Adi Shankar and the Morality of Superheroes

The former Bootleg filmmaker is taking on the Man of Steel taking on the KKK.

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Adi Shankar has been busy. Gone are the days of the Bootleg Universe and riling up controversy on the internet with his brazen use of IP. Now he’s got a third season of Castlevania with Netflix, he’s set to produce a Devil May Cry series, and he recently joined the team of Superman Vs. the Ku Klux Klan.

Wait, what was that last one? Yup, you heard that right. The film is based on the book of the same name, which chronicles the 16-part Superman radio serial from the 1940s titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” as well as the story surrounding its production, which involved some BlacKkKlansman levels of undercover infiltration into the actual organization. Shankar is teaming up with Marc Rosen and PaperChase Films for the project, and he’s got some serious stuff to say about it.

In the wake of comic book legend Stan Lee’s death, Shankar has noted the importance of pop culture icons and their creators. In response to Bill Maher’s derisive comments on comic book culture, Shankar has emphasized the need to change the perception of comic books and their literary place, through their creators:

“The founders of nerd culture must be celebrated as much as the franchises they have given birth to. It’s our history. We also need to tell stories about how these myths have had a tangible impact on our material world. That’s where ‘Superman vs KKK’ comes in.”

Shankar’s work has always featured “popular” characters and IP, sometimes in spite of copyright law (remember the Power/Rangers short?), but his statements recognize a sort of truth that has remained constant throughout his work. According to Rosen, Shankar “has long been inspired to fight for just causes,” and Shankar claims that morality is a driving force in superhero stories, which is why they have merit and worth.

“Superheroes operate outside the scope of law and offer us hope that someone will rise up and protect us when government and other institutions cannot or will not. This story shows the power of the superhero mythology and it’s tangible impact on the physical world.”

Indeed, the word “mythology” is useful here when trying to understand the power of pop culture heroes in the cultural conversation. Much like the gods of ancient civilizations, these characters have their own broad character traits that everyone kind of knows about, and these human elements are what we recognize in ourselves as we read their stories. Spider-Man is just a regular kid. Batman went through a tragic loss that continues to haunt him. Superman looks like a dork in glasses.

Then, once we’ve related to the character in that human way, the extraordinary part of the character can teach us something. In classical mythology, this lesson was typically “don’t have too much hubris,” or “Zeus can’t keep it in his pants.” Superheroes are, ultimately, loaded with this same intent, to make us, the reader, better people. Spider-Man learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Batman shows us that we who have experienced tragedy can do our best to try to protect those who haven’t from the same.

And Superman is perhaps intended as the most “super” of us all. He’s exactly what it says on the tin, a super man, an Übermensch, someone who’s straight up better than literally all of humanity. He’s stronger than us, faster than us, he can jump higher than us, and he has laser eyes. And yet, he chooses to live among us, and use his great power protecting us, the people with less than him, because he can recognize the good parts of humanity that deserve his protection. He’s got super-empathy. And in a world where people are terrorized by the KKK and white nationalism, and institutions and government refuse to acknowledge this, who else is going to stand up for the victims?

Comic books and superheroes have this broad cultural impact because they resonate with people, and for Shankar, this access is exactly what makes it important and worth talking about. Fans comprise a substantial audience, and Shankar sees that audience as a great power that he now has. His prior work has always been about targeting and getting the eyes of that audience, and now that eyes are on him, it’s time for him to flex that great responsibility exactly how Uncle Ben would have told him to. I’m interested to see what form Superman vs. the Ku Klux Klan will take in order to take on this challenge.

All I do all day is think about cartoons.