My thoughts on why this year’s ‘Power Rangers’ reboot was better than it had any right to be.
One look at the new Power Rangers movie should have turned away any ‘serious’ movie-goer. All the trailers indicated we were in for yet another Transformers-esque, CGI heavy, generically “edgy”, mindless action reboot of a childhood classic. I went along regardless, mostly for a laugh. I had been joking about the possibility of a “dark and gritty” Power Rangers reboot for so long that I felt obliged to check it out when one actually came along.
Then something unexpected happened. I enjoyed it.
Now, nerdy as I am, I’m not particularly a Power Rangers fan. I had loved it as a child but, upon trying to watch some of the original series now, it was painfully apparent just how cheap and awful it had been. I couldn’t make it through a single episode without turning off because I was cringing more than I could bear. What slim hopes I had for this film were pinned more on childhood nostalgia than on hopes it would do justice to the existing mythology. Perhaps the film would be a disappointment to many long-time fans, but as someone with a only a vague nostalgic appreciation for the franchise, I was pleasantly surprised.
This is not the “look how edgy we are”, Michael-Bay-imitating reboot I was expecting. This is barely even a movie about the Power Rangers. This is a movie about the kids who become the Power Rangers. This is a movie about five teenage characters who, though clichéd in some respects, have real personalities and real heart. Stop thinking Transformers and start thinking The Breakfast Club.
The similarities are perhaps a little too obvious at times, but this film’s choice to play closer to the John Hughes classic, as opposed to going for all-out superhero action, is what turns this reboot of what was essentially a cheesy toy advert of a TV series (sorry for the kick to your nostalgia, but let’s be honest) into a story that is captivating, enjoyable and in which we can emotionally invest. I’m not going to suggest it is, by any stretch, a masterpiece, but it soars high above the heartless CG mess this movie could have – and by all rights, should have – been.
Perhaps the boldest part of taking the film in this direction is the fact that we don’t see any suited-and-booted Power Rangers (fleeting glimpses aside) until the last twenty minutes or so. Sure, we still have the giant holographic head of the Rangers’ alien mentor, Zordon (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston), alongside his spaceship and robot assistant, Alpha 5, we still have superpowers manifesting in our five leads throughout, and we still have the villainous Rita Repulsa being horribly overacted by Elizabeth Banks. Honestly, Banks’ performance was one of the film’s low points for me. In a movie that escapes the cheesy and often untalented acting of the original series, Rita is kept as ridiculously over the top as possible. It seems that here the filmmakers unfortunately neglected the opportunity to build a villain who could have represented a truly sinister presence in the film, in favour of a laughably comic figure who frequently disrupts any dramatic tension. Rita is a fair representation of everything I feared this film might be. Luckily, its heroic leads are anything but.
I applaud Power Rangers, above all else, for its willingness to show the diverse and difficult world that teenagers face today. Diversity and acceptance of real world issues have been far too scarce in recent superhero/fantasy movies. You may argue such topics are out of place in films so removed from reality, but what allows us to invest in the central characters of such films – indeed, what makes their escapist power fantasies work – is their ability to show a believable reality in which something incredible then happens. If the teenagers of this film seem generic it as at least partly because the flaws and problems that plague them, the personal issues they spend the majority of the film having to overcome, are some of the most common and prevalent issues young people face today. Homophobia, cyber-bullying and various social pressures are all explored to some extent. The film doesn’t shy away from topics that the more closed-minded and prudish may deem unsuitable for a film aimed at young people (a particular sub-plot involving cyber-bullying by spreading explicit images stands out here), because the people making this film very obviously realised these are topics young people don’t get to hide from in real life and so should be able to see represented on screen.
The fact that Blue Ranger, Billy (RJ Cyler), is autistic and easily the film’s standout and most enjoyable character is testament to the film’s commitment to real representation. He is no token minority, but an endearing presence who is instrumental, again and again, in bringing the team together. At no point does the film shy away from addressing or showing Billy’s autism, but not for one second does it cause hindrance to his character’s heroism. For the kids watching, this is what empowerment looks like.
As I have said, the focus on the kids behind the helmets was a bold move. The plot of the movie centres on these five teenagers having to learn to bond and overcome their own personal issues in order to become the Power Rangers they are meant to be. It is my hope that, rather than bore kids with a superhero-light superhero movie, that decision inspires a new generation of young fans to fall in love with characters to whom they can truly connect. I hope that children and teenagers, who are the key audience for a movie like this, will feel like they know these characters – will feel like they ARE these characters – and will enjoy their gradual transformation into superheroes all the more for it.
As for those older members of the audience, checking out this film with nostalgic longing for the fun of those childhood Saturday mornings, I believe they will be surprised and I hope they find it as pleasant a surprise as I did. A 2017-oriented ‘Breakfast Club with superpowers’, a movie about real teenagers learning what it means to be heroes despite their flaws, shows there is much more heart in the rebooted franchise than another mindless Battleship, Transformers, or G.I. Joe with Power Rangers‘ name plastered on it.
So, yes, I will use whatever film buff credentials I have to defend Power Rangers. Deal with it.