Unlike the hordes of deplorables who may use the hashtag that serves as the title of this piece to express their grievances regarding the casting-diversity in this year’s big-screen adaptation of Power Rangers, I wish to direct its sentiment not at the cast’s inclusive representation — one of the few redeeming qualities in the whole affair — but rather at the generic, superhero dreck that surrounds them.
In recent years, filmmakers have thrust superheroes into settings and tones not conventionally associated with this overly-burgeoned genre. From the meta-goofiness of Guardians of the Galaxy to the sociopolitical debates underlying Captain America: Civil War to Deadpool’s (high-school-level) crass to Logan heavily borrowing (often pedestrianly) from westerns of lore, these offerings have taken advantage of the current cape-craze to green light projects that cover more ground than typical “hero-saves-the-day” fare.
Though almost all of them have been overly hailed for their superficial originality, they each STILL trump Power Rangers’ pathetic attempt to invert this quasi-fresher model. Instead of launching the cinematic universe of this beloved toy franchise in a distinct direction, director Dean Israelite and his team of screenwriters inexplicably create it in the likeness of a woefully generic superhero origin story (in regards to that team: more than two writers on any given script — there’s five here! 5! FIVE! — is usually a sure-fire sign that a studio has had trouble with a property that’s gone through multiple iterations, which often results in a feeling of pervasive corporate blandness as opposed to engaging individual artistry).
Worse yet: it’s not even a quality superhero origin story. Its cardinal sin: the teenagers don’t become the Power Rangers until just before the very last — and only! — fight scene, as in they wait until then to don the costumes and live the exciting lives the audience paid to see. This sleep-inducing downfall is admittedly an intentional conceit of the story; THE KIDS CANNOT REACH THEIR DESTINED FULL POTENTIAL UNTIL THEY UNITE BY TRULY GETTING TO KNOW EACH OTHER (caps to match the subtlety of how this “theme” is handled (quotes to express how much of a stretch it is to label such a saccharine message as a “theme”)). But this obviously obvious mistake (redundancy to capture the obvious obviousness) could’ve easily been avoided — and has been by other superhero origin tales — by having the kids bond WHILE entertainingly learning to kick ass and take names as the rangers.
Hopefully this critique does not imply that the portions of the flick that actually featured the kids as the Power Rangers are by any means better than the rest. The same overwhelming formalism plagues every inch of the proceedings, from the clunky writing to the bland direction. Yet again, the worst superhero conventions are borrowed, including an unintentionally hilarious reveal of the rangers, rocking their snazzy suits for the first time, slow-motion walking towards the camera in a straight line UNIRONICALLY!!!
Like…are they kidding? (For fear of coming across as excessively snarky and pervasively negative, I will admit that I appreciate how tactile the costumes look, unlike the glaring CGI work of recent “hits” such as Beauty and the Beast).
Yet more than just being a run-of-the-mill, everyweek bad movie, most criminally, much of it regressively perpetuates cringeworthy high school cliches, especially damning since a majority of the duration revolves around their personal lives and interactions with each other. Hollywood spectacles that share so many traits with after school specials — with the execution to match — always feel inauthentically condescending, from the hollow dialogue to the characters coming across more like archetypes than actual people.
As such, the performers can be somewhat forgiven for their lackluster work here, though most of the central team’s performances (besides RJ Cyler’s, intermittently) are so far from respectable that probably no material would’ve saved them. The two leads — Naomi Scott and especially Dacre Montgomery, upon whose incapable shoulders much of the flick resides — frequently come across like inferior stand-ins for Emma Roberts and Zac Efron, respectively.
The heavy hitters in supporting roles overcome the textual shoddiness a bit better, but none totally clear that hurdle: Bryan Cranston continues exhibiting no apparent understanding of what parts will be well-suited to his immense yet particular skillset; Bill Hader continues miraculously mining even minor comedic relief attempts for every last successful drop; and Elizabeth Banks — the villain here -—continues to redefine her fascinating career that’s increasingly worth following, even when she commits such misguided turns.
The racial makeup of the ensemble basically represents the only justification for this entire endeavor. Like most other modern updates of nostalgic properties, this version presents a more tolerant world where ANYONE — of any race, gender, and/or sexuality — can be a Power Ranger. Such mainstream representation is of course important and should be celebrated, but this diversity in no way substantially influences the same old formulaic structure, despite promising but ultimately inconsequential mentions of the race of the rangers in largely throwaway lines such as “Different colors. Different kids. Different colored kids.”
(To look into these identity politics too deeply: though the aforementioned pearly white celebrities fittingly play the old guard Power Rangers, the fucking white kid is inexplicably chosen as the leader of the new, purportedly more progressive team. Compounding this problematicism (hopefully making up a word conveys my tongue in cheek awareness of how much I’m channeling my inner, stereotypically PC liberal critic right now), he’s literally informed by his almost all-knowing predecessor that “you speak for all of them,” a sentiment that unfortunately calls to mind such problematic concepts as mansplaining AND whitewashing).
In the same way that the aforementioned, moderately more novel genre approaches of recent superhero fare do not significantly shake up their fundamental plot-driven narrative structures, the superficial changes of Power Rangers merely mask the story hitting trite beat after rote beat. Logan strives (but fails) to pull off a modern western cloaked — and by that, I mean disguised in order to be green lit— as typical mass appeal superhero fare, a noble if half-hearted attempt. Power Rangers, on the other hand, mutates this beloved property to conform to the superhero model. Even if this was a concession to the studio in pursuit of that green light, it simply cannot justify such artistic laziness.
The enterprise could’ve gone in so many better directions, with two specific ones coming prominently to mind without much brainstorming. First, the movie feels awfully reminiscent of 2012’s Chronicle, a similar story of a group of teenagers haphazardly stumbling upon superpowers. More than just its superior execution on almost every level, the inventive found-footage conceit — hitherto exclusively landlocked in the horror genre — separates it from similar origin stories. Without changing much else, such a creative approach to the material would’ve let Power Rangers stand out from the rest.
But since asking creatives to be a bit more creative sounds futilely obvious, the easier solution resided in almost the opposite: adhering more closely to the source material. Growing up, I was a diehard Power Rangers fan, and the main aspect of the series I remember was that it was sooooooo campy in a self-aware way (just look at the difference in the two pictures above). Kids were entertained by the action, while their parents could laugh at the kitschy handling of the puppeteered action (oddly, one of the most embarrassing scenes from the movie — the aforementioned slow-motion reveal of the Rangers in their suits — came the closest to striking my desired vibe, albeit almost surely unintentionally). If this modern iteration of the Power Rangers wanted to separate itself from the pack, all it had to do was stick to its origins and revel in the sort of light camp that modern, fashionably edgy superhero flicks — like the one this turned out to be— largely avoid (the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy and even Ant-Man flirt with kitsch, but they both forsake it during the supposedly money-generating action scenes in the name of straightforward, CGI-spectacle).
Though risky, this route may have resulted in higher grosses, the only end game that the studios responsible for this sort of fare care about. The unexpectedly-gargantuan box office performance this weekend of the 1980s-drenched It once again proves that nostalgia bleeds green nowadays. Perhaps original Power Rangers fans like yours truly would’ve flocked to the theatres if this adaptation had boasted the throwback tone that we fondly remember from our childhoods.
When I was young, I played with Power Rangers toys in addition to the X-Mens and Spider-Mans of my doll-house world not because they were interchangeable, but because they were acutely different. They may have looked the same to outsiders, but in my imagination, the Power Rangers stood out from the other superheroes.
If only the movie had followed suit…