Adi Shankar is a remixer of media. While the producer/showrunner/storyteller has had his name attached to several films, it is that of his Bootleg Universe that stands out among his work. In taking iconic characters throughout pop culture, Shankar crafts narratives around them that subvert their source material. His Power/Rangers short, one of his most prominent releases, looks at the darker side of the franchise – specifically its weaponizing of youth. Fan fiction is nothing new to geek culture, but Shankar’s work both honors established characters, while peeling back the layers to their source material’s psychology.
Following up on his wildly successful Castlevania anime on Netflix, he eagerly anticipates the release of his new show, The Guardians of Justice (GoJ). On GoJ, Shankar is the creator, producer, a writer, and director. With several nods towards classic comic book characters, GoJ is so much more. It surpasses the realm of media remix Shankar has created in the past, playing out as an adrenaline inducing acid trip of violence and style. A murder mystery meets superheroes meets political satire that takes place in a warped reality reflecting our world – resulting in pure chaos and intrigue.
While the show won’t be out on Netflix until early next year, GoJ makes its premier at Cannes this week. In a two-part interview with Bloody Disgusting, I spoke with Adi Shankar about GoJ. In part one, we discuss the origins behind the show – the influences that helped to shape the show and what the work personally means to Shankar. We also discuss comic book cynicism and his personal relationship with comics growing up, as well some of his favorite characters from GoJ.
Michael Pementel: In a way, is GoJ a reaction to how overpopulated the mainstream has become with superhero stories?
Adi Shankar: I don’t think it’s a reaction to the superhero genre becoming hyper mainstream. In a way it’s just a love letter to the superhero genre. Superhero films aren’t even a genre anymore; GoJ is a love letter to the motifs, the world, and style that is the literary device of superhero stories.
MP: If the show is a love letter, why lean into a cynical atmosphere?
AS: I feel like comic books – the superhero genre in particular, at least the era I grew up reading – existed in a cynical paradigm. They felt authentic to the superhero genre. […] They themselves were cynical of superheroes. Superheroes have been around for a long time – they’ve always been popular – but you effectively had two companies, for all intents and purposes, that controlled two superhero universes. So, when you talk late 80s, early to mid-90s, the comics started getting alt-fictiony [sic], cynical, and existential about their own existence as a genre.
MP: What are the comic book stories from your youth that hit home for you?
AS: I really didn’t understand what I was reading content wise when I was young. We’re talking early to mid-90s at this time, but I had no idea what I was reading because of all the back stories that took place years ago – without that context, a lot of it felt confusing and overwhelming. So my entry point to superheroes were actually these trading cards; you could look at a character, be like, “That character looks cool,” then you could read the back, and in a paragraph, learn about who this character is. Through these trading cards I came to understand what was going on in the stories.
At this point in my life, I was more drawn to the artwork than I was to the stories. Because at this time I’m a blank canvas; I hadn’t read a superhero story, so I don’t know what’s a cliché and what’s new or innovative.
As I began to get more into reading comics, I was really drawn into cross over events. Someone once handed me a stack of random comic books, and among them was one called Maximum Carnage, where you had all these different characters and it was centered around an apocalyptic type of event. There was also the Fatal Attractions mini-series where Wolverine famously lost his Adamantium. It was cool because [the X-Men were on] a space station and had this Buzz Aldrin vibe to their spacesuits.
MP: What are some other works of media and/or artists that aided in influencing GoJ and that you wanted to pay homage to?
AS: John motherfucking Carpenter. There’s absolutely no one more responsible for revolutionizing genre cinema than John Carpenter. There was a fusionairy [sic] impulse that Carpenter had that is at the heart of what I wanted to do with The Guardians of Justice. Now obviously we’re fusing different things; Carpenter was fusing Tales From The Crypt with Howard Hawks, I’m melding a filmation [sic] style to like, darkness and global chaos.
Another influence, Natural Born Killers, the Oliver Stone film. Now I’ll be clear, I did not like Natural Born Killers, I did not like the plot, the story. Though, what I watched it for was the visual ingenuity Oliver Stone achieved. The film shifts wildly between different formats, from sitcom to outlaw animation. I don’t want to say it unlocked a world of potential in my mind, because I was already speaking those terms – I was wondering why movies didn’t do that [regarding varying stylization]. The film proved to me that the format of a scene could shift depending on the creative necessities at the moment.
Regarding other inspirations and homages: Mortal Kombat. There are major fight scenes that literally become Mortal Kombat [regarding] the onscreen text and announcer. Another influence is Kung Fury. I watched Kung Fury and I thought it was absolutely genius. I thought that shit should be winning awards everywhere.
There’s also Paul Verhoeven. I mean, I think this is a cheat one, because to say that Paul Verhoeven was an inspiration – he is an inspiration for 90% of movies that come out now. Also Saturday morning cartoons. Ultimately the show is a Saturday morning cartoon, just done partially in live action. Lastly, though there are more influences, the Animatrix.
MP: What is your favorite character from GoJ and who was your favorite character to write?
AS: There’s a superhero panda in the show; the fuckin’ panda is sick. His name is Teen Justice Panda. So that’s cool.
Regarding favorite character to write, the President. I wrote him as how I felt what people outside America hear when the American President speaks. As someone who straddles both worlds [being an immigrant] – I’m very American, but I’m also not – I’m able to thread this needle that was easy for me to do because of this unique background that I have.
MP: On a personal level, what does GoJ represent to you?
AS: One way to kind of view this project is that, this is a love letter to everything I loved about America growing up. Both good and bad. There’s really two geneses to this. The first, I was walking around a Wal Mart the year I moved to America by myself full time which was 2001. It was September, a few days before 9/11, and I thought, “Man you know what would be really cool? If someone made a DVD of different takes on superheroes.” The second genesis, months before this project began, I was experiencing some pretty intense sadness and depression. Which, I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who reads this or who hasn’t watched the show yet, but that [depression is reflective within GoJ]. But that’s when this project came up. As the project progressed though – and the execution of this idea – so much of my life has been America. American comic books, American TV shows, American pop culture, American propaganda, etc. In a lot of ways, GoJ is a remix of everything that has influenced me. […] There’s a lot in there that are homages to video games, cartoons, literary stuff, and cinema.
MP What is it you wanted to say through GoJ?
AS: I was just trying to explore the intersection between mythology, power, and fascism, and how logos plays to that. The show is as much Wag The Dog and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – it’s more that than a superhero story. I wasn’t trying to make a superhero show. I like superheroes as a concept, but I don’t care about them on a cellular level because they are just constructs. This project is how I see America. This is like an outsider’s view of America.
Keep a look out for later this week when we publish part-two of my interview with Adi Shankar, where we discuss more on The Guardians of Justice, as well as dig into his creative background.