We're getting an animated Castlevania series on Netflix. This is a big deal to me for two reasons. First, I've been an undying (Ha!) Castlevania fangirl since childhood. Second, I've been waiting for this project for over a decade.
If you've followed my writing for that long, first, I'd like to offer an apology. Second, I wonder if you can recall the work I once did for 61 Frames per Second, a long-defunct gaming blog hosted by Nerve.com until its newly-installed CEO decided video games are dumb (as is wont to happen) and killed its game bloggers.
Despite the blog's untimely death, in 2007 I wrote a lot of words about the proposed Castlevania III animated movie. I was quite taken with this project, especially the idea of famed artist James Jean working on character designs. Hey, My Chemical Romance's Black Parade is one of my all-time favourite albums, and I won't apologize for that.
Unfortunately, the Castlevania III movie was quietly cancelled. The most information we got out of the project is that there was a proposed scene where a farmer complains about a neighbour having sexual intercourse with his goat.
Surprisingly, Warren Ellis is still lined up to write the new Netflix Castlevania series. That's good; he's a supremely talented writer and he genuinely likes Castlevania. But I still worry for the project for two big reasons: It stars an original Belmont character, and according to producer Adi Shankar, "It's going to be dark, satirical, and after a decade of propaganda it will flip the vampire sub-genre on its head."
Here's the thing. As someone who still writes fanfiction, I'm not anti-original character. But Castlevania is a series that's already brimming with developed characters ripe for plucking and moulding. Trevor Belmont is an outcast who still decides to save the same people who shunned him and his bloodline. That's cool narrative material. Simon Belmont treks across Transylvania to undo a curse that's slowly gnawing at his body and soul. That's also cool narrative material. Alucard is a conflicted half-vampire who must kill his father also wishes to purge his bloodline, but inconveniently falls in love. That's awesome. Dragonforce actually wrote a song about Symphony of the Night, and it's as cheesily metal as you'd expect.
Ultimately, "cheesily metal" is a perfect descriptor for Castlevania. It contains stories, monsters, and characters that are timeless and compelling, but never take themselves too seriously. The series played itself straight with Lords of Shadow, and it subsequently became yet another grim and rainy vampire-hunting drama with zero distinguishing qualities.
I know that Shankar's grimdark works are meant to be parodies, but I might've been the only human on earth who wasn't fond of his take on Power Rangers. Part of that is my fault: I've watched more Power Rangers than any adult has a right to consume, so I'm familiar with its lore and characters beyond the first season most of us grew up with. Power Rangers already competently parodies itself and the sentai genre. It's not that Shankar's edgy take on the series is bad, it just has nothing to offer me as someone who's been a sort-of fan of Power Rangers for many years.
(I've also heard that Shankar's Power Ranger bit actually parodies Hollywood's tendency to dim the sunshine in kids' properties, e.g. Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I doubt the upcoming Netflix series will similarly parody / contrast vanilla Castlevania with the likes of Lords of Shadow.)
Consequentially, I'm worried this Netflix Castlevania series will likewise have little to offer me as a long-time fan. Darkly satirical adventures in vampire-hunting, much like Warren Ellis's promises of flesh-ripping violence and jokes about men having sex with farm animals in his Castlevania III movie, were more interesting a decade ago when the line between adult and children's animation was far more defined. Heck, Frederator Studios is involved with this Castlevania project, and they're the folks responsible for Adventure Time. Adventure Time is all fun and games with flailing noodly appendages until Finn and Jake meet up with the Lich. As a decaying, infinitely powerful creature who embodies the worst of the mostly-extinct human race and wants only to pull all of existence into oblivion, the Lich is frankly terrifying.
There are many more modern cartoons that deliver interesting characters, unsettling monsters, complex plots, and plenty of humor without dipping too far into sweary-pants edgelord territory. Steven Universe is one. Gravity Falls – which is by Disney! – is another. If you want to go back to the '90s, Batman: The Animated Series is still one of the most stylish and mature cartoons ever made, and it contains nothing resembling graphic violence.
I'm not saying Netflix's Castlevania series shouldn't be erotic, violent (Ha! Ha!) or venture above a PG rating. Rather, I want Ellis, Shankar, et al to remember Castlevania is more than blood, scowling protagonists, and big-breasted succubi. Its heroes' moral struggles and feats of heroism are crossed with silly fire-whips and little girls who wield baby animals as weapons. The series already parodies itself, albeit quietly: Let's not forget that a forgettable villain from the hyper-cutesy Kid Dracula returned as Symphony of the Night's most formidable boss.
At the end of the day, Castlevania is a series where you find meat hidden inside walls. If Ellis and Shankar keep that factoid in the backs of their minds as they write their scripts, we might wind up having a good time after all.