Last week I took a look at Netflix's Carmen Sandiego, looking into what they've done with the character and how I feel about the choices made. If you haven't read Part 1, CLICK HERE to do so!
They've done a lot with Carmen, and for the most part I've been pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the show. The characters are good, the plot serviceable, and the aesthetics pleasing. But one of the biggest thing I think I brought up was that Carmen no longer feels like a thief, at least not like the thief they're making her out to be. As Agent Jules Argent points out, she's “a thief that only steals from other thieves.” And that's not something Carmen has ever been before. But she's far from the first to hold that moniker. Because before Carmen was stealing from thieves, the man in the red jacket was frustrating the plans of evil megalomaniacs for decades. I think a good way to appreciate what Netflix's Carmen Sandiego is trying to do is to compare it to my favorite thief of all time: Lupin III
ACME vs Interpol
While Chase and Jules do start out as Interpol agents, they quickly transition to ACME agents, a transition, I might note, that doesn't make any real difference to the plot. They get a few new gadgets, but Chase immediately deep sixes two of their cars, loses his key card, and has his fancy pen destroyed. No jetpacks, no “Carmen radars,” no grappling hooks... just a slightly fancier car. Really, if they had been ACME agents from episode one, nothing would have changed.
On top of this, and more to the point of this section, lets look at what ACME actually does in the series. They... occasionally receive stolen goods that Carmen drops into their laps. Otherwise, they really don't do anything. They never catch Carmen. Heck, they never come close. They are barely a nuisance to her.
Let's look at Interpol in contrast, specifically one Inspector Zenigata. Now this man comes off as a buffoon right off the bat, and it's understandable if you think that. Lupin III often makes him look the fool. But Lupin makes everyone look the fool. Zenigata, despite the fact that Lupin usually gets away, is far more effective at his job than Chase or Jules. He is the world's foremost authority on Lupin, and you know what? He's actually caught him more than once!
Zenigata is a legitimate threat to Lupin. Sure, when it's one on one, Lupin gets away 90% of the time, but Lupin is forced to change his plans on a regular basis when Zenigata shows up. He'll be in the middle of a heist and BAM! Zenigata is on the other side of the vault door. Zenigata knows Lupin. The two begrudgingly respect one another. Heck! They've both helped the other out. The difference here is that when Zenigata shows up in an episode of Lupin III, I, as a viewer, know there's a chance that Zenigata will capture Lupin or at the very least foil his plans. When ACME shows up, I know Carmen might have to turn left instead of right.
The Side Characters
Carmen has three people on her side at any given time: Zack, Ivy, and Player. Player acts as her “Man in the Chair,” hacking into security systems, looking up information, and keeping her abreast of the situation. Zack and Ivy are... well... lackies. It's implied that they used to be criminals, possibly car thieves if Zack's excitement over driving a muscle car is to be believed. They're clearly not on Carmen's level, but they can reliably carry out grunt work, the most common of which seems to be dressing up as Carmen.
With a few minor exceptions about not liking fish and being from Boston, the siblings get very little character development. Granted, the show's only one season in, but their impression at the beginning of the season was identical to that at the end. And the Player... I mean... honestly, he could disappear and Carmen would be fine. I don't hate him, but I don't see a lot of the point in his character. He occasionally acts as a sounding board for Carmen's thoughts, but since he's so far removed (literally) from the action, it's hard to feel like he's part of the team.
Let's look at Lupin's gang now. Daisuke Jigen, Goemon Ishikawa XIII, and occasionally the unforgettable Fujiko Mine. To be fair, let's just use the first season of Lupin's “red jacket” series (he's had multiple shows and movies over several decades). In just that first season, we get to learn a lot about the gunman Jigen, the swordsman Goemon, and the femme fatale Fujiko. Episode one is a reunion of the four characters after a significant time apart. Each one enters in a matter that makes their personality and talents clear. Jigen shows off his cynacism and dead-eye aim with a revolver. Goemon demonstrates both his stoicism and prowess with the blade by immediately slicing Jigen's pipe in half. And of course, we find that Fujiko has several lovers/marks set up to fleece, with Lupin being almost an afterthought. Each on gets episodes dedicated to them and each of them interacts with Lupin in a unique capacity.
Fujiko twists him around her finger and usually backstabs him, hovering between ally and rival. Jigen, almost a bodyguard for Lupin, is there to be the voice of reason, to try to bring his head out of the clouds, even though he will eventually go with whatever his friend and boss demands. And Goemon drifts, always loyal, but willing to draw his blade against the thief if he feels Lupin has crossed a line. They actively plan and carry out heists with Lupin, partaking fully in the success or failure. And despite their specialties, each one is capable of just about anything the others are, with disguises being at the top.
The difference here is the impact these side characters have. I can see having any one of Lupin's gang as your favorite, but Zack and Ivy... they're interchangeable. The only difference in the twins is that Zack is more of a numbskull than his sister. Each one of Lupin's gang is an individual with compelling back stories. Carmen's gang is largely unnecessary.
Now on this one, I will give Carmen some credit. I actually really like the villains from the Netflix series, especially the heads of V.I.L.E. The instructors, while slightly single-note characters, are still intensely likable and engaging. The actual students/agents are hit or miss, with Mime Bomb being the obviously best character in the show, but the instructors are pretty great across the board. Shadowsan, Dr. Maelstrom, Countess Cleo, Sarah Bellum, and of course, Coach Brunt. I had to randomize them because I can't tell you which one is my favorite.
You get to see into the minds of the faculty, and to a lesser extent, the agents. They're brought back over and over, allowing some interesting stories with Carmen to play out. The relationships between her and the various elements of V.I.L.E. unravel over the course of the season in a very satisfying, if somewhat surprising, story.
Lupin on the other hand rarely deals with the same villain twice. Sure, he has Zenigata there as a constant threat, but Lupin is either lifting precious treasures from under the noses of local law enforcement, or stealing a score from a rival thief of some sort. There's usually a theme of being a descendant of a more famous criminal or hero (Lupin himself is, of course, the grandson of Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief), but beyond that, we rarely see into the histories of these villains. Lupin globe trots, but instead of meeting the same villains at every turn, he matches wits against the locals. Could be a billionaire tycoon in Monte Carlo or a military despot in the Middle East.
I have to say that Carmen's villains allow me to really get invested with the story, as Lupin, based on a series of manga, is more of your “villain of the week” style of story telling. This week he'll be treasure hunting in Cairo, next week stealing a submarine from the Russian navy. There may or may not be a “villain” in each episode, but he's always squaring off against some kind of antagonist.
The episodic content is certainly fun, but I will say that Carmen's villains allow for a deeper story that can be told over the course of a whole season. The things that happen in one Lupin episode rarely have an effect on subsequent episodes. That's largely a product of the time that Lupin came from, but still, you can watch that show out of order with little consequence and that means I have to appreciate Carmen's villains a little bit more.
The Thief in the Red Jacket
Okay, let's get down to the main event: Carmen vs. Lupin. Now, I'm not here to say that one is better than the other, I just want to use Lupin as a way to contrast the decisions made about Carmen. With that firmly in mind, let's do this.
Carmen, as I've said before, does not feel like a thief. She has gadgets, she's mysterious, and she foils bad guys. She's a secret agent, like James Bond or Jason Bourne. She fights. She quips. She embarrasses the bad guys and returns their loot. Whether she steals or not, she's not a thief. Most of all, she's... well... a bit too good for my tastes. I'm not talking about her abilities or talents. I'm not talking about her parkour skills or encyclopedic knowledge of obscure countries. I mean, she's too selfless. The top thing that bothered me about her being a “thief” wasn't that she returned the goods, but that she donates all the money she steals from V.I.L.E. to charity. All of it. They make a note of it twice in the show that all the money goes to children's charities (and others) which makes me wonder: how does she afford everything? Plane tickets. Train tickets. New gadgets. Hell, all those new hats and jackets! She's so completely selfless that it's a little annoying.
Don't get me wrong. When they're not talking about that, she's awesome. She's an accomplished fighter, hacker, thief (sorta), and so much more. She's a great character. But man... I just can't identify with someone so angelic. She's too good for this world.
Lupin on the other hand is a thief first and foremost. When he steals from other villains it's not to return the treasure to the people (usually), it's because he wants it for himself. He plans heists for his own gain. He may occasionally save the world from a madman or be charitable, but he's not a saint. The few times he gives away an entire haul is usually because he's been tricked into it by a lovely pair of … eyes.
Lupin, at least to me, is more identifiable. He's flawed. Though he can certainly hold his own in most fights, he is far more likely to run than attack. Running, disappearing, blending in, those are Lupin's go-to skills. While he's usually merciful to his foes, he's certainly not above sending a foe to their doom in a way that would make Nathan Fillion proud.
Has he showered entire cities with cash? Yes. Has he let his haul end up in a charity's bank account? Once or twice. But you will never, ever, find Lupin doing any job for free. He's got bills, man!
I can say with full confidence that both Lupin and Carmen are great characters and great shows. This new iteration of Carmen, however, is so different and fresh as to be a fundamentally different person than her previous incarnations. As such, I think that her character has a lot of room to grow and mature. They're not shackling her to the expectations set down by previous shows; she could end up anywhere. This is a good thing, as the show, for all it's merits, still has a lot of room for improvement.
Carmen herself could use some work. I understand that she's intended for young audience and therefore must exhibit certain moral characteristics, and I understand that Lupin was intended for a decidedly not young audience that wanted sex, action, and ostentatious displays, but that doesn't mean that the former can't learn a few things from the latter.
Lupin III is celebrating his 50th anniversary this year. Fifty years of manga, multiple shows, almost yearly movies, video games, stage plays, and this year at Universal Studios Japan, a freakin' ride! That level of success doesn't come by accident.
Carmen, likewise, has a history, but with this new show that is, more or less, out the window. She's starting fresh. She has a lot of potential to be something truly amazing and while I don't want her to emulate Lupin choice for choice, I think some of the decisions that show made could help craft this new Carmen's path toward a long lasting success.
I don't want Netflix's Carmen Sandiego to be the next Lupin III. Heck, I don't even want it to be the old Carmen. I love this show and I want it to be the best Carmen Sandiego it can be.
Be Excellent to Each Other.
Keep your eyes open for my debut novel, The Paladin.