Guardians of Justice comes to Netflix as an “Adi Shankar Experience,” under the umbrella of the Indian-American producer, writer, and media figure’s Bootleg Universe brand, which rose to prominence with guerilla action fan-made films that featured on YouTube. The seven 30-minute episodes of Guardians feed off that satirical energy to fuel a manic take on superhero culture and feature everybody from pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page and Swamp Thing actor Derek Mears to Denise Richards, Brigitte Nielsen, and Kellan Lutz.
GUARDIANS OF JUSTICE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: “I was there when everything changed,” Knight Hawk (Diamond Dallas Page) tells us in voiceover, and we flashback 40 years to 1947 and the height of World War 3, when “humanity was determined to end itself.”
The Gist: 1987. In the Guardians of Justice timeline, everything really did change 40 years ago, when Marvelous Man (Will Yun Lee) arrived on Earth and smashed the tools of war, much to the chagrin of cyborgian mecha-bot Adolf Hitler. A flurry of headlines fills in more Marvelous moments, like how he defeated an ancient kraken and prevented the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and by the 1970s, President Nixon had established a superhero group to assist Marvelous Man in protecting the world.
The Guardians of Justice include Knight Hawk, the famous street vigilante; The Speed (Shari Vinson), who’s “faster than Marvelous Man”; Golden Goddess (Preeti Desai), “princess of the god realm”; Awesome Man (Derek Mears), who has harnessed divine power; Blue-Scream (Jackson Rathbone), whose power is a sonic shout; Black Bow (Tiffany Hines), a sharp shooter and reality show star; and King Tsunami (Kellan Lutz), “overlord of the oceans.”
Marvelous Man was always indestructible. But on the 40th anniversary of his arrival, a dejected Marvelous makes a shocking announcement on live TV. “I’m a prisoner in this bulletproof skin,” he says, and appears to blow his brains out with a bullet made from the godkilling substance caltronite. The world is shocked at his suicide, while Marvelous Man’s wife Laura Louis (Denise Richards) swears it was murder, and powerful private military poobah Addison Walker (Jane Seymour) urges Knight Hawk to investigate the circumstances around the shooting. US President Nick Nukem, meanwhile, reassures his country as he asserts its power. “Even with Marvelous Man gone, our enemies will continue to fear us.”
Nuclear brinkmanship is at play in the corridors of power as the Guardians fan out to confront the grab bag of international problems Marvelous Man would’ve tackled. Cyborg T-rexes are attacking Syria. There’s a massive mudslide in India. A terrorist known as The Scottish Skull has hijacked a US Navy sub. And a new drug called “Mellow Devil” is loose on the streets of Los Angeles. Can the remaining Guardians hold it together long enough to keep civilization on the straight and narrow?
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Imagine the alternate histories of Watchmen, only on a more absurdist wavelength. Or the friction at the heart of Peacemaker that arises out of interpersonal conflict and the quaking personal demons inside these powerful people. Now figure in Guardians creator Adi Shankar, who is well known for his satiric takes on pop culture and revisionist savvy. Shankar was also behind Castlevania, Netflix’s well-received animated take on the gothic video game first birthed in the ’80s.
Our Take: In its riot of visuals and breathless narrative, the 29-minute premiere of Guardians of Justice packs quite a punch. A gonzo stew of live action, manipulated stock footage, 8-bit weirdness, and animation styles cycling quickly between blocky 1980s Saturday morning TV and Japanese anime throws everything onto the screen simultaneously, to the point that jokes and storyline and intent become one big splotchy amoeba. Yes, there are questions surrounding the death of Marvelous Man. Yes, there’s infighting within the Guardians team.
Yes, the president is jockeying for war, and yes, Addison Walker is bent on maintaining the international balance of power by whatever means necessary. (Walker warns Knight Hawk that she has the power to install martial law “on the world.”) Those beats of the story are there.
But what’s also here are choppy cutaways to extended pop culture gags – Knight Hawk’s introduction is a riff on the 1960’s Batman TV show, complete with “thwap!” and “pow!” effects – and sketch show-style interstitials, like a blink and you’ll miss it appearance from Andy Milonakis, or the frame of Hal Ozsan as a conservative late-night TV host tracking the uproar over Marvelous Man’s demise. Guardians of Justice has a story to tell. But it’s just as happy to brandish all of the giddy chaos at work in its slapdash-built universe.
Sex and Skin: Nothing here.
Parting Shot: Two beat cops are trolling down a long hallway full of shot-up corpses, bullshitting casually as they point out the more egregious kill shots. As the credits roll, a maniacal laugh is heard, and a malevolent figure appears.
Sleeper Star: The bickering between the Guardians is well-established from the start, with Shari Vinson giving The Speed a few layers of mystery into her character, and the side beef between two Twilight alums – Kellan Lutz’s King Tsunami and Jackson Rathbone’s Blue-Scream – offers early returns on laughs.
Most Pilot-y Line: “Because of the questions surrounding Marvelous Man’s death, every country is pointing the finger at one another,” Walker tells Knight Hawk. “The only way this ends without an all-out nuclear holocaust is if you find out who really killed Marvelous Man.”
Our Call: STREAM IT. Guardians of Justice gleefully snipes at all things superhero even as it riffles through twentieth-century history and pop culture ephemera to concoct its absurdist world.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges