Power Rangers: Morphers in Disguise

If Power Rangers (2017) is essentially a film about five marginalised adolescents in search of sparkly new outfits (they spend much of the movie’s duration trying to learn how to ‘morph’ into their armoured costumes), it is also a film that goes through a whole wardrobe of familiar guises in a vain attempt to find its own individual self-expression.

The feature, written by John Gatins and directed by Dean Israelite, is a reboot of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers live-action TV series which began in 1993 – and which dressed itself in second-hand stock scenes borrowed from Toei’s Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger (1992), a tokusatsu for Japanese TV. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers would morph into several related TV series, as well as a spin-off feature in 2005 – and, in 2015, the fabulously dark ‘deboot’ fan film Power/Rangers, in which director/co-writer Joseph Kahn (Detention) reimagines the once teenaged adolescents as messed up (and mostly dead) adults. Israelite’s new film certainly tries to find new accessories to go with its old threads. Now one of the heroes (RJ Cyler’s Billy Cranston) is on the autism spectrum, while another (Becky G’s Trini) is LGBT – and of course, the mecha SFX look rather different from what they did in the Nineties.

The quest of these characters for emergent identity is colour-coordinated with that of the film. A prologue set on Earth in the Cenozoic Era matches the openings to several of the Transformers sequels – and also foreshadows the influence of Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014)  on the Dinobot-driven mecha frenzy of the climax. The scenes in which the five teens accidentally (or is it fatefully?) acquire their powers in a rocky quarry play out like Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012) – with not a little of his Fantastic Four (2015) sewn on for good measure. As Billy wonders aloud whether they will get cool superhero costumes like those worn by Iron Man or Spider-Man, he and his friends are seen testing the boundaries of their newfound abilities not unlike Peter Parker on the rooftops of New York, before eventually learning to morph into their Rangers’ metallic body suits that looks like a day-glo range from Stark Industries. Billy even at one point shouts out “Yippee ki yay, motherf-“, before checking himself with the words, “Mother’s good”, as though having realised at the last moment that John McClane‘s particular brand of heroism is perhaps not the best fit for the Power Rangers’ PG adventures.

Now it goes without saying that myths of teen empowerment are also allegories of adolescence: origin stories marking that mysterious transition to adulthood. Once Billy, Trini, Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Kimberley (Naomi Scott) and Zac (Ludi Lin) have learnt lessons of teamship and found their mojo, their acquisition of power suits and their eventual fusion into a single ‘Megazord’ to form a united front against their common alien enemy – ridiculously, if traditionally, named Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) – signify their enrolment into the society of adults. The problem is, though, that when these teens take their final stand in downtown Angel Grove, far from becoming individuals, or even part of a small quirky ‘band’, they have instead been corporatised and commodified as mere cogs in a bigger machine, and do battle, tellingly, to defend the local outlet of a global franchise (amid some of the most shameless product placement that this viewer has ever seen).

In what is a depressingly dreary, if no doubt also realistic (despite all the CGI overdrive and smalltown destruction) portrait of what it means to be an adult in today’s corporate America, these kids have literally become suits.  After so many sequences in which Power Rangers has been shown self-consciously trying on and shaking off so many of the guises of its past influence, the irony is that its final scenes find the film at its most clichéd and conventional. It has now, at precisely the point where it is meant to have broken free, become the blandest kind of brand wear that the Hollywood sweatshop loves to mass-produce and reproduce ad nauseam.

Given the prominence of clothing and costumes as a motif in the film, it is worth remarking on the T-shirts that these kids are seen wearing before they undergo their transformation onto adult-bots. Trini sports one that reads “Wonder 90s”, no doubt in reference to the decade in which Mighty Morphin Power Rangers first appeared. In a later scene, her shirt is emblazoned with the message, “It was all a dream”, which might have some viewers wondering whether the film’s heroic structure is just a fanciful disguise for a less salubrious scenario in which five misguided teenagers conspire to murder an adult woman – a sort of Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999) with delusions of super grandeur. The most revealing T-shirts, however, belong respectively to Billy and protagonist Jason. Billy’s depicts a flying weiner, which seems a bravely honest image to include in any superhero flick, while the text on Jason’s T, perfectly encapsulating this film’s money-grubbing cynicism towards its audience, baldly states: “Cash only. No credit. Don’t ask.”

© Anton Bitel