In an era of Hollywood when self-serious superhero movies reign supreme, the disastrous 2015 adaptation of Fantastic Four was a much-needed wake up call. It was a nightmare to watch, not because it was particularly bad, per se, but because it was just so criminally un-fun, stripping away any charm or eccentricities from the superhero squad and leaving us to long for their colourful, dumb, Jessica Alba-led predecessors.
Based on its marketing material, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Dean Israelite’s Power Rangers falls into the same traps as Fantastic Four. And while the film is quite visually dark and has a comparable story, what Power Rangers has over films like Fantastic Four is a fundamental understanding of the appeal of it source material. It sheds its stony skin as it goes, making for a fun, corny and genuinely rousing experience.
Diverging from the TV series, the Power Rangers are now intergalactic protectors, a mantle they inherited from Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and his original Rangers who sacrificed their lives to defeat a Ranger gone bad, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), millions of years beforehand. But Rita’s back, so a new misfit group of detention-dwellers—with an uncanny similarity to those of The Breakfast Club—must put aside their differences and learn to fight together. It is a generic origin story but it’s well executed, building energy and excitement in a way that even the most celebrated Marvel films struggle to match.
With action sequences straight from Japan’s Tokusatsu series Super Sentai, the original Power Ranger series was a campy mixture of giant mech fights, didactic high school subplots and power metal. This new iteration holds on to most of that, even if it unforgivably ditches the iconic spandex costumes. Israelite claims that the new suits have an “organic…bio-mechanical design aesthetic”, which would be cool were it even slightly apparent. Instead, the suits and zords fall very firmly in the Transformers category, but it’s a pardonable misstep, and hell, maybe they’ll make for cool Happy Meal toys. The suit problems extend to the general aesthetic of the first half, which is laden with colour-averse night shots and pointless dutch angles.
The Rangers ensemble are generally energetic and likeable. Australian Dacre Montgomery, recently cast in season two of Stranger Things, feels like he is on the verge of stardom, giving depth to Jason (the Red Ranger), an otherwise-familiar Tim Riggins knock off. RJ Cyler as Billy is also great, doubling as both the film’s emotional core and occasional comic relief. The adults are the real highlight though—Bill Hader, Bryan Cranston1 and Elizabeth Banks seem to be having all the fun. Banks in particular makes easy work of the sadistic alien invader, and her annihilation of a jewellery store in search of gold midway through is devilishly exciting.
As far as superhero movies go, Power Rangers has fairly progressive political undercurrents. Supposedly, this is the first blockbuster to feature LGBTIQ and Autistic Spectrum superheroes. I won’t pretend like these issues aren’t largely shallow and under explored; but it’s nonetheless refreshing to see a diverse range of characters in a film of this scale. Ludi Li’s Zack, the Black Ranger, speaks his native Mandarin for portions of the film, which is a nice addition, though he also cops the slimmest backstory of the five Rangers, which is a shame. As an aside, a lot of this diversity is offset by the very awkward, very regular assertion that Jason, the sole white-dude, is a “born leader” who “speaks for all of them”.
Power Rangers truly comes into its own during the climactic battle. Rita summons the glorious, solid-gold Goldar, the zords are unleashed to protect Angel Grove and we finally, finally get a taste of the greatest theme song in television history. The film also comes alive visually in the final third. It’s bright and fun and it’s hard not to grin ear-to-ear as you watch mechanical dinosaurs beat down on a giant cheese man. And while it seems de rigueur to express outrage about a certain instance of product placement involving Krispy Kreme donuts and a key plot point, I’m going to swim upstream and say that it was genuinely hilarious. Also hilarious: Banks’ delivery of the line “let’s kill everyone!”—a funny reminder that we were never really told of Rita’s motivations, but also, it doesn’t really matter.
Power Rangers will inevitably be on the wrong end of boring, commercially-minded criticism about nostalgia porn and target audiences, but unless you’re a Lionsgate executive, it’s not something that particularly matters. Nostalgia isn’t an inherently bad thing, especially when we’re talking about Power Rangers, one of the zaniest pieces of Western children’s entertainment going ‘round. I was delighted to return to Angel Grove and I imagine plenty of kids will be excited to go there for the first time 2 Maybe I’m drinking the Kool-Aid, but this Power Rangers is a lot of cheeseball fun.