(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Dean Israelite’s Power Rangers.)
When we revisited the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers last week, I thought we would be engaging in an act of pop culture masochism. Instead, I was weirdly won over by the whole endeavor. For all of its crass cheapness and cobbled-together storylines, the original Power Rangers series still displays an undeniable, sugar-sweet charm. It’s a hard thing to hate.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that director Dean Israelite‘s big screen adaptation of the long-running series is surprisingly good and surprisingly thoughtful and surprisingly weird. Surprise is the key word here, clearly. It’s not just surprising that a $ 100 million Power Rangers movie is watchable, it’s surprising that it has so much oddball personality. It’s a movie about inclusivity and giant robots punching monsters. It’s a movie about outcast teens coming together and a scenery devouring villain who serial kills people for their fillings. It’s the start of a big-budget movie franchise that also has a vital subplot about teen sexting.
Power Rangers is too weird to ignore and too nice to disregard. Let’s talk about it. Spoilers ahead.
This is a Weird Movie
Power Rangers opens 65 million years ago with a life-and-death battle between the Power Rangers and the mutinous Green Ranger, a brawl that concludes with the heroes summoning a meteorite that presumably wipes out the dinosaurs. It then immediately cuts to a joke about a guy accidentally jerking off a cow.
This clash is indicative of the film at its best and its worst. Here’s a movie that’s entirely unafraid to let its geek flag fly, to showcase color-coded teenage superheroes battling monsters in robotic vehicles shaped like prehistoric beasts…but it also wants to be Edgy and Gritty and Not Just For Kids. At their best, these clashing tones are charming. At their worst, it feels akin to Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, as if everyone is embarrassed by the source material and want to cover it all up with crass jokes and all kinds of seriousness. The movie is big-hearted and in love with Power Rangers iconography, but it’s also not above masturbation jokes (yes, there are more than one) here and there.
Thankfully, this weird collision works in the film’s favor more often than it doesn’t. The attention to a more grounded reality allows the fantastical elements of the film to feel, well, fantastical. Is it necessary to open a Power Rangers movie with 30 minutes of teenagers being morose and poking around their small town? Probably not, but it does sell just how completely and totally weird it is for those same kids to suddenly find themselves in a secret spaceship and talking with a robot and his giant floating head of a boss who wants everyone to become superheroes.
Similarly, the grim lighting and frequently melancholy atmosphere lend the goofier scenes a bizarre life. When Rita Repulsa ties up the Rangers on the side of a boat for an interrogation, it’s literally a scene out of a Saturday morning cartoon (they might as well be in railroad tracks). In the same scene, Elizabeth Banks‘ villainous performance, all showboating and vamping, offers a truly strange counterpoint to the rangers themselves, who are playing things completely straight. These flavors shouldn’t work together, but…they do?
It’s hard to tell how much of this tonal clash was an accident, brought on by too many cooks somehow creating a tasty dish, and how much of it is Israelite actually getting away with murder by making a genuinely odd movie within a major franchise. Honestly, that’s the kind of question only a sequel could answer.
Teenagers With Attitude
Power Rangers makes many changes to the series’ established lore, but one of the most noteworthy involves the five central kids themselves. Gone are the squeaky clean do-gooders who seemingly spend all of their free time exercising, teaching classes at the community center, and collecting petitions to save the environment. In their place are outcasts and punks. The friendly neighborhood juice bar is gone. These kids meet in Saturday detention. While there is a school bully in a minor supporting role, Bulk and Skull would feel redundant here – our heroes already have a sharper edge than most high school troublemakers.
This is perhaps the most modern update to Power Rangers. Rather than treat the heroes as upstanding citizens that young viewers should aspire to be, the film lets them be flawed, troubled kids who are still figuring out their own personal problems when great power and great responsibility are thrust upon them. It’s the old Marvel Comics model, the one that still applies to Spider-Man all the time – you come home from a night of saving the world and still have a mountain of your personal baggage to sort through.
For the most part, this works. While thinly written, all five kids make for appealing screen presences. Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, R.J. Cyler, Ludi Lin, and Becky G end up developing a fine rapport and their burgeoning friendship (sold around a pivotal campfire scene) feels genuine. Of the bunch, Montgomery gets the most to do and he’s another perfectly acceptable White Male Hollywood Guy. It’s Cyler, as the nerdy, “on the spectrum” Billy who gets to act as the movie’s heart.
Power Rangers isn’t shy about its diverse cast and it shouldn’t be. The original show was built around a group split between men and women, with multiple ethnicities represented, and the new film unapologetically follows suit. In an age where artistic representation is more important than ever, it is refreshing for the film to continue to series’ legacy of making sure every kid in the audience has someone on screen to whom they can directly relate.
Less successful is the film’s much-publicized “gay character.” While the film offers lip service to Becky G’s Trini being queer, the film takes the easy way out and skips over this revelation as fast as it can, never daring to say the dreaded “G” or “L” words. It’s a classic case of a major movie trying to have its progressive cake and eat it, too. Here’s the new rule, Hollywood: you are only allowed to publicly pat yourself on the back for including an LGBTQ character if you actually embrace what that means and not half-ass it. If trashy Alabama drive-ins are going to boycott your movies over weak showings, you might as well go all-out and let Trini showcase an actual interest in girls beyond another character casually outing her and no one ever mentioning it again.
Adults With Mortgages
While the central kids are played by fresh-faced youngsters, the Power Rangers cast is rounded out with more seasoned actors picking up some work. To their credit, these performances mostly work. Bryan Cranston (a Power Rangers veteran himself) offers a new take on Zordon that’s a far cry from wise, kind floating head in a tube seen in earlier incarnations. He’s surly, impatient, aware of the dangers facing Earth and not at all trusting of the new team under his command. To his credit, Cranston doesn’t phone in this gig and he invests his performance with the frustration you’d expect from a warrior who is now forced to live out his days as giant exposition-shouting face on the wall. As Alpha 5, Bill Hader does what Bill Hader does: he livens up the joint and gives Cranston’s straightforward performance an amusing foil.
However, those two are in a different movie than Elizabeth Banks, whose Rita is one of the strangest movie villains to come around in some time. The original Green Ranger (a hammer to the original canon if there ever was one) has no motivation beyond just being evil for the sake of being evil. On the page, it probably looks abhorrent – in a movie that tries to sand off the cartoonish edges, Banks might as well be animated. She’s only missing a mustache to twirl.
And yet, Banks deserves a lot of credit. She’s clearly having a great time and rather than even attempt to give this cypher of a villain some kind of human edge, she plays up that one-dimensionality and makes it into a grand art. Because Power Rangers is a weird movie, Banks is able to skulk around dark alleys ripping the teeth out of homeless people while also robbing jewelry stories and eating the merchandise while also building a giant monster and commanding it to destroy a Krispy Kreme store because it’s built on top of the crystal that supplies all life on Earth. There isn’t much of a character here, but there sure is a lot to do, and Banks ensures that all of that to-do is amusing. While the Rangers themselves have that 21st century update, Banks’ Rita looks and acts like she walked out of the early ’90s. Like so much of this movie, it has no right to work as well as it does.
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