About five minutes into the new live-action Power Rangers movie, there’s a joke about someone jerking off a bull. As lame and out-of-place this was in a movie about teens in jumpsuits kung-fu fighting, I couldn’t help but notice a family of four (with two kids somewhere around ages 5 to 7) sitting near me also baffled by that joke. So much so that I heard the mother ask, “Isn’t this PG?” While it would be easy to wonder why this responsible parent didn’t simply check IMDb before taking her small children to said movie that was actually PG-13, I then noticed another moment about 10 minutes into this latest cash-grab at 90s nostalgia when a girl is teased for sending scandalous pics of another female around school. That’s when the two kids in the family started getting irritated and confused, and then the father uttered, “This is not our Power Rangers.”
Considering that the father looked like he was in his later years, it’s safe to assume he wasn’t referring to the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers from 1993, when producers Haim Saban and Shuki Levy took a kitschy Japanese kids show and threw in some American teenager corniness to turn it into a global phenomenon. He probably also wasn’t referring to Power Rangers Ninja Steel, the 24th and current iteration of the franchise that his children probably watch on a daily basis. So, after the family decided to leave the theater after their kids became even more bored and agitated (one of the kids literally shouted, “I wanna see the real Power Rangers!”), I couldn’t help but wonder; who are these Rangers for?
At the start, the movie’s suits, characters, and setting are meant to hark back to the Mighty Morphin’ era. We have the town of Angel Grove, where five unique teenagers stumble across some magical coins in a rock quarry. There’s disgraced football boy Jason (Dacre Montgomery), awkward nerd Billy (RJ Cyler), cocky Zack (Ludi Lin), mysterious Trini (Becky G.), and quiet Kimberly (Naomi Scott). After realizing the coins give them super strength and agility, they find the source to be an underground spaceship inhabited by Zordon (Bryan Cranston), who tells them they’ve been chosen to be Power Rangers. With the help of Zordon and his trusty robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), the teens train to take on the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) who plans to use a powerful crystal to take over the world.
Power Rangers biggest problem is identity, mainly wanting to be every other identity than Power Rangers. It’s instead wearing the masks of the Marvel movies, the Twilight saga, Pacific Rim, Chronicle, and The Breakfast Club. It’s very proud of its PG-13 rating, blurting out the occasional “s**t” and “b***h” in the midst of the grey color palette and snarky attitude of the rangers. But the masturbation jokes (yes, plural. There are two of them) and heavy-handed drama given to some of the characters is very strange and confusing. Power Rangers has been so ingrained with the cheesy and silly for 24 years that this sudden deviation from the norm is another example of tonal whiplash. The rangers are more often referred to as superheroes, the setting of Angel Grove resembles Bella Swan’s stomping grounds of Forks, and any sense of color and wonder are toned down to capture the angst of modern teens. Seeing that mixed with the lame special effects, mostly boring dialogue, and choppy editing, it’s almost adorable to see Power Rangers try to be the cool gritty reboot it wants to be, like your little brother wearing your dad’s work clothes and sunglasses like a grown-up even though they’re both two sizes too big for him. The movie’s a flat mess, shifting between attempts to be serious with some rather gruesome imagery from Rita, genuine sentiment between the lead actors, and the camp that comes with the Power Ranger brand. Director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) really enjoys his handheld camerawork and jump-cut editing, though he never seems to get a truly memorable shot for himself. And yes, the Ranger suit designs still look bad. Fortunately, you only see them roughly three times throughout the two hour runtime that manages to zoom by.
The rest of that duration features a surprisingly solid teen adventure. It’s no Breakfast Club, hell it’s not even The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it’s somewhat fun to watch the five leads pal around with each other before it devolves into cheap action schlock in the last 20 minutes. Montgomery doesn’t overplay the noble leader gimmick too much, despite looking like Chris Pine wearing Zac Efron’s skin. Lin has plenty of charisma, but he layers his “coolness” on so thick it borders on annoyance, not to mention he might be overreaching as a teenager (he’s 29 in real life). It’s nice to see some of the Mighty Morphin’ characters that were once hilarious stereotypes played with effectively. Scott takes Kimberly, once the damsel in distress of the team, and gives her a bit of spunk, almost making her the second leader. The ace of the five is Cyler (eternally great in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), who brings a manic energy and big heart to the picture as Billy. Even in such confused trash as this, he’s a bonafide star. The weakest of the team is pop star Becky G., who mostly puckers her lips and slouches in whatever seat she’s in. Her character is “crazy girl,” and you’ll learn this because Zack calls her that every time she walks into a scene. That’s called character development, boys and girls. And as for those all-star cast members in Cranston and Banks, you know and they know exactly what they’re here for: a paycheck. Cranston is simply a head in a wall (no, seriously) so he bring the right amount of anti-dramatic heft to that role. Banks is clearly rolling with the ham of playing an antagonist with the last name of “Repulsa” and to the film’s credit, her makeup and costume are actually impressive, but she doesn’t have enough screentime to really chomp at some scenery.
But here’s the thing: despite the five leads getting various degrees of development or interest for themselves, they’re actually quite enjoyable together. It would’ve been so easy for Lionsgate and Saban to get a group of American Eagle models together to make pretty faces at each other and call them “a team.” But you can tell that these actors have spent time together and actually like each other, despite the movie just forcing them together out of plot convenience. When they’re sitting together after training against holograms or sitting around a campfire talking about their personal baggage, it’s actually endearing to see them embrace one another and call each other friends. In fact, that’s the only part of the Power Rangers tradition that successfully transfers into this movie. That sense of camaraderie between these kids in the maddest of situations, sticking together has been the chief theme throughout every single series. Yes, it’s the cheesiest possible version of that theme, but that’s exactly what Power Rangers is, was, and always will be. It’s The Mighty Ducks or “We’re All in This Together” but with fight scenes and giant monsters, nothing more and nothing less. Even when it tries to be serious, that corniness and simplistic morality will always be there, and that’s what makes it enjoyable.
For all its intent, Power Rangers is as “gritty” and “cool” as Darkwing Duck without any of that cartoon classic’s humor. It’s nice to see these actors legitimately having fun with each other, but there’s no other fun to be had and any sense of drama is gone with the mentions of Krispy Kreme and the messy sight of the CGI zords. The movie seems to think its audience are those 90s kids that are “cool” because they remember when television was good back then, because they knew exactly what quality television was while eating Lunchables and trading Pokemon cards. But what the filmmakers don’t know (and don’t want to accept) is why fans outside the age demographic remember Power Rangers so fondly: because it’s absolute garbage. It’s cheap, corny, simplistic, and cliched, but it’s boldfaced embrace of all of those elements is charming. When you watch the actors flex their arms with attitude as they morph into rangers or see the foam-suited villains rub their hands together with evil glee while making an evil toad monster, there’s commitment with those actions and even enjoyment from it. 2017’s Power Rangers is trying to be an adult, but it doesn’t need to grow up too fast.