The Power Rangers were a defining part of the 90s childhood landscape. An American re-appropriation of the Japanese series ‘Super Sentai’, ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ launched a huge television and merchandising phenomenon, all the more surprising because of how non-sensical and poorly put together it was. It makes sense then that, in the current wave of nostalgia-driven film and television, the premise of super-charged teenagers fighting to save the Earth from alien invaders would be resurrected on the big screen. With the hallmarks of the series always being big, cheesy and silly, you’d be forgiven for dismissing ‘Power Rangers’ before it has even opened. The surprise is that this might not be one deserving of dismissal.
Five teenagers - football jock Jason (Dacre Montgomery), socially awkward Billy (RJ Cyler), ex-cheerleader Kimberley (Naomi Scott), bad boy Zack (Ludi Lin) and rebellious Trini (Becky G.) - find themselves forming an unlikely team when they stumble upon a buried space ship. Though they are all different from one another, they’re forced to come together and take on the mantle of the Power Rangers, an ancient alien squad protecting the universe, when the threat of fallen Ranger Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) arrives in their town.
I’ll be honest, I hated the Power Rangers when I was a kid. I thought they were cheap and dumb. With this mentality, I went into director Dean Israelite’s film, which just made me all the more surprising how thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly accomplished ‘Power Rangers’ actually is. Bolstered by a pretty solid script by John Gatins, the film somehow finds a way to (mostly) circumnavigate the ridiculous premise and DNA of the franchise by focusing on these five kids and their relationships with one another. All the superhero and teen clichés are ticked off, but here they’re given time to breathe and develop, with some surprisingly sophisticated concepts thrown in. We might have seen films like this before, but there’s a thread of honesty and care taken with these characters that gives the film more soul than any conventional superhero film in a very long time. The fact that you come to genuinely care for each of the Rangers and their backstory is a real achievement, and shows that there is room for detail and drama within the often limiting superhero framework. It might look like someone smushed ‘Chronicle’ and ‘Transformers’ together, but thankfully it’s more the former than the latter.
It’s also a cracking piece of filmmaking from Dean Israelite, who injects the film with a visual flare and daring that often takes you by surprise. There are some beautiful and thrilling sequences in ‘Power Rangers’, and while his handling of the bigger action sequences can occasionally get muddy, the majority of the film (which essentially plays out like a snappy teen drama) is executed brilliantly. There are so many ways this film could have fallen into the trap of being conventional and brainless, but for the most part its great cinematography, editing, design, score and direction keep it comfortably above water. Where the film does stumble is where it has to deal with the alien cosmic mumbo-jumbo and painfully 90s tropes from the series, but you can’t entirely blame the film for its source material. You have to have the characters with ridiculous names and a preposterous back story, but at least it understands that these things are silly and occasionally throws a wink at the audience so they know. This mostly affects the latter part of the film, but once again, the spectacle of the finale (as familiar as we are with seeing robots fight one another on a suburban street) is sprinkled with the right amount of character detail, and once it’s all behind it, the film just moves past the cheesy stuff.
It also helps that the central five actors are a genuine delight, and have enormous chemistry with one another. On their own they occasionally have trouble grappling with the more obvious emotional beats, but as a collective you believe the care and affection they have for one another. RJ Cyler is a particular standout as Billy, who deals with his character’s autism with sensitivity and integrity while also managing to be a sheer delight every moment he’s on screen. It’s a big deal to have a teenage hero with autism in a teen superhero film, and the filmmakers should be commended for that. The film also features an actual and well-handled queer character, and I don’t mean in the blink-and-you’ll-still-miss-it crap Disney put in ‘Beauty and the Beast’. So much of this film is about the teenager experience, and the filmmakers have made this film with an awareness of the way teens want to see themselves represented on screen and in the world.
The fact that you come to genuinely care for each of the Rangers and their backstory is a real achievement, and shows that there is room for detail and drama within the often limiting superhero framework.
You also have Elizabeth Banks bringing the star power and as much camp as she can muster as Rita Repulsa. Banks is clearly having a ball being as bad as she can be and chewing the scenery, and her ridiculous performance acts as a nice balance to the sincerity of the Rangers. You also get Bryan Cranston and Bill Vader turning up in surprising places, and probably the cheekiest treatment of product placement since ‘Jurassic World’.
I’m not going to come out and say that ‘Power Rangers’ is a great film, but it’s certainly a damn good one, far better than I think anyone was expecting and the first cinematic surprise of the year. It’s a top-class piece of young adult entertainment, crafted with sincerity, intelligence and a lot of fun. I haven’t been as entertained by a superhero film this much since ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, and with this clearly being a franchise set-up, I sincerely hope we get to see more from this series. In the midst of this nauseating nostalgia cyclone we’re stuck in, it’s great to see filmmakers actually enriching and playing with the material for a change, and a great surprise that it happens to be from the cheesiest, crappiest show of the 90s. So take a punt, switch off your brain and blast off with those Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. You might have a much greater time than you’d ever expect.