Review: “Power Rangers” is the Weirdest, and Possibly Best, Remake of “The Breakfast Club” We Could Have Hoped For
Given its minuscule budget; its dependence on footage, costumes, and stories taken from the Japanese Super Sentai meta-series; and its primary role as a conduit to sell action figures, Power Rangers has always had an air of compromise to it. No matter how much kids enjoyed and continue to enjoy the series, the preponderance of moving parts has always been hard to arrange in a way that is consistently satisfying. The very first season of the original series, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, made by people who had to create a playbook for a game no one had played before, and had to do so as it went along, managed to be appealing despite a complete lack of consistent character development, sketchy-as-fuck plotting, and actors who on average were more earnest than good, thanks to a solid formula, the strength of the Japanese material, Ron Wasserman’s music, and un-self-conscious goofiness. The second season famously mixes material from two (three, depending on how you count) different sources of Japanese footage, alongside American material that was not at all ready to carry the increased weight it was forced to carry, and had to deal with things like the covert disposal of half its cast. Even more than twenty years later, getting a version of the Power Rangers that manages to fire on all cylinders—cast, story, aesthetic—and manages to do so consistently often feels like a crapshoot. And so, enjoying Power Rangers as a fan has always been a matter of managing expectations; Power Rangers in Space may not be the truly epic culmination of everything that had been set up before, as the Rangers faced the combined forces of all their past enemies, but taking all the difficulties it faced, it still manages to be pretty darn epic. And so, it feels somewhat appropriate, if disappointing, that despite its high-budget construction, the newest Power Rangers film still feels like a compromise.
Make no mistake: there is a lot to like about the film, enough to make it compare favorably against the better seasons of the show and the super-hero film genre in general, and surprisingly, the good things come from a direction where the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers most often failed—the characters. Whereas the original Jason, Trini, Zack, Kimberly, and Billy are beloved, that love owes more to familiarity, nostalgia, and their original ranger status than to the way the characters actually came across on the screen. In reality, whatever attitude made Alpha recruit these particular teenagers rarely made it to the actual show, as the only real dimension the rangers showed—at least when their minds were not being manipulated by Rita or Lord Zedd, which happened quite often—was an unshakeable belief in the collective and an ever-present interest in extracurricular activities. While their utter earnestness made them hard to dislike, it was only ever in fanfic that they managed to feel like real, breathing people.
That’s what the new Power Rangers feels like: that sort of fanfic written by someone who loves these characters immeasurably, and is still a teenager or was one not long ago, and is writing out of experience. These aren’t the teens we got in the original series, but they aren’t the sexed-up and quippy ones we’d get on a CW show, either. Rather, the earnestness from the original show mixes with some interesting character beats to create something far more akin to The Outsiders or even The Breakfast Club (detention plays a prominent role in bringing the characters together, and in pushing the narrative of them as weirdos). Whatever their actual ages, the rangers are still kids, who have all this energy and no idea how to use it, and seeing them grow closer based on their shared journeys is easily the best and most compelling part of the film—and made more so by how relatively low-stakes their personal journeys are. A good amount of time is spent on Kimberly’s angst, and on how her recent actions have alienated her from her social circle, and made her begin feeling a measure of self-hatred. When we’re told what the inciting incident to all this is—she maliciously shared a nude pic of a classmate to humiliate her, it feels a bit out of proportion to her response, but that’s just me an adult and official old person. She believes this makes her horrible, and that’s what matters. [Addendum: After reconsidering, I’ve written more about this particular moment, and why the preceding two sentences are wrong, here.] Similarly, Billy’s sadness over missing his dead father never becomes overbearing, and yet feels vital and important. He’s dealing with it, as best he can, and it’s very easy to feel empathy for him.
And honestly, the kids are just great fun to watch. A whole bunch of the film follows them as they try to figure out the whole Power Rangers deal, and while this would probably be unbearable in MMPR, it shockingly works here, thanks to the actors and their very good chemistry. While the original original five exuded this air of having being friends absolutely forever, these guys have only just met, and yet, they very quickly manage to develop a bond that feels just as strong—stronger, even: I don’t think these guys would take Jason, Trini, and Zack suddenly leaving with anywhere near the ease the original versions did. Much kudos to Dacre Montgomery (Jason), Becky G (Trini), Ludi Lin (Zack), Naomi Scott (Kimberly), RJ Cyle (Billy), who in two hours manage to become one of the best Power Rangers casts in history. I want the absolute best for all of them.
Frustratingly, the films falls down hardest in the areas where original MMPR tended to succeed most reliably: its super-hero aesthetics, monsters, and action sequences. That the series spends most of its time with the kids unmorphed turns out to be a blessing: once they actually morph, storyboarding takes over, and the film’s flaws all come to the fore. This is not a good action film.
To a certain degree, it’s hard to blame Power Rangers for wanting to follow the zeitgeist. Sure, its version of the costumes and Zords are bulky, ugly, over-complicated messes lacking in any sort of personality, but that’s the way the genre operates. On the other hand…no. Comic book adaptations at least have the excuse that they’re translating something from one medium to another; Power Rangers (or Super Sentai) on the other hand, started out on the screen. While it makes perfect sense to take advantage of a film budget to make the iconic costumes not look as if they took a $100 each to make, there’s doing that, and there’s stripping away everything that made the originals appealing. And really, there is nothing to like here. There’s a case to be made that the original MMPR costumes and Zords have never actually been equaled in Power Rangers history, and that there have been plenty of ugly iterations of both, but still: these can easily claim the bottom spot in that regard. Terrible stuff.
The same applies to the monsters, only moreso. The new Rita, although lacking much of the original’s visual character, survives thanks to a decent script and Elizabeth Banks’ performance. Nobody else has that opportunity. The Putties, the original series’ iconic mooks, across which a bunch of its most initial successful attempts at humor and eeriness came through, are turned into utterly generic rock monsters. Goldar, who among the original series’ Bad Guy Squad holds a rather large estate in my heart (particularly after he meets his boyfriend Rito) gets made into a generic, silent…thing. While an argument can be made that there were already too many characters to be able to give him focus (probably also why Bulk and Skull are absent from the film, a disappointing but understandable creative choice) that’s what good designs are for. If we get a sequel, this is the thing that most needs correcting.
Finally, there’s the action scenes, which despite a couple of cool moments aren’t terrible as much as uninspired and uninspiring. There’s very little of the theatricality that defines the original series, and it’s not replaced by anything else that gives helps give it its own identity. It doesn’t help that the big action set piece largely takes place on Zords, which is traditionally the least interesting part of a Power Rangers episode. Points for faithfulness, I guess?
It’s not as if the writers and producers didn’t understand what fans wanted. There are a couple of alterations made to the canon which I find MIGHTY INTERESTING, as well as some fan-service moments and cameos which, while incredibly obvious, are no less satisfying. And visually, the film works…until the Rangers morph. All in all, it really feels as if the TV people should have had some input on this, and there’s little reason why it shouldn’t have been requested (I in no way believe it was.) There is no reason why a cover of the original theme should sound as tepid as this film’s does.
One thing that the series did keep from the original which is worth noting is the series’ commitment to diversity. While it’s been overshadowed by the largely toothless, if valid, “why is the Asian ranger Yellow and the Black Ranger Black?” observation, it’s still worth noting that the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers team attempted to make Zack and Trini just as prominent as their white counterparts—something that still sorely lacking in current super-hero cinema—and that the various Power Rangers series collectively remain among of the more racially diverse shows in television. The practice continues in Power Rangers with four out of the five rangers being played by people of color, which is absolutely fantastic and all films should do. Also notable is their explicit acknowledgment that their version of Billy is on the autistic spectrum, and their less explicit portrayal of Trini as queer. While I’m not in a position to claim how satisfying or accurate these portrayals are—although I will say I love both characters more than life itself and would happily adopt them as my own—I’m more willing to give the film props than I am, say, a Marvel or Disney film, because again, this has been something Power Rangers has been trying their hand at for decades now. It’s hard to see the scene where Zack asks Trini if she has girlfriend troubles as cynical when Power Rangers Turbo, back in nineteen ninety-fucking-seven, featured three rangers of color in its five-ranger team, including an African American Red Ranger (Turbo / Space Rangers forever). If nothing comes out of this in subsequent films, it will be hard to see this in an entirely positive light; if the things established hear are developed more—say, by making Tommy a girl and making her Trini’s love interest, hint hint, Saban—then fuck yeah.
We’re at the point in the history of the super-hero genre where it is very easy to make a decent superhero flick or show, and we all know what that looks like. This film is not that. It is not a good superhero film, and the things it does well are not the things a decent superhero film does well, and curiously, that works in the film’s favor: Power Rangers is much more interesting than I ever expected it to be, even for something that is already as interesting as Power Rangers. While I would have loved for the film to have gotten the Speed Racer treatment, marrying a commitment to the original aesthetic with story and characters that feel heartfelt and honest and good, if we were going to have to make a compromise—and Power Rangers is always about compromise—then I’m glad it compromised in the direction it did. The world needed a film about misfit teens of color being decent and goofy and questioning far more than it needed another super-hero film. Teens and Power Rangers fans—or at least the sort that write sweet, shippy, sometimes-angsty but often-fluffy fan fiction about it—will love it.