If videogame adaptations are the successive Hollywood trend to superheroes, then Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix on Netflix is a blueprint for execution. The animated show, spearheaded by Adi Shankar, single-handedly creates and justifies an Ubisoft cinematic universe, weaving together elements of Far Cry, Rayman, Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, and a wealth of other franchises.
Releasing on Netflix this October, Captain Laserhawk swiftly cemented itself as one of the best animated series of the year. The gorgeous animation, falling somewhere between an anime series and a Saturday morning cartoon, creates a striking backdrop from which Shankar builds a witty, exhilarating, violent narrative that celebrates and pokes fun at Ubisoft, both past and present.
When I caught up with him soon after the first season premiered, the only thing going through Shankar’s mind was the shock of having gotten the Netflix series out the door. “There’s a part of me that’s in disbelief,” he tells The Digital Fix. “I’m trying to integrate this new reality where Captain Laserhawk is out in the world. Ultimately, I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to have made this show, and everyone I got to collaborate with on the show, Bobbypills, Ubisoft, Mehdi Leffad.”
His surprise is understandable. Captain Laserhawk was announced back in 2019, with Shankar seeming like a natural fit to lead the project given his predilection for anything geeky and his success with Netflix’s Castlevania. We had the pandemic and a number of economic fluctuations since then, throwing many productions into disarray.
Thankfully, Laserhawk stayed the course, and as his first interview post-release, Shankar is contemplative about the whole experience. “It’s easy to get caught up in little rat races and mazes. Do this, promote that, say this, show up here,” he says. “But it’s just about connections you have with people. The deeper those connections. the more rewarding your life ends up being.”
As he so eloquently puts it, the response “is what it is” — all you can ever control is what you’re making and who you’re making it with. For those behind Captain Laserhawk, they get to enjoy the spoils of both, since the reception has been unilaterally strong. At the time of writing, the thriller series has 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, immediately placing it among the best video game movies and TV shows. With The Last of Us and The Super Mario Bros Movie, Captain Laserhawk contributes to what truly seems like a sea change in how major studios approach videogames.
Quite a few creative gambles had to pay off to get us here. Meshing so many unconnected properties ran the risk of making Laserhawk totally unwieldy, and there was the question of whether any fans of these universes would even care. Assassin’s Creed was subject to one failed attempt by Ubisoft to translate a game to film, had that left a bad taste in people’s mouths?
If it had — and that’s presuming you hadn’t completely forgotten that movie existed — Captain Laserhawk is a refreshing cocktail of zesty storytelling and jubilant excitement towards the cast. Remarkably, what we see is close to Shankar’s original pitch. “Ubisoft was just so supportive about everything. The craziest ideas in the show are all in the initial pitch,” he recalls, adding that yes, that includes his version of Rayman as a gun-toting announcer. “Rayman with Tommy guns flippin’ out was literally there.”
Getting to move without restriction was crucial to Shankar’s process. As a longtime producer, most notable to pop culture aficionados as one of the central figures behind 2012’s Dredd, he’s worked with plenty of the best directors and actors on a range of budgets. He notes one thing as potentially poisonous to good art — when business interferes. “All creative people at some point, even if it’s just once in your life, you’ve been in a situation where you’re negotiating the creative,” he states. “And that is awful. It’s always terrible.”
His methods are based in improv comedy, where you capitalize on different notions rather than shutting them down. “We have a saying, ‘You never say no, it’s always yes’. It’s always, you take the craziest idea, you say yes, and then you build on it,” he explains. This process was ‘Yes, and’.”
It’s the kind of methodology that turns the playable characters of SWAT shooter Rainbow Six Siege into a riff on the Power Rangers and leads to an appearance from pro wrestler Kenny Omega as himself. Each of Captain Laserhawk’s six episodes is a treasure trove for people who miss spending their Saturdays bouncing between cartoons, professional wrestling, and videogames ad nauseam.
In between Castlevania and Laserhawk, Shankar crisscrossed various streams of nerdom for an original live-action project called The Guardians of Justice. Taking clear inspiration from Watchmen, The Guardians of Justice is a violent superhero show that looks at what happens when the lynchpin of world peace (in this case, a Superman stand-in called Marvelous Man), suddenly dies.
The ensuing power struggle threatens nuclear destruction, leaving a Batman analog played by former professional wrestler Diamond Dallas Page to figure out what’s really going on. Using an ambitious narrative structure that includes bespoke propaganda, multiple perspectives, Batman ‘66-esque fight scenes, and ample comic book imagery, The Guardians of Justice is a riveting demonstration of Shankar’s abilities.
You could sense it was particularly personal, and he doesn’t shy away from admitting as much. “What I was attempting to pull off had never been done before, or at least I hadn’t seen it before. So the nature of doing it that way was inherently chaotic,” Shankar remembers. “I wanted it to feel chaotic, and on some level, it was also reflecting my internal state at the time, which was lots changing, a lot happening.”
In contrast to his easy relationship with Ubisoft, Guardians was trickier to navigate. “I didn’t know if it could work. You’re going to find when you’re in that situation, more times than not, people who think you’re out of your fucking mind,” he adds. “So you have to kind of fight that disbelief both externally and internally.”
Shankar adds that The Guardians of Justice had a “shockingly low budget,” but that gave him the freedom to make exactly what he wanted, for exactly who he wanted. He uses Arrowverse as an example of something aimed at the largest viewership possible, whereas Guardians was a sort of Bat-signal for like-minded thinkers and dreamers. “In a way, I look at that show as a fishing net, where you’re like, everyone who is into this, come, let’s talk, let’s hang out,” he muses.
The Guardians of Justice and Captain Laserhawk are thematically linked by flawed heroes who refuse to give up on a world that’s falling apart—beacons of hope that flicker amid an ocean of nihilism and corporate and political oppression. When I posit this to Shankar, he goes a step further and brings in his Bootleg Universe short films on YouTube, featuring The Punisher and Power Rangers, as reflections of his positive outlook.
“I have a pretty optimistic view of the world, and a pretty optimistic view of people. I don’t believe anyone is beyond redemption,” he says. “But I think the moment you put someone on such a high pedestal, you’re effectively destroying them. You’re tearing them down. Even when it’s a positive pedestal, you’re tearing them down by stripping them of their humanity, right? Because we are all created equal.”
Something even more refreshing about The Guardians of Justice is that Shankar intended the ending as a proper full stop. I ask about season 2 — something I’d personally love — and he reveals he has ideas, but that wasn’t the plan. “It didn’t really end on a cliffhanger because I viewed it as a closed story,” he says, offering a sliver of hope: “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to continue the story. I know where the story would go, should we continue. I’ve thought that all out. It’s just a question of who and where and when and what.”
Looking at Shankar’s slate, I won’t be holding my breath. He has no less than four separate TV series based on other videogames in development: Assassin’s Creed, PUBG, Devil May Cry, and Hyper Light Drifter. And that’s just what’s been announced. None are at a point where he can tease anything, but Captain Laserhawk and Castlevania have set expectations high.
Shankar’s fiction tends to be deconstructivist by nature, often having the hero realizing the institutions they represent are corrupt, as in Dredd and Captain Laserhawk, or clinging onto some fading sense of purpose, like The Guardians of Justice. As a filmmaker, he’s seen big productions struggle to find their audience on first releases, like Dredd, a film he candidly tells me he doesn’t really want to talk about anymore.
Even though I’m full of questions as a longtime Judge Dredd fan, I can understand why. We’d all like Dredd 2, but nobody seems to want to make it, and that’s just that for the time being. A resolute creator, Shankar’s more concerned about what he can control, and that’s whatever he can make next under the banner of the Bootleg Universe.
“At the end of the day, what is the Bootleg Universe? It’s a point of view,” he says. “If one is to define it purely as short films on YouTube that are playing fast and loose with copyright, that’s a narrow definition. That may be a piece of it. And I’m not saying I won’t do that again. I may do that. I may have already got one and be ready to drop another one,” he teases.
“But the progression of it is The Guardians of Justice and Captain Laserhawk, and whatever comes next,” he adds. In a world so frequently ugly, it’s good to know there’s something to believe in, even if it’s not the hero you might expect.
Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix is available now on NEtflix, alongside Castlevania and The Guardians of Justice. Check out our new on Netflix guide and best Netflix movies list for more recommendations. If you’d prefer to play rather than watch, we have lists for the best Batman games and best horror games.