Like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, Power Rangers has a lot to live up to.
The movie is based on Fox’s kids show from the ‘90s, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and although it’s not the cultural zeitgeist it used to be, the franchise maintains a legion of loyal fans. It’s tough adapting a property; trying to create something new while honoring the original, and director Dean Israelite doesn’t quite find a way to balance the two.
Power Rangers isn’t a bad movie, but it is confused. It finds its strength in the main cast, but Israelite doesn’t know what kind of movie he wants to make. Is it a retelling of the story known so well from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? Is it an origin story? Is it an homage to the corny, but beloved ninjas that populated TV screens for years?
Power Rangers falls somewhere in-between all three camps, teasing what could have been a great movie but never exploring an idea at length, resulting in an overall blandness. It tries to overcompensate for its confusion by adding in moments that fans of the series will almost certainly let out a hoot over, but it feels pandered and forced. Power Rangers doesn’t feel confident enough to rest on its own merits, instead choosing to drop random references to the series. It feels out of place, and like most of the movie, hopeful that something will stick.
The only thing that makes Power Rangers worth watching and keeps it going from beginning to end is the cast. All five main Rangers are played by relatively fresh newcomers to the scene, and there’s an enthusiasm for what they’re doing that is contagious. Their general sense of curiosity and willingness to treat the world as seriously as they can manages to make the movie feel campier, ironically, but that’s what was at the heart of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
The Rangers bring all the power
Power Rangers takes many of its story cues from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Five teenagers with nothing in common come together to defend their city from an evil sorceress known as Rita Repulsa. Unlike the series, however, Power Rangers takes on a Breakfast Club tone, specifically focusing on the five teens and their backstories.
Again, this is where the movie succeeds. The series never got to delve into the lives of the heroes as much as the film does. Each character’s backstory is explored at length, and it adds a depth to their heroism that a movie like this needs. One of the best moments in the film occurs when the five are sitting around a campfire and trying to get to know one another by telling each other something about themselves no one else knows. The premise is a little ridiculous — imagine any teenager willingly giving up information about their personal lives to anyone, let alone kids at their school they’re only just meeting — but the cast makes it work.
You want to root for them at every moment, and that’s important when the movie gives you little else to root for. There’s no immediate concern for the town of Angel Grove or the people who inhabit it. There’s no reason to care about the end of civilization as they know it when Repulsa and her trusty gold servant, Goldar, descend upon it. The only reason you want Repulsa and Goldar to be destroyed is because the chemistry between the Rangers is palpable and you want them to survive.
Although Power Rangers is an ensemble movie, there is one stand out performance among the heroes: RJ Cyler as Billy the Blue Ranger. Like in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Billy is socially awkward. Diagnosed as autistic, Billy explains early on that it’s difficult for him to understand sarcasm or jokes as easily, but he’s also the one person who puts the most effort in succeeding. He wants to be one of the best Rangers on the team, and above that, wants to be friends with the first group of people to acknowledge his existence at school. His determination and Cyler’s ability to portray an honest, vulnerable and brilliant teen is what makes him the obvious favorite.
Special attention should also be given to Elizabeth Banks. Banks’ portrayal of Repulsa is interesting, to say the least, but she manages to bring a life to the character that fans will appreciate. Repulsa is much more sexual in Power Rangers than she was in the series, using innuendo in most of her encounters with both the Rangers and others in town. It can take a few minutes to get used to — especially for those who will be thinking of the version of the character played by Machiko Soga (as well as other actors) and dubbed in English by Barbara Goodson — but Banks’ performance is noticeably better than everyone else’s. She radiates a confidence that her role demands and she manages to steal the scene every time she’s on screen. The final battle between her and the Power Rangers should have been interesting on its own — there are giant Zords! — but Banks’ Repulsa still manages to come out on top.
Even the characters can’t save it though
Despite strong performances from the entire cast, it’s not enough to save the movie from its own insecurities. There’s no reason that certain aspects of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers have to be included, but just like taxes and death, it’s inevitable that they appear throughout the film.
Fan pandering is almost expected — especially in this era of comic book movie adaptations — but what Power Rangers does goes beyond that. Without getting into specifics as a way to avoid spoilers, the amount of eye rolling that I did in the theater is almost unmatched compared to every other movie I’ve seen this year.
The worst part is that Power Rangers isn’t a bad movie. I’d almost prefer if it was. I’d rather watch it fall valiantly on its sword and accept the defeat than try to make three different movies under one umbrella. It doesn’t work, and the movie unfortunately suffers for it.
Power Rangers is a series of bad decisions broken up with decent moments of adorable interactions between the Rangers and Banks’ Repulsa, but those moments are few and far in-between. Power Rangers had the chance to save itself from becoming the mess that it is, but Israelite needed to take the movie in a single, specific direction. It could have been a dumb, ridiculous movie in the same vein as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or an origin story like Iron Man, but it ends up being none of those things.
Based on the post-credits scene, Power Rangers isn’t going anywhere soon. My only hope is that the next film keeps the good parts and rectifies the bad ones. I believe we can have a good, live-action Power Rangers movie, but unfortunately, it’s not this one.