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Adi Shankar broke in, blew up, spiraled, healed, then made Netflix’s weirdest show ever

The Guardians of Justice is a gory mixed-media experiment fueled by genuine passion

Photo of Adi Shankar in front of comic book art Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

A 23-year-old Adi Shankar rolled into Los Angeles in 2009 without a clue of how to make movies or TV shows, but he did have comic book legend Todd McFarlane’s office number. So the scrappy Indian kid, fresh off quitting his job at Discover Card, rang McFarlane — over and over and over again until someone picked up. When McFarlane finally answered, Shankar didn’t mince words. “I told him everyone was a loser and I should be doing the Spawn movie,” Shankar recalls. McFarlane was … baffled. There was no way in hell he was granting some kid the rights to Spawn. But he agreed to meet Shankar for coffee, to maybe teach him a thing or two about breaking in. The budding filmmaker soaked up every word.

Shankar has never had a daydream he couldn’t manifest into some form of reality. While the producer’s most mainstream hit, Netflix’s animated series Castlevania, might seem like run-of-the-mill adaptation in the era of slapdash IP conversion, for Shankar it was another moment of calling his shot — and in that case, literally making it happen. “I showed up to Los Angeles and I wanted to make Mortal Kombat, Duke Nukem, and Spawn,” he says of his early days of being a video game kid with big ideas. “Like, that’s it. I didn’t give a shit about anything else.”

Six years ago, the producer “wanted to make a fucking Batman movie without any adults around.” As with Spawn, the chances of DC granting him his literal wish were slim. So Shankar did it his way, piecing it together year after year. The Guardians of Justice, which quietly crept onto Netflix on March 1, is not technically a Batman movie, but it does star one of Shankar’s idols, three-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion Diamond Dallas Page, as Knight Hawk, a gravelly, cowl-wearing mere mortal hero tasked with investigating the untimely death of his superhuman pal Marvelous Man in order to avert nuclear war. An experimental mix of live action, 3D and 2D animation, claymation, 8-bit retro game art, archival footage, vaporwave laser lights, and even paper cutouts, the seven-episode series defies superhero conventions ingrained by DC and Marvel. Parts feel like Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, others like MTV’s Liquid Television, and a few bits even recall the seminal 1964 alternate history mockumentary It Happened Here. The cast somehow includes Denise Richards, Andy Milonakis, Jane Seymour, and Kellan Lutz from Twilight. Cyborg T. rexes attack Syria. The fake president’s name is Nicholas E. Nukem. There are fatalities to scratch that Mortal Kombat itch. Shankar calls it his most personal project to date.

Guardians of Justice star Diamond Dallas Page in an Iron Man-like virtual HUD
A Wonder Woman-esque hero stealing a bullet in Guardians of Justice
Claymation homeless man shielding his eyes from a bright light in Guardians of Justice
First person Knight Hawk running and gunning in Guardians of Justice Images: Netflix/Bootleg Universe

There was a time when Shankar was on the prestige track; a few years after his fateful meeting with Todd McFarlane, he racked up executive producer credits on films like Machine Gun Preacher, The Grey, the Brad Pitt vehicle Killing Them Softly, and Dredd. But he switched gears with 2012’s The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, a rough-around-the-edges short film that resurrected Thomas Jane’s take on the character from Marvel’s maligned 2004 adaptation — albeit without Marvel’s permission, the rights to Punisher, or two fucks about any greater comic book mythology. The short launched Shankar’s so-called Bootleg Universe of unauthorized shorts, a series that would include riffs like Venom: Truth in Journalism and The End of Pokémon, and a new persona: a spotlight-seeking, bad-mouthing, harlequin-makeup-wearing rebel version of himself that could command the floors of comics conventions around the world. “Adi Shankar” became the heel of Hollywood, and wooed geeks who were dying to see their favorite properties translated from four-quadrant blockbusters into edgier one-quadrant YouTube videos. In interviews with IGN and the geek blogs of the 2010s, Shankar talked about comic books and anti-establishment filmmaking like David Bowie’s alien from The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was a living embodiment of the Bootleg spirit, earning him a reputation that turned each new video into an event.

“I’d go home and laugh because I thought I was hysterical — I would basically just be quoting wrestlers,” he says. For Shankar, the whole ruse was born out of a feeling of already being alienated. “When I showed up [in Los Angeles], I realized there really weren’t brown people. There aren’t people that look like me on television. I saw the lack of opportunity in one angle [...] and doing serious interviews with the trades and going to red carpets with makeup on and literally not breaking character was also a fuck-you to a system that I felt like was literally not allowing me to participate in certain verticals because I didn’t look a certain way.”

Shankar has locked horns with only a few actual titans over the years. After the release of the 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu, Shankar set up a spec script contest for nonprofessional writers to “solve” Hank Azaria’s Indian character, a stunt that provoked the ire of The Simpsons’ longtime showrunner Al Jean. But Shankar’s provocateurship earned him a reputation that, today, he can’t quite shake, even as he leaves the makeup and wrestling-inspired behavior behind him.

“I’m not a dark dude,” he says, “more of a Peter Pan, like someone who never grew up.” Shankar blames a childhood in isolation, and life bouncing from India to Singapore to Hong Kong as his dad took new jobs, and a perpetual role as the weird kid who maintained a steady diet of pro wrestling. “When you weave in and out of different cultures, you realize that there are no norms; there are just different ways of existing. And so I didn’t know how to behave around people when I got into groups. I’m more comfortable with it now, obviously, because I can have a conversation with you and not be cutting a wrestling promo. But when people would ask me things, I would talk about how I was the best ever. Of all time.”

In his religion-soaked 1981 novel Valis, Philip K. Dick describes psychosis as “a dream breaking through during waking hours.” The same might be said for a certain strain of Hollywood-induced delirium; Shankar is perfectly adjusted and engrossed while speaking over Zoom from his Los Angeles home, but as his whirring, high-impulse memory unloads the highs and lows of his personal timeline, it’s clear that he’s spent a great deal of his life riding the edge of reality. His vision for what his life should look like, what the entertainment industry should look like, what a gritty Power Rangers movie should look like — it all bursts out of him with seismic effect, blowing any little discerning voices in his head back into their corners. Adi Shankar is not that different from Makeup-Wearing Adi Shankar. Getting where he is today might make more grounded individuals’ heads spin.

Todd McFarlane’s was not the only door Shankar knocked on in his early days. He says that at the time of his move from Chicago to California, information on how the entertainment industry worked was fairly scarce, even for a plugged-in millennial. The Graduate and The Thing producer Lawrence Turman’s 2005 book So You Want to Be a Producer became something of a bible, but a book was just a book — he needed to learn how stuff really got made. So his life became a crapshoot of cold calls and begging. But the people who listened to his pleas often blew smoke back in his face.

“When industry people talked about stuff, they would always talk in terms of metaphors, and it would fucking piss me off!” Shankar says. “They’d be like, ‘Well, getting a project made is kind of like breading a pudding.’ What the fuck are you talking about? So, I had to kind of grab people and be like, ‘Tell me what this thing is.’”

Answers came when he started acting the part. Shankar says he spent a few weeks early on aimlessly walking around the Paramount Pictures lot in a suit. One day, he and a buddy who worked in the mailroom were milling about outside of producer Jason Shuman’s office when they cracked a joke about Rob Schneider just a few short seconds before Rob Schneider himself walked into the office. Instead of getting reamed out by an ex-SNL star, Shankar groveled — and convinced Shuman to go out for coffee and give him a download on the working world. Around the same time, Shankar says, he also memorized every writer, agent, and script on the annual Black List, the industry’s go-to list of buzzy, unproduced screenplays. “After that, I was able to talk to people like I’d been an executive in Hollywood,” he says.

The equation for how Shankar wound up producing Brad Pitt movies alongside Annapurna’s Megan Ellison remains, even after many conversations, understated and demythologized, compared to the rest of his life. Shankar insists he was never the money guy, but the early output of his production company 1984 Private Defense Contractors, founded in 2010, makes him “feel kind of ashamed” today. “I was trying to figure out what the hell would actually work, and I was throwing a thousand things at the wall,” he says. One of those things was the discovery that Horton Foote, the legendary playwright and screenwriter of To Kill a Mockingbird, was sitting on a new screenplay. After securing the rights, luring in Colin Firth by going straight to British agents, and convincing the deep-pocketed Ellison to put up the money, he had a movie: 2010’s Main Street. The dismal reception combined with the movie’s vanilla flavor makes it something Shankar would like to never think about ever again. But it opened doors — he was suddenly talking business with everyone from Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer to visionary filmmaker Tarsem Singh.

“I went from being impressed by meeting the third editor on a Leprechaun movie to, like, Holy fuck, I’m meeting with James Mangold and he’s talking to me about a movie he’s working on,” Shankar says. “I had massive impostor syndrome ... and it wasn’t even impostor syndrome. I was just a fucking impostor.”

The “impostor” was great in a room, and a welcome ally to revered artists who would never in a million years direct a Mortal Kombat movie. Though there were directors who were strictly business partners (“I wish Joe Carnahan and I were closer,” Shankar says of the director of The Grey, “but I was just scared of him”), others became guiding stars for his evolving career. He pays his respects in The Guardians of Justice: The show’s version of Superman’s Metropolis is “Dominikopolis,” named for Killing Them Softly director Andrew Dominik; later in the series, viewers are transported to Satrapi Isle, a nod to Persepolis writer Marjane Satrapi, who directed the Shankar-produced 2014 film The Voices.

Shankar’s whirlwind career is defined by dreams, but he’s had his fair share of waking nightmares. In college at Northwestern, Shankar says, his entire life was rattled when doctors misdiagnosed him with lymphoma. Looking back, he thinks the Chicago cold just sent him into a mono-induced spiral, but for whatever reason, doctors saw enough signs of a tumor to put him through chemotherapy. “One day, I come out of this [PET] machine and they’re like, Whatever you had, it’s gone. It’s a miracle,” he says. “It ended up becoming a defining moment because I looked at my life when that happened and I was like, I’m doing all these things that I’m supposed to do and I feel supremely fucked over right now. What I really wanted to do was join the theater program. I wanted to go do these creative things. And then I became, like, really anti-authority.”

Knight Hawk in Guardians of Justice Image: Netflix/Bootleg Universe
Adi Shankar in The Guardians of Justice Images: Netflix/Bootleg Universe

Among the most surprising casting choices in The Guardians of Justice is Shankar’s decision to cast himself in a key role. Not because Shankar doesn’t have acting skills — he appeared alongside Ryan Reynolds in The Voices and nabbed a co-starring role in the comedic thriller Get the Girl, and his years in black-and-white face paint prove that the camera loves him. But in Guardians, he plays the villainous Lockwood, a thinly veiled version of Lex Luthor. The DC parallels don’t end there: Fearing the ultra-powerful Marvelous Man, Lockwood creates a bullet out of caltroninte — the core mineral of the hero’s home planet, Caltron — as protection against the impervious crusader. Marvelous Man ultimately uses the bullet to die by suicide in the first few minutes of the series. Shankar says he only wound up playing one of the Guardians’ nemeses after a famous face fell through, but understands my impulse to see the whole thing as a bit Freudian. Is he the villain or the hero? Are all the characters in The Guardians of Justice versions of his psyche?

Shankar admits that the aftermath of the cancer incident split him in two: the superhuman mover and shaker who could get a meeting with just about anyone, and a video-game-loving kid whose nomadic childhood and shattered college experience left him without any ground under his feet. Even after all the success, by 2014, he was spiraling. “It wasn’t like I had anything, really, to point to,” he says. “But I used to be very tightly wound, physically. Like, literally, my body was kind of clenched in.” After months of dwelling in depression, Shankar went to a doctor who immediately prescribed Zoloft. The effect, he says, broke him out of a rut within 15 minutes. The next year, he changed his diet, and worked with a Dancing with the Stars veteran who put him through a regimen of Rolfing, a holistic physical therapy aimed to help his spine. Though Shankar describes the process as excruciatingly painful, it all sounds perfectly natural for someone who’s been willing to pivot his entire life on a whim. And in the gloopy blur of this new awakening, the ideas for The Guardians of Justice came into view.

“As the medicine was kicking in, I went, Man, what if I was Wolverine and Wolverine can’t get drunk because I couldn’t metabolize the medicine? Does his mind have a healing factor? And what if I was Superman? Like, literally an alien. I’m an immigrant. I’m not from America. I came here by myself when I was 15, so there’s a level at which I constantly feel like this outsider. That’s where it came from. What if my body couldn’t metabolize this medicine that helped me, and I was super feeling the way I was feeling?” That’s just the setup: Beyond episode 1, Shankar finds room for a straightforward murder mystery, microdigressions on the quirks of legacy superhero characters, and a bigger-picture rumination on capitalism’s influence on global violence and the inevitability of World War III, which feels all the more tense in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A creepy skeleton man from Guardians of Justice
Miracle Man sits on a throne Images: Netflix/Bootleg Universe

The series is so chock full of ideas that it can be tough to see where Shankar sees himself, or what ultimately grounds him as he galaxy-brains through the Bootleg Universe. While he describes many mentors over the years, few close friends come up in his personal timeline. In 2019, an arranged marriage that he describes as a positive relationship in his life ended after his family’s astrologer broke them up. “They’re like, Your times don’t match. What the fuck are you talking about? They’re like, No, you’ll die. Everyone around you will die. There won’t be kids, but if there are kids, the kids will die. Like, what the fuck?” Shankar is relieved to report that he is currently dating someone — and finally coming out the other side health-wise. He was recently diagnosed with SIBO, a digestive disorder that he says was the result of unnecessary antibiotics. On top of cracking the case of his own ailments, Shankar is finding relief in no longer working on The Guardians of Justice. He describes himself as a “control freak,” and says that the raised stakes of each Bootleg project made the six-year process of filming and animating each bit of the ambitious series more daunting. “I think the notion that I had any sort of fan base or people that were following me was a mindfuck,” he says. “I had this intense pressure on myself to not let anybody down.”

The pressure seems entirely self-created. In 2017, all of Shankar’s interests collided in his first collaboration with Netflix: the adult-friendly animated series Castlevania. Based on the hit Konami franchise, the series was a rejection of every blockbuster-aping video game adaptation before it, with Shankar collaborating with comic book writer Warren Ellis and Powerhouse Animation Studios to render a bloody, faithful saga based on the games’ plotlines. And the series only came about because Shankar gambled on his idiosyncratic grimdark-adjacent interests in the first place; he recalls that shortly after The Punisher: Dirty Laundry premiered on YouTube, Netflix executive Erik Barmack slid into his Twitter DMs to shower some praise and pick his brain. Five years later, Shankar would bring Barmack Castlevania. The series would kick off an adult-animation revolution at the streaming service. Shankar just wanted to do a cool thing. “We said Castlevania was dope in 2017,” he says. “Today, it’s a business model.”

Castlevania goes down easy — with anime style, the game adaptation feels like Shankar doing fans a solid and protecting a much beloved story in its trip to screen. The Guardians of Justice feels like the antithesis, a cashing in of chips to put something on Netflix that feels born from Actual Internet Culture. Shankar convinced the biggest streaming platform on the planet to gift him the cash to remix Big Trouble in Little China, DC Comics, The Animatrix, Wrestlemania, Natural Born Killers, Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto 5, and the deepest rumblings of his psyche, into seven episodes of ... something that isn’t traditional television (Shankar says in the early stages, he even envisioned the project as a series of vlogs starring Tom Welling in his Smallville Superman costume). And true to Bootlegs past, the series has an indie sheen — no one would mistake the close-quarters action or raw animation styles for any of Netflix’s many nine-figure-budgeted tentpole series. To work on the show’s many disparate elements, Shankar wrangled a fleet of YouTube creatives, who imbued each episode’s noir plot with vulgar visual ecstasy.

The Guardians of Justice team members in animated form Image: Netflix/Bootleg Universe

“When I was making this, it started feeling like all TV shows exist in the same universe,” he says. “I don’t know how this evolved this way, but there is a tiered system in terms of ‘this is an A-level look’ and ‘this is a C-level look.’ And everyone’s trying to achieve the same A-level look. And the things that aren’t are seen as ‘not good’ just because the A-level look is easier to achieve now.”

This rejection of norms has led to a deluge of interest from major studios that hope Shankar can break their IP into new mediums — and maybe just break them in general. Ubisoft handed the producer the keys to its character library for the upcoming animated Netflix series Captain Laserhawk, which Shankar describes as “Captain N: The Game Master, but good,” referencing Nintendo’s late-’80s attempt at an epic crossover cartoon. He’s still at toiling away on a Devil May Cry anime, and at work with developer Alx Preston on bringing multiple genre-bending seasons of a Hyper Light Drifter TV show to a to-be-determined platform. And Krafton recently hired him to oversee a spin on the PUBG universe.

While The Guardians of Justice didn’t receive a major push from Netflix, it’s a personal milestone for Shankar. Within its fabric are the remnants of his many personas. Gone are Kid Adi, the guy who’d try anything; geek icon “Adi Shankar” of the San Diego Comic-Con circuit; and a spiritual Adi whose physical shell was mangled by the malevolent forces of the natural world. As he puts it, dropping The Guardians of Justice on a random Tuesday in March “has felt like a burden that I’m releasing.” And he could not be more excited for what’s to come. The version of Shankar that’s been around since the beginning, and the one who will prevail, is the hype man. His dreams become our dreams, too.

All seven episodes of The Guardians of Justice season 1 are now on Netflix.