Folks, Power Rangers is back.
Okay, that statement isn’t exactly correct, as the Power Rangers franchise never really went away. While undergoing annual change, the original television program has remained on air for twenty-three years. If you travel down the aisles of your local department store or toy shop, you will discover that action figures based on the series are hanging alongside the various Marvel, DC, Star Wars and Transformers toys one would expect to find. Travel by the children’s DVD section of your local HMV (or equivalent store), and you will find various episode compilations and season sets for sale.
Yet as a part of mainstream culture, Power Rangers hasn’t really been on the radar for quite some time, even as superhero properties have come to dominate Hollywood. However, over the past year or so, a resurgence of interest in the property has taken place. Taking advantage of the nostalgia of adults who grew up watching the show in the 1990s, toy manufacturers are offering “adult collectibles” in comic shops and department stores, while comics publisher Boom! Studios has just launched the first Mighty Morphin Power Rangers comic book in years to great success. Heck, even the Super Sentai programs from which the various Power Rangers series have partially constructed from are now being offered for sale on DVD in North America.
To be cynical for a moment, this nostalgia for the Power Rangers has been somewhat manufactured. Saban Entertainment – the owners of the property – have a big budget Power Rangers film set to debut in 2017 — the first in twenty years — and the wave of “classic” Rangers merchandise is no doubt intended to stir up interest from both parents and their children prior to the film’s release. Saban is chasing the financial windfall that prior film reboots of older kid-friendly properties such as Transformers have achieved, and it is no surprise that those condemning the project have lambasted the new film production as a hollow cash grab to capitalize on a property with zero artistic or cultural worth. It is this view of the property that drove the needlessly mean-spirited, one-note joke that is Joseph Kahn’s Power / Rangers short film, which was released online last year.
Certainly, it is pointless to argue against the idea that the Power Rangers franchise is first and foremost designed to sell merchandise. The manner in which the program introduces new monsters, weapons, costumes and Zords (the Rangers’ battle vehicles, for those unfamiliar with the series) on an annual basis stems just as much from wanting to sell children new toys each Christmas season as it does from having a limited amount of footage from a given Super Sentai program to use. Yet such dismissals don’t really provide much insight into the property and its popularity. Given that there is no shortage of equally crass superhero properties chasing the same dollars as the Power Rangers, there has to be a reason for the franchise to have continued past its initial wave of popularity, even if we merely consider it a vapid toy commercial. What does Power Rangers offer viewers that supposedly more worthwhile franchises such as The Avengers and Batman don’t?
While one approach to answering this question would be to perform a close reading of the program and take a long, detailed look at the franchise’s style of storytelling, it is not the approach I am going to take here, at least at any great length. Power Rangers is, to be blunt, formulaic, often illogical and usually silly (though there is nothing wrong with being silly, I should add). Trying to pretend that the program isn’t ridiculous at the best of times isn’t really going to yield much in the way of results. Additionally, the simple fact is I am not going to work through twenty-three years of the program in order to offer a nuanced critique and possible validation of the franchise’s worth (at least not without getting paid).
Rather, I believe that the value of the Power Rangers franchise rests in its position within our currently superhero obsessed culture, and in the audience/market it chooses to serve: children. As we have discussed on the 24 Panels Per Second podcast, the rise in the popularity and critical respect of the comic book superhero (and of superhero comics) in mainstream culture has corresponded with a shift in who the target audience for these stories is considered to be. While American superheroes were originally aimed at an audience exclusively of children, comic book publishers have mainly aimed their superhero books at teenagers and adult readers over the past forty years in their quest to maintain older customers and to attain critical “legitimacy.” The result of this shift in thinking is that superhero comics have become increasingly adult in their content and themes, and this change in the comics has since bled into other media. One need only look at the trailers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to see a recent example of how superhero films have embraced the Bronze Age of Comics’ grit, violence, and overtly political themes, or the recent success of the R-rated Deadpool to see how young children have been excluded to a large degree from the genre that originally served them.
Certainly, a variety of child-friendly versions of characters such as Batman are available in comics (Batman: L’il Gotham) and animation (Batman Unlimited), but as contextualized within their overall franchises, these versions of the characters are denigrated to second or third tier status: they are “trainer” versions of Batman until kids are ready for the “real” (i.e., adult-oriented and “canonical”) versions of the characters. Never mind that the upbeat and delightfully meta Batman: The Brave and the Bold is a treat for fans old and young which respects the intelligence of its viewers; the “real” Batman is the one who typically stars in the ultra-violent stories presented in much of DC Comics’ current range of Batman titles and in programs such as Gotham.
(Yes, I am aware that Batman isn’t actually in Gotham, but you get my point.)
A property having a wide range of material targeting various demographic groups is not a bad thing in and of itself. In the case of Batman, this flexibility has allowed the character to maintain his relevance over changing times. What is deeply troubling however is the inability (or unwillingness) of companies to carry out this division of the markets they target in a clear and responsible fashion. Consider Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: beyond the intensity of its violence, the film is a heavy work dealing with themes mainly beyond the experience and comprehension of most young children (not to mention the film is way too long for most children to sit through). It is a work clearly made for adult audiences, yet at the time of its release The Dark Knight was marketed with a wide variety of products, including toys, games, and clothing aimed at young children. The reasons for this are simple, of course: The Dark Knight may not have been a film for children, but as a market, children were worth millions (if not billions) in revenue to DC Comics, its parent company Time Warner, and their corporate partners. To boil it down to a simple statement, children may not have been the audience for the film, but they were still a group to market to.
While the owners of the Power Rangers franchise certainly see children as a market, it is clear looking over the history of the franchise that they have not forgotten that children are also their audience. While Marvel and DC have pushed further and further into telling morally ambiguous stories in which heroes are capable of grievous errors which bring their heroism into doubt, Power Rangers has maintained a type of clear-cut morality, idealism, and optimism over its twenty-three year history which also defined the Golden and Silver Age superhero comics.
Now, as I am sure someone will point out, these qualities do not mean that Power Rangers is necessarily a good show. After all, the Golden and Silver Age of comics are often mocked for their simple (and oddball) stories, and Alan Moore ripped these eras of superhero comics apart in works such as Miracleman and Watchmen. Why should Power Rangers get a pass? Even considered among other children’s entertainments, Power Rangers seems disposable: it doesn’t have the substance and soul of a Hayao Miyazaki film, or the sharp wit of a show like Pinky and the Brain. Power Rangers certainly does not challenge its audience with complicated content and/or form like some of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, nor does it have special effects work that can even come close to challenging the wizardry on display in Marvel and DC’s current crop of film and television productions.
To that, I have one response: so what?
Power Rangers may be schlock, but a little schlock in a media diet is never a bad thing. While I said I wouldn’t mount a full-blown defense of the franchise’s storytelling, I find it hard to outright condemn the program for operating on the kind of logic which makes sense to children between the ages of four and ten. It makes no sense that any city would operate as normal when giant monsters seem to smash it up every week, nor does it make sense that teenagers would be the best suited to fighting intergalactic threats. The logic that holds the universe of the Power Rangers together though is not the logic of reality; rather, it is the logic of what seems cool to a kid. Case in point: in Power Rangers: Dino Charge, the reason the entry point to the Rangers’ base is a slide is because it is the kind of fun thing a kid would want as part of their secret base. The heroes are teenagers because it allows them to be childlike while still functioning as aspirational figures just out of reach of who the audience currently is. The reason the collateral damage from the Rangers’ battles with giant monsters is never really addressed is because it would get in the way of the fun of watching giant robots beating the living crap out of monsters.
This logic which drives the creative side of the Power Rangers franchise is similar to the thinking behind the production of comic book superhero stories during the Golden and Silver Ages of American comics. After all, let’s not forget some of the classic Batman stories from those eras, such as that time Batman fought an intelligent Gorilla:
Or that time Batman took on, I kid you not, the Rainbow Monster:
Besides, the real value of the program lies less with its stories than it does in the way it allows kids to engage in the power fantasy it offers. One of the arguments that has been put forth over the years with regards to the popularity of Spider-Man is that his head-to-toe costume allows anyone to project themselves into the character: Spider-Man could be anyone. Power Rangers, with its ensemble casts of heroes, does Spider-Man one better by actually taking advantage of the fact that anyone could be a Ranger. While Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers take forever to diversify their films beyond white male protagonists, Power Rangers has actually been offering diverse teams of heroes for some time. The current television series, Power Rangers: Dino Charge, features three actors of colour as Rangers out of its cast of five: Brennan Alexander Mejia, Yoshua Sudarso, and Camille Hyde, who play the Red, Blue, and Pink Rangers respectively.
None of this is to say that the franchise is perfect with regards to diversity: it isn’t. Looking over the casts of the various television series, the gender balance amongst the heroes typically leans towards male characters, while the colour coding of the team tends at times to reinforce gender constructs, such as the role of the Pink Ranger always being assigned to a female character (though this problematic element is offset by how the roles of the Blue and Yellow Rangers fluctuate between between male and female actors). Yet despite these failings, the program succeeds in other areas: within the sampling of episodes I have seen from the various series, the objectification of women appears almost non-existent, and respectful friendships between men and woman are given dominance over that of romantic relationships. The currently airing Dino Charge is also a boon to the ongoing efforts to increase the number of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics by providing two role model characters for young girls: the Pink Ranger Shelby Watkins (the earlier mentioned Hyde), who is determined become a paleontologist, and Dr. Kendall Morgan (Claire Blackwelder), a paleontologist who mentors the Rangers and builds their monster-fighting gear (I assume she holds multiple doctorates in various fields of science).
Yet for all of its surprisingly progressive aspects and diligent service of an audience of kids, the Power Rangers franchise has been overshadowed by the wave of large scale superhero extravaganzas being pumped into theatres, a trend that is unlikely to change without the kind of event product that the 2017 Power Rangers film could be. Given that the success of Fox’s Deadpool seems to be opening up the floodgates to even more adult oriented superhero films being unleashed in theatres, timing may very well be on the new Power Rangers film’s side, provided that it sticks close to its family-friendly roots.
Yet can the franchise’s positive qualities survive given the modern film landscape? If the new film is indeed chasing the kind of money made by films such as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, there is the distinct possibility that the filmmakers will rework the property into a vulgar, violent, and vapid monstrosity that Power Rangers’ earliest critics always claimed it was. Worse, there is always the chance the film could chase after “legitimacy” and go the way the rest of the genre has gone over the past few decades, no matter how absurd the idea of making a serious minded Power Rangers film may seem.
And if that happens? Well, it will be a loss for children young and old.