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Power Rangers (2017)

Back when “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” first aired, I was hooked on every episode. I begged my parents for the toys. I beat the Game Gear movie tie-in. I didn’t just own the coloring books — I literally used them to wallpaper my room. I’d be embarrassed, but I was a grade school boy in the ’90s. At that age and that time, it probably would’ve been more embarrassing NOT to be a fan.

I was never surprised or upset to hear that Hollywood had finally gotten around to strip-mining such a core part of my childhood. It had to be my turn sooner or later, after all. But I did have to think long and hard about what my expectations were. Did I want something that tried to play everything straight and gritty? Yeah, right. Cheese is so thoroughly hardwired into the premise of this franchise that any such attempt would be deeply embarrassing. But I didn’t want the film to be so over-the-top goofball that it only exists because of nostalgia.

I did eventually grow out of Power Rangers near the end of my grade school years — also right about the time when the infamous “Power Rangers Turbo” damn near killed the franchise. I kept on changing, but then, so did the franchise. Power Rangers is close to 25 years old now. Through all that time, there have been new heroes, new villains, new weapons, new Zords, and new storylines. The creative teams have changed constantly, switching hands between companies and shooting on different continents. To say nothing of how many fans have come and gone throughout the years — there are now people of legal drinking age who grew up as fans of the show long after I gave up on it.

(Side note: For more details, I highly recommend the History of Power Rangers Retrospective by Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug.)

Sitting down to this movie, I didn’t want to see that Power Rangers had never grown up. But at the same time, I never wanted it to lose the same spark that I loved about it way back when. I wanted to see it with the mutual acknowledgement that we’ve both come a long way, and we’re both doing just fine. Basically, I wanted it to feel like I was seeing an old friend for the first time since grade school.

Instead, what I got was more like meeting the teenaged son of that same old school friend. Let’s take it from the top.

Power Rangers (2017) opens up in the Cenozoic Era, in which we witness the last great battle of Zordon and Rita Repulsa (here respectively portrayed by Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks). It’s a mercy that the movie opens with some shots of the Power Rangers out of the gate, because pretty much the whole rest of the film is about teasing when the Rangers actually show up. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rita came to Earth in search of a MacGuffin that powers all life on Earth. In fact, if I’m interpreting the exposition correctly, it seems that every planet with intelligent life has its own MacGuffin, and the Rangers are sworn to defend them from nefarious forces like Rita. And this magical trinket is called… wait for it… the Zeo Crystal.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how the Zeo Crystal in the original series worked, but whatever. New series, new continuity, new mythology. Moreover, protecting some mystical doodad was the main thrust of 80-90 percent of all storylines in the show — especially in those first few seasons — so there’s that.

Anyway, Zordon uses the last of his power to drain Rita’s strength and banish her to the depths of the ocean. (No, we don’t get that iconic moment in which Rita is freed from a garbage can on the moon.) At the same time, Zordon buries the Power Coins (just look it up, if you have to — we don’t have time to explain them here) and bids them to find a more worthy team of Rangers when the time is right.

Cut to 65 million years later. Long story short (Too late!), the Power Coins are found by a new team of Rangers just as Rita is pulled back from the deep. So let’s talk about the Rangers, shall we?

Jason Scott (the Red Ranger, played by Dacre Montgomery) was the star quarterback of the high school team at Angel Grove. Until a stupid locker room prank — followed by a disastrous car chase with the police — got Jason slapped with a tracking anklet, Saturday detention for the rest of the school year, and permanent banishment from the football team. He’s introduced alongside Kimberly Hart (the Pink Ranger, played by Naomi Scott), a cheerleader who also gets detention for life and kicked off her team for a prank so nasty and convoluted that I don’t dare get into it here.

(Side note: It’s not worth going into detail here about how Jason’s tracking anklet is hand-waved away, but suffice to say that it becomes a non-issue very quickly.)

Next up is Billy Cranston (the Blue Ranger, played by RJ Cyler). He’s a social outcast, in large part because he has such odd little social quirks and nerdy tastes that his dad was the only one he could really connect with. And his father’s dead, so… *heavy sigh* Yeah, screw it, we’ve got to talk about this.

From the very outset (the unfortunate Yellow Ranger/Black Ranger faux pas notwithstanding), diversity has always been a central part of this franchise. Throughout the years, the Power Ranger teams have included men, women, robots, and aliens of all colors, all on equal terms as badass comrades in arms. I’m deeply proud to say that the tradition is not only continued in this movie, but expanded upon.

You see… Billy explicitly tells us that he’s on the autism spectrum. I’ll repeat that: We now have a superhero who is on the autism spectrum.

Speaking as an Aspergian, this is an issue very near and dear to my heart, and of course I was on high alert through every moment Billy was on the screen. And there are definitely times in which Billy comes within a hair’s breadth of a “Sheldon”-like parody. Yet this character passed a very crucial test for me: In that moment when Billy tries to explain exactly what’s different about him without making it sound like there’s anything wrong with him, trying to describe the signs and symptoms in a way that could be understood by someone who doesn’t know anything about Asperger’s, every word rang perfectly true. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve tried to have that conversation, and it always plays out pretty much exactly like it does in this movie. That counts for a lot.

And anyway, if Billy’s emotions and reactions seem heightened, it’s probably because he and his four new friends have been chosen by magic coins to be mentored by a giant disembodied head so they can put on bright outfits, pilot giant robots, and fight off aliens to save the world. But I digress.

Back to the issue of diversity, it bears remembering that the Power Rangers heyday of the ’90s was a notoriously bad time for the LGBT community. Reportedly, David Yost — the original Blue Ranger — had to put up with so much crap for being a gay man that he simply walked off the set mid-season and never looked back. This is why it’s such a huge deal that Power Rangers (of all franchises!) gives us the first LGBT superhero in mainstream cinema history. Even though this is only mentioned in one scene and it really doesn’t affect anything all that much.

See, Trini Kwan (Becky G) is part of a family that’s constantly moving from place to place. So she acts like a standoffish tomboy oddball, partly to drive away any potential friends who might create an emotional attachment, and partly to piss off her uptight straight-laced parents. More than anything else, her brusque and closed-off temperament is really what defines the character far more than her sexuality.

Last but not least is Zack Taylor (Ludi Lin), who’s… um… crazy. And I mean that in the sense that he literally says “I’m crazy!” just before he goes jumping headlong into some stunt. He’s an adrenaline junkie who mostly acts to help speed up the plot, especially in those first few moments when nobody else will go charging into the weird and potentially dangerous alien tech.

Zack and Trini are easily the least developed of the bunch, or at least they are at first. That’s partly because they aren’t even properly introduced until the end of the first act, and partly because they’re the most withdrawn members of the team by design. Yet the film is more than eager to make up for lost time, and we learn a lot more about them as they grow closer to the team while the second act goes cooking right along.

Before we go any further, let’s think about what we have here.

The original show was about a group of kids who all got perfect grades, had a dozen hobbies apiece, were beloved by everyone except for two bullies (and even they had a grudging kind of respect for our heroes), saved the world on a weekly basis, and still had time to hang out at the local juice bar. It was a vision of high school sanitized and squeaky clean for the grade school set; “Saved by the Bell” with superpowers.

(Side note: Keep an eye out for two fan-favorite members of the original cast who make a cameo appearance toward the denouement. You can’t miss them — they haven’t aged a day in two decades, and they’re wearing their old Ranger colors.)

Compare that to this cast, in which the original show’s basic premise of “teenagers with attitude” is fully realized. These kids are legitimate fuckups and misfits, with very real issues that are given their due pathos. Yet we can see that for all their flaws, they’re not bad kids. These are just a handful of teenagers who are learning to get past their baggage and form the kind of real, lasting connection that’s been missing from their lives up to that point.

Thus we get to the main crux of the film.

In every other iteration of this franchise, the Rangers could just do a little dance, shout some rallying cry, hit a switch on their Morphers, and instantly become Rangers. Not here. In this film, the Morphers don’t exist. (Though that hasn’t stopped Morpher toys from getting made and sold, but that’s another topic.) Instead, the Rangers have to train together as a team, working toward that point when they are strong enough, united enough, and far enough along in the plot to earn their outfits.

I have mixed feelings about this. And not just because I wish that the Power Coins were something the Rangers actually wore and utilized instead of carried around in their pockets.

On the one hand, I get that the film wanted to make the heroes more three-dimensional. And giving them development arcs by having them train together and learn how to be an effective world-saving team is a fine way of giving the franchise some sorely needed heart in a way that meshes with the premise. But on the other hand, this didn’t have to come at the expense of waiting until the third goddamn act to see the Power Rangers fully suited up and kicking ass.

Then again, it’s not like the film is entirely void of action until that point. To wit, the Rangers are given super strength and enhanced durability even without their suits. To be clear, such “civilian powers” are not unheard of in the franchise: There’s precedence for them going all the way back to the Ninja Ranger story arc in Season 2. Yet they are nonetheless highly controversial among the fanbase, as they call into question why the Rangers would even need to morph at all. In this case, it’s all because of the plot. The film needed some reason for the Rangers to go back to where they found the coins, we needed some superpowers to tide us over until Morphing Time has finally come, and the characters needed some way to realistically survive all the brutal training they get put through.

Yes, most of the action until the third act is comprised of training montages. An especially prominent one is set to “Handclap” by Fitz and the Tantrums in one of the many, many misguided soundtrack choices throughout the running time. That said, the training montages are paced beautifully, in ways that clearly show the Rangers growing more competent and closer together, even as they show fatigue and frustration over the fact that they’re still somehow unable to morph. A particular highlight is a nonverbal contest between Kimberly and Trini, which works so beautifully on so many levels that I couldn’t possibly try and describe it here.

But let’s step away from the Rangers for a little while to talk about the supporting cast. The various family members and high school students are barely worth discussing, and given the source material, it’s surprise enough that the Rangers have family members who are given so much screen time. No, there are really only three characters we need to focus on here.

First up is Zordon. While the character is still just a giant disembodied head, his ability to express emotion and to clearly move his lips are both significant upgrades. Moreover, his image is constantly forming and reforming through a “3D-printing” sort of effect, and he’s stuck to a whole wall rather than just a tube. As such, Zordon is a clearly recognizable update from his form in the original show, and he’s still quite visibly trapped inside the command center, yet he has a degree of movement that makes the character a more distinct presence. It’s all quite clever, and it certainly helps that he’s being played by such a talent as Bryan Cranston (who’s also an alumnus of the original show, by the way).

Moreover, this character isn’t just a font of exposition and generic advice anymore. He’s just as confused as anyone regarding why the Power Coins chose these five kids of all the possible choices throughout all of human history, and he’s deeply concerned about their ability to step up and be Power Rangers when the time comes. It’s also implied at one point that he has other, more self-serving motivations for getting these Rangers up to snuff. Don’t get me wrong, Zordon is still very much the foundation and father figure for the team. But the Rangers have complicated relationships with their parents in this iteration, and that extends to Zordon as well.

But then we have the Morphing Grid. For those who aren’t familiar, the Morphing Grid is a mainstay of the franchise, the “Magic by Any Other Name” that empowers the Rangers, their weapons, their Zords, and all the other craziness that goes on in this franchise. It’s always been an ill-defined plot device used as a catch-all excuse for why something works the way it does. And this movie is not the least bit afraid to liberally abuse it. There’s even one point near the start of the third act in which Zordon practically uses it as a straight-up deus ex machina.

Next up is Rita. I’ve got to say, this character was always a sight for sore eyes. Partially, that’s because Elizabeth Banks is having so much goddamn fun chewing up the scenery, and she always does it in a way that sells herself as a legitimately unhinged menace. Kudos are also due to the makeup team — I don’t know how they managed to make Elizabeth Banks look so horrific, but they did it. Perhaps most importantly, those few brief flashes of Rita acting crazy and inflicting mayhem were a welcome bit of CGI respite to balance out the character drama, another means of tiding us over until the Rangers actually show up in full gear.

Unfortunately, there’s her big plan for obtaining the Zeo Crystal: Taking possession of so much gold that’s she’s able to rebuild her staff, her costume, and her giant monster, Goldar, which will then dig into the ground until the crystal is excavated.

First of all, Rita starts by taking gold fillings from strangers, then works her way up to jewelry, and then finally goes for the huge fucking gold mine that’s clearly established nearby at the start of the movie. Why she doesn’t just go straight to the mine at the outset, I honestly have no idea. Another problem is with Goldar. There are so many reasons why he was one of Rita’s most iconic lieutenants in the original show, and none of them are here. This Goldar is nothing but a giant living statue made of gold, without the personality or even the “werewolf” sort of look that made the character so memorable. What makes it even worse is that Zordon, Rita, and Alpha (I’ll get to him in a minute) all talk about Goldar like he’s some huge deal and everybody should know who he is, and he hasn’t even remotely earned that reputation. Though at least Squat, Baboo, and Finster were all benched, so thank goodness for small mercies.

(Side note: The moment we first saw Rita in her green and gold costume, I’m pretty sure everyone knew exactly where the filmmakers were going. And they do go there… just maybe not in the way that you’re expecting. Don’t forget to stick around for the mid-credits stinger.)

Finally, there’s Alpha Five. For better and for worse, this character is emblematic of the film as a whole. Unlike the Alpha of the original series, this one is not just a squealing, useless, unfunny comic relief annoyance. For one thing, he’s got certain abilities that make him honestly useful as an assistant, but just enough that he’d serve as a viable sparring partner for the Rangers without any danger of replacing them. For another thing, he’s voiced by Bill Hader. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to have your comic relief voiced by a legitimate comedian who’s genuinely funny.

In concept and in casting, the character makes a lot more sense. But in practice, I could never get over the fact that the character was CGI. He never looked like anything more than a giant mass of pixels. That lack of realism might not have been a huge problem in such an escapist work of science fantasy as this one, except that we’re talking about Power Rangers here. The original Alpha Five may have looked gaudy as hell, but he was unmistakably and undeniably there. He occupied space, he had mass, and he interacted with everything around him in real time.

It’s the same deal with the Zords and the monsters. Yes, it looked undeniably goofy to see people in costumes of latex, spandex, and/or cardboard, often stomping around destructible miniature cityscapes. But all the same, there was never any doubt that we were watching real actors the whole time, which made the stuntwork and the action far more impressive. Everything was tangible, and every hit palpably landed. Compare that to this film, in which everything is so plainly CGI that it’s like there wasn’t even the faintest attempt at realism. Is that an upgrade? Given the source material they’re adapting, I’d argue otherwise.

Which brings me, at long last, to the climax. This goddamn climax.

To be clear, this climax follows a very familiar pattern. Putties show up, the Rangers smack them around a bit, a giant monster appears, the Rangers get in their Zords, they get beaten until the Megazord is formed, and they fight until the monster is destroyed and the day is saved. Does that sound familiar? It should: This is only the formula for every single Power Rangers episode ever.

And furthermore, I have to give props for this reinterpretation of the Putties. These aren’t just disposable foot soldiers made out of clay, these are monsters crafted from the streets and buildings around them. The simple act of creating Putties is thus an act of mass destruction unto itself, and the Rangers are beating up piles of stone and rebar instead of simple clay. It’s a genius touch.

And then the Putties are beaten when a Ranger barges in with a Zord. I mean, yes, it makes sense that the Rangers wouldn’t dick around with fisticuffs when they could roll out their giant fucking robots. But on the other hand, this puts a heavier focus on the CGI, as the Rangers can’t do a lot of martial arts while they’re sitting in the cockpits of their Zords. Far more importantly, this invalidates the entire preceding movie.

The entire rest of the film only barely mentions the Zords, putting a much heavier emphasis on learning how to fight together as a team. In the climax, it’s the exact opposite: We only barely see them fight together as a team before they hop in the Zords and spend pretty much the entire sequence in their giant robots. Even if they do coordinate their efforts and work together as a team, watching them pilot CGI behemoths isn’t the same as watching them carry out the martial arts maneuvers we just saw them practicing and perfecting throughout the entire film.

That isn’t even getting started on the Megazord. Good God, the Megazord. Where do I even begin?

First of all, its introduction is a shameless deus ex machina. It’s not introduced or even mentioned before it shows up. In fact, it’s implied that nobody even knew that combining the Zords was an option. Secondly, the design of it is unforgivably bad because it ignores the most basic design rule of any Megazord: It has to actually look like all of the Zords put together. I can’t even believe that I have to explain this, it’s so obvious. A Megazord absolutely must look like all of the Zords folded and put together in some configuration. For all the movie’s lip service about coming together and acting as one, it’s astounding how the filmmakers could so clearly overlook one of the most imperative visual metaphors for teamwork in the entire history of the franchise.

Perhaps most unforgivably of all, there’s no combination sequence. We never get to actually see the Zords fit together and form the Megazord. Seriously, this was such an indispensable highlight of the franchise. This was what got the fans to go out and buy the toys. This is arguably the single most crucial defining factor of any new Megazord, to see the unique and clever way in which smaller robots all fit together into something even more powerful and awesome. And we don’t even get to see it. How the HIGH HOLY FUCK do you mess that up?!

For one last note on the climax, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the single most obnoxious and intrusive case of product placement I’ve ever seen in any movie. And for those who aren’t aware, I’ve seen Leonard Part 6. To repeat: This product placement is even worse — and by no small margin — than that of Leonard Part 6. This is not a claim I make lightly, and it’s not a claim that I would take back for a second. I won’t even dignify the product by listing it here.

Moving on to the last few miscellaneous notes, it should come as no surprise that there are plot holes aplenty to be found here. Most of them revolve around huge noisy fight sequences that somehow go completely unnoticed, either by the National Guard or by someone in the next room. Then again, these problems are either inherited from the source material or come standard-issue with the “big budget action-adventure” genre. And that’s really what it comes down to.

Power Rangers (2017) only ever promised to be a reimagining of the franchise in the style of your typical 21st century, PG-13, big-budget spectacle. And that’s exactly what we got, no more and no less, for better and for worse. Among newcomers to the franchise, it’s too juvenile for adults and too mature for grade-schoolers, landing right in that 11-to-15-year-old sweet spot. While it may be standard issue for a modern superhero origin story to go into detail about who and what its heroes are all about, I appreciate how this one put so much effort into developing its lead characters, especially in a franchise that badly needed more heart and character development. Yes, the action is heavily reliant on CGI, the plot is brainless, and the product placement is utterly egregious, but these complaints are consistent with the kind of blockbuster that the film was trying to be (such as Transformers, which this film takes a clear jab at during the climax).

This is a movie that aimed for mediocrity and achieved its goal perfectly. But it’s hard for me to hate the film for that much when expecting much better would’ve been unreasonable and being much worse would’ve been all too easy. The movie’s pure brainless spectacle, though at least it has a good amount of heart. Take that for what you will.

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