Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was perfectly harmless. I mean, if you ignored the hysteria of some parents groups worried about their kids karate chopping their friends on the playground. But the series was about five clean-cut teens who were always working out, or community organizing when they weren’t fighting rubber monsters in spandex. Angel Grove was so clean cut even the bullies hanged out at the juice bar, but as with all reboots, you’re going to have to forget all that. In this Power Rangers, the heroes are a post-modern breakfast club fighting the creature from the black lagoon, and then things get weird.
In the rebooted Rangers by Project Almanac director Dean Israelite, and from a screenplay by Real Steel co-writer John Gatins, our heroic teens are high school screw-ups stuck in perpetual detention at Angel Grove High. Angel Grove, now far from sunny California skies where all you have to do with your time is fine tune your HipHopKido, is a working class hamlet where the predominant industries somehow are fishing and gold mining. Here, the kids who are different plot escape to better things and more interesting places, so it’s all the more shocking when five of the disgruntledest teens find a spaceship under their town inhabited by a robot with a disc-shaped head and a talking wall.
The real magic of Power Rangers, despite its great effects and Michael Bay-inspired action choreography and editing, was done in the casting room. These five kids are awesome! They are very likeable and have an immediate chemistry with each other that is believable and charming. The Breakfast Club comparison is apt and appropriate because like that quintet, the actors are able to lean into their stereotypes and overcome them. Darce Montgomery is Jason, a former football hero that screwed up his free ride with a pathetic prank; Naomi Scott is Kimberly, a former mean girl that feels ashamed for slut-shaming a friend; Ludi Lin is Zack, a delinquent doing anything to escape and forget the fact that his mom is dying; Becky G. is Trini, who’s dealing with her “normal” family’s shame that she’s a lesbian; and R.J. Cyler is Billy, who’s smart and more than a little on the spectrum, but is still the group’s heart.
Israelite smartly lends so much the film to the teens, and how they not just become superheroes but true friends that can put their fate and their faith in each other. If Haim Saban is intent on building a big, full movie universe akin to Marvel, then at least the people he hired to realize it learned the lessons of Marvel well; the action, the fighting, and the destruction doesn’t matter worth spit if we don’t get to know the heroes and they come to mean something to the audience. I genuinely liked spending time with the kids, and it was almost disappointing when it came to Morphin’ Time and they had to run out and fight Rita Repulsa and her legion of beasties.
Ah, Rita. Elizabeth Banks was a woman possessed in this role, leaving no scenery left unchewed. When Rita returns from the sea (you’ll see why in the film’s prologue, which is actually kind of spoiler-y), she looks like the girl from The Ring, but with a thirst for gold that would make Spanish conquistadors uncomfortable. Rita starts collecting gold by stealing the gold teeth of random people until she has enough to make a golden staff, which makes me wonder: Are their really that many people these days running around with gold teeth? Several days later, she finds the jewelry store, which, honestly, if you’re looking for gold, is probably the first place you’re going to start looking, which makes her seem kind of stupid.
Why gold? It’s how she’s going to make Goldar, her pet monster who will grow to skyscraper size and be able to dig up some sacred crystal that is the source of all life on Earth. Makes sense. Except that gold is a pretty weak metal to make your monster out of, but I guess when his name is “Goldar” you don’t have a lot of choice. There’s not a lot of character development with Rita, which sort of leaves it up to Banks to ham as a creepy provocatrix that shouldn’t be allowed with a thousand yards of a school. It’s never explained why Rita wants the crystal, or why she hates the Power Rangers so much, but moreover she seems to serve the function of being the bad guy because if you’re going to have a superheroes then they need to fight someone.
Of course, the climax is where Israelite’s charm offensive loses steam because the movie starts to looks like every other superhero/sci-fi action sequence with pointless junk creature henchman that are pathetically easy to defeat and the torture porn destruction of a small town as Rita and Goldar vaingloriously search for the life crystal which is for some reason buried under a Krispy Kreme donuts. Hey, great product placement! The key to life is buried under a snack food chain known for sugar loaded pastry served by the dozen. Not sure how the original Rangers, who I’m pretty sure once had to mount a campaign to save their beloved juice bar, would feel about that turn of the plot. (Although original Rangers Amy Jo Johnson and Jason David Frank cameo as two of Angel Grove’s original citizens, so someone could have asked.)
I think Israelite waits too long to have the Rangers morph because it ultimately feels perfunctory. He also waits too long to start massaging in some of the classic series’ camp colouring as they ride to the rescue in their Zords as the soundtrack blasts the “Go Go Power Rangers!” theme. The movie, until that point, has been so grounded with real kids and real problems, and then we throw that away to ‘Gee Whiz’ as the kids in their super suits drive big metal dinosaurs to fight a giant gold creature with wings?!?! And no offence to Banks, but “Make my monster grow!” is not a line reading that calls for understatement. It is, in fact, about the only time Banks is understated in the part.
Bryan Cranston was also kind of a letdown as Zordon, who on the series was a kind and benevolent benefactor to the Rangers offering constructive criticism while always being positive about his team and their capabilities. He’s supposed to be the opposite of Rita, who always berated her underlings for her failures. Cranston’s Zordon though is kind of a dick. Stringing the Rangers along their training only half-heartedly believing that they’re up to the job, and offering nothing in the way encouragement aside from “Do better.” He’s the P.E. teacher you hated in high school basically. Bill Hader‘s Alpha 5 is better, but his introduction is creepy in a way that might as well have been ripped from a John Carpenter movie.
Having said all that, I can’t dismiss the Power Rangers. Am I in a rush to see a sequel? Hardly, but I admire the time, effort and energy that went into making a diverse group of superheroes who were not only representative, but were each complete and whole characters with their own struggles and strengths that enhance and embolden the group as a whole. This is the first big budget superhero film to feature an autistic hero, and an LGBT hero, and none of that can be dismissed, and the fact that it’s done so openly without anyone being putdown or shunned or having to explain themselves is all wonderfully accomplished. In that way, Power Rangers at least captures the spirit of its Mighty Morphin‘ forebearer, even if it wraps itself in some of the worst stylistic tendencies of modern moviemaking.