The Guardians of Justice (Will Save You) is a pastiche and an homage: it’s action and comedy, it’s live-action and animated, it’s magnificent trash that is frenetic and, in the end, surprisingly thoughtful. It’s sharp but unclean, intentionally grimy and purposefully frayed to give the appearance and remembrance of old times and old technologies. Imagine if Turbo Kid was based on a mishmash of the Justice League and G.I. Joe instead of Mad Max, put it in a media scrambler with an ensemble cast and a huge team of animators, and allowed to stretch its legs across seven relatively brief episodes while producing the effect of a long-running franchise that had its many adaptations spliced together.
The Guardians of Justice is set in an alternate universe version of 1987, 40 years after the appearance of a Superman-like figure that halted World War III started by a cyborg-resurrected Hitler. The show begins with Knight Hawk’s (Diamond Dallas Page) investigation of the apparent suicide by that Marvelous Man (Will Yun Lee). Knight Hawk suspects foul play, and soon casts suspicion upon fellow Guardians: The Speed (Sharni Vinson), Awesome Man (Derek Mears), Golden Goddess (Preeti Desai), Black Bow (Tiffany Hines), Blue-Scream (Jackson Rathbone), and King Tsunami (Kellen Lutz). In addition to narrating, series creator Adi Shankar casts himself twice as antagonists (billionaire arms manufacturer/superhero skeptic Logan Lockwood and supervillain terrorist The Scottish Skull) alongside Queen Anubis (Brigitte Nielsen leading a nation-state whose aesthetic is Cobra Command meets the KKK), and the enigmatic Addison Walker (Jane Seymour). Walker runs a global private military company concerned with economic stability and funded by the corporations whose logos have replaced stars on the U.S. flag, a sort of corporate robot army failsafe to prevent the nuclear war which seems imminent after Marvelous Man’s demise.
Just as Dungeons and Dragons campaigns have turned into fantasy novel series and the FromSoftware “Soulsborne” games draw on director Hidetaka Miyazaki reading books beyond his reading comprehension as a child, this feels like an early adolescent smashing action figures together in a bedroom or sandbox and making up a story to go along. It’s endearing that way, but I say adolescent rather than a child because it’s a hyper-violent story whose characters experience drug-use, homophobia, and irredeemably crooked police while on the precipice of Armageddon. The Guardians of Justice is bloody and gory, playing effectively for shock, maintaining a tone throughout that would allow the dimmest of edgelords to go along without thinking thematically, before an ending arc that revokes that privilege, paying off plants, tying up loose ends, and demanding its audience the price of peace—perhaps not unlike another unorthodox superhero show.
The plot concludes by surpassing the need to draw meaning from the meaningless into genuine commentary on American consumerism and militarism. It’s a decidedly unhappy ending that could allow for a second season but does not demand one. The Guardians of Justice uses spectacle to consider marketing and propaganda: its over-the-top, in-your-face style distracts enough to sneak ideas past its audience. Even if the themes fell flat shorn from their unique packaging (and I don’t think they would), the show would still be worth consideration because it is visually daring, standing distinct even as it draws repeatedly from the recognizable.
The abundance of mainstream, nostalgia-plumbing superhero entertainment is the second greatest monkey’s paw-fulfilled wish of my childhood. While the majority of the genre’s mainstream has sanded edges, the purchasing public doesn’t lack for brutal or excessively violent comic book adaptations. Netflix is home to Jupiter’s Legacy and Umbrella Academy; Hulu has a Modok show and Hit-Monkey. On Amazon Prime, there are two brutal shows that deconstruct archetypes of silver age superheroism in The Boys and Invincible, in addition to HBO Max’s Peacemaker, Harley Quinn, and their 2019 adaptation/sequel Watchmen. A new Batman movie that positions itself as neo-noir is in theaters now. Yet even as these contributions debate the political ethos of superheroes or challenge the predominant visual style, none of their creators have attempted what Adi Shankar and his collaborators pull off here visually.
Not many shows combine more than eight different art styles, interchanging different forms of retro arcade side-scrolling beat-em-ups with Claymation, stop-motion, CGI, and drawn animation evoking series like Superfriends, Dragon Ball Z, and 1980s Marvel Comics, among others. There’s live-action that looks contemporary and live-action that looks like Batman ‘66 and Batman v Superman fused together. There are also laser guns that look like Halo battle rifles, a computer that combines the X-Men’s Cerebro with DC villain Brainiac, and repeated references to Mortal Kombat fatalities. There are scenes set in first-person with a shooting-game HUD highlighting close-up gun-kata and a character evoking Snake Plissken. The Guardians of Justice imagines if Amalgam Comics met Watchmen while set to an electro pop/rock background with visual effects that leaned into camp. No less than five animation and graphic design teams worked on this project.
Still, it’s only successful because it is intermingled to feel like real experiences and interpretations of the characters; one of those side-scrolling sections is security footage another live-action character is watching. The actors play it all straight, regardless of what ridiculousness they observe and experience. The performances feel earnest, and in that Sharni Vinsnon stands out. While it’s not brimming with today’s A-listers, the series features the star of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, an iconic actress from Rocky IV, and one of its leads is a wrestler who arrived on the national scene in the late 1980s. While we don’t need to pick through everyone’s resume for Easter Eggs, there’s a lot for Millennials and Gen-X’ers to recognize. Yet, like Lynda Carter and Bruce Campbell in Sky High, the more iconic casting decisions serve to ground the story in the world’s throwback milieu rather than distract the audience.
In a November interview with Paste, Adi Shankar said he aspired to be like Paul Verhoeven, and that heritage shines through the commercial news segments in The Guardians of Justice. Just like the political experiences of the last two decades invoked reappraisal of Starship Trooper’s prescience in the U.S., an absurdly violent superhero mystery about the rising tide of fascism feels poignant for an audience awash in superhero media, living in the heart of imperial “Western Civilization” among escalating international tensions and ongoing conflicts that citizens are told explicitly and implicitly to selectively toggle their focus on, though viewers outside the U.S. will likely also have context.
The Guardians of Justice doesn’t have the most sophisticated critique of political economy ever recorded, but isn’t afraid to show U.S. president Nicolas E. Nukem (Christopher Judge) more interested in maintaining power and blowing things up than his people’s needs or interests. It also isn’t afraid to name fascism, though it speaks of totalitarianism and authoritarianism in unspecific ways—the audience might assume that the KKK look-alikes are also fascists, but there’s a lack of ideological clarity. This is unlikely to trip the viewer up, as they probably didn’t come to The Guardians of Justice looking for an introduction to geopolitical game theory. Regardless, uncertainty along ideological lines reflects the propaganda war that happens in the series. Its depiction of socialist leaders is predictably little more flattering (like much bourgeois art concerned with liberal democracy giving way to fascism, it ignores that an alternative exists), highlighted by the silly Soviet Premier Boris Smirnoff (Eugene Alpere) and including Cuban and Chinese leaders that have the hammer-and-sickle on their flag despite allusions to fissures between socialist states.
It is a very stylized show, and some depictions are thin enough to be offensive, though one could charitably interpret this as implicit commentary on caricatures. Dr. Ravencroft (Jen-Kuo Sung Outerbridge) is the greatest example of this, as the most prominent character portrayed by an actor of East Asian descent, besides Marvelous Man, is a floating psychic leading a destructive sex cult. There are lots of monsters in the show, but this mystic pervert is the only one whose aesthetic comes across in a way that made me feel I’d have to warn people about racism. The Guardians of Justice makes no pretensions to being highbrow, which is part of why the ending came as such a welcome surprise that it positively colors the whole show.
In his interview with Paste, Shankar called this six-year project a vision of his frenetic memory, trying to share his experience while learning on the fly. Though he cast himself multiple times, the showrunner named 15 collaborators (including Page and Vinson) as co-creators in the credits. This passion project is the producer’s second show for Netflix, with five more based on videogame properties in the works. Overall, The Guardians of Justice is bizarre, absurd, and earnest. If anyone’s got their tongue in their cheek, it’s behind the camera, not in front of it. It’s a mystery, but not a mystery box and. From five episodes that feel like yes-and with knockoffs of superheroic icons, it manages to cohere enough to explicitly critique its genre and the culture that created it in the last two episodes. Regardless of whether the audience buys what the plot is selling, the artistic courage and visual creativity is worth the watch, provided viewers have a tolerance for intentional cheesiness and massive amounts of gore.
The Guardians of Justice is now available to stream on Netflix.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.
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