This Voltron Legendary Defender review contains spoilers. We have a spoiler free version here.
DreamWorks’ Voltron Legendary Defender is a master class in science fiction storytelling. It’s so much better than it has any right to be. That’s not a knock to the legacy of Voltron by the by, its just when you think of reboots of ’80s cartoon shows, you don’t think breathtaking TV that utterly crushes all of its competition. Power Rangers wishes it had this level of world building. Star Wars wishes it was this funny. Every giant robot show ever wishes its action was this intense.
I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one. Voltron Legendary Defender is one of the best shows of the year so far. I don’t just mean for kids. I don’t just mean in animation. I don’t just mean on Netflix. I know I’m hyping this show all the way to the third dimension (that’s one for the hardcore Voltron fans in the audience) but allow me to explain why I’m giving it such high praise.
Voltron Legendary Defender avoids the main problem that plagues so much of TV today. The “oh, you’ve just got to get past the first few episodes” syndrome. Come on now, you’ve all said it about some of your favorite shows. Voltron hits the ground running with complex characterization and an economy of world building in its first 20 minutes that most shows can’t manage in their entire runs.
It doesn’t slow down. It doesn’t waste any time. Every moment of this series is filled with action, humor, and character development that all perfectly dovetails together.
The character development is the essential piece that makes the whole thing work. Sure, you can have a crazy huge universe and giant robot action, but if you don’t have engaging characters, it will fall flat. Voltron’s characters are such a delightful mix that play off each other so well in the various situations they find themselves in.
In fact, I love them all so much; it’s time to go through them one by one!
Shiro: Pilot of Black Lion
Shiro ends up being the most serious of the group, functioning as team mentor and dad. All the other Paladins look up to him and while he’s able to handle that responsibility well, there are times where the weight of responsibility is too much for him to deal with. After all, as much as he’s the experienced, he’s still a stranger in a strange land just like the rest of them.
Plus, he’s got that whole PTSD thing going on, which came to a head in episode nine when Sendak taunted him with those memories. The moment when Shiro, desperate to quiet that voice in his head, shoots Sendak out of the ship was one of the most powerful moments in the whole season. Shiro really needs someone to talk to but when you need to be the strong one on the team, it’s tough to let your guard down.
Thankfully, Shiro isn’t all angst and stoic leadership. He does get a few moments to have fun with the team and those go a long way to showing why the team is so endeared to him. None better than him stooping to others level in imitating blaster sounds.
I know a lot of people were just waiting for Shiro to bite it, as he did in the original GoLion, but I don’t think that will happen right away. I think they have more ground to cover with Shiro and simply killing him off this early would have undercut his potential. We have to spend a lot of time with someone before their death has a real impact, so keeping Shiro alive this season was a good call.
As much he may be marked for death, I hope the writers go the unexpected direction and keep him alive. Have him slowly fall under the influence of Zarkon through his repressed memories and he’s forced to abandon the team to keep them safe. He goes off on his own adventures for a while in an attempt to do battle with the evil forces within him.
Keith: Pilot of Red Lion
Out of all the Paladins, Keith gets the least to do. Most everyone else got a major focus storyline but Keith was mostly relegated to his interplay with Lance. Thankfully that interplay was so strong it helped keep him from just being the “hothead” character. With only eleven episodes, the writers seem to setting Keith up for a much bigger story down the line, what with his exposure to Quintessence at the end of the season.
Another big moment for Keith was in the final episode when he was the only one who suggested leaving Allura behind. Everyone balked at this, but it wasn’t a bad call. Keith thinks of the mission and preserving that was key in his mind when he put the idea out. That willingness to leave one of their own behind could come back to bite him in the ass with the others later on, questioning how much trust they can put in him.
Keith pretends to act all stoic and by the book, but he can be just as much of a chucklehead as the rest of the team. He’s all in for the food fight in episode two and even starts to engage in the rivalry Lance so badly wanted in the premiere.
One of the big strengths of the Voltron characters is that they have many layers and we’re only just getting to know them. The brilliant tactic that more series could stand to use is getting to know all of them through humor. Some of the characters’ most revealing moments are in really funny and wacky scenes, as was the case when Keith berated Lance for not remembering their tender emotional moment.
Lance: Pilot of Blue Lion
On the surface Lance is a dick. But there’s more to Lance then meets the eye. Lance is not as confident as he seems. He has to talk big about himself because he doesn’t believe it deep down. He fancies himself as Keith’s rival because he needs to feel that important. When Keith doesn’t even acknowledge it that sets Lance off. It’s a stroke of brilliance, as I just mentioned, that all of this is done through humor and not via angsty dialogue. Lance just piles on the delusions of grandeur. I think going forward Lance will have to start figuring out the person he wants to be, instead of trying to be like Keith, the man he wishes he was.
In one of those “comedy revealing character” scenes, Lance wants to know how far away Earth is. Coran calls up the star map and keep swiveling it, the joke being it’s so far away he can’t even finish his sentence. It’s a fun moment, but Lance is bummed. It’s one of the few times he lets his cocky exterior down and shows off some genuine unmanufactured emotions. As much as I hope Lance does get a chance to show off his other sides, I can’t help but wish he keeps being the funny man on the team because my god, Lance is hilarious.
I mean, they’re all funny, but Lance is a scene stealer. Even the fart joke in the premiere, which should have been the worst thing ever, was spot on because it’s totally something Lance would do. That’s the power of Voltron, they made a fart joke work. I shouldn’t be surprised, this is also the team that made “fart bending” a thing in Legend of Korra. No one creative team should have all that power.
Jokes like this are super juvenile, but that’s what Lance is. In a lot of ways he still has a lot of growing up to do. That’s the thing you’ve got to remember about these characters, they’re all still kids. Well, teenagers, but you can’t tell me you didn’t make fart jokes at that age.
I know I just spent two paragraphs of this review talking about a fart joke, but it does a lot to sum up who Lance is and why I like him. He needs attention and validation constantly, even if he has this exterior of being too cool for school. I’ve got a soft spot for characters like that, so I can’t get enough of him.
Pidge: Pilot of Green Lion
Pidge is life and Pidge is love. In the run up to the series, I suspected Pidge wasn’t all that she appeared to be. The character design looked just feminine enough to give me pause, and the dodging of answers in interviews only added to my suspicions. The moment that photo of Pidge and her brother showed up in the premiere, I knew there was a big reveal coming. I’ve got to say, my first thought wasn’t that Pidge was a girl but that Pidge was actually transgender. I mean after all, with that photo as my only reference from the premiere I thought she was trying to keep her transition a secret.
While I love the creative team went with gender swapping one of the original characters, I feel like they could have gone that extra step and done something even more progressive. Although, even if Pidge solidly identified herself as a girl in episode six, she hasn’t reverted back to using the Katie name. So perhaps we’ll get some more exploration of Pidge’s gender identity in the future.
Still, Pidge is amazing. I mean, she loves peanut butter and peanut butter cookies but hates peanuts. I can relate to that. She also doesn’t sound like a muppet, as OG Pidge did, so I can actually feel for her as a human being. Hiding that secret from the team was a huge burden that, once it was lifted, she was finally able to let loose and really give the mission her all.
Her fondness for machines over people was more of a subtle characterization, but one that was constant throughout. Tinkering with the castle was her greatest sense of pride, as was on display when she modified the pod Coran and Hunk used to travel to Balmera.
As much as I wish Pidge had been trans, the creative choice in making the character a girl is still one to be applauded. Not only that, she’s the tech person! How delightful that so many kids will get to see a funny and smart female character get to be the one who builds all of this amazing stuff for the team and gets to fight off the bad guys. That alone is worth watching the series for. Bravo, Voltron team, you’ve done a solid for humanity.
Hunk: Pilot of Yellow Lion
Hunk is the simplest of all the Paladins, but that isn’t a bad thing. Not everyone needs a hugely complicated back story. Sometimes you just need a guy who really loves snacks. I can relate. While others focus on home or their families when forming Voltron, Hunk thinks only of food. Bless him.
While Lance is the jokester, Hunk is the heart of the team. He’s the big loveable goof but surprisingly gets the first real love interest in the series! Yeah, his big ol’ rock girlfriend. Oh no wait, sorry, “a rock I’m very fond of.” Bless you, Hunk. We should all strive to be like you.
It’s through his experience on Balmera that Hunk finds his reason to fight with Voltron. After all, Hunk is the character with the least desire to fight. He didn’t have a tragic backstory like Shiro, Pidge, or Allura, he didn’t have the dedication to service like Keith, and he certainly didn’t have the cockiness of Lance. So Hunk needed an emotional reason to fight, and seeing the struggle on Balmera cemented his will to protect others.
Hunk also shows a great side of emotional vulnerability with his constant crying in battles. It’s a refreshing change to see a male hero be so open about how he feels, especially in the giant robot genre that’s so filled with badass heroes who will only cry if a loved one is killed. It’s a delight Hunk will cry at the drop of a hat, simply because he’s scared flying around in a giant robot lion.
Speaking of which, if I had to choose my favorite Lion, it would be Yellow Lion. That whole tank exterior really works well with Hunk’s personality and it’s got the best design. And come on, how can you not love the thing when, as the team tries to form Voltron for the first time, Hunk slams into Shiro and screams, “Combine!”
Allura: Pilot of the Castle
Allura is a kick butt Princes of Color, which already wins this show about ten billion points. I mean really, the original Allura had her strong points to be sure, but was a clear victim of being “the girl” in an ’80s anime. Everything bad about her has been jettisoned to give us a character with the clearest motivation to save the universe.
More then even Shiro that responsibility weighs heavy on her shoulders. In the first two thirds of the season she could go to the hologram of her father for help, but once that’s wiped from the castle’s systems, Allura is all on her own. How she’ll cope with that in Season 2 has a lot of potential, since she didn’t get much of a chance to grieve after the last trace of her father was taken away.
While Allura acts like she’s got it all together, really stepping into the princess role, she’s still got a lot to learn about being the overall leader of the Voltron team. Okay sure, Shiro is the lead Paladin, but Allura is the real leader of the whole operation, as it should be. This of course means that everyone keeps talking about when Allura will get in the Black or Blue Lion, but come on, she’s got the entire castle! She has a giant space fortress that has a freakin’ giant laser gun. That’s way cooler than a Lion, let’s be real.
We can’t talk about Allura without talking about The Space Mice. I wont lie, if I had to lay bets on what elements wouldn’t make it into a Voltron reboot, I’d put a lot on The Space Mice. I’m glad to not be a betting man, because they ended up being one of the brightest spots of first season. They aren’t overplayed, they’re used sparingly for both cute and plot relevant purposes.
The design of these little guys is ten levels of adorable, there’s no way you can hate them. Why does Allura even need Paladins when she’s got this team? I need plushies of all of them, stat!
Wow, Coran was a surprise. He was described as Allura’s “major domo” and I mean, that sounded okay but I can’t say I was excited for him. But oh my god, Coran is hilarious. He thinks he’s the smoothest and smartest guy in the room, but he’s a clown shoes. That pompous attitude translates to some of the biggest laugh out loud moments of the season and it’s a testament to the writers restraint Coran isn’t in every scene because he could completely dominate this show if they let him.
I could talk for years about why this guy is a comedic genius, but I’ll let this exchange with Lance say it all.
“I think this castle is haunted.”
“I know this castle may seem like a fantastic creature to you, but it’s actually just a big embodiment of advanced supernatural technology that can’t be explained by science alone… Well that does make it seem a bit haunted, doesn’t it?”
Zarkon and Haggar
A team of heroes needs an enemy to fight and my god, Zarkon, Haggar, and the whole team of evil strike fear into the heart of the viewers. Gone is the over the top king and cackling stereotypical witch of the original series. Haggar doesn’t get much to do in this first season, but the small glimpses we get are chilling. There’s a lot of story to explore with this character and we’ve only scratched the surface.
Zarkon… I mean, the last episode really said it all, didn’t it? Taking on the Red Lion all by himself truly demonstrated how outclassed our team is. Sure, Voltron was the most powerful thing in the universe ten thousand years ago, but Zarkon’s had that long to get stronger. If he can do that kind of damage to a single Lion without breaking a sweat, imagine if he took on Voltron. The team would lose, no question.
So it makes you wonder, why doesn’t he take on Voltron right now and crush them? My theory is he doesn’t NEED Voltron. It would remove a nuisance to be sure, but he knows the team hasn’t tapped into its vast power yet. He’s willing to wait until the right opportunity presents itself. Plus, he’s got a whole empire to run.
Through his voice alone, Zarkon communicates he’s absolutely in charge. He has no fear. You will obey him or die trying. Whatever his history with the Lions will come into play down the line, but for now, he’s the teams biggest enemy and one they are nowhere near equipped for. I wouldn’t be surprised if the team didn’t even engage him next season, instead focusing on getting even stronger.
In the end, all of these characters would fall flat without the right cast to breathe life into them, and Voltron has assembled the best voice cast around. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch. It would have been easy to try and fill Voltron with a bunch of “name” Hollywood actors, but each and every actor or actress feels right for the role. They all play off of each other perfectly. Their chemistry helps sell the teams friendships, frustrations, and triumphs.
This is a show where I wish the audience could get a small glimpse into the recording booth, because it sounds like everyone truly had a blast. Their excitement bleeds through into the show and makes it something truly special.
The scope of this series is off the charts amazing. With only 11 episodes we get the sense of just how much this team will have to face. Threats that won’t just take a few seasons, but could take 10-15 years if they really wanted to. This isn’t just a singular mission, it’s a war that they are woefully under classed to fight. As powerful as Voltron is, they’re still only one band of fighters. It is hinted there are more resistance groups out there, with the alien who shut down the force field at the end of the season probably being part of one.
I have no hesitation in saying this show could run for 30 seasons if they really wanted to. There is that much scope hinted at here. Hell, we could have a Star Wars level of mythos here. I’m talking enough to fill hundreds of books, comics, role playing games, radio plays, spin offs, everything.
Which is astounding considering this could have so so easily been a formulaic monster of the week show that paid homage to original series. That would have been perfectly serviceable, but every level of this show took it a step beyond. This show is special and you can see the love put into it. It works on multiple levels, fun action and humor for kids, deep and complex characters for the adults. There are no excuses needed for it.
The action is astounding. That’s no shock coming from the team behind Legend of Korra, but the escalation of conflict is flawless. The team doesn’t win any two fights the same way. Sometimes they need to form Voltron. Sometimes they need to fight with just the Lions. Sometimes they only need to fight as themselves. Each and every fight is dynamic and extremely well animated, as is true for the whole series.
It’s funny that a lot of mecha series suffer from a sense of repetition in their fight sequences, but Voltron changes it up but not rolling out the big guns all at once. They don’t even use the blazing sword in the first episode! That, again, takes some restraint.
This isn’t just a “whip out the sword and win” kind of adventure. This team has to actively think about tactics while fighting. They can stretch a fight over a whole episode because there’s just that many options they have to try in a fight before they find the one that helps them win. I’ve never been into the giant robot action in series like this, preferring the character stuff, but man, this show had me glued to my seat during all the fights.
The show also does a great job at filling out the universe of Voltron with interesting and varied species some that look like they jumped right out of Legend of Korra’s spirit world. They don’t need to do a lot to differentiate them from us, considering they look so truly alien, but my favorite “alien” moment actually comes from the teams discussion with Allura and Coran about seconds v. ticks. Again, a great comedic scene that illustrates the different between our human Paladins and the aliens they meet.
If I had to pick a favorite episode from the first season, it’d have to go with episode nine (which is also why so many of the screencaps in this review are from that one). I do love me a good “ship run amuck” plot but the emotional underpinning of Allura having to say goodbye to the last remnants of her father took it over the top. It also featured some of the most quotable dialogue in the show:
“Curse my short arms!”
“Oh, I hate those little things.”
I can’t wait for Voltron Legendary Defender season two. Or as I’ve already nicknamed it, Voltron: Lost in Space. Please oh please let the team all land on different planets and journey by themselves for awhile. It worked great in Digimon season one, and seeing all the characters try to survive on their own and reunite would show some different sides to their characters. It can not come soon enough.
Voltron is the ultimate embodiment of living up to the potential of a franchise. The original Voltron set a nice groundwork but didn’t take it to the limit. Voltron Legendary Defender has busted right through that and is soaring to new heights of what television and animation can do. It’s given us an unforgettable cast of characters and a universe that is ripe to explore. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s action packed, it has genuine menace, and it’s respectful to where it came from. Not just to the original Voltron, but anime in general. Look no further than the various easter eggs throughout the show featuring nods to classic mecha anime.
Yep, that’s Roy Fokker from Robotech/Macross in the background of the premiere and Pidge doing the infamous Gendo pose from Neon Genesis Evangelion.
If you’re somehow still on the fence about watching this show, just do it. And if you’re reading this spoiler filled review before watching the series, shame on you! But seriously, you won’t be disappointed. It’s something special that doesn’t come around often in television. Voltron Legendary Defender is a true labor of love from top to bottom that’s actively striving to make a change for the better. The characters of Allura and Pidge are both fantastically updated to better reflect our world today, and nearly all the characters races are shown to not be white. We get that kind of progressive attitude with an amazing series for it to live in. I can’t get enough.
Voltron Legendary Defender is the show you’ve always wanted but never thought you’d get. Cherish it.
If Shamus Kelley is being honest, on a scale of bloodthirstiness, he’s a three. Follow him on Twitter!