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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.