It’s almost impossible to describe The Guardians of Justice (Will Save You!), and that’s by design. A manic, satirical superhero opera that’s been called “a kaleidoscope of pop art insanity,” the forthcoming Netflix series’ live-action format is augmented and twisted up with traditional animation, claymation, cut-out paper animation, and 8-bit video game footage. It’s created by Adi Shankar, executive producer of the Castlevania series and mastermind of the Bootleg Universe, who states on Twitter “I’m using this platform to recruit people into the cult I’m forming.” The fever dream of Guardians seems like just the right initiation ritual for those wishing to join the fold.
The series is extremely personal for Shankar, and one he’s been laboring over for the better part of a decade. In an interview over email, he was immediately candid about where he found the inspiration for Guardians. “I was incredibly clinically depressed,” he said. “I thought career success would be the cure, and it wasn’t. The success I experienced in the first act of my career dug me deeper and deeper into a hole I didn’t have the tools to crawl out of.” After being prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft in 2014, Shankar explained that as his brain chemistry was being altered, he imagined what would become the opening scene for the series—a stark moment of reckoning for Earth regarding its superheroes.
“Experiencing this show is like living in my mind,” Shankar said, and truly, Guardians is more of an experience than a narrative in any traditional sense. It is ostensibly a superhero show, but Shankar clarifies that “this project is a black comedy social satire inspired by Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
Incorporating elements of “gumshoe detective stories and morally complex westerns,” The Guardians of Justice (Will Save You!) stars Sharni Vinson as the idealistic Speed, alongside Diamond Dallas Page as the bitter and reluctant Knight Hawk. The duo must step up and lead a group of heroes trying to stop a nuclear war threatened by a shadowy cabal, after tragic circumstances depose Earth’s alien protector, Marvelous Man. And yet, it stands outside of other endless comic series or adaptations in every possible way. “The whole show is a giant misdirect, and each episode is completely different,” Shankar told us. “I wanted to play with rhythm and challenge the conventional beats of what a TV series is ‘supposed to be.’” He added that he was “a huge fan of director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall) and how he was able to make movies that were simultaneously seminal entries in the genre while being satires of the genre.”
A big part of making that happen is how Shankar crafts the show’s visuals, where—from one moment to the next—viewers are tossed through a cacophony of sights and sounds. “This is a reflection of how my memories work,” he said. “When I think, remember, or imagine, usually it exists in serval tones, color schemes, and mediums including animation and a fast-paced hyper reality.” But in regards to the logistics of putting all these elements together in a fluid motion, “it was infuriating, emotionally taxing, and mentally difficult.” He went on to explain, “I had to learn the vocabulary of each medium and become a better communicator of specific ideas. The hard truth is that I did not enter this project with the skillset to effectively communicate my vision to the folks who were working on the project for me, and in order to complete the gargantuan task of Guardians of Justice (Will Save You!) I had to, in a trial by fire kind of way, develop that skill.”
The other major component of Guardians’ offbeat nature is the casting; the series features Denise Richards, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Zachery Ty Bryan, Jane Seymour, Brigitte Nielsen, RJ Mitte, Andy Milonakis, and many, many more. “I feel like actors get unfairly categorized and typecast by the tone of their most prominent work,” Shankar said. “You’re a ‘CW actor,’ an action star, a soap opera actor, a ‘good’ actor, a blockbuster actor, a reality star, a horror actor, an ‘Oscar type.’ In my experience, most artists have a broader range of performance capability then the professional industry classifies them into. That said, I wanted to purposefully utilize this classification bias to create an ‘eclectic’ cast to convey the feeling of various worlds coming together to solve a problem.”
But it’s his leads, Vinson and Page, that Shankar spoke the most effusively about. After meeting Vinson in 2010 and seeing her star on the rise in the wake of Step Up 3D and You’re Next, Shankar said he was “perplexed” that she wasn’t getting bigger roles. “It felt like the Hollywood machine didn’t know what to do with her, because those kinds of roles at the time weren’t being created for women. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with her.” As for Page, “Dallas and I have known each other since 2010 also. There’s a lot I can say about his involvement in both the production and my personal life, and how his belief in me was ultimately the fuel I needed to become the version of myself that could complete and deliver this insanely complicated project that required more man hours than I can count. But at the moment I’m reminded of something Roger Avary (Killing Zoe) once said to me, which was ‘Cast your friends. Making art is very hard and you need as many people who believe in you in your corner to get it done.’”
Guardians is, in many ways, a leap of faith. “As you can see with the chaotic nature of the final product, until the final hour it was not clear to anyone what I was trying to make or if it would work,” Shankar said regarding the challenges of such a unique project. “It’s easy to say I needed to assemble a team that believed in or understood what I was trying to do, but the truth is it started with me having to first learn to believe in myself.” For Shankar, this path was life-changing. “This journey meant realizing that my perfectionism was a construct designed to keep me stuck. This meant understanding that my fear was a safety mechanism that was there to keep me small. That the impostor syndrome I was experiencing was an internal reality trauma response that could be shifted and transmuted.”
And now, it’s truly full steam ahead for the busy creative. He’s helming a Captain Laserhawk series in a collaboration with Ubisoft and Netflix that’s styled as “a bizzaro Elseworlds-style cyberpunk shared universe with several of my favorite Ubisoft brands.” There’s also a A Devil May Cry series in the works based on the Capcom game that is set to begin production next year, which Shankar sees as a way to “level up what was achieved on Castlevania.” And, he’s currently in the development stages of a “rad” PUBG animated endeavor.
But The Guardians of Justice has been a true passion project and labor of love for Shankar. After learning to overcome perfectionism and self-doubt to hone in on his vision, he shared how he was finally able to “put down the paint brush” after over six years of creation and development. Now, he will have to wait to see if viewers are ready to be recruited into his frenetic vision of the universe.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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