Adi Shankar is quite a cult hit in film circles. He’s made a name for himself by fully investing into properties he loves. It’s a nerdy demeanor that’s absolutely infectious as its led to his famous “Bootleg Universe,” in which he’s produced short films based on Venom, The Punisher, Judge Dredd, James Bond, and even Power Rangers (to a lesser extent). He’s always been sort of an inspiration to me since it’s the kind of stuff I’d like to make if I had his pull.
When Shankar announced he was taking on Konami’s Castlevania series for Netflix, it definitely raised a few eyebrows. Even with Warren Ellis attached to write (who’s apparently been working on an adaptation for the last decade), and Frederator Studios attached to animate, I still had this inkling feeling something wouldn’t quite click here.
It seems like Netflix wasn’t too confident either. While the viewership for its first season was great enough to already get a second season (with double the episode order) in motion, Castlevania right now seems like a higher-budgeted version of Shankar’s bootlegs.
Castlevania (Season 1)
Director: Sam Deats
Release Date: July 7th, 2017 (Netflix)
When the religious town of Wallachia burns Dracula’s (Graham McTavish) wife at the stake, he promises to return after a year with an army from hell and smite all of them. Jumping a year ahead we meet Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), the last remnant of a monster hunting family. Trevor’s pretty much sick of the entire thing. He’s lost faith in people after his family was betrayed, and couldn’t care less about the monster attacks. But when he’s inadvertently thrown into the action by a secret society of magicians, Trevor finds himself in a bigger battle than he ever could’ve imagined.
Castlevania‘s first season is less a television show and more like one of those direct to home video animated films you’d expect to see from the likes of DC Comics or Marvel Studios. Usually I’m not one to complain about the length of a series in reviews, but the four twenty-something minute episodes (nice) essentially act as a lengthy pilot for the actual series. This is fine in concept, but it also cripples these first episodes. It makes sense for Netflix’s distribution style, which argues that each show should be binged, but it’s not like each episode stands on its own. Rather than episodes having a clear cut beginning, middle, and end, there’s only enough time for the general arc of the “season” to carry any weight. It’s no help to the series either that the entire plot is predictable (even complete with a big boss fight at the end). There’s definitely a feeling here that this season would’ve been better served without being chopped up into parts.
But even without much to invest in from episode to episode, the other benefit of being a two hour pilot means it’s brisk and light. This lightness allows the characters to bask in Castlevania’s pulpy vibe, but it’s definitely hard to take anything seriously yet. For example, Trevor is a fine main character. He’s the standard too cool for school protagonist, and Ellis clearly had a fun time writing for him, but the most intriguing stuff is still a ways away. I’m more interested in what eventually brought Trevor to his low point at the start of the series, and that drama won’t be evolved further until the next season, if at all. As a result, he feels thin. There’s just simply not enough time to take him further than grizzled warrior archetypes. While he’s definitely fun to watch now, it’s completely forgettable without anything really juicy to latch onto.
Castlevania’s animation isn’t great, and is particularly janky when characters are talking to one another, but is ultimately serviceable. There’s a nice flow to the action scenes even as the backgrounds tend to fade into oblivion during them. The fights themselves seem particularly anime influenced as one fight toward the end of the season is accompanied by too familiar sword swooshes (the technical term, yes) and angles reminiscent of other shows. Trevor’s character design is unfortunately the only one with any kind of personality, but it’s not saved by the overall flatness of the art as a whole. But, once again, since this is only a pilot, I’m sure there’s room for betterment in the future.
Given how short of a season Netflix’s Castlevania is, chances are you’ve seen it by the time you read this review. If you haven’t, however, it’s a very easy show to recommend…for now. I wouldn’t exactly say it’s for everyone since those who don’t like the Castlevania games won’t get anything of note out of this, but like Shankar’s bootleg productions, it’s a series made by a fan for other fans.
With that in mind, I do worry this series cannot hold up with a longer structure. This first season is a good watch mainly because it’s over before any of its faults truly make a dent. Just as how Shankar’s Bootleg Universe shorts seem great as five minute pieces, the minute you really stop to think about the ideas therein ruins the experience.