I wasn’t planning to see the new Power Rangers movie. I was certainly not planning to love the new Power Rangers movie. Having read Ace’s trailer review without actually watching the trailer itself, I figured I’d put the price of a New York City movie ticket toward something else. Then a friend asked me if I wanted to see it with her, and, on a whim, I agreed. And holy shit, am I glad I did. Was the movie good? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Was it immensely fun and everything I didn’t know I wanted in a movie experience, on top of being more inclusive than pretty much any big-budget ensemble movie I can think of? Absolutely.
Spoilers after the jump!
The plot of the story is pretty predictable: five teens discover magical coins that signify that they are the new team of Power Rangers, destined to defend the Earth’s Zeo Crystal, which gives life to the planet, from threats that would try to harm it in any way. This reimagining of the old TV show posits all the kids as having some kind of behavior issue that has landed them in the path of the adults’ collective stink eye, giving them more of a reason to band together rather than turning to adults for help. Jason is on police probation after a prank gone awry caused significant property damage (and, probably more importantly in his small town mentality, caused him, the star quarterback, to hurt his knee and ruin his chances to Lead the Team to Sports Victory); Kimberly forwarded a sexy picture of a classmate to another student; Billy’s inventive tinkering blew up his locker; Zack skips school more often than not and often trespasses on private property; Trini barely talks to her family, who “doesn’t approve of her relationships”. (Spoiler alert for strongly-implied gay.)
While they shockingly don’t question their Zordon-given mission to become an elite magical fighting squad, the team is unable to truly trust each other for quite some time. Because they don’t share a pure bond, they’re unable to properly morph into their armor, and so despite the ever-increasing threat of Rita Repulsa’s return, there are hard limits to how far and how hard they can train. It’s only when Rita briefly kills Billy (don’t worry, he gets better) that they realize that they’ve become friends who would die for each other, and are able to morph. Using their newly acquired suits (and Zords!!) they battle Rita and her minion Goldar, protect the crystal, and save the day. (Did you expect anything else?)
I give away the plot in almost its entirety because, as you will discover once you watch the movie, the plot is not particularly important, or interesting, or innovative. It’s deeply predictable and it takes a long time to get moving, but snappy writing is not what you are presumably watching the movie for. Its strengths are elsewhere: in its surprisingly likeable and complex characters, in its absolutely schlocky and wonderful earnestness, and in its appeals to nostalgia without leaning entirely on the 90s series for plot or personality.
Frankly, I’m in love with the characters most of all. As Ace noted in her Trailer Tuesdays post, the movie made the important adjustment of not racially color-coding the Rangers; Trini, the Yellow Ranger, is Latina; Zack, the Black Ranger, is Chinese-American; Billy, the Blue Ranger, is Black, Kimberly, the Pink Ranger, is mixed-race (her actress is part Indian, part white) and Jason the Red Ranger, is white. (I cracked up in the scene where Zardon tells Jason that he’s destined to lead the team; Jason asks why and Zardon doesn’t really answer, prompting me and my friend to whisper to each other, “because you’re the white male Ranger, Jason.”) Aside from this sensible re-allocation of Ranger colors, the movie doesn’t super delve into issues of race, but it does present its characters of color in nuanced ways.
I was especially struck by Zack’s characterization. Zack’s mother is very ill and is housebound; we don’t see her out of bed. He loves her very much, spends time with her, speaks in Mandarin with her, and cares for her when her illness is too much for her. However, she is all he has, and sometimes the stress of knowing that she’s not long for this world drives him to act out, cut class, or behave recklessly. He is easily the most hotheaded person on the team, and enjoys taking totally uncalculated risks and pushing the limits Zordon has given them. He’s also flirtatious with Trini until he catches on that she’s not interested in folk of the male persuasion. All of these elements come together to give us an Asian-American character who clearly respects and values his Chinese cultural heritage while at the same time breaking the stereotype of the reserved, sexless Asian male nerd.
The story doesn’t delve as much into Trini’s cultural background or, to be honest, her sexuality—she mentions that her parents don’t approve of her relationships, as I quoted above, and Zack asks “Boyfriend problems?” When he receives a snarky reply, he redirects: “Girlfriend problems?” Trini doesn’t answer, but the strong implication is that he’s hit the nail on the head. While the story doesn’t go any deeper than that, both the way the character was treated throughout the story and the way that particular moment was treated felt infinitely more respectful of queer representation than the much-discussed “exclusively gay moment” in the live action Beauty and the Beast. If the movie does well enough to get a sequel, and I expect it will, I predict Trini will get a girlfriend. Hell, given the screentime her character arc got in this movie, I’d even go so far as to foresee it being the main romantic arc of the sequel. (Meanwhile, this movie pleasantly lacked any romantic subplot.)
Right now I’m gonna sit here hoping said girlfriend is Kimberly in my heart of hearts, as they had a lot of Bechdel-smashing screentime together and really seemed to hit it off, but I’ll probably get a solid “why can’t gals be pals” from someone for even suggesting it.
While we didn’t get an explicitly confirmed gay character, Power Rangers did offer something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a genre movie: a canonically autistic character. Not only that, a neuroatypical Black character. Billy, when he’s first getting to know Jason, eventually explains to him that he’s “on the spectrum” and that he genuinely can’t process the nuances of Jason’s sarcasm, after which a chagrined Jason stops using sarcasm with him. And while Billy is clearly different from the other members of the team in how he reacts and relates to people, he’s also the heart of the team. Jason may be the official team leader, but it’s Billy who kickstarts the plot and discovers the Ranger coins; it’s Billy whose intelligence and diligence help locate first Zordon’s secret base and then the Zeo Crystal, and it’s Billy whose love and concern for his teammates means he’s the first one who is able to tap into his morphing abilities.
Far from being unimportant, pitiable, or sidelined, it’s really Billy who the audience most connects with and relates to emotionally, and the story couldn’t happen without him. Because of this, I was immediately shocked when Rita killed him. Rita is torturing the team for the location of the Crystal and has them all tied up; she cuts the rope holding Billy, dropping him into the ocean. The death is semi-unbelievable—he’s under the water for a sum total of like ten seconds and none of the other teens bother to even try CPR—and combined with the too-obvious nod to the Black Dude Dies First trope, I was immediately certain that there had to be some way for him to come back to life. As they’re all grieving, the morphing grid finally activates for the first time. Throughout the movie, Zardon has been waiting for this moment, because while the grid is active for their first morph, he will be able to regain his physical form, something that he has stressed is essential to the Rangers’ victory over Rita. However, he sacrifices this chance to allow Billy to come back instead, putting the life of a Black autistic teenager over his own and choosing to remain a spiritual mentor to the team instead.
The movie also developed more complex histories for other characters as well. In this version of Power Rangers, Zardon and Rita Repulsa were both former Rangers. Zardon had originally been the Red Ranger of his team, and Rita had been the Green, before she defected and started using her powers for evil. This gives some meat to both of their backstories. Also, it’s worthwhile to note that Elizabeth Banks fucking kills it as Rita. She’s genuinely terrifying in some scenes, her costume design is campy and referential to the original without being cheesy, and she commands every second of her screentime with her bombastic character acting.
This is honestly just a fun and heartfelt movie, and God knows we need films like this in the troubled year of our Lord 2017. It’s worth the entrance fee just to feel the thrill of pure, unbridled glee when they finally break out the classic “Go Go Power Rangers” theme music in the final battle—I actually yelled “OH MY GOD YES” in the theater when it started to play. To wrap up with a sentence I never expected to type: Don’t miss your chance to experience the heartwarming nonsense that is Power Rangers 2017 in theaters. I know I’m pinching pennies to try and see it again as soon as I can.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!