Like a lot of geeky millennials, Adi Shankar grew up on a diet of X-Men and Power Rangers. So when he became a Hollywood producer, he teamed with MTV auteur Joseph Kahn (Detention) to create dark, gritty fan films based on his childhood favorites. One in particular, POWER/RANGERS, envisioned the ‘90s teen superheroes as adults with PTSD, and it was a viral sensation. (It got him into momentary hot water with billionaire franchise owner Haim Saban, though the short soon resurfaced with a disclaimer.) Now, there’s an actual gritty Power Rangers movie, which seems no doubt influenced by the fan who proved the concept could work.
As a fan, Shankar gives the Dean Israelite-directed Power Rangers his approval: “I thought they did a great job.” He gives props to Israelite, whom he remembers hearing of years ago. “His old agent sent me his script that was kind of a Dog Day Afternoon and his voice jumped out of the page to me. This is fundamentally a talented guy. These are talented people who got together to make a Power Rangers movie. And it’s a vision.”
Shankar has a particularly close connection with the source material: Growing up with a migrant family who moved throughout Asia, Shankar’s access to American pop culture “went from abundant to scarce” when two years in the states came to an end. “When my mom and dad sat me down to tell me we’re going back, I was like, ‘Uh oh.’” And so he had to hold close to toys, tapes, and memories of those things when they were not so available.
Today, Shankar has had a major impact on taking the genre to new, R-rated heights. The producer of The Grey and Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt, his Bootleg Universe consisted of one-shot fan films based on characters like Spider-Man baddie Venom, Punisher, and the Power Rangers. Though Shankar hasn’t been directly involved with Marvel or Saban, Shankar suggests his films set the stage for the R-rated Deadpool, Logan, and the Power Rangers reboot.
POWER/RANGERS was a 12-minute avalanche of blood and violence that dramatically portrayed the Power Rangers in a light not unlike “Days of Future Past,” the Uncanny X-Men storyline about old superheroes living in dystopia. “It’s more a commentary on PTSD,” Shankar explains. “The lingering question for me was, ‘Why the fuck were all the shows I loved about people my age being weaponized?’ That was the core idea.”
With onscreen talents like Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek), Will Yun Yee (The Wolverine), and adult films stars Bree Olsen and Amia Miley cameoing as two villains, heads get blown off and bodies pile up in what Shankar called his “9-year-old’s vision” of Power Rangers “from an outsider’s/immigrant’s perspective.” The film was a viral hit, with over 20 million hits on YouTube as of Wednesday. When it was released, Atlanta filmmaker Renn Brown described the shock on Twitter as: “[C]limbed to the Hollywood sign and spray-painted Power Rangers all over it.”
Shankar is and was a fan of the Power Rangers, but director Joseph Kahn had no previous interest. This dynamic, Shankar believes, allowed POWER/RANGERS to appeal to everyone, from 20-somethings who haven’t thought of these characters in years to the dedicated faithful hitting up Power Morphicon. “I think franchises should age with the core, original fans,” he says. “People saw [my film], they reacted to it, and it created an ecosystem of ideas and the franchise had to react to it. Was the movie influenced by it? Absolutely. But in a positive way.”
With 48 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, critics are split over the merits of Power Rangers, but few deny that the reboot modernized the Angel Grove teens out of their after-school special innocence. Shankar’s short exaggerated the trappings of “mature” Hollywood reboots, but he’s confident his Bootleg Universe was a benchmark for movies like Logan, which won acclaim as an imaginative neo-Western, and Power Rangers, which took second place with a $40.5 million opening weekend. (It lost to Beauty and the Beast, another remake with a darker bite than the original.)
“Why did it outperform expectations?” Shankar rhetorically asks of Power Rangers. Kids, the primary audience, were always going to come. But alongside them, “Our generation showed up. The darker tone did that. That is what the internet is for.”
With POWER/RANGERS behind him, Shankar is releasing new projects in 2017. He’s producing Bodied, a new collaboration with Kahn, as well as Adi Shankar’s Gods and Secrets, neither of which he’d divulge much about except both are arriving this year. He’s also working on Castlevania for Netflix, an adaptation of the gothic hack-and-slash Konami games on Nintendo.
Dark superhero movies existed before 2011, the year Shankar began his Bootleg Universe with his Punisher short, Dirty Laundry, with Phil Joanou. The Dark Knight and Watchmen helped initially create the dark superhero burst, but afterward came Marvel’s multi-color blockbuster The Avengers. Shankar kept the audience hunger for dark heroes satisfied; he produced Dredd with Karl Urban and Lena Headey, which behaved uncannily like his Bootleg Universe: One and done. No Easter eggs, no post-credits scenes. Released in October 2012, Dredd is one the last genre movies of its kind. “Today, there is an over-reliance on the cinematic universe,” says Shankar, which he calls “a shiny coat meant to disguise a much more sinister intent.”
“It becomes a lot easier to say, ‘Here are our franchises,’ because you can in a sense predict how these projects are going to do. And that’s kind of bullshit. There’s only so many bad movies or TV shows that can be released before you and I check out.”
Both Lionsgate and Power Rangers creator Haim Saban have expressed a willingness to continue Power Rangers, but that’s looking far into the future. Right now, it’s just a $100 million movie with a tone and aesthetic borrowed from a fan with resources who beat them to the punch. “You don’t grow up being influenced by something, and then years later influence the thing that influenced you,” Shankar says. “It’s insane. Power Rangers, Logan, taking this stuff seriously on any level wasn’t a thing. Now it’s a thing.”Photos via Lionsgate, Getty Images / Jesse Grant