Craig McKenzie, in the wake of news about a brand new Power Rangers universe, revisits the franchise…
Power Rangers is in the news once again with Hasbro hiring Jonathan Entwistle to head up a shared universe of film and TV adaptations of the franchise. Entwistle has said that he’s working on a “reboot universe” and a “whole new world” for the property. Fans of franchises have heard all this before and will recognise that such phrasing doesn’t always result in a good thing.
I am writing this from the perspective of someone who still counts himself a fan of Power Rangers despite not having watched any of the new output in a long time. When I was growing up in the ’90s I was obsessed with it, just as many my age were, and my love for it has never really gone away, though it’s fair to say I grew out of what it had to offer. My relationship with the show ended somewhere around the Zeo iteration of the franchise and I’ve never had cause to pick it back up where I left off. One thing I did when the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers appeared on Netflix was go back and watch those early adventures, although I never quite got to the point where I’d stopped.
What I found during my revisit was that the charm of the series hadn’t faded for me, despite being well aware of how schlocky it was with the benefit–or drawback–of hindsight. The elements that I once enjoyed were still present and there was an innocent purity to it that remained infectious, even despite the natural cynicism that adulthood breeds.
Another aspect that became clear is that there was a lot of potential baked into the premise that the TV show rarely did anything with.
David Fielding’s Zordon asked his faithful robot servant Alpha 5 to “recruit a team of teenagers with attitude” which he technically did but the prevailing attitude was “pleasant” though there were characteristics implied by who they were. Amy Jo Johnson’s Kimberly was set up as a shallow superficial rich girl; Austin St. John’s Jason was an alpha male-type used to getting whatever he wanted; Billy was a classic nerd archetype who would be shunned by the likes of Jason and Kimberly and so on. Curiously the show didn’t do anything with that potential inner conflict and had a wholesome team dynamic in place pretty much right from the first episode. Other things stand out, such as how impossibly righteous the characters are with their involvement in every altruistic extra-curricular activity you can name, a near total lack of attendance in classes and no consequences to them frequently ducking out of school to save the city from the weekly monster attack!
The show was unique in its setup in that much of the action was informed by Japanese Sentai TV series where the footage would be edited together with the new material made up of the actors playing the characters out of costume. In essence it was a show about mid-20s teenagers saving the world from Japanese stock footage. The newer footage would tend to focus on a moral lesson of some sort that children watching could internalise while they waited for the monster attack that would prompt them to morph into Power Rangers where the Sentai footage dubbed by those actors would take over. Even watching as an adult it all came together fairly seamlessly and as the series progressed the production team improved in combining these two elements together.
As with many things enjoyed in childhood there was plenty to poke fun at that you see differently with adult eyes. One example is that the yellow ranger was male in the original Sentai series while being portrayed by a female in the new footage, meaning there are some obvious visual clues that make it amusing in retrospect, The reused footage of the giant robots–or Zords–in combination would often fill up several minutes of an episode and the bulk of the episodes were pretty much the same as far as plot goes.
In most of them, the villainous Rita would come up with a new scheme to destroy the Power Rangers and arrange for her minion Finster to create a monster that would be the most dangerous thing they’ve ever faced. Before unleashing this monster she would send some Putties–expendable semi-mindless henchmen–to soften them up so that an action sequence could exist that allowed the talented martial artists cast in the lead roles to show off their skills. Following that the monster would be unleashed and the Sentai footage would take over with a brief fight at normal size before growing the monster to Kaiju height so that the Power Rangers can enter their Zords and kill it.
There was a very clear formula at play that wasn’t lost on me even as a young child. Back then I would always question why certain things weren’t changed to achieve victory more quickly, though there were rules built into the mythology of the show preventing the Power Rangers from escalating conflict. This meant they could only react to what they were faced with rather than be proactive in looking to end a persistent threat to both their lives and the city they protected. It’s not something that is ever questioned or explored in any detail but the fact that effort is made to explain why the formula exists from an in universe perspective is an impressive level world building for a show aimed at young kids.
Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was a cultural phenomenon that included all the usual offshoot media with toys, video games, lunch boxes and all sorts of other connected merchandise including Simon Cowell endorsed chart topping singles. It even sparked some controversy such as concerns that kids would try to imitate the dangerous stunts routinely seen in the show and the eventual introduction of Lord Zedd heralding a letter writing campaign because parents found him too scary for their young kids. Practically everyone had an opinion about the property one way or another and it seemed to be a never-ending money generating juggernaut.
Nothing lasts forever though and eventually Power Rangers dipped in popularity to the point that it was always present but far from the heights it had reached previously. Children had moved on to draining their parents’ bank accounts through other properties such as Pokémon. The franchise would change hands a few times over the years and would reinvent itself every now and again once footage ran dry for a particular Sentai series but it hasn’t yet risen to the level of popularity it once enjoyed. My understanding is that the franchise is relatively unchanged from the formula that defined it right from the beginning. The fact that it still endures and speaks to enough people to sustain it says a lot about the property.
In 2017 Power Rangers received the Hollywood movie treatment, with a new feature film that arrived to decent critical acclaim but failed to dazzle at the box office. It was a film I had a lot of time for because it had a talented cast in the lead roles, captured the spirit of the original TV show, injected that internal conflict that always could have been there and boasted some impressive visuals. As a fan of the show when it first appeared I found it a respectful reimagining and it remains disappointing that it didn’t do enough business to be given some form of continuation. Why it didn’t succeed is anyone’s guess, though a lot of it is likely down to poor marketing, as is so often the case. It should also be noted that prior to this there was an Adi Shankar unofficial fan film, starring James Van Der Beek and Katee Sackhoff, that I feel misses the point entirely with a dark, childish take. The less said about it the better as far as I’m concerned.
The future does look potentially bright for the franchise with no less than four distinct projects under this “reboot universe” banner on the way. In development we have a reboot movie, a “non-kid” show, a kid show and an animation. The four projects will be in continuity with each other but it remains to be seen what role the currently running TV series will play. It is slated to continue for at least another year or so but beyond that it’s unclear if this new project will replace it or whether it’ll exist in a parallel universe that never connects. It’s also possible that a Power Rangers multiverse will come into existence where different continuities are at play simultaneously. There was a comic book crossover called Shattered Grid that told a multiverse story so it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
Setting up a connected universe has proved problematic for anyone who isn’t Marvel so this news does come with some trepidation on my part. At this point I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt as the franchise has a lot of potential to create a connected universe with different teams servicing different places. The animated show could be set on different planets without breaking the bank in terms of visualising them, whereas the live action show could be more earthbound to keep the cost down. The important thing is to make good stories that work within the medium that they are being told rather than constantly servicing the connected continuity. Marvel has been successful by largely concentrating on what is being made rather than setting up what might be produced later.
Less successful examples concentrated on teasing the bigger picture and failed so hopefully Power Rangers doesn’t fall into that same trap and delivers a future worthy of the franchise’s long legacy.