clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Lessons of ‘Power Rangers’

The movie makes the teen fantasy franchise feel bold and new — others might wanna start taking notes

(Lionsgate)
(Lionsgate)

By Justin Charity and K. Austin Collins

There’s a new Power Rangers movie out Friday, and it’s the first feature-length Power Rangers film since 1997’s Turbo. If you have kids, you’re quite possibly destined to see this movie in the next couple of weeks whether you like it or not. If you don’t have kids, you’re quite possibly too mature and disaffected to take a new Power Rangers movie seriously in 2017. Grave mistake on your part, buddy: Power Rangers is fantastic. In fact, the movie is so good that its biggest strengths double as guidance for making great stories about teen heroes that feel bold and new, even with classic franchise source material such as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Two Ringer writers, K. Austin Collins and Justin Charity, extrapolate the key lessons that the new Power Rangers movie bears for teen fantasies to come.

“Different Colors, Different Kids, Different Color Kids”

K. Austin Collins: When the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted on TV in 1993, there were five rangers: red (Jason), yellow (Trini), black (Zack), pink (Kimberly), and blue (Billy). There were green and white sometimes, too, but we don’t have to get into that right now — because you know what I really wanna talk about is the epic joke of my childhood, how the black ranger was black and the yellow ranger was Asian.

I figure we should start with race because it’s almost April, and we’re all about to start bending over backward to praise the Fast and the Furious franchise for being at the vanguard of diversity on the big screen. Nice story, but according to my childhood, 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers — the first movie of the franchise, in which, in a clever switcheroo, the yellow ranger is black and the black ranger is Asian — got there first. Anyway, I kept thinking of this as I watched the new movie. The races and names are mixed up with this new cast (the blue ranger is black; as a former “Billy” on the playground, I feel vindicated). But the bottom-line diversity still feels baked into the idea of the franchise, rather than arbitrary. Inclusivity is part of the premise of the franchise. And according to the lore we learn from robot Alpha 5 about the Power Rangers being formed, that’s apparently the point: Kids of “different colors” were always the goal. I like that.

Justin Charity: Additionally, I appreciate that the movie then goes out of its way to make a few off-color jokes about its own diversity. I won’t spoil the joke, but Billy and Zack have a nice, brief Eddie Murphy–Dan Aykroyd moment.

Collins: It’s a corny black joke lodged squarely at us, the audience who’s been cracking jokes about the black ranger being black for almost 25 years. I laughed.

Know Your Audience

Charity: It’s weird how I’m not the target audience for this movie while also totally being the target audience for this movie. Power Rangers is an active TV franchise; it’s been running strong in the U.S. since Fox Kids premiered Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in 1993, so I wouldn’t call this new Power Rangers movie a nostalgia grab, exactly. But the franchise’s broad, cross-gen cred makes it the ideal box-office rallying point for young people and slightly-less-young people alike. On screen, there’s plenty of callbacks and irreverent fan service that will satisfy adults who grew up watching the earliest seasons, but more importantly, it’s a great high school drama on its own merits.

Collins: Aren’t we the target audience — full stop, no caveats? You need people our age and a little older to be into the movie, because you want people our age to be more inclined to take their kids. It’s one thing to take your kid to Boss Baby — it’s another thing to take them to Finding Dory 13 years after Finding Nemo, or to the live-action remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella. Even childless, we are absolutely the target, because Power Rangers is our childhood. This is precisely the same thing as my mom, a Star Wars fan, taking me to the Star Wars prequels once upon a time.

Cast RJ Cyler

Charity: Can we talk about the cast? Every kid in this movie is acting their ass off. Except maybe the yellow ranger, played by Becky G. She’s moping and coasting through several scenes, honestly, but then I guess affected disenfranchisement is her whole thing. Which, honestly, same.

RJ Cyler, though. He’s 22 years old, and about to age out of roles like this, but before he does, he should star in every teen-fantasy-franchise flick possible. I want him in costume for a live-action Spongebob feature film by sundown. Give that man an Oscar for landing nervous, self-deprecating punchlines for two hours straight — all while being the smoothest dude in the movie!

Collins: Listen, all I know is that the last time I saw this guy, he was playing a modern jive stereotype in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and all of his lines seemed to include the word “pussy.” How does the song go? Ah, right: “Movin’ on up.”

Your High School Bully Should Resemble Ed Sheeran

Charity: Jock bullies are out. Weasley, twin-adjacent bullies are in. Kam, explain this.

Collins: I think kids are woke now? Or, no, the opposite: Kids are cyberbullies now. Bullying has been democratized — everyone can have in. (Relevant spoiler: There’s a revenge-porn subplot in this movie that I’m still VERY confused about.) Either way, yes to nice jocks and, you know what, yes to Ed Sheeran types being utter terrors. Sounds right. Sounds just. If anything, I’m a little disappointed that the new mean kids weren’t meaner? The original Power Rangers bullies, Bulk and Skull, were bona fide assholes. The pair of mean girls that replaces them here … aren’t that bad? Actually, they’re kind of the victims, and the Power Rangers are the bullies. Which I’m fine with: I like asshole heroes.

Charity: There’s an interesting trade-off within this movie. On one hand, it doesn’t feel particularly true to the early TV series, largely because the movie’s kids are too developed and angsty in comparison. What we get instead is a true teen soap, with bullies … and giant robots. That is a win-win situation.

Your Villain Needs to Commit to the Movie More Than Anyone Else

Collins: I’m always a little wary of big-name grown-up actors being in YA or YA-adjacent movies. They often make the mistake of seeing it as a chance to, like, act, rather than as a chance to ham it up. What does Meryl Streep have to offer The Giver, really, besides Merylisms? The exception to this trend has for some time now been The Hunger Games’ Elizabeth Banks, who slinks, roars, and rampages through Power Rangers as the villain Rita Repulsa — i.e., the OG HBIC. Banks’s take is … greener than the original. Also, given that Rita Repulsa was previously a Japanese woman from old stock footage, whiter. Does that matter? (I loved her.)

Charity: She robs a jewelry store. She eats doughnuts. She trips on some bad drugs. Rita Repulsa is living her fullest, if not her best, life. I kinda think the movie hinges on her totally overzealous performance. She’s the one element that renders all the other melodrama relatively naturalistic, which, I think, is important because this movie’s great challenge is mining super sentai martial arts camp for compelling team drama. It’s an ill-advised mission, perhaps, but ultimately Power Rangers fits in with the times better than you might expect, with the bonus of a gasping, cackling, overreacting Rita Repulsa as the last vestige of how unabashedly silly these franchises used to be.

Take It Slow

Charity: Power Rangers is the rare case where I’m thankful that the studio already has a 50-year plan with six sequels and 10 spinoffs (approximately) in development already. This first movie is pretty restrained in the character development and emotional beats it sets out to hit. There’s a few, cute hints at potential love stories, but in this first chapter, the movie invests all its emotional resolve in forging the core squad. It’s a painstakingly adorable movie about friendship and teamwork. For now, that’s all it needs to be. The messier, more scandalous threads will follow, I hope.

Collins: I have to admit: You say “six Power Rangers movies” and my immediate thought is of my impending death. After that initial shock, I guess the idea is OK, but Jesus. I’m in, with the caveat that each movie should not feel like an overlong TV episode. That’s the fate of most of these franchises: They become movie-length previews for each other, which gets very boring very quickly. So far, this has avoided becoming that — but I’ve learned never to get my hopes up.