Grim and Gritty Power Rangers (And Why That Sucks)
Watch the fan film below. Director Joseph Kahn and producer Adi Shankar have taken the beloved Power Rangers franchise, and turned up the “grown up” dial to 11.
Now here’s what’s wrong with it.
The Power Rangers, as we know it here in North America, got their start as a great business opportunity. Saban could get the fight scenes from Japan’s Super Sentai series sent over for cheap, and they could film North American actors for the dramatic out-of-costume scenes to produce the same show at half the cost. They did good, in fact they did great, and the series was able to give us 20+ years worth of content. As long as Super Sentai lived on in Japan, Power Rangers had a shot in America.
Early on there were issues with parents. The show featured violence as a main staple, monsters vs super soldiers in hand to hand combat and projectile combat. For a kid’s show in the USA at the time this was considered a step over the line for most. We could accept Wil E. Coyote getting blown to smithereens, but watching a colourful troupe leap and kick at costumed cretins was “impressionable behavior”. The fear that kids would someday start throwing punches and kicks on the playground was abated thanks to some Public Service Announcements that followed each episode, and by reshooting scenes where characters in the Japanese version were being choked or punched in the face. However both series, Super Sentai and Power Rangers, captured the hearts of the children watching it and created lifelong fans.
In Japan the series hasn’t skipped a beat, and even when Power Rangers took a hiatus from North American television the show overseas kept going. It never lost its original charm throughout the years despite getting a little softer around the edges (with less stories about unrequited love, out-of-suit violence, and overall death). During these years of growth North American fans aged too and the culture of the “kids show” changed with them. The Saturday Morning cartoon blocked we loved growing up is totally absent now, and with it the same tone of entertainment…Power Rangers included.
So the years went and Power Rangers nostalgia never died. The original run, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, is still the most popular and recognized of the entire catalog to date, which speaks volumes about the fans of Power Rangers: they’re the same kids, now grown, who watched the show when they were little. Nostalgia has become a major selling point in the 2000s and 2010s, which meant retro styled Power Rangers hoodies, backpacks, wallets, stickers, and more had customers lined up and waiting…but the show was nowhere to be found. Even the eventual resurgence of Power Rangers from Saban didn’t quite capture the youth of today as much as it did back in 1993. But as we said, it wasn’t the youth that wanted more from Power Rangers…
The creative adults of the world looked back at Power Rangers with fondness. In this interview with Ari Shankar he outlines exactly what his motivations were for looking into the lives of the Power Rangers now. In his estimation, a group of high schoolers pulled aside to save the world would inevitably end up…well…as you’ve seen in the fan film: broken, beaten, betrayed, and eventually dead. Other high profile Power Rangers projects popped up across the net as well before Shankar and Kahn’s take, and a lot of them seem to have the same goals for the Power Rangers: update their look, and their attitudes, to make them more relevant to the target audience of adult Power Rangers fans. The adult fans are where the nostalgia money is, so playing to the crowd is to be expected.
But what does the crowd really want? It seems to be an underlying fantasy of many to see their childhood heroes act out of character in various ways, and we’ve gotten a little of that recently. Mario is throwing punches in Smash Brothers, TV shows like the late great Harvey Birdman turned entire studios on their head for laughs, and referential humor abounds in Family Guy and Robot Chicken. Power Rangers was just next on the block for the “grown up touch” but it hasn’t really benefitted from it in the hands of high-power creators. MMPR, the other fan film, is a similarly grim vision of the Ranger’s future, and it’s starting to seem like that’s what the people want: Power Rangers that bleed, swear, and die.
Now anyone has the right to create, and to give tribute to their inspirations. But it helps when that inspiration shines through in the finished product, and that is just not the case with this short film. You could take this film and replace all the proper nouns with different names, then paint all the costumes black, and you wouldn’t be able to tell it was a Power Rangers fan film anymore. The Power Rangers love runs only surface deep, the rest of the material is purely the authors saying “Here’s how I would make something with Power Rangers”, and not “Here’s how I remember Power Rangers”. That kind of egoism overshadows the love of the material in this film and the result is an absolute mess of over-acting and gratuitous headshots.
It’s important not to equate what we see in this fan film with the actual Power Rangers franchise too much. The themes of Power Rangers, and of Super Sentai look very different. In Power Rangers/Sentai you have: Teamwork, perseverance, inner strength, insurmountable odds, knowing oneself, bettering one’s body, treating others with kindness and so forth. The visual motif of Power Rangers/Sentai is bright, and clearly tied into the subject matter of the show (if it was dinosaurs, trains, spaceships, technology…). The particular reason for the three to five teammates to become superheroes changes with each series, but the message is the same: we can protect the people of Earth with our friendship and strength. It’s an uplifting and positive message that runs under every moment of the show and passes that confidence onto the viewer. “Look at us,” it says “We’re trying against impossible odds to save the world, and so should you.” While not as heavy-handed as Captain Planet’s ecological message, the psychology of Super Sentai was integral to the widespread acceptance of Power Rangers, and still is the primary moral of the show.
The film is shot very well. Lots of special effects, practical and digital. Great sound work, great sets and actors. It’s long for a fan film, going 15 minutes, but it doesn’t drag as it bounces between action scenes and exposition. Big name actors help too as James Van Der Beek and Katee Sackhoff head up the cast. And that’s where the greatness of this particular fan film ends. Well made, poorly conceptualized and the result is an expensive one-off that fails to capture any magic from a show overflowing with fantasy.
“So what?!” you say. “It was fun! I’d watch an hour of this!” Okay good! That’s good! Your enthusiasm for transforming superheroes is there…but are you sure that means you’re still a big Power Rangers nut? Go back and watch the first few episodes of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, see how you still appreciate them today. If you didn’t like them then because they were too kiddie, then it’s not the Power Rangers you appreciate but the violence, which is okay too! The fear is in confusing love of Power Rangers with love of people kicking ass in transforming costumes, and if THAT’S what you’re looking for…
Do you want…
…a grim and gritty show with transforming heroes that involves blood, death, and nudity? Watch Garo.
…a light hearted show that provided (and still provides) light hearted but action packed base material, closest resembling classic Power Rangers but with a touch more violence/suggestive material? Watch Super Sentai.
…a harder-hitting show that still manages the magic but with a deeper arc plot and slightly more teenaged themes? Watch Kamen Rider.
…a violent and dark series involving mutants, a transforming hero and tons of ripping and tearing? Watch The Guyver (the live action North American movies, and the animated show).
Huzzah and hurray for there still being Power Rangers love to this day. It’s a show with a timeless message, and the ability to inspire children and adults alike for generations to cast off their fears, love themselves and neighbors, and embrace the possibilities of imagination. Let’s not worry too much about them not being adult enough for our sensibilities however, and keep their light shining brightly instead of masking it with sin and shadows.