use of Deathlok, sending him away on missions that would ensure their enemy’s demise.
However, Peterson’s consciousness was never lost as it was in the comics, and he was coerced to kill HYDRA’s targets, leaving him with tremendous regret. When he finally managed to break free from HYDRA’s control, Peterson, now called Deathlok, became wracked with guilt and wished to do further good to make amends for his actions, primarily out of love for his son, Ace. However, he was later re-captured by HYDRA and yet again freed by S.H.I.E.L.D, receiving various upgrades to his body.
And with the various upgrades came the tragic realization that he was never meant to be what Agent Coulson told him he could be: a hero that stands in the light of his own story. Instead, he realized that, as long as he stands between S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA, he’ll never be anything more than a piece of disposable machinery that fights battles in the dark. So, he left S.H.I.E.L.D. to pursue his own mission of self-discovery. He reappeared again, once in the show’s tenth episode, where he aids Coulson in sealing an interdimensional portal, once again saving the day.
Despite suffering through several critical injuries and extensive body modifications, such as cybernetics enhancements that only increased his power, Deathlok’s true tragedy lies in the fact that he never wanted any of it. He only wanted to heal so that he could be a better father, but in a world where monsters rage green and gods throw magical hammers, super just isn’t good enough.