Who Ranges The Power Rangers?

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched anything Power Rangers (but perhaps not as long as some people.) As a child, I watched the first incarnation of the show because it was full of superheroes, villains and mechs (I didn’t fully know what mechs were at the time.) The show played with all my creative senses in ways I didn’t understand at the time: my desire to have more of this world lead me to write about it, I suppose a childish version of fan-fiction. (I did the same for the X-Men cartoon and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.) These stories all taught me how to tell stories; what was my narrative aesthetic and what I liked (or hated) about characters and action.

It was some time before I could actually understand all those stories and comprehend the worlds: I was playing with meta-narrative and world-expansion before I even realised that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers wasn’t even an original series, but an American dub-and-re-cut of a Japanese show (Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, and later other seasons of the Super Sentai series, as has been the case for all of the  various Power Rangers series.) (And nope, I didn’t know much about Japan or Japanese culture and pop-culture at that stage either.)

I’m not entirely sure whether it was just growing up, or a change in broadcaster, but once the first film came out, Power Rangers sort of disappeared off my TV here in Ireland. Maybe it was something to do with no longer living around the corner from my own Ranger-squad cousins; maybe we all just grew up; or maybe I was just a little bit disappointed by that movie (because as fun as it was, it had so little to do with the TV series.) In retrospect now, I’m only vaguely aware of things that happened after that film came out, of Rita’s brother turning up, of there being a new Pink Ranger, I had no idea how “Zeo” was pronounced or what it meant, and by the time the Power Rangers were driving cars rather than controlling mechanical dinosaurs (or other animals), the show wasn’t for me any longer.

Over the next few years, I came back though. On two different occasions. The first, was for educational reasons.

Work with me on this.

Around 2003, I would’ve been sitting my Leaving Cert (it’s the Irish end-of-school exam, equivalent to A-levels, baccalauréat or GCSE I guess?) and one of my eight subjects was Irish. What better way to practice for your Irish oral exam than watch some Irish TV? For a couple of weeks, I managed to catch Spongebob Squarepants and Power Rangers In Space dubbed in Irish. I was quite pleased with myself for being able to understand what was going on in both shows: even better, as someone who consistently got C’s in Irish, I got a B in my final exams, fairing better in Irish than either Physics or History. (To this day, I’m still unsure how I got a C in History though, a subject that’s basically about writing essays and analysing things…but I’m ridiculously proud of that B in Irish. Thanks, Power Rangers.)

After this period, when working rather awkward hours, I caught some more random Power Rangers shows airing on daytime TV just before heading into a late lecture in college or going to work an evening shift: those shows began with Dino Thunder, a weird take on the original series and dinosaurs, complete with Jason David Frank as Tommy Oliver, the first green/white ranger and the mentor-character for this team; SPD, a futuristic sci-fi series where the power rangers are part of a police force; and Mystic Force, a clear response to the growing world of Harry Potter, where the rangers’ powers are derived from magic, rather than science.

These series played with the same sense of narrative that I enjoyed in my earlier obsessions with the brand: there was a level of self-awareness to these series (part-produced by Disney) with Dino Thunder in particular gleefully acknowledging the series’ past. The show included an episode called Lost And Found In Translation where the show’s rangers became obsessed with a Japanese TV series based on their own adventures, allowing the show to use undubbed Super Sentai footage within its own universe and make fun of the dubbing and editing in the process. The series also featured the 500th episode of Power Rangers, and used this to bring all the different series of Power Rangers into one continuity.

With everything getting up-scaled and rebooted over the last few years, it was no surprise that the Power Rangers franchise would get itself a big-budget cinematic release: everything gets a big-budget cinematic release these days (even TV shows, opera and plays end up on the big screen…)The real question though: would it be some crappy film for the sake of keeping a brand alive and reaching a new audience? Or would we instead get some weirdly gritty outing that’s probably more relevant to people in their 20s and 30s than the kids?

So let me set the scene: myself and Dan go to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon to see a film with a 12A rating with maybe 20 other people in the cinema. There’s a fair mix of adults and kids (and we’re probably the only adults there that don’t have kids with them); three of the kids in the cinema are definitely under the age of six. Expecting a kid-friendly movie, the film drops the word “shit” at least twice, “bullshit” at least once and has a fair few jump-scares in there for good measure. The 12A rating suggests that kids under the age of 12 should be accompanied by an adult; this is definitely the appropriate rating for such a film, and there has to have been at least one adult in that cinema that second-guessed their decision to bring a kid. There weren’t any screams or tears though, so maybe the kids were just really small, young-looking adults there for the same reason as we were. And fooling the staff into selling them a kids-sized popcorn-meal.

The film is a standard superhero-team origin with a few twists to keep it close to the series you may remember: after a brief prelude hinting at the origins of Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), the film jumps to the present day to establish our Breakfast Club-like heroes. Champion football player Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is acting out; Kimberly (Naomi Scott) has been kicked off the cheer-leading team after sharing a scandalous photo; and Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler) is a trouble-making genius who manipulates Jason into bringing him to the local quarry to blow up some rocks. At the quarry, Jason happens upon a nearly-skinny-dipping Kimberly,Zack (Ludi Lin) embraces some solitude while having a “who’s that girl” moment over a yoga-zen-practising Trini (Becky G.)

Billy’s desire to blow things up (in memory of his deceased father) reveals five colourful gems and a bunch of unseen powers (the group are involved in a collision between a car and a train, but awake the following morning with no injuries.) Jason suggests they return to the quarry and there discover some crazy gravity effect, an alien spaceship and the robot Alpha-5 (voiced by Bill Hader.) Over the following thirty-or-so minutes, we get a hell of a lot of exposition and montages about both the power rangers and their personal lives. You see, before they can morph into their power-suits and control their powers, they have to learn how to work together as a group, and the audience should understand that as well.

Bringing those two worlds crashing together, Jason’s dad, fisherman Sam (David Denman) has just dredged Rita’s body up from the sea, and she’s ready to start a campaign of destruction where she left off. You see, Angel Grove has been built over the zeo-crystal (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it McGuffin) and Rita wants to build her monster Goldar to extract the crystal which will give her some sort of McGuffin power.

In reality, the plot is so thin that it falls to pieces with any sort of analysis: a lot of things involving the narrative ~just happen~ with an element of eye-rolling accuracy. Rita’s emergence has no relation to the recently awakened rangers; I’m still unsure exactly why Billy sends Rita to Krispy Kreme in her quest for the crystal (but it sure as hell did make me want a donut. BRANDING WIN!) In amongst other beats that don’t really work, Goldar the griffin-like (and very vocal) villain from the TV series is replaced with a giant sculpture-like  beast made of gold; there is so much time spent on the rangers’ private lives that their powers, their suits and their zords exist only in function; and there isn’t even a satisfying click as the zords come together to form a megazord (it happens well-and-truly off-screen and in a fashion that isn’t entirely obvious what zord goes where in the newly formed megazord.)

The focus on the team’s private lives means that the film is a bit boring at times: expectations of an action-driven extravaganza fall flat, and although none of the kids in our screening seemed particularly bored, none of them were whooping with glee like they did at other superhero films (I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or bad though; as I said, the film was definitely made for people like me.) That focus-on-character ages these teenagers significantly: the film touches on sex and sexuality, parental sickness and a character who discusses their place on the autistic spectrum. It’s empowering and rewarding to see these things touched on gently in a film, but they also feel somewhat like a forced attempt to touch all the bases and appeal to everyone. This inclusivity works, especially in a series that supposedly made life horrible for a gay actor and awkwardly cast a black actor as the black ranger; it’s great to see these touches normalising superheroes, but they just seem out of place when you know that parents are bringing their kids just to see a film where the heroes beat up the bad-guys.

Similarly, Elizabeth Banks’s Rita is surprisingly dark: she remains some comedic, camp edge, but there’s a tone to her physicality and jump-scares that don’t really fit with the Rita of old.

The film looks stunning: its set-design, its costuming and its live-action stunts are surprisingly impressive. Its similar with the sound, probably the first time I’ve watched a film and genuinely thought someone was shouting from behind me when the characters turned to look. And as for the soundtrack…well, aside from an ill-timed, dodgy-sounding occurrence of the original Power Rangers theme tune, the music is also surprisingly modern and adult.

I want to watch this again so bad; and it’s actually made me want to research and re-read some of the TV series as well. It takes a lot for a movie to do that, to have its flaws, but still be enjoyable and to suck you into its world and stay there. That’s what Power Rangers did for me over 20 years ago. I don’t know whether I’m happy or scared to see that it’s still got that power over me.

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