Being plain “evil” in sci-fi and fantasy isn’t interesting. Bad guys who want to take over the world don’t compare to the real demagogues on cable news this election cycle. Donald Trump isn’t exactly floating in the far reaches of the galaxy, even if he should be.
But King Zarkon of the Planet Doom (what other planet, really?) was that shallow in the 1984 anime Voltron: Defender of the Universe. Even with an exceptional performance from the legendary Jack Angel, the mad Zarkon was as complex as a two-piece puzzle when he battled Voltron on a weekly basis three decades ago. The sharp-eared, blue-skinned royal posed a challenge for producer Joaquim Dos Santos and voice actor Neil Kaplan, who sought to elevate the beloved robot series to storytelling highs (while keeping them fun) in Voltron Legendary Defender, DreamWorks’s reboot coming to Netflix on June 10.
So, how did they turn a simple super-villain into an engaging antagonist? Well, they made him a bit like those cable news pundits.
“Usually when I play a character the audience comes to call a villain, I don’t necessarily play them as a villain,” Zarkon actor Neil Kaplan tells Inverse. “They’re somebody who feels they have a better idea of how things should be run, and maybe they’re a little more strident about it. They’re more sure, and proceed with more confidence and vigor than the good guys, who occasionally doubt what they’re doing. In his mind, he thinks he’s a good guy.”
That sounds familiar. Is Zarkon trying to make the galaxy great again? Kaplan laughs off the question, before agreeing: “Yes, I think he is absolutely trying to make the galaxy great again.”
Ambiguity in cartoons is something Dos Santos and co-producer Lauren Montgomery know well, given their previous work in Nickelodeon’s animated epics Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. “There’s a depth to [our] Zarkon that wasn’t there in the original,” Dos Santos says to Inverse. “He’s not your standard villain. He definitely does bad things, but we like to create characters and worlds that have a gray area to them.”
And Kaplan specializes in gray villainy. A veteran voice talent, Kaplan has lent his pipes to the heroic Optimus Prime in Transformers: Robots in Disguise. But fans of Saban’s Power Rangers know the New Jersey native is the right choice for an ambivalent bad guy. In 2000, Kaplan voiced the demonic Diabolico, henchman to Queen Bansheera in Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue. Toward the finale, Bansheera turns tyrannical and forces Diabolico to kill one of their own. Enraged, Diabolico rebels and defects to the side of his sworn enemy, the Power Rangers.
“Taking away the fact it was Power Rangers, that story could easily have been in Boardwalk Empire, in The Godfather. It had those elements,” Kaplan recalls of his role. “One of the reasons Diabolico stays with me 15 years later is exactly because he had something not a lot of characters have. [His arc] says a lot about the value of loyalty. I found it reflective of a classic gangster story, where the big boss betrays the tiny underling. It opens their eyes to the lack of loyalty at the top, and how that can affect perception.”
The storyline is still remembered today, evidenced by Kaplan’s run-ins with gushing fans at conventions. “It still is a seminal role in all the stuff that I’ve worked on, and I love the fact that both [Power Rangers and Voltron] are on Netflix.”
Kaplan looks forward to meeting Voltron fans. “I’m just thrilled to be able to talk about it,” he says after having to keep quiet the past year during production. “I couldn’t even go to a convention and buy a Voltron t-shirt. I knew if I did, somebody would tweet about it and I would get in trouble.”
He admits there aren’t many similarities between Zarkon and Diabolico, but he doesn’t dismiss their resonance, either. “You may hear a similar note now and then in the voice, but that’s just because these are two powerful characters with a clear goal. I think this clicks on all cylinders.”
Voltron Legendary Defender will premiere on Netflix June 10th.