As more and more animators and showrunners enter the industry who grew up during the early anime boom in North America, the influence of Japanese Animation on its North American counterpart becomes more apparent. For many, the ultimate example of this is Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it doesn’t end there. More examples of this new kind of hybridity between anime and North American animation crop up by the year, and a very strong recent example is the Dreamworks and Netflix reboot of the classic Voltron franchise. In the case of Voltron, the anime influence isn’t without precident. The original series, which aired in 1984, was a dubbed and re-cut version of the anime series Beast King Golion, though North American fans wouldn’t come to know this until much later.
Previous attempts at reviving the Voltron brand tended to eschew the anime influence, but Voltron: Legendary Defender embraces it with open arms, borrowing heavily from anime’s stable of visual tropes and packing itself full of easter eggs for sharp-eyed anime fans to spot. But rather than simply coasting on nostalgia and reference, Legendary Defender also injects the Voltron mythos with a renewed energy and humor, as well as a new focus on long-form storytelling and episodic narratives. It also goes much deeper into its characters than any previous incarnation, giving the heroes much more nuanced and interesting characterization.
The second season of Legendary Defender hit Netflix this weekend, delivering thirteen new episodes to fans new and old. For the most part, the series retains everything that made Season 1 feel exciting, interesting, and fresh. There are a few small hiccups along the way, which unfortunately keep the second season from topping its predecessor. All the same, Voltron: Legendary Defender remains one of the better North American animated series in recent years.
One of Legendary Defender‘s great strengths is its pacing, especially when it comes to the “Voltron vs giant monster” fight sequences that fans have come to expect. Rather than have a revolving door of sparring partners for the Voltron Paladins to go up against, Legendary Defender wisely spaces them out. This means that the series never succumbs to the “monster of the week” plotting that has plagued anime and tokusatsu (live action special effects dramas) working within similar stories. It also means that the fights never feel like an afterthought, reduced to the formula of “monster appears, Voltron is formed, handily defeats monster, everyone cheers.” The big fight sequences in Legendary Defender usually have the majority of an episode to play around in, giving them more room to be exciting and engaging.
However, Season 2 of Legendary Defender does show some signs that the excellent pacing might be under threat when it comes to storytelling. The series so far has been very good about balancing fairly self-contained episodes with multi-episode arcs and larger narratives. Usually, the stand-alone episodes will still make sure to introduce a new plot-point, reinforce key ideas or aid in character growth. Unfortunately, Season 2’s second episode, “The Depths,” breaks from this rather painfully. It’s an ok episode, one that sees Hunk and Lance stranded on a water planet populated by mermaids. But it’s so far removed from the rest of the series mythology that it ultimately feels disposable. The ultimate threat isn’t the Galra, the show’s usual antagonists, but a random new foe, and none of the new characters or concepts introduced return later, as happens with later episodes. “The Depths” feels like the first time that Legendary Defender has succumbed to that most dreaded of anime tropes: filler.
But when the story is on track, Legendary Defender maintains the level of good characterization and storytelling established in Season 1. Season 2 puts more focus on Keith, building on hints from season one that there’s more to the team’s resident loner than meets the eye. We also learn a bit more about Shiro’s time as a Galra prisoner, and the details of his escape. Lance, Pidge, and Hunk get some good moments, but it’s clear early on that this season is all about Shiro and Keith.
There are also more than a few hints that we may be seeing the team take on a configuration more familiar to longtime fans sometime soon. In the original series, the team’s lineup was changed when Sven, the initial pilot of Blue Lion, is gravely injured and has to be replaced by Princess Alurra. In the original Golion, he’s actually killed. Legendary Defender seems to know that much of its audience is aware of this bit of Voltron history, and continually teases the prospect of Shiro dying, leaving Keith to take his place as leader of the team. Shiro ominously chides Keith on his reckless style more than once, reminding him that if he has to take command he’ll need to straighten out. We also see hints of Alurra taking on a more active role, especially in the season finale. Whether or not Legendary Defender goes through with this remains to be seen, but hopefully they don’t start having too much fun playing with us.
Everything there was to like in the first season of Voltron: Legendary Defender is back in Season 2. The action, visuals, characterization, soundtrack and humor that made us love the first season are all still there. But while Season 1’s biggest failing was that it felt like half a season, Season 2 moves too much in the other direction. Like a lot of other Netflix series, it feels like it has more runtime than it entirely knows what to do with. Fortunately, this only really manifests to any detrimental degree in the second episode. If “The Depths” had been cut out, or given a major plot overhaul to feel less like a total non-sequiter, the season would have easily matched its predecessor. As it is, it will just have to settle for being almost as good.