Flying Through a Mirror, Cracked: Adi Shankar’s The Guardians of Justice

A long time ago, I read a story by Grant Morrison in his Lovely Biscuits collection called “I am a Policeman.” The short fiction is prose reading like some postmodern, or hypertext writing where everything is referential and fragmentary, but it’s something of a kaleidoscope as well: a fast-paced merry-go-round in an intensely voyeuristic-participant culture. 

In a lot of ways Morrison’s story, despite being the mess that it is, anticipated the creation of the Internet and memetic culture. It’s this cracked rotating lens that reminds me of the relentless piece that is Adi Shankar’s Netflix series The Guardians of Justice

I will be honest with you: I’d heard about the project coming in passing, though like a few others I felt inundated with many of the superhero revisionist, and reconstructionist, series that have been released these past two years. I mean, between The Boys, Invincible, and Peacemaker alone following, in turns, the realistic and humorous – almost ludicrous – reinventions of caped and otherwise crusaders can get quickly exhausting. And I will also admit that when I watched the first episode of The Guardians, I wasn’t impressed.

It’s true. I love the premise. The Superman analogue in Shankar’s insanely patched together post-WWIII world made after the destruction of a cybernetically reanimated Adolf Hitler – one Marvelous Man – grows tired and depressed in preventing our species’ slide towards self-annihilation, and decides he can’t take it anymore: ending his life. It then becomes the task of the Batman analogue, Knight Hawk, to discover if his public death is really a suicide, or the result of someone else’s convoluted plan to destabilize the world Marvelous Man watched over for forty long years. 

The idea of this other alternate 1980s of heroes and villains, gods, and monsters,  is great on paper, but if you go by the first episode alone, the characters come out flat. They are barely disguised analogues to DC’s Justice League, and the narrative sequences jump all over the place. There are some great parts as well. Some of the characters act over-the-top, especially Knight Hawk with his best gruff, and gravelly Batman voice impression, and President Nukem, as played by Christopher Judge, is amusing as all get out, and I’ve missed him since StarGate. Even so, I just didn’t know where it could go after the first episode, and I was leery of committing to six more episodes. 

Yet I also needed something to get my mind into that place where I could stop being both over-focused on my other writing tasks, and loosen it up again to undertake more creative possibilities. It also helped that many other people were genuinely enjoying the series, and I decided to give it another shot.

So without going into spoilers, let me tell you what The Guardians of Justice is like. Imagine Adi Shankar’s Bootleg Universe, of which this is a part: where he takes concepts and he both makes fun of them, but also sometimes realistically depicts them, and handles them with care. The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, Venom: Truth in Journalism, Power/Rangers, and Castlevania all come to mind, right?

Now imagine the ethos in those creations, the equivalent of creating your own heroic action figures by soldering them together with a magnifying glass and glue-gun under the sun in the daylight that your parents force you to play in after school back in the Eighties and Nineties, and add some Ralph Bakshi rotoscoping segments, some Edgar Wright and Capcom 16-bit battle animation scenes right out of the video game that should be made from this complete with life bars and Mortal Kombat “Finish Thems!,” some Super Sentai Power Rangers and Turbo Kid moments, some 1990s Claymation segues that might as well be American Saturday “After these Messages, We’ll be Right back” cartoons, and sensibilities interjected into DC and Marvel hero and villain analogues and interactions that you can now find in any Steven Kostanski, and Troma film, and what you get is something that could be The Guardians of Justice

It’s kind of inspiring to see how incredibly mixed media this seven episode series is, and there are just so many references, and events going on at once of which it is incredibly easy to lose track. Seriously, watching these episodes are like being in the playground in the Eighties and Nineties, an informative period in many Millennial lives – a generation of which Adi Shankar is definitely a part – except while he definitely has characters that glorify war, homophobia, the war against drugs, and American machismo, their stereotypical depictions also serve to critique these aspects through the utilization of diversity: many people of colour, different nationalities, languages, and LGBTQ+ characters and relationships. 

The mixed media is that cracked kaleidoscope I mentioned earlier, but it just keeps moving around as it makes fun of itself, and yet sometimes stops for moments of painful clarity. This approach to different facets of storytelling or expression a Unified Field Theory barely held together by model glue does skip past many sequences, and it is so easy to get lost, and many tropes do unfold they way you would think. 

I’ve followed Adi Shankar over the years, and his Bootleg Universe. And I have read and listened to some of his interviews, even at one point asking him a question and interacting with him for a time, about his creative and personal struggles. Growing up in the 1980s as an Indian immigrant turned American citizen, and having a unique mind and a host of mental health challenges already gives you a unique perspective on the popular culture and franchises of that time that have been making their renaissance during the aughts and onward, such as they are. It’s like watching all of Adi Shankar’s stories from that time, informed by his production and creative work, and growing up unfolding all at once. And there is something incredibly eerie about the series, of which he’s worked on and off on, coming out during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and America’s own struggles with its identity internally, and on the world stage … and the rest of the chaos on Earth right now.

I feel like there are so many people, scholars and critics alike that could do more justice to The Guardians, so to speak, than I can. I just keep thinking about what it is like: and I imagine, again, something akin to an irreverent Watchmen, maybe even a Pat Mills’ Marshal Law reality on drugs, along with some Kostanski Man-Borg that is a spectacle entertaining to the discerning nerd and geek from those times, and everyone else informed by them. It is definitely not like the contemporary other superhero series I mentioned earlier: two of them live-action versions of comics or heroes, and one of them an animated adaptation. These are a series of mediums Frankensteined together, and I feel … The best way for me to phrase this is that just as one person both wins, and loses, at the end of this series, we as the viewers do the same. Perhaps with more re-watching on our part, and more reflection on this particular character’s, we might glean more over what we missed. And honestly? After that genuinely gut-wrenching twist and ending, I really want to see if there is going to be another season, and where this glorious nostalgic gestalt media chaos goes from there.

I feel like everything I’ve read, and watched – from the superhero genre to even the weird and horror genre – and played has prepared me for this, and it is a natural product of a global culture where all of these tropes and memes have been brought together. Perhaps, as Logan Lockwood – the Lex Luthor analogue as portrayed by Adi Shankar himself – puts it, it is all the result of branding and ideology. Maybe it is a mess for its own sake, and it is supposed to be just more ironic interpretations of the same. Yet like Grant Morrison’s “I am a Policeman” and other writing akin to it, I deeply respect it for the experiment in storytelling that it is. Also, I was entertained, and I feel like if my childhood self had the knowledge that I do now and the Internet and media access that exists in this day, I might have made something like this too, and it definitely bears mentions mentioning in this Mythic Bios: because the creation of The Guardians of Justice, and the love behind it, is utterly inspiring. 

I’ve Got Such a Headache: Power / Rangers Short Film Taken Down

A long time ago, during the era of the first Power Rangers team, Tommy Oliver — the Green Ranger — had been manipulated by the evil sorceress Rita Repulsa to attack his fellow Rangers. However, when he came to their side, she had a contingency plan. Rita created a candle that, when its flame went out, Tommy’s powers would be lost to him forever.

Now another flame on another magical candle also threatens to extinguish itself.

Green Candle

Adi Shankar and Joseph Kahn produced and directed, respectively, a fan-made fourteen minute film on the Internet which, essentially, is a gritty revisionist take on the Power Rangers: set after the Rangers’ battle with the Machine Empire and what seems to have been a truce. This got the attention of both new fans, and old: with over 12 million YouTube views in two days.

Unfortunately, Haim Saban — the owner of Saban Brands and the Power Rangers franchise — forced Vimeo and YouTube to take down the video: threatening legal action.

Power Rangers itself is a fascinating phenomenon itself. It is an American adaptation and revision of the Japanese Super Sentai genre or trope: in which a team of five people through various means possess colour-coded uniforms, fight evil beings with special powers and martial arts, and gain giant machines or mecha to fight the monsters that are also increased in strength and power. It is not uncommon for young men and girls to be the heroes of these Super Sentai story arcs.

So, in a way, one can argue that Saban Brands’ Power Rangers is its own take of a much longer-running idea. One can also argue that Power Rangers is, in itself, a parody of violence, destruction, and character development. Like the Super Sentai genre itself, it’s primarily aimed for children with a downplaying of violence and consequences in order to protect what some societies consider to be basic children’s comprehension and sensibilities.

Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers came to Fox in 1993. An entire generation of, at least North American, children watched the show with the antics of Bulk and Skull, Ernie’s Juice Bar, Rita Repulsa animating monsters made out of clay, cardboard buildings and scenery being obliterated by giant robot dinosaur Zords, and the friendships between five Power Rangers. What Shankar and Kahn did was they took the action genre of the 2000s with its revisionist elements — embodied for good or ill best by the new Transformer movies — and created their own fan film.

Joseph Kahn’s Power / Rangers is a film that not only parodies the lack of psychological consequences in the gritty violence, action, melodrama, and sleek props and over the top CGI effects (in contrast to cheap-looking costumes and the Power Rangers’ ridiculous cardboard cut-outs), but it also manages to parody the form of the gritty reboot itself while telling its own compelling story.

And, more importantly with regards to copyright, it did this for free.

Kahn and Shankar made no profit from creating this fan film. They didn’t even crowdfund its making. It all came entirely from out of pocket. It even has a disclaimer in the end credits stating that it is a non-profit work that was not meant to interfere with anything that Saban Brands or Lionsgate might be up to with regards to their own movie. Yet while both film-makers plan to challenge the removal of their film, there is one question that remains: why did Haim Saban have their video removed in the first place?

One possibility is that, with the creation of the next Power Rangers film in 2016, Saban Brands might want to maintain their franchise’s image as “child-friendly.” Power Rangers has had complaints from parents in the past about violence and if some perceived the reboot to be a part of that franchise, Saban Brands might think its reputation could be held in question.

Of course, there is always the argument that Eric Buchman presents in his article Where’s The Line Between Fan-Fic and Copyright Infringement? Ask The Power Rangers to consider. He claims that perhaps the usage of well-known actors, professional direction, and top-notch props and special effects might have made Saban Brands feel threatened: as though they were facing someone who had the technological and financial means to genuinely steal their franchise.

But if you take the technology and money away — of which both film-makers themselves provided — what does that leave us with? It leaves us with some fanfiction or a fan work that any geek with the means could have made. Certainly, on a personal note, an old friend of mine and I used to create new Power Rangers adventures and act them out through free-form roleplaying sessions during recess: and I’m sure that we are not alone. But in fan cultures that create derivative works from their favourite franchises, that even interact with them on any creative level through actual input or homages — even with disclaimers involved — where do you draw the line? And what does that say about the relationship between content creators and their fan-bases?

Power /Rangers‘ candle may have already gone out, but can Saban Brands’ really take the power away from the Power Coin in the hands of fans?

Green Candle 2