I was really sold on the new Castlevania Netflix series by Warren Ellis when our hero, Trevor Belmont, whipped a guy's eye out.
A comic-book writer whose work came of age in the long shadow of Alan Moore and his transformation of beloved four-color properties into brooding adult-oriented entertainment, Warren Ellis has a knack for updating properties. His previous animated TV work, GI Joe, showed he could advance a property's assumed age-range without turning it into a shlocky splatterfest. Castlevania is a splatterfest that nonetheless has something to say, and that doesn't seem cheap, exploitative, or (worst of all) try-hard. There's no post-Watchmen yearning-to-shock here, only a veteran writer's keen ability to fit his own favorite tropes into a familiar property. Even when demons eat babies and a guy gets his eye whipped out.
Set in late 15th century Wallachia, Ellis' Castlevania pits Trevor Belmont against both Dracula's infernal army and a Catholic Church at the nadir of its moral authority. When the church burns Dracula's wife as a witch because she dared to study science in the Count's preposterously awesome electro-clockpunk castle, he turns against humanity and summons an army to destroy it.
Humanity in Castlevania has little to recommend it. There are traces of Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake in the moral ugliness of Belmont's medieval world, with its big-mouthed yeomen and cowardly villagers prone to mob violence. The church inflicts pogroms on vagabonds rather than admit its part in Dracula's genocidal war. Even Trevor Belmont is a smartass, less "90s bad boy" and more "sad drunk," the last of a ragged and excommunicated noble house--a kind of dirtbag Aragorn.
These elements, coupled with the limited facial animation, which causes some of Ellis' jokes to fall flat, can make Castlevania seem distant and callous, but there's much in the series to love: the hints of super-science and time travel are smartly incorporated, Dracula's villainy and Belmont's heroism both have depth and pathos; the action scenes are solid; and good voice acting saves the stiff animation in the talky scenes. Ellis doesn't look down on the at-times simplistic material; instead, he fills it up, giving it meaning where there were previously only mechanics, playing with familiar video game tropes and scenarios without mocking or disregarding them.
The only real problem: so far Castlevania consists of only four 22-minute episodes. Season 1 basically ends at the Character Select screen. Fortunately Netflix has already greenlit eight more episodes for Season 2, so we'll get to see how Trevor Belmont, Dracula, and a growing cast of characters confront a world of cruelty, ignorance, and awesome electro-clockpunk castles.