One of the best surprises of 2016 was Voltron Legendary Defender, Netflix and DreamWorks Animation’s contemporary reboot of the classic anime series Voltron: Defender of the Universe, a.k.a. Beast King GoLion. I was highly skeptical of the series when it was announced, but I should never have doubted the team of Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, part of the creative force behind Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. What could easily have been a quick grab at nostalgia without any spirit of the original series or substance in the socially conscious modern era was actually the exact opposite: Voltron Legendary Defender was the rare reboot that honored the source material while simultaneously vastly improving upon it. In short, it’s the superior series.
So when I got a chance to check out the first three episodes of the second season, which returns to Netflix in its entirety on January 20th, I had to balance my expectations against my excitement. Sophomore seasons of popular shows tend to have a lot of pressure put upon them to outperform and outdo their debut. Voltron Legendary Defender is poised to do just that. The creative team has been unleashed within an expanded universe that sees the Paladins traveling to new, alien worlds in order to recruit allies while fending off old and new adversaries alike and fighting the good fight against Emperor Zarkon and the Galra Empire.
If Season 1 of Voltron Legendary Defender was an origin story of sorts for the Paladins, who had to learn to work with each other and their sometimes temperamental Lions in order to form Voltron, then Season 2 is shaping up to be a story of youthful rebellion. Make no mistake, with the exception of Shiro, our heroes are largely untested in battle; they’re learning day by day, but they don’t even have a stereotypical sage or battle-hardened warrior to guide them through their trials. That’s a strength for the narrative drama in the series, but an obvious weakness for the Paladins and their allies, who are far outclassed by Zarkon’s experience, powers, and resources.
That divide between hopeful heroes and ruthless villains is on display in the early going of the second season, which kicks off right where we left off. The first two episodes see the Voltron Force scattered and disoriented: “Across the Universe” tracks Keith and Shiro, who crash land on a rocky planet populated by sizable, predatory lizard creatures, and Pidge, who ends up alone in a floating debris field in space. “The Depths” centers on Hunk and Lance, who have touched down on a waterworld inhabited by mysterious merfolk. Meanwhile, Coran and Princess Allura (and the space mice) find themselves trapped in a time loop, to hilarious results; see a clip below for a sneak peek. And while these episodes serve to show just how far the Paladins must go to be up to the task of defeating Zarkon, another strength is that individual characters get their own arcs and enough breathing room to let them play out without sharing screentime with the entire team.
But rest assured, the disparate adventures of the Paladins only last a relatively short time before they’re united once more. They’re not forming Voltron without everyone onboard, after all. By the time the third episode “Shiro’s Escape” comes up, everyone is back in action, more or less. It’s a good thing, too, since Zarkon and Haggar somehow have the ability to track the Voltron Force just about anywhere they are in the universe … and since they can track them, they can send Robeasts after them. That’s standard fare for Voltron, but Season 2 gives this episodic villain gimmick a strong narrative backbone.
Without going into spoilers, Zarkon and Haggar are hyper-focused on retrieving Voltron and the Lions, but they’re also dealing with a presumed traitor in their midst. That twist, one teased in the Season 1 finale, adds a nice layer to the villainous side of things that is missing in most animated series. Related to that is the discovery by the Paladins that there are other factions dedicated to fighting Zarkon and the Galra Empire, including some rebels within the empire itself. This is all set up very well in the early going which grants the rest of the season time to explore new narrative avenues that open up, and gives the excellent cast a chance to show off their range. (Special mention for Rhys Darby who continues to kill me with comedy every time Coran opens his mouth.)
If you’re concerned that the sweeping narrative of a ragtag rebellion taking on a galactic empire seems too broad (or too familiar), or that Season 2 is skimping on individual character development or nods to the original series, don’t be; all of that is blended nicely alongside the more epic plot conflicts. Pidge gets some fantastic comedy bits early on while still clinging to the narrative thread of finding her missing family members, Shiro deals with fallout from his time under the watch of the Druids, Keith discovers a link to a mysterious artifact in his possession thanks to a new ally, and both Hunk and Lance discover new abilities for their Lions. As far as nods to the original series, Hunk, ever the comic relief along with Lance, gets to drop a “Robeast” line, and Keith has a brief dalliance with the Black Lion, but there are also new bits of mythology introduced, ones that I can’t wait to see explored.
If you’ve been sleeping on Voltron Legendary Defender, now’s the time to get caught up. It’s a fantastic series that expertly combines action, comedy, and heart by introducing new takes on characters you actually give a damn about; the voice talent couldn’t have been more perfectly cast; and it’s beautifully animated, with special attention to the space battles which are absolutely breathtaking. You’ve never seen Voltron like this before.