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Captain Laserhawk’s Adi Shankar on multiverses, AI, and Rayman propaganda

As wild as the world of Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix might seem, it all makes perfect sense in creator Adi Shankar’s mind.

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Photo illustration of Adi Shankar against a graphic background of black and vibrant green.
Photo Illustration by Cath Virginia / The Verge | Photo by Dominique Charriau, Getty Images

There’s a chaotic, disorienting quality to many of Adi Shankar’s short films and series like Netflix’s first Castlevania that makes it seem as if the writer / director / producer always wants his stories to leave you winded and a bit rattled. His Konami-approved take on Dracula came with the brand name recognition and exquisite action sequences evocative of the classic games, but in Castlevania, you could still see shades of the high-energy, low-budget Bootleg Universe that first put Shankar on the map. This is even more true of Shankar’s latest series for Netflix, Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix.

Castlevania was Shankar’s idea of the second generation of video game adaptations — a relatively straightforward translation of characters and stories from one medium to another connected by a shared universe. But with Captain Laserhawk — a dystopian action / adventure that incorporates reimagined versions of multiple Konami video game characters — Shankar spells out much of what he sees as his vision for the next wave of games turned into shows and movies.

Rather than letting itself be boxed in by the original canons of its heroes and villains, Captain Laserhawk breaks them down, distills them into their most essential parts, and remixes them into something radically new but undeniably familiar. Case in point: the new show’s big nod to Assassin’s Creed comes in the form of a French anthropomorphic frog, and Rayman features as a coked-out mouthpiece of an authoritarian state who reads propaganda on the news every night. That kind of wild experimentation with established canon is precisely the kind of thing that usually sets fans — particularly video game fans — on edge for fear that their faves might look and sound different than they used to.

When we spoke with Shankar recently, he explained that while Ubisoft’s having his back from day one assuaged many of his concerns about the process of making Laserhawk, he knew that viewers coming to the show from the games might need some convincing. It’s a challenge Shankar was more than ready to take on, he said, because as batshit and chaotic as the world of Laserhawk might seem to us, in his head, it’s a living, breathing place that all makes a perfect, organic kind of sense.

Image: Netflix

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

When people first got a look at Laserhawk and the way it plays and screws around with Ubisoft’s IP, there was this assumption that you had to do a lot of convincing to get the studio to understand your vision, but you’ve spoken about how they’re really on board with the story as you conceived it. How did that support shape your sense of how much risk you were able to take with the series?

You know, at the end of the day, the vision was what the vision was, but Ubisoft created a safe space and safe work. So I had a safe framework and an ecosystem so I could show up as my fully authentic self for the project and be the version of myself that the project needed me to be.

I’m curious what sort of challenges did you see in getting viewers on board with your vision. The show is pulling from a lot of different video games that people have their own emotional connection to. And in pulling them all together, you’re sort of opening up the possibility for people to love it or be like, “Oh, this isn’t the thing I know and have a hard attachment to.”

I knew going in that, conceptually, this is a bad idea.

Bad how?

If you just explain it to someone, they’re going to be like, “That’s going to suck.” I knew that right away. I knew that even if I brought up the closest comparables to this like Captain N: The Game Master, people would go, “What? Why are you trying to do that?” But I was confident in the end product. I knew once we got people to sit down and actually watch the thing, there would be layers to the thing. 

What were the layers you wanted to define the show?

You highlighted it so beautifully in your review, Charles — it’s not as simple as us just taking these Ubisoft characters and putting them in a shared universe. That’s not the show. “Oh, they took the Ubisoft characters and they changed them.” That’s not the show, either. At the end of the day, this is a dystopian satire in the vein of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, 1984; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; even William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I wanted to have a piece that deconstructed the pressing issue of its time, you know? 

Your point about us basically stripping these characters for parts and reconstructing them into this world, there’s a meta-commentary there as well, which was completely intentional. We wanted to dig into this idea of alternate histories and alternate timelines. The conceit is, you would be a totally different person if you woke up in a different reality or a different geographic place, or even a different socioeconomic apparatus. 

Image: Netflix

Why do you think there was such a gap in people’s perceptions versus what the show ultimately ended up being?

There isn’t [and] there wasn’t a reference point for it, really. There isn’t anything else like this that has really been done well, and then the closest things you can point to were all massive failures, creatively or commercially or whatever. Now, going forward, there’s a reference point and a language and a shorthand that exists in the ether that you can point to.

Were there hallmarks of multiversal storytelling that you just wanted to steer clear of with Laserhawk given how big multiverses are in genre entertainment right now?  

I think that the issue really comes down to reference points, because the two big reference points people have for multiversal storytelling are the Marvel and DC universes. The idea with Laserhawk wasn’t to emulate either, though. We wanted to do our own thing. But because you’re kind of inventing — eh, “inventing” sounds extreme — but you’re kind of stepping into or creating a new lane, there’s an issue with nomenclature because it’s hard to describe the new lane without using something else.

I think the closest comparable here would be maybe a DC Elseworlds story like Kingdom Come where you’re telling a story within a finite context. You’re not doing these, like, endless crossovers or something where it’s all the Sam Fishers from all the timelines are now here to free Eden. There are cliches that exist within multiversal storytelling that, as a fan, I really dig and find hilarious. But as a storyteller, I also feel like those narratives can strip the stories of their stakes. 

That’s very true.

They’re also just really dark at the end of the day, you know? It’s presented as this bright and happy thing, but the concept of a multiverse is really fucking dark. “What if you live in the timeline where the bad guys really win, and it’s awful, everything’s terrible, and there’s actually a much better timeline out there, but you don’t get to experience that because you happen to be born in the wrong timeline.”

Image: Netflix

What kind of ideas about dystopias and revolutionary politics did you want viewers to really internalize and consider as they got deeper into Dolph’s story?

If we really pull out and look at this as kind of a macro thing, we’re dissecting the dangers of mass surveillance, monopolization of the American dream by a large corporation, and how our relentless pursuit of comfort may lead us to an apocalyptic nightmare. But the show is also a commentary on virtual reality, artificial intelligence, addiction, and how tech companies have done what Philip Morris did back in the day. They’ve just done it differently, but at the end of the day, they’re hacking your brain to give you dopamine hits and make you crave those dopamine hits. When we look at virtual reality, for example, it’s for sure a tool.

In what sense do you think?

Empathy, maybe? It has the ability.

Like the capacity to breed empathy in people?

Absolutely. Because in theory, virtual reality should allow me to jump into your experience and you to jump into my experience in a way that wasn’t even possible without that technology. Not to say that people lack empathy, and we need virtual reality to give it to us. But I think the technology can help facilitate that connection and maybe even add a different texture to the empathy. Art does this, too. So it’s not like, “Oh, my God, this is this new thing.” 

It’s not new or unique to VR, no. And Laserhawk is really explicit about how the promise of that technology also comes with some serious drawbacks like the potential to be weaponized and used to oppress populations. Do you think that that’s the trajectory we’re heading on, like people strapping on their Vision Pros and walking through the world with a deeper understanding of one another?

The point of dystopian science fiction is to highlight concerns because there is an optimism that emerging technology claims to have. At the same time, though, there’s a business apparatus that is tasked with marketing these things and saying, “Hey, look at this. There’s this new tool, this new app, and it has somehow made your life better.” And in some ways, maybe it does, in the beginning, but the role of dystopian science fiction is to present the counterpoint to all of that and illustrate how it’s all about intentionality.

Your bringing up intentionality makes me want to shift gears for a quick second to touch on one of your older shows, The Guardians of Justice.

Yeah, sure.

I was actually watching an episode just before we hopped on the phone, and I wanted to ask what your goal was with the Mister Smiles character in particular. To put it bluntly: I was really shocked by his character design, and I’m curious as to what kinds of conversations were had about how his aesthetic might land with Black American viewers.

How did it land for you?

Well, he looks quite a bit like a racist caricature, both in terms of the cartoon that pops up before the live-action character appears on-screen. I get that he’s a Joker analog, but introducing a character who very much looks like he was plucked out of a minstrel cartoon and then focusing on him smearing big bloody lips on himself struck me as a questionable choice. What was the goal there?

Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever heard that.

Not exactly trying to be adversarial here, but I thought to myself, “Surely, someone must have brought this up or said something.”

Not at all, and I appreciate your perspective. I really was just doing a Joker analogue, and I’m sorry it made you feel that way. I think a lot of this is just due to the fact that I’m not originally from the US. With America, there is a lot of macro-level context because the country’s so powerful and is always broadcasting so much stuff everywhere in the world. But there’s also a nuanced micro level there that I, for one, don’t always know.

Slightly different train of thought, but let’s talk general Castlevania for a second. Laserhawk and Castlevania are obviously very different beasts, but it has been really interesting to see two big video game adaptations this year make such bold reworkings of their characters like Alex, who’s a queer man in Laserhawk, and Annette, who’s a Haitian woman in Nocturne.

With both shows, there have been accusations of “woke pandering,” and I wanted to ask why you feel making these sorts of adjustments to characters can be to a story’s benefit.

If I were to just focus on Laserhawk for a second, because every project is different, would you say Laserhawk is diverse?

I’ve stopped using the word “diverse” since everyone insists on abusing and misusing it. It has a diverse cast of characters by dint of there being a man, some women, a Rayman, and a frogman. Sure. 

That was kind of the answer I was hoping you’d give. We, as a society, create new words all of the time, but because of the internet, the meanings of words like “diverse” and “woke” change, and it’s so easy for them to become politicized. So, when people say “woke pandering—”

That’s just become the reflective response to situations where the main character in a series, for example, isn’t a white guy the way his video game counterpart was. Obviously, Laserhawk is a very unique example because it’s not just a direct adaptation of Far Cry 3. Dolph isn’t the main character in the video game. His being a queer brown man is just sort of who he is, and he’s just presented to us that way.

Exactly.

Image: Netflix

At the same time, though, there are definitely people who see Dolph with his half-cybernetic face, and they think, “Oh, it’s the same guy from the game’s box art! But he’s different. Why? Why is he gay now? What’s the—”

[Laughs] “... the agenda. What’s your agenda here?” Yeah, I don’t really have an answer for that because I’m not coming to the story with an agenda. There’s a world that I see in my head, and I’m almost a guy transcribing what I’m seeing. At no point do I go, “You know what would be great? If I make these changes to appeal to this demographic.” For me, it’s not a business or algorithmically driven plan to attract an audience. It’s more intuitive than that.

I’ve been trying to ask more writers to speak about this — the concept of things “going woke” — because I think, to some extent, the fact that it’s so simple and intuitive the way you’re describing comes as a surprise to people who think it’s forced. 

I didn’t grow up in America, so I don’t understand some biases and certain things that carry weight with Americans. There is a subsection of people that are just angry. And I think there’s also some section of people that have a criticism of, like, “Why did all my TV shows just suddenly change?” It’s not just TV shows; it’s games; it’s comic books — it’s just kind of media as a whole has just shifted into this new paradigm, and it just kind of is what it is at the end of the day.

As you were writing, were you at all thinking about parallels between Laserhawk’s reality and our own in terms of how revolutionary movements foment within collapsing social systems?

With Laserhawk, the goal wasn’t to craft propaganda for or against any social movement, but it was really to create a narrative that mirrors our own biases.

How so?

Every character, I would argue — the heroes and the villains — they all exist within shades of gray. But I wanted to put them in a cartoon, which tends to be, like, very black, very white. There’s Apocalypse, and he’s evil, and then there’s Cyclops, who’s, like, totally good. We wanted to highlight how one of the big perils here is radicalization.

Image: Netflix

Say more about that, because I was really surprised to see how much time the show spends unpacking what “radicalization” looks like and how it can be reinforced through things like Rayman reading propaganda on the news.

With the Rayman-as-propoganda-mouthpiece thing, it wasn’t like a choice as much as it was a vision. I saw two images of Rayman as I was first writing: one of him with Tommy guns; and then the second was of him effectively being the mouthpiece — the chief propaganda officer for the fascist regime. But even with that being the case, he’s been used. He’s as much a victim as everyone else living in Eden.

Laserhawk is far from being the first example of genre fiction telling people to wake up and recognize the ways in which the technological “comforts” of their society are actually part of a surveillance system meant to control them. Why do you think that, despite there being so much exploration of that idea in pop culture, we, as a culture, still seem to be so willing to embrace technologies we know to be more than potentially dangerous?

We define monopolies as something having over 50 percent market share, so the iPhone has a monopoly, right? [Editor’s note: a federal judge ruled in 2021 that Apple doesn’t technically have a monopoly.] But you now have videos and photos of your family and your friends — stuff that was not possible before. Those videos and photos and the ability to take them? That’s some of the good that comes from all of this. It’s not just purely evil or this awful thing that’s going to destroy society. That duality is part of what drives that consumption instinct forward, I think.

Second, we’re suckers for marketing. These things could come with warning labels. But cigarettes still sell, you know? Even with the warnings right on labels. We’re suckers for pleasure and pleasure-seeking, of course. And then finally — and I think this is inevitably the biggest one — is the business apparatus that governs planet Earth. It’s built around this idea of time being money. We got to make more today to pay back the debt from yesterday. So, it puts everyone in this hamster wheel, in this rat race in which corporate entities are competing to maximize profit.

Image: Netflix

Right, Hollywood’s experiencing the consequences of studios prioritizing exponential growth above all else right now.

Yeah, and it wasn’t always like this. It was more of a modern thing. If you go back a few decades ago, people aspired to work for one company their whole life. The leadership of the company took a multiple lifetime approach to company growth. Wall Street has forced the corporate ecosystem of this country to sell a bill of goods that’s fundamentally broken, both to investors and the general public.

How does that make you feel about the future?

Well, I think humans are fundamentally good, and we have the capacity to grow, evolve, and learn. You taught me something today. I don’t know if you’ve ever interned or worked at or read about some of the many methodologies of companies like Bain & Company or McKinsey. What they’re effectively doing, though, is selling the same ideology to every company. You work at McKinsey, you then leave McKinsey, and Texaco or Shell hires you, and what you do when you work at Shell is you hire McKinsey. So it’s like this. There’s this epic kickback mechanism where it’s like a weird fraternity where they’re constantly kicking back consultants. What these management consultants do is kind of shrouded in mystery on some level, but they show up for a few weeks and they tell you the same thing they’re telling everybody else. “This is how you scale. This is how many people you lay off. This is where you outsource.”

So the management consultants effectively created this ecosystem that we’re living in — the ecosystem that business people are forced to play by, and the net result of it is kind of disastrous for society.