Disclaimer: some spoilers for the first two seasons of Voltron: Legendary Defender ahead. Be warned.
PREAMBLE: IN THE SKIN OF A LION
Voltron: Defender of the Universe was one of those series that never did anything for me as a child. The show was one of the many Japanese exports brought over to English-American television and altered heavily to take out all the swearing, blood, and boobies. Canadian and US television did not have an anime boom in the way Mexico or South America did, but we had our (edited and highly sanitized) share.
Voltron was the Americanized name of the Japanese mecha anime serial Beast King Golion, and had a plot that was simple enough to follow. Set in The Future, it follows five soldiers caught in an intergalactic war between the good planets of the universe and Emperor Zarkon’s/Daibazaal’s forces from Planet Doom/The Galra Empire. Said soldiers land on an alien planet and meet Princess Allura/Princess Farla, keeper of five giant robot lions that form into a colossal mech called Voltron/Golion. Six episodes in, one of Voltron/Golion’s pilots is gravely injured and unable to fight/straight-up murdered, and Allura/Farla takes up his seat. The remaining forty-six episodes of this epic involves our colour-coded pilots beating up Zarkon’s/Daibazaal’s armies and towering Robeasts/Beastmen once a week.
I remember finding a VHS containing four random episodes when I was a child, but never seeing – or really wanting to see – anything past what I saw. The animation from the end of two episodes was repeated, the monster designs weren’t anything to write home about, and I couldn’t wrap my head around a giant combining robot where all its parts were basically the same vehicle with a different coat of paint. The fact that all of those vehicles were lions, whose heads made up the feet and hands of the same robot was particularly jarring. Is it practical to have mouths instead of digits?
You can imagine my surprise when I’d heard from a couple of sources that the new series being produced by Dreamworks was actually watchable. It wasn’t the first remake of Voltron that I’d heard of. Mike Young Productions put together an animated series called The Third Dimension that nobody remembered, and Nicktoons was responsible for a remake that …Well, look at it. I was gun-shy at first, but when I learned that two of the executive producers were Justice League Unlimited and Avatar: The Last AIrbender alumni, I got curious.
After watching both seasons, I can confirm that it’s good.
Not just watchable-good, but good, as a show and as a remake. Here’s why!
PART ONE: WE BUILT THIS KITTY ON ROCK AND ROLL
A good remake is one that draws from the original source material as much as it acknowledges the changes in the cultural zeitgeist that happened since it first came out, taking the best elements of that original property and creating something new and fresh. Legendary Defender does that in spades, pulling from both Voltron: Defender of the Universe and the original Beast King Golion. Not only do characters share the names of the original Japanese cast and their American counterparts, but it’s also not afraid to go into some dark territory while never losing its light-hearted side.
See, Japanese media didn’t experience the same moral panics as the US and never had much of their content edited or censored. For decades, Japanese children grew up with some pretty brutal stuff, and the mecha subgenre had its share. Major characters would die, monsters would get ripped to shreds in really gory ways, and a fair bit of sexual situations would find themselves onscreen. Not enough to warrant a blue rating, mind, but there was certainly enough cheesecake to fill a pervert’s bakery. This isn’t to say that American animation didn’t have its more adult moments. Secret of Nimh ended with the main antagonist getting straight-up stabbed in the back. You would just be hard-pressed to find something like that on television.
Netflix, however, isn’t cable television, so the rules of engagement are different. This means that serialized shows can tackle hairier topics that network television doesn’t go near, like a superhero serial where the protagonists fight the embodiment of male privilege or an LGBTQ-friendly prison drama (which shat itself in Season 4 but that’s another article, really).
This is, in part, because of pedigree. Showrunners Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim dos Santos worked on Justice League Unlimited, which killed half of its antagonists in a deep-space explosion, and Avatar The Last Airbender, which tackled themes of genocide and abusive parenting. Both of these shows were able to introduce some heavy ideas to Saturday morning cartoons, sensibilities that were brought into Legendary Defender with gusto. For a start, nobody “goes into exile” or is “recovering on a planet somewhere” like they did in Defender of the Universe; people die and whole planets are destroyed as Zarkon expands his empire.
Despite all this, everything about Legendary Defender feels fresh and fun. The art direction is slick, making a humanoid robot made of lions not the most out-there idea in this universe. Voltron itself is well-realized, given a smoother look and lacking that huge family crest that frankly looked really clunky. The synthwave/orchestral score are incredibly atmospheric, and mixes well with both the fight sequences and the more relaxed moments. The writing’s surprisingly good, and the character beats are particularly strong.
Moreover, this new series shakes up its own genre. Legendary Defender pulls from the past thirty years of science fiction pop culture, coating it in a thick Voltron paint. This goes beyond the show’s use of alien metric and the occasional reference to popular anime; Legendary Defender takes the Voltron set-up and converts it into a space opera like Firefly or the remake of Battlestar Galactica (speaking of references, Emperor Zarkon’s sentries and drone ships are very Cylon-esque). This is a universe rife with alien civilizations, dark and mysterious magic, and – of course – giant monsters, and Legendary Defender is eager to explore every corner of it. It is still very much a toy commercial, as all mecha series invariably are, but one that abandons the monster-of-the-week formula in favour of building a world of intrigue, espionage, and a full spectrum of mortality. Not every agent of Zarkon’s is necessarily evil, not every antagonist has evil intent, and not every good guy is good at being a good guy.
PART TWO: DRAMATIS VOLTRONAE
There’s a lot to like about Legendary Defender’s interpretation of the main cast. They take the basic moulds of the Voltron/Golion characters, as well as archetypical characters in shows like these, and throw in one or two new elements to make them more appealing. One look at our pilots alone illustrates this well.
Forming the head of Voltron in the literal and metaphorical sense is Takashi Shirogane, AKA “Shiro,” a no-nonsense born leader and all-around Good Guy. He’s the straight man of the unit; even-tempered, precise, and never one to screw around. What sets him apart from other generic Hero Team Leaders, however, is that he suffers from PTSD after being tortured by the Galra for a year. His memories of his time as their prisoner fighting in their arenas has made him wise to their ways, but has also hindered him greatly. So much so that he’s actually made serious mistakes because something will set off a traumatic flashback.
Forming Voltron’s arms are Pidge and Keith. Katie Holt, AKA Pidge Gundersson, is a huge nerd with huge nerd hobbies but capable of holding her own in a fight. Despite her geek tendencies, she’s so dedicated to finding her family, other captives of the Galra, that she develops some lone wolf tendencies that put her on par with actual lone wolf Keith Kogane. Keith himself attempts to fit the “too cool for this trash” mould, being the token cold and distant loner, but his lack of self-control makes this difficult to manage. His patience is tested constantly, and he fails that test often.
Making up Voltron’s legs are Lance and Hunk, who play double-duty as capable gunslingers and comic relief. Lance McClain clearly fancies himself a Captain Kirk-type lothario and man’s-man, but lacks the authority and charisma, and with some insecurities that he needs to work out. Hunk Garrett is the heavy-set goofball, but is a bit more grounded than Lance and wears his heart of his sleeve. He’s also a capable scientist, a skilled chef, and a great judge of character.
What helps make the pilots stand out is the fact that the weapons formed by their bayards – Voltron Paladin-issue tools – reflect some aspect of themselves and how they function in the team. Hunk and Lance use firearms because they tend to work from the sidelines. Theirs are support weapons, which also work because they form the legs – parts of the body used to the support the rest of it. Since Pidge and Keith make up the arms, they utilize melee weapons. Keith’s longsword illustrates how he puts people at arms-length. Meanwhile, Pidge uses a katar attached to a retractable cord, alluding to her hacker sensibilities (since it, y’know, uses a cord) but also the connection she still feels to her family despite them being so far away.
Shiro’s bayard is in Zarkon’s hands until the end of season two, but he has his own weapon – the mechanical arm the Galra outfitted him with during his time as a prisoner of war. It doesn’t have any forms, but on its own it’s capable of carving through steel. Among the Galra, Shiro was known as “Champion,” and served as a pit fighter for their amusement. Such a tool was probably intended to mark Shiro as one of their own and make him into a more formidable fighter. Shiro now uses it against them, being sure to get right in close and show them what they’ve made. He has taken this symbol of his servitude and their mistreatment of him and weaponized it for his own gain.
Rounding out our team are Coran and Allura. Coran is less mature than his original version, but fills the role of “huge goofball who’s the voice of reason as needed” neatly. Allura is really worth talking about, though. Legendary Defender’s princess takes the best aspects of the original Allura/Farla and amps them up. Legendary Defender’s Allura remains the chief matriarch of the crew, but is depicted here as a confident and capable ship captain and military commander. The original Allura was extremely girly and prone to needing rescuing, whereas Legendary Defender’s Allura is a bit more hardened.
This Allura is as much of a fish out of water as our Earthling protagonists. Ten thousand years passed since she and Coran froze themselves in cryogenic sleep and parked their castle-ship on a distant planet. Now they’re the last of their kind and fighting what looks like a losing battle against her fathers’ arch-nemeses. She’s wary of whatever new allies come her way, even and especially when they’re ex-Galra soldiers, but she has good reasons. Ten thousand years have passed and she doesn’t know where the lines have been drawn. Despite all this, she’s able to put her skills in diplomacy and strategy to work, knowing when to take the fight to Zarkon and when to pull back.
Speaking of Zarkon, the upgrade to the villains is particularly noteworthy. Zarkon’s sorceress Haggar (known in Japan as Honerva) has gone from being a mincing Witch of the West knockoff to being a shadowy mystic commanding an army of black-clad druids in skull masks. Zarkon himself has been given a considerable upgrade. No longer clad in a devilish toga and comically-large crown, Zarkon’s new look screams Video Game Boss from his bulky layered armour to the colossal mech with wings made of swords that he pilots at the end of Season 2. As for who he is, there’s something about the fact that Zarkon was originally one of Voltron’s pilots that tickles the mind as well. Obviously, the show’s not over yet so we don’t know why he turned evil, but it puts him on an interesting level that goes beyond Standard Space Despot.
It also makes him a good parallel for Shiro, the current Black Paladin. He’s an image of power overtaking morality. Shiro is The Goodest Boy of the Paladins, so looking at Zarkon shows how he could turn out if he ever lost his way.
There’s a little more to Zarkon’s character than this, but in order to delve into that we have to take a look at how this show handles the Robeasts.
PART THREE: LARGE AND IN CHARGE
Whether you’re talking about Sailor Moon or any given super sentai serial, the core problem with the monster-of-the-week scenario is that it’s very predictable after a while. The protagonists have a problem, a monster comes in and either contributes to or represents that problem, and then everyone comes together and defeats this elaborate multi-armed metaphor with friendship or a huge gun or whatever. Legendary Defender does the unthinkable by throwing the monster-of-the-week angle out of the reboot of a series known for having monsters every week – and it’s great.
While each Robeast fight in both seasons of Legendary Defender certainly have a Boss Fight feel them, something else came to mind. You see, horror movies (bear with me) understand that the appearances of a monster have little to do with the creature itself. The makeup of a monster is incredibly important in highlighting how alien and bizarre it is, but overall what their appearances in the narrative mean for the characters matters more than how many times they appear on screen.
This was how I felt watching the Robeast fights. We were always teased with their appearances here and there, building up to these huge monster-on-robot fights that Voltron is always known for, but each fight came with so much narrative weight. The battle with Myzax the Gladiator solidified the team’s ability to come together, but also contributed significantly to Shiro and Pidge’s character arcs. Drazil was this ultimate manifestation of toll being taken on the living planet Balmera, which had been mined for its crystals to the point that it was on the verge of death. Finally, Prorok’s appearance as a Robeast not only established Galra rebel group The Blades of Marmora as a trusted ally, with one sacrificing himself to stop Prorok’s rampage, but told us so much about what Zarkon wants out of his soldiers.
Originally a Galra commander, Prorok acted out of loyalty to Zarkon but went against him thinking Haggar was using the Emperor for her own gain. Turning him into a mindless automaton establishes Zarkon as someone who doesn’t want generals who think for themselves, but yes-men who obey his wishes. That’s why so many of Zarkon’s soldiers are robots. Disposable robot footsoldiers being destroyed en masse is cathartic for the viewers who don’t want to think about whether their robot wives will miss them. On the other hand, it shows Zarkon’s not up for debate. He has an empire to run, and dissent of any kind – even if it might be in his best interest – is not to be tolerated.
Plus, there’s something to be said about this affinity for these giant hybrids of machine and animal held together with dark magic. Zarkon and Haggar could easily just plant a bomb in a cat and release it in Allura’s castle, but instead they settle for sending out the equivalent to sentient dreadnoughts. Each colossal Robeast they send out exudes power and deadly intent, and the fact that Zarkon has some level of control over them is telling. This especially works when he arrives on the scene at the end of Season 2 in that aforementioned mecha suit. Does this tell us something about Zarkon’s nature? Does he somehow miss the feel of sitting in the pilot’s seat, being in command of something a thousand times more powerful than his puny self? Is he reflecting on his halcyon days as he is recovering after that battle where his castle was trashed and the Black Paladin’s bayard – his bayard – was finally taken from him? Time will tell.
FINAL WORD: THE PRIDE OF DREAMWORKS?
Of course, I could be reaching with this three thousand-word post about a reboot of a giant robot cartoon from the 1980s. On a base level, I like it because the designs are fun and it has space and monsters and mecha with swords slitting things up. It appeals to the anime nerd/kaiju groupie in me and, really, I could say just that.
Instead, I found that there’s something to be said about this overall theme of a dynamic group of individuals taking on a despot and his drone army. This was one of the principal ideas behind Star Wars that made it so popular. The Empire and the First Order were led by fascists in jackboots commanding armies of uniformed thugs devoid of any discernable identity, challenged by teams of deeply complex citizens from other worlds and cultures united by a need to free themselves of tyranny. It’s a pretty universal story, one that gets retread fairly often but worth retelling every time.
So, yes, this is why I was so keen on Voltron: Legendary Defender. It’s exciting, funny, engaging, and has a few more layers than its predecessor. Go check it out.
Oh, and consider me excited for Season 3. Apparently, we’re going to get Prince Lotor, Zarkon’s handsome douchebag son, and I can’t wait for the throngs of fans to get all cow-eyed over him and forgive all of his war crimes because he is a hot boy who is misunderstood. Bonus points if he’s voiced by Tom Hiddleston.
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