On Tuesday, August 28th 2018, Power Rangers turns 25 years old. Like all millennials, at this age the franchise finds itself in a weird place. Depending on who it is interacting with, Power Rangers presents itself very differently. In fact there are currently three different versions of the series.
What makes Power Rangers different on TV vs film or in the comics? What does it mean that the franchise can’t settle on a consistent version of itself at this point in its existence? Does the fact that I am writing about this say more about my own quarter life crisis than Power Ranger’s? NO. SHUT UP.
I for one am hard pressed to find good intelligent writing about Power Rangers, so I thought I would step up to the plate to investigate these three identities and discuss them.
Power Rangers on TV
After all these years the TV version of Power Rangers is the same as it ever was, ridiculous as hell. The current iteration of the series is called Power Rangers: Ninja Steel and it’s about a bunch of teens who build morphers and weapons with alien metal so they can fight an evil invading space reality competition TV show. Seriously. One of them is also a cowboy ninja power ranger touring country singer.
The basis of the show is the same as it ever was too, a toy marketing driven action show made on a shoe-string budget re-appropriating footage from the Japanese series from which it is based. It is one of the last of its kind, a relic from the rules of the 80s when every big cartoon was made to sell toys. Every episode was originally the same, the kids play in the park, a monster attacks, the kids morph and beat it up, it gets big, they get in their giant robot zords and beat it up again. The series has grown to be more plot heavy, with new heroes and villains each season, but the basics haven’t changed. It is a kids show, with uncomplicated morality and heaping sense of fun.
On TV the ranger teams remain as diverse as ever, but in a way that someone’s ethnicity has absolutely nothing to do with who they are. It doesn’t matter if they are black, white, asian, hispanic, or anything else. None of that makes up their identity, they are only identified as a teenager (generally). On the other hand, any time a character has an accent of some kind that does become a defining part of their identity. Multiple rangers with New Zealand accents tell immigrant stories, and the one Scottish ranger, when literally asked how he identifies himself, yells that he is Scottish and then fights to bagpipe music. It’s amazing.
Because Power Rangers is made up of American footage spliced with Japanese suit actor and monster scenes, it has a hard time establishing it’s own identity. The series has a very low budget and making an entire episode with american footage is extremely costly. There’s also the question of how much a season should distance itself from its Japanese equivalent. A lot of fans want to see the same show but with an American cast, and sometimes that is for the best. But some of the best seasons used their footage as a jumping off point to tell a completely different story. Now Power Rangers has two different sets of fans who want entirely different things from the series.
Luckily, Power Rangers knows it doesn’t really matter what those fans think. They are adults, and they’re simply not who the show is for. Power Rangers on TV is still aimed primarily at kids. That’s why they ignore their own continuity (except when celebrating an anniversary), so the show can eternally be brand new to a brand new audience.
Power Rangers on Film
Last year Lionsgate swung big with a new cinematic interpretation of the Power Rangers, and their identity is fascinating. Director Dean Israelite and writers John Gatins, Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless, and Michele & Kieran Mulroney sought to find something real inside the glitz and cheesiness of the original series. They made a toy commercial into a story about teenagers finding themselves and meaningful friendships. The movie is not entirely successful in this endeavor, but I applaud it for the attempt.
This version of Power Rangers doesn’t even get into the suits and zords until the final half hour of the film, making the first hour and a half of the movie more of a teenage drama than a superhero movie. This balance isn’t exactly a strength plot-wise, but it says a lot about how the movie wants to be seen. This version of Power Rangers is grown up and meditative, with excellent chemistry among its cast. It also has the money to make the effets, suits, and zords look truly alien. Personally I think it made those designs overly busy, but hey to each their own.
The new cinematic Power Rangers are also the most meaningfully diverse version of the team ever. Billy isn’t just Black, he’s on the spectrum, and the film doesn’t treat that as a weakness but as something wonderful and lovable. It might even be his greatest strength. Zack is Chinese-American and speaks Chinese at home, his mobile home, with his mother. Trini is identifiably queer, even if they never specify whether she is gay or bisexual, that’s more than we’ve ever seen from the series before. The characters cross a sexual, class, and mental spectrum and it is a crime that nobody is talking about how big of a deal that is alone.
Without having to adhere to footage from another TV series, it’s interesting that this Power Rangers chooses to think smaller instead of larger. The story it tells doesn’t deviate very far from the original series, despite the huge opportunity to change everything. The movie cares a lot about how it is perceived. It wants to be taken seriously, as a legit entry into the superhero canon, and not a shameless cash in. That’s an uphill battle, one that I initially took umbrage with in its marketing campaign.
The Power Rangers movie was a gamble, and I’m not sure it paid off. The movie didn’t do very well in the US or China, but there is still talk of a sequel and I genuinely hope they make one. There are good bones here, and I hope they get to build on them.
Power Rangers in Comics
The new ongoing Mighty Morphin Power Rangers comic started in 2016 and transplanted the show’s original team into modern day with a story set shortly after the Green Ranger joined the team. Writer Kyle Higgens has stated that, when writing the series, he based it off how he remembered the show and not what it actually was. The comic is massive in scale, a war between good and evil, and most importantly it understands something I’ve been arguing for years; Power Rangers is already a shared universe on par with the MCU, if only we would tap into it.
This series draws it’s identity from the lore of the TV series, and more specifically the first real story it ever told, the birth of the evil green ranger. That character, Tommy Oliver, defines Power Rangers for a large portion of the audience, and the comics pick up right after he turns good and joins the team. From there the story takes a hard turn into a new continuity wherein the rangers encounter a version of Tommy who chose to stay evil, and he declares war on every version of the Power Rangers we’ve seen for the past 25 years. This event is called Shattered Grid.
This is the Infinity War of Power Rangers, with every team ever meeting in their prime and fighting for their very lives against this threat. It’s desperate and epic and I’ve never seen anything like it before with these characters. That’s not to say the series loses track of the character moments though! Across Power Rangers and Go Go Power Rangers, which is set in the earliest days of the series, we see Jason learn to be a leader, Kim deal with her parents’ divorce, and Billy debate if he could be of more use giving his powers to someone else. It sits comfortably between the heaviness of the movie and the lightness of the show.
Once this event ends, a new writer will be taking over the series with a new ranger team made up of members from different eras. This means if the identity of the comics up until now was about giving the original power rangers the scale of adventures we always wanted, it’s about to become something entirely different. And that’s exciting!
Change is Coming
It’s not just the comics that are about to change. The entire brand of Power Rangers was recently acquired by Hasbro. For the first time ever the next Power Rangers TV season is going back to a version of the Japanese series from which it’s sourced they previously skipped. They are even starting talks about making a sequel to the recent movie. This could change all of these identities in the years to come, but what fascinates me most of all is that they are choosing to maintain all three and not unify them all.
It would be so easy to pick one and force the others to bend to it, but I think it’s actually smarter to maintain all three. Each identity plays to a different kind of person and can bring them to the franchise. It’s not so different from Marvel or DC, where the comics are different than the movies (and in DC’s case the movies are even in different worlds than the TV series). It widens their audience. For Power Rangers, little kids can grow up with the show, grow up to appreciate the movie, and then come back to the comics for the kid inside.
That’s what happened to me, and I couldn’t be happier.
PS, there is a fourth version of Power Rangers. An official twitch streaming role playing game called Power Rangers: Hyperforce. I just don’t watch it.