What if Superman offed himself? If the big blue boy scout blew his alien brains out? “News guy wept and told us,” wrote David Bowie in Five Years about the Earth really dying: “Cried so much his face was wet; Then I knew he was not lying.” That’s what we get in The Guardians Of Justice (Netflix), a bizarre low-fi deconstruction of the superhero myth, a series that may not feature Superman or Batman but has a lot to say about them. “Marvelous Man” is dead and his team, the Guardians of Justice, must make sense of this newly godless world. A newsman (who proclaims himself the voice of the nation) sobs like a heartbroken schoolboy.
Imagine pasting memes together to assemble a storyline. Created by Adi Shankar—showrunner of the critically acclaimed Castlevania series (Netflix) and an executive producer of Gangs Of Wasseypur—this series meshes live action, animation and a wild 1980s video-game aesthetic to create lurid, entertaining commentary on superheroes and the hunger with which audiences consume them. It’s a down and dirty series, cheesy in its darkness, both parodic and instantly compelling. There is a distinct DIY feel, making the series instantly familiar to anyone who ever cut-and-paste old comics to tell their own superhero stories. Stories where superheroes did things they would never be allowed to do in their own comics.
In the alternate reality of The Guardians Of Justice, a third World War took place in 1947, and since then powerful hero Marvelous Man (played by Will Yun Lee) has been maintaining world peace and thwarting assassination attempts—we see shaky newsreel footage of him intercepting the bullet meant for American president John F. Kennedy. But now in 1987—blam!—he kills himself on live television (the word “Fatality” fills screen and speakers, as if a Mortal Kombat opponent has been despatched). Enter his colleague Knight Hawk, played by 1980s wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, raspy and gruff, sounding like a porn parody of Batman.
Knight Hawk is convinced Marvelous Man was murdered, and a mystery unravels, spilling down shadowy noir hallways: drugs, affairs, book deals…the dirtiest of motives. The first glimpse of Knight Hawk in action is funny, with exclamation marks, Biffs and Ka-Pows appearing on screen like the classic Batman TV show, but the show gives us a grizzly Frank Miller-esque Batman. Despite its visually inventive, even cartoony approach, Guardians tells a sobering story and the actors play the material with admirably straight faces. Page, a wrestler once famous for a finishing move called the Diamond Cutter, may never have approached any material with this much seriousness. At one point, beaten and bloodied, the word “Cough!” appears against Knight Hawk.
Casting a wrestler feels right for a world where the possibility of World War 4 is announced across television with the bluster of WrestleMania promos. There is propaganda everywhere—a “Godkiller” bullet with a Kryptonite-equivalent is advertised by the arms manufacturer with a first-person-shooter style video and the tag line “Powerful. Precise. Patriotic.” The American flag has white sponsor logos where the stars used to be. America has a beefy president who wants to keep his citizens safe and make an example of terrorists, but also identifies homosexuality as a scourge that must be eradicated.
As the show gets darker and we move past identifying spoofed superheroes—Awesome Man, Little Wing and The Meoww are particularly interesting subversions on the originals—it becomes evident that Shankar is doing something more substantial (and more nasty) than a Mad Magazine take on characters and films he has studied closely.
There is, for instance, a quick swipe against Social Justice Warriors as characters criticise the Guardians Of Justice, saying it is unfair of anyone to claim to own the word “Justice” and assume that “anyone who is against them is against justice”. The show is all pulp thrill but the final two episodes pack a solid sucker-punch that questions the intent and morality of superheroes and superhero-addicted audiences. It’s a helluva finishing move.
It takes a while to get used to the inventive aesthetics—and to the budget. We aren’t used to seams and stitches showing up on capes and cowls, and the cast of this series—including Jane Seymour, Denise Richards, and, as Golden Goddess, the striking Preeti Desai once seen in Shor In The City—resembles angry Halloween partiers. This grubby series takes an unashamedly B-movie approach to the superhero genre—something that befits violent comics and something we don’t see now as comic-book movies become billion-dollar properties.
The mega-budgeted Venom films try for a B-movie sensibility but Guardians feels closer to James Gunn’s grimy Super, or to Sam Raimi’s smashing 1990 film Darkman, a superhero the film-maker created after being unable to get the rights to Batman and The Spirit. That approach, of creating one’s own versions of popular intellectual property, is what once led Alan Moore to create Watchmen, and is the reason I despise adaptations of Moore’s work— including the overrated Watchmen series—that get made despite the artist’s vehement opposition.
Shankar has created something highly original out of something all too familiar. He also acts in the series as the arms manufacturer who has created the Godkiller bullet, a most appropriate role for someone shattering superhero concepts and mercilessly taking down icons. “Peace is boring,” a character says about the public appetite for war and hysteria. You may argue about Shankar’s work—about stereotyping, sexism, his take on fascism—but you cannot call him boring. He’s here to disturb the peace.
Streaming tip of the week:
Inventing Anna, a Netflix true-crime story about a fascinating young con-woman who hoodwinked New York’s elite, is repetitive and painfully long. In case you are curious, watch the first two and last two episodes—the five episodes in between con the audience.
Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.