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Review: the Power Rangers movie is magical when it stops trying to be cool

If you want to know what love is, let the last 20 minutes of Power Rangers show you…

Power Rangers
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The only expectation anyone should have when going to see a Power Rangers movie is that in exchange for your ticket price, you will be able to sit in a dark room and enjoy a story involving dinosaurs, robots, and karate. The writing should twist itself into a pretzel for the sole purpose of bringing in more dinosaurs, more robots, and more karate. The only logic the story needs is logic that justifies the presence of dinosaurs, robots, and karate. And the only theme that matters is “dinosaurs, robots, and karate.”

When Lionsgate’s new Power Rangers reboot understands this, the result is so arrestingly silly and so belligerently joyful that it will zap fans of the original TV franchise back to the cartoon-filled, Fruity Pebbles–encrusted Saturday mornings of their youth. It taps into unashamed fun that will make a soul soar like a cotton candy–colored pterodactyl ripping through blue sky. Its goofy, gooey chaos is as irresistible as it is indomitable.

But there’s one nagging problem: The movie spends a lot of time resisting how gleeful and impossibly playful the Power Rangers are meant to be.

Following in the unfortunate footsteps of Henry Cavill’s killer Superman, Ben Affleck’s CrossFit Batman, and the color-averse X-Men films of the 2000s and beyond, director Dean Israelite’s Power Rangers are darker and more serious than original production studio Saban’s source material. A lot of the movie takes place at night, under the cover of darkness where color doesn’t exist — the Yellow Ranger’s costume is the hue of dirty gold, rather than a raw egg yolk. And instead of squeaky-clean teens, 2017’s Rangers are now troubled, law-breaking types who cyberbully their peers and wreck cars and families.

These Power Rangers are angstier, sadder, and colder than their predecessors, making large swaths of the film a bummer. At no point does someone earnestly yell, “Mastodon,” into the camera, and there are zero mentions of the other prehistoric creatures that figure into the Power Rangers’ mythology, like Pterodactyl or Triceratops. The majority of the fight scenes are just kids getting beat up.

Power Rangers’ ambition to dour up the rangers leaves the movie ambling to get out of its own way. But when it does finally manage to shake off its sternness, it’s a joyful 35 minutes or so — a frustrating tease if you signed up for 124 minutes of dinosaurs, robots, and karate.

Billy is the best Power Ranger, because he’s the only one who gets to have fun

The Power Rangers of 2017.

The premise of 1993’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers is that Zordon, a giant talking face who lives in a spaceship, asks Alpha, a stressed-out, more feminine version of The Jetsons’ robot maid Rosie, to round up some “teenagers with attitude.” Zordon wants Alpha to give them powers corresponding to prehistoric creatures (including dinosaurs), so they can protect the world from a villain named Rita Repulsa, who after 10,000 years is finally free from her prison.

The 2017 translation keeps Rita (Elizabeth Banks) and Alpha (Bill Hader) but downplays the dinosaurs. It also turns the teenagers with attitude into delinquents, and treats the Power Rangers and their superpowers as a kind of after-school counseling program.

Jason (Dacre Montgomery), the Red Ranger, is the high school quarterback whose appetite for rule breaking and danger wrecked his knee and cost him his only path to college. Kimberly (Naomi Scott), the Pink Ranger, is a cheerleader on the outs with her squad. Zack (Ludi Lin), the Black Ranger, is a crazy Asian bro who inexplicably spends a lot of time in a quarry. Trini (Becky G.), the Yellow Ranger, might be queer — though despite Israelite’s proclamation that Trini is the first “out” superhero, the film barely grazes the subject of sexuality — and feels like an outsider in her “normal” family.

The actors’ performances are good, and Scott and Lin shine in spite of their underwritten characters. But because all the Rangers are “damaged” in some way, they tend to bleed into one giant, sullen teen. That’s why R.J. Cyler’s Billy, the Blue Ranger, stands out.

Billy is, in his words, “on the spectrum” and has trouble reading people’s emotions. A running, unsuccessful gag throughout the film is that he often doesn’t get his fellow Rangers’ jokes. It’s tricky stuff to maneuver, and Cyler gives Billy dignity even though he has to deal with what is largely a superficial, sometimes romanticized view of autism.

What works better, and what really unlocks the film overall, is Billy’s earnestness. He’s the only character who embodies the spirit of the original franchise, because he’s stoked to be a superhero, and his fellow Rangers are essentially his first real friends. He’s the only one who understands that having super strength and zipping through the air is actually awesome. The rest of the Rangers don’t seem as enthused.

Cyler makes Billy’s joy clear, and gives the character a soul. And because of that, Billy is the only Ranger you end up caring about.

Elizabeth Banks is living her best life as Rita Repulsa

Lionsgate/Power Rangers

Equipped with a taut, Ariana Grande–like ponytail, velociraptor-esque talons, and a fetish for gold, Rita Repulsa is Power Rangers’ main villain. She’s much more ghoulish than her television counterpart, killing without conscience or hesitation. I’m not exactly sure what kind of alien she is, but it’s a cross between feral cat and a vampire.

Rita is bent on destroying Earth by finding a crystal buried beneath the town of Angel Grove. Her motives aren’t really explained; she mostly seems to have a general desire for power, but it’s not totally clear why she wants to destroy planets or start with Earth.

The point is that Rita desperately wants to fuck over the world. And in the end, her motives don’t really matter, because aside from Cyler’s Billy, she’s the only character who’s having any fun in Power Rangers.

Banks gives us the full evolution of man, or Rita, in this performance.

In the first half of the film, after emerging from the bottom of the sea, Banks produces jagged snarls that sound like a possum strangling a duck. I’m not sure what kind of life experience Banks has had, but she went to a deep, dark place to find those sounds, and I applaud her for it.

Later on, she’s channeling the Wicked Witch of the West and speaking in an heirloom accent she must’ve learned from a Gabor sister — it’s wild. And throughout the film, she cocks her head and neck as if she’s a Komodo dragon sniffing out a bleeding deer.

When the movie was over, I couldn’t stop thinking about Banks’s dumpster drag queen performance. Banks is having the time of her life in Power Rangers, and she gave me the time of mine, too.

The last 20 minutes of Power Rangers are good enough to save the movie

The glaring problem with Power Rangers as a whole is that it seems embarrassed of its roots. The original TV series used to have the Rangers morph by screaming the name of their prehistoric spirit animals while making eye contact with the camera.

“Pterodactyl!” Kimberly (played by Amy Jo Johnson in the televisions series) would yell, then morph into the Pink Ranger.

In the new movie, that sublime cheesiness is swapped out for something “cooler” called the “Morphing Grid.” The Rangers also can’t morph on command, because they have to “feel” the morph. This leads to a lot of permorphance (please forgive me) anxiety.

Making this change raises the emotional stakes of the movie and, in rare moments, thanks in large part to Cyler’s Billy, unlocks something deeper and more emotionally thrilling than the TV show ever did. But it also makes most of the movie about darkness, rather than the awesomeness of being a teen superhero with dinosaur spirit powers in a modern world.

The pacing of the action scenes is poor, and they’re mostly shoved into the last act. The Rangers get maybe 10 minutes to use their superpowers and karate, and there’s nothing that makes one Ranger stand out from the rest of the team except for the colors of their costumes and the fact that the Red Ranger is supposed to be the leader, because those are apparently the rules.

There’s also no explanation of where the Rangers’ powers come from. No details on what their spirit creatures mean. No mention of why the Black Ranger is connected to the Mastodon. No clear reason why the Pink Ranger gets the flying Pterodactyl Zord (Zords are the weaponized vehicles of the Rangers’ spirit animals) or why the Red Ranger is driving the Tyrannosaurus Zord. In fact, the Zords are treated more like fast cars, when they’re so much cooler than that.

That said, the last 20 minutes of this movie, with the Power Rangers firing laser beams from their Zords as they zip around Angel Grove and throttle Putties (Rita’s henchmen) while the Zords sink their teeth into monsters turned me back into a 11-year-old. It hit that nerve of joy — something I can only describe as a the feeling I might get from seeing the battle pose in The Avengers and the Wonder Woman fight at the end of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, while slurping up sugary, cereal-colored milk while wearing my favorite pair of pajamas. It’s just too bad Power Rangers waited until its final act to embrace what made the TV series so great.

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