Did We Really Need That Power Rangers Movie?
When American Graffiti premiered in 1973, it was only 11 years out from when the movie took place. "Where were you in '62?" asked the film's tagline. The world had changed a lot in a decade, and director George Lucas understood perfectly the power nostalgia for that more "innocent" time could hold over an audience. American Graffiti went on to become one of the most profitable films of all time. Four years later, Lucas released Star Wars, making nostalgic appeal the central business of Hollywood.
Power Rangers follows quite perversely in the tradition Lucas established. It's a film whose entire existence is predicated on the notion that nostalgia can be leveraged as a spark for something new. Not creatively new, mind you, but merely a new source of revenue for producers who own pre-existing IP. Lucas understood that nostalgia was a powerful driver of emotion. Are those of us who grew up watching Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers supposed to feel that deep longing for a time when we didn't have taste enough to know we were watching utter trash?
Watching the trailer for Power Rangers is a unique exercise. With its ironic detachment, grim-dark visual palette, and absurdly juvenile content, the marketing pushes well past forcing the question "Who is this for?" and right to "Why does anything exist at all?" To be faced with the reality of a big-budget Power Rangers "reboot" is to stare into the void—to confront the fact that we're all just biding time, reliving our pasts whether we'd like to or not for someone else's quick buck.
It's a film whose entire existence is predicated on the notion that nostalgia can be leveraged as a spark for something new.
What to make of a product so clearly designed and marketed to attract the nostalgic leanings of 30-year-old men while still being fundamentally the domain of boys 25 years younger? Is Power Rangers a cross-quadrant enterprise? A film those 30-year-olds can bring their sons to, to share with them the experience of their youth? Does Haim Saban, the media mind behind Power Rangers, know that in 2017 most men under 35 aren't likely to have kids at all? Or is the appeal meant to be more fractured than that? Is it supposed to pull in the nostalgic adults, while simultaneously attracting the young boys who watch whatever current iteration of the original TV series is still airing, 24 years after its premiere? Does it matter that the new film goes back to the series' original crop of characters, who today's kids know nothing about?
Screenwriter John Gatins succeeds in effectively distilling the Power Rangers' sprawling mythology into a manageable scope," says Justin Lowe in his review of the film in The Hollywood Reporter, "dialing back the campy humor and martial arts fixations that characterized the TV series and liberally informed the feature films." The seriousness with which Lowe approaches the material is apparently matched by the seriousness with which the film takes itself. This ain't your father's Power Rangers, it seems to say. No more "campy humor." A lot more "sprawling mythology." It's a mode of blockbuster filmmaking we've been stuck with for a while now, in which photorealism dictates glum self-seriousness. "The current version instead emphasizes more realistic dramatic situations," Lowe explains. Because all Power Rangers ever needed to become a blockbuster success were dramatic situations that felt more real.
Power Rangers pushes well past forcing the question "Who is this for?" and right to "Why does anything exist at all?"
At IndieWire, David Ehrlich describes Power Rangers as a film ultimately ashamed of itself, coming fitfully to life when it embraces its campy roots, but otherwise making a case against its own existence. Where it might have done well to go full bore nostalgia/parody a la 21 Jump Street, or the upcoming Baywatch, making entirely clear what the film's aims are, David writes that Power Rangers "sheepishly backs away from every one of these giddy indulgences as if it's afraid of getting caught with a hand in the cookie jar."
Haim Saban was no doubt inspired by the success of Michael Bay's Transformers films, which turned a line of toys and a silly cartoon into a multi-billion dollar franchise. But on some level Transformers is a genuinely cool visual concept: Giant robots fighting and transforming promises true cinematic spectacle. Power Rangers was never that. Rather, it exists as a set of disparate demographic appeals. It's a series of posters and trailers and TV ads meant to conjure different emotions from different groups of people of entirely different ages and tastes, with little resembling coherence.
Meanwhile, there's a question of whether any nostalgia for Power Rangers exists at all. Many of a certain age might fondly remember Saturday mornings spent watching the Rangers kick-punch their enemies, but it's not as though Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers has inspired mass waves of nostalgic devotion from the generations who grew up with it. The show was a product both of its time and its low budget. It was an amusement of little consequence, and even less value. To remember Power Rangers now is to realize that our time as kids would have been better spent doing almost anything else.
"Where were you in '93?" might as well be slapped on the poster for the new Power Rangers film. Where was I in '93? Sitting on the floor with the family dog excited by a bunch of flashing colors that didn't amount to much. And let's not even get into the kids today who watch the TV series for whom 1993 might as well be antiquity. The gulf between these two audiences is enormous. Irreconcilable by nostalgia alone, certainly. But you can bet that won't stop Hollywood from trying. The business model is nostalgia. That's the whole game, and Power Rangers is merely one more attempt to capitalize.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.