Hear Me Out: Power Rangers (2017)

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Hear Me Out: Power Rangers (2017)

Hear Me Out is a column dedicated to earnest reevaluations of those cast-off bits of pop-cultural ephemera that deserve a second look. Whether they’re films, TV series, albums, comedy specials, videogames or even cocktails, Hear Me Out is ready to go to bat for any underappreciated subject.

Many moons ago, Power Rangers, the Japanese-import-turned-American-mega-franchise, was a monolith. It was a juggernaut of children’s toys, a seemingly never-ending wealth of kids’ TV shows, and an expanded comic book universe. And although it has floundered as of late under Hasbro’s ownership—with the franchise not having a series on the air for the first time since 1994—it still remains a pop culture staple. 

And in 2017, it got the big-screen franchise-opener treatment any pop culture staple worth monetizing fell victim to. (Anyone remember the Dark Universe? Yeah, this was the same year that Tom Cruise’s ill-fated The Mummy remake was meant to launch an entire connected, MCU-style franchise that instead launched nothing but a handful of hit tweets all these years later.) But Power Rangers (2017) was different, somehow. Still, to this day, it’s the most heartfelt of those cash-grab attempts, the most ambitious superhero team-up movie since The Avengers, and, most importantly, still a goddamn delight that deserved the sequel it so clearly set up (but can undeniably stand alone without). 

I’ll be honest, I don’t care about Power Rangers as a franchise. There’s too many shows, too many comics (though I have dipped my toe into Boom! Studios’ Ranger Academy, which is delightful), too much lore, and too many damn toys. It’s overwhelming for any new viewer trying to get into this classic tale, which kicked off with Mighty Morphin’ and never looked back. But, like I said, Power Rangers (2017) was different. The film follows a group of misfit teens who each have their own reasons for wanting to escape from their own lives—they meet in detention, after all. Jason (Dacre Montgomery) was Angel Grove’s football star before he flipped his truck attempting to escape cops after a prank gone wrong; Kimberly (Naomi Scott) became a social pariah after she aided in leaking private photos of her friend to the whole school; Billy (RJ Cyler) has trouble making friends due to his (canonical!) autism and smarts; Zack (Ludi Lin) basically lives in isolation taking care of his ailing mother; and Trini (Becky G) is misunderstood by her family and hiding her sexuality. And as these movies always go, these misfit teens must inexplicably band together to save the world. 

But unlike its predecessors, and even the films that would follow like Avengers: Infinity War or that very year’s Justice League film, Power Rangers simplifies the franchise’s complex lore, setting aside the need to sell toys, future installments, and entire expanded universes to sell something much more powerful: a story of friendship, connection, and belief. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t still a ton of lore present within this film, there is: the kids find mysterious, glowing, multi-colored coins that give them superpowers; they also find a spaceship hidden underground, complete with a funky, alien robot (Alpha 5, played by Bill Hader) tasked with training them to become—drum roll—Power Rangers; and the film’s villain is a creepy, decrepit former-Ranger named Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), who is hell-bent on finding a crystal buried deep under Angel Grove that will allow her to rule the world, or something. But even with the promises and lore-dumps surrounding aliens and Zords and Goldars and crystals, none of that actually matters in the long run, because the coming of age storyline paired with the incredible found family these teens create does all the heavy lifting for a film that feels somewhat shaky in its Ranger-isms but undeniably solid in its teen drama and humor. 

From the very beginning, these five teens could not be more different from each other, and that’s what makes them so easy to root for. As they learn the magnitude of their new role, it’s not the badass fight sequences or the hilarious training montages that act as the main draw of this film, it’s the bonds they create through those moments and outside of them. 

As they each come into their own (both separately and together), the film expands their relationship, offering heartfelt moments as a group and as smaller pairs. Trini comes out in a slightly clumsy (but ultimately heartfelt and, for the time, somewhat revolutionary) moment and Zack shares his daily anguish over taking care of his mother; Kimberly and Jason bond over their shared status as social pariahs, and Billy slowly but surely worms his way into all of their hearts with his outsized enthusiasm that they can be an incredible team. It’s that dynamic, between Billy and the group, that anchors the film’s most heart-wrenching sequence. Before Rita can find the crystal and take over Earth, she must put a stop to the Rangers that threaten her plot. But once she finds out that their teenage in-fighting and (understandable) reluctance to fully open up to each other has prevented them from being able to fully morph, she sets her sights on the group’s most vulnerable member: Billy. 

After discovering that Billy knows where the crystal she’s looking for is located, Rita tortures and kills him while the others are tied up, unable to help. As they lovingly and gently carry his body across town, back to the cliffs, through the underwater entrance to their base, and into the ship to beg Zordon (Bryan Cranston) for his life, it’s only then that they finally see and understand each other—that they finally become the team, the family, they were always meant to be. So when the Morphin’ Grid finally opens for the first time, Zordon doesn’t step through like he’d always planned, he trades his opportunity for a corporeal form to save Billy, who coughs and sputters back to life. The chilling imagery of Billy’s lifeless body over his friends’ shoulders, of his still form between Kimberly and Jason as they carry him to the place he dreamed they would be a proper team together, is unshakable, and that group hug when he’s finally among the living again only serves to enhance the heartfelt coming of age this film thrives within. 

But of course, Power Rangers, even in its heartfelt and grounded moments, never takes itself seriously, often embracing a campy humor as the bedrock for its action and drama. As the team finally suit up (in what are arguably the coolest Ranger suits ever brought to the screen; gone are the corny lycra of Mighty Morphin’ and in their place are shiny, bulky, alien armored suits, complete with a galaxy heart at the center) and strap into their Zords to go defeat Rita once and for all, the film utilizes the most unserious needledrop: “Go Go Power Rangers.” As these high-tech, sleek, and undeniably alien animal robots ride off towards the center of town, Power Rangers manages to marry the past to the present, bridging the gap between the Power Rangers of the past and the Power Rangers of the future. And not five minutes later, the film follows that incredible sequence up with something even better: Rita Repulsa eating a donut while Goldar begins to dig through the local Krispy Kreme to find the crystal. Like its predecessors, this movie manages to be hilarious and earnest, and yet still embodies the sheen of a polished action film befitting 2017 standards.  

By the time the credits roll on this film, they’ve saved the world—it’s over, they won. It’s an admirable end for a film meant to launch something much larger than itself, where even the tease of an incoming Green Ranger at the end is just that: a tease for a future that unfortunately never came, but takes nothing away from the story told in this particular film. I saw this film three times in theaters and have rewatched many times since at home, and the ending still feels like a fist-pumping victory all these years later. 

Critics at the time were largely split on the film, handing it a 51% on Rotten Tomatoes (which means that five out of 10 critics liked it, not that it received a 5/10 rating), with some lamenting it as “a work of soulless indifference” and others dubbing it a “winning and cartoonish coming of age tale.” And, truly, if it had been released any other time—in any other year, or even just any other month—the lukewarm reviews might not have mattered all that much in bringing families out to the theater. But instead, Power Rangers came out just one week after Disney’s Beauty and the Beast live-action remake, a film that would go on to gross well over one billion dollars at the box office and generally dominate the entire theatrical landscape for a decent chunk of the year. So instead of playing to packed theaters of adults looking for a fun, nostalgic trip or kids about to be introduced to their next obsession, Power Rangers was all but snuffed out beneath Belle’s sparkly, heeled shoe. 

Power Rangers (2017), despite its flaws, is an incredibly fun film, one that was never given the proper chance, due either to lackluster reviews or the fact that everyone and their mother went to see Beauty and the Beast instead. It’s by no means a perfect film, but its ability to stand on its own outside of the larger, expanded franchise it inhabits alongside its beating heart and charming central players should have allowed it to thrive beyond just this single solitary outing. Its image has been rehabilitated since its release, often by die-hards like me who just want this film to get the flowers it deserves. This team, this cast, this hopeful future for a dying franchise could have been so much more, but instead it remains a blip in film history and only fondly remembered by those that recognized it for what it was: something undeniably special. 

Anna Govert is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and her unshakable love of complicated female villains, you can follow her @annagovert.

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