Since Netflix’s reveal of the Cowboy Bebop opening titles last month, fans of the original sci-fi anime seem polarized in their opinion in the lead-up to the premiere of the upcoming live-action adaptation. Reception is split between those who think the series looks like an entertaining, fresh take on a beloved anime classic, and those who think it looks like a cloyingly self-aware fan video — albeit one with an admittedly huge budget.
These criticisms have been directed at everything from the editing of the trailers, the look of stars John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda in their costumes, to even the appearance of supporting characters like Vicious, Spike Spiegel’s nemesis, played by Alex Hassell (Suburbicon). And to be honest, he does look ridiculous. Look at the man. He looks like a guest judge on Iron Chef who’s about to reveal the secret ingredient. He looks like Lurch from The Addams Family cosplaying as Alucard from Castlevania. He looks like a Spirit Halloween knock-off costume of Rhaegar Targaryen.
That isn’t necessarily the creators of the Netflix show getting it wrong. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Alex Hassell’s take on Vicious is right in line with the character from the 1998 series. It’s impossible for Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop to “ruin” Vicious because, truthfully, the character of Vicious in Cowboy Bebop was already terrible to begin with.
Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichirō Watanabe first introduces Vicious using silent flashbacks and context clues in the fifth episode, “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” He’s a high-ranking member of the Red Dragon syndicate, a criminal organization to which Spike previously belonged before he became a bounty hunter. Vicious and Spike were former partners and friends when they were younger, both mentored by a senior Red Dragon member named Mao Yenrai. A rift formed between the pair when Spike fell in love with Julia, Vicious’ girlfriend at the time.
In “Jupiter Jazz Part 1 & 2,” it’s revealed that at some point in Vicious’ life, likely after Spike left the Red Dragon syndicate and faked his own death, he served as a soldier in a war on the moon of Titan alongside Gren, a former comrade whom he accused of serving as a spy and testified against in military court. Vicious is a sadistic, cold, bloodthirsty, and unambiguously “vicious” man (it’s even his name!) who wants power and will stop at nothing to get it. Also, he wields a katana and has a big crane-like bird for a pet that’s filled with explosives. And that’s about it.
Vicious is the primary foil to Spike and the closest thing the series has to a major recurring character, apart from the core cast of Spike, Faye, Jet, and Ed. He appears in a total of five out of the series’ 26 episodes. Despite this, he’s more a vague antagonistic presence than a character himself. His dialogue consists almost entirely of terse, ominous quips like, “When Angels are thrown out from Heaven, they become Devils,” or, “Cold climates do not concern me.” He’s a one-note anime antagonist without any discernible arc or motivation other than being an asshole. In contrast to Spike, a likeable and multifaceted protagonist with depths of personality and nuance, Vicious just pales in comparison. He amounts to a character who’s exclusively cool to 13-year-olds.
So I’m not saying I never thought Vicious was cool back when I watched the series during its original Adult Swim run. And there are arguably way edgier and more thinly characterized anime villains than Vicious — just look at Raditz from Dragon Ball Z, or Shogo Makishima from Psycho-Pass. All I’m just saying is that it’s been a long time since I was 13. I’ve come to expect more now when it comes to characterization in the anime that I watch.
For example, there’s Mereum, the main antagonist of Hunter x Hunter’s Chimera Ant arc, who’s arguably more ruthless and violent than Vicious ever was; his evolution over the course of the arc finds the audience understanding and even sympathizing with him as he struggles to reconcile the human and half-insect aspects of his own nature. My Hero Academia’s Tomura Shigaraki essentially begins the series as the lackey apprentice of All Might’s nemesis All For One before gradually growing into a formidable and cunning adversary himself. Even Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood’s Father has his own arc as the former dwarf homunculus, a creature incapable of performing alchemy himself, aspires to Godhood in his dogged quest for absolute knowledge and self-empowerment. Vicious pales in comparison to these examples for the simple fact that he has no discernible arc or objective that define his goals counter to Spike’s, apart from the simple desire for power for its own sake.
For a series as lively and original as Cowboy Bebop, which riffs off of several vastly different genres like sci-fi, noir, and Westerns in the creation of its own colorful cast of characters and universe, Vicious is a disappointingly flat sadboy nihilist with a propensity for perching himself on narrow ledges and just generally being a creep. If anything, the costume design for Alex Hassell’s live-action portrayal of Vicious is a dead-on depiction of this. Also, with over two decades of time separating the production of the original anime and Netflix’s live-action adaptation, there’s more than enough room to improve upon Spike’s nemesis.
Speaking to Polygon, Cowboy Bebop showrunner André Nemec said that developing the story of John Cho’s portrayal of Spike also meant fleshing out his relationship with Julia, played by Elena Satine of The Gifted. Nemec describes Julia as “more of an idea than a character” in the original anime, a description that could be used to describe Vicious as well. Whether the same level of attention will be paid to Vicious will become clear when Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop premieres this fall.