Directed by Dean Israelite
Starring Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G, Ludi Lin, Bill Hader, Bryan Cranston, and Elizabeth Banks
Haim Saban & Lionsgate
Temple Hill Entertainment
March 24, 2017
The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers series has always been about bringing teens from diverse backgrounds together. The 2017 Power Rangers film continues this legacy by adding in Rangers of varying racial backgrounds, socioeconomic privilege, and levels of ability to reflect today’s demographics. As a film, Power Rangers certainly has its shortcomings, but it’s a good example of how a script can incorporate a marginalized character’s identity in meaningful ways. With underrepresentation still a huge problem in Hollywood, Power Rangers is a positive step towards more equality.
In an interview with EW, Power Rangers’ director Dean Israelite talked about how writing diversity into the film was an integral part of the filmmaking process. “We switched all of the races around, but we made sure that the essence of each of those characters are who they were in the original show.” (This, by the way, is what fans are asking for when racebending a character: a thoughtful script that takes the character’s identity into account to create a fuller, more authentic backstory for said character, all while keeping the core of who that character is.)
Speaking with Polygon, Ludi Lin, who plays the Black Ranger, said the entire team felt it was vitally important to give young viewers role models who didn’t feel like stereotypes. “We see each role as a multi-dimensional person,” he said. “To do otherwise is not paying respect to the audience…we need diversity, not archetypes.”
In that same interview, the actors talk about how they often ad-libbed to try and find different ways to connect more with their teen audience. This thoughtfulness is surprising–at least to me–considering the marketing was mostly about showing off the bedazzled Iron Man suits and dinos.
The actors also approached gender in meaningful ways. In an interview with THR, Dacre Montgomery, who plays the Red Ranger, said the team agreed that Tommy, the Green Ranger, should be played by a girl (hopefully a Native American one, to reference the original series) in the upcoming films in order to have an even gender ratio for the team.
And we see all this intent play out in the film. “Different kids, different colors, different colored kids!” the robot Alpha 5 proclaims in the film as he takes in the new rangers. It’s the one big pat the film gives itself on the back, with a team that includes a black character on the autism spectrum, a bilingual East Asian who lives in a low-income trailer park, an upper class Mean Girls-esque biracial South Asian, and a Mexican-American who’s coming to terms with her sexual orientation.
The best character in this film–and arguably as much of a lead as the Red Ranger–is the Blue Ranger, Billy (RJ Cyler), who tells Jason early on that he’s “on the spectrum.” Billy is intelligent and earnest and acts as both the major catalyst for the plot as well as the moral center of the film. It is not a stretch in any sense to say that without Billy, the team would have never become Power Rangers. Cycler’s portrayal of Billy feels both sincere and authentic, and in an interview with ScreenRant, he acknowledges how important it was to him to play Billy as a three-dimensional human being. Having a mainstream, relatable Black superhero with autism is notable, as historically cultural bias has led to autism being misdiagnosed or ignored in children of color.
The Black Ranger, Zack (Ludi Lin), subverts the typical Asian male character we’ve often seen in teen films, that of the socially inept, but always middle-to-upper-class educated nerd. Zack is everything that stereotype is not: he’s poor, flirty, impetuous, a delinquent, and lives in a trailer park with his ailing mother, an important subversion when you consider Asian poverty rates are often overlooked. But underneath that bad boy persona we see that he’s actually incredibly sensitive; he’s happiest when he realizes he’s made friends, and he’s repeatedly shown as caring for his mother, whom he converses in Mandarin with.
The Yellow Ranger, Trini (Becky G.), has set the stage for what could be one of the first queer superheroes we’ll have in a major franchise. “For Trini, really she’s questioning a lot about who she is. She hasn’t fully figured it out yet,” Israelite tells THR. And indeed it’s exactly that in the film, a bit of questioning about her sexual orientation and not a lot of confirmation, at least not yet.
The scene happens when the team is sitting around the campfire, Breakfast Club style. Trini, teary-eyed, is struggling with labels and feeling like she’s disappointing her family by not being their kind of “normal.” There’s a pregnant pause where you see some sort of realization dawn on Zack and Billy’s faces, but there’s nothing really verbally confirmed for the audience. The body language in the scene is an important hint, but it’s also nowhere near the watershed moment that queer fans have been waiting for. There’s hope there, at least, that in future films Trini’s story will be expanded on.
The film even does interesting things with their leader Jason, the Red Ranger (Dacre Montgomery). Jason is the only white character out of the five, and he’s a refreshing change on the toxically masculine jock character. Jason is a genuinely decent guy who learns to be both mature and self-assured. There’s a scene where he stands up for Billy by swiftly slapping a bully’s face. There are obvious gender connotations to a man delivering a slap versus a punch, connotations that Jason is unperturbed by. “Did you just slap me?” the bully demands. “Yeah, I did,” Jason says with a shrug and a smile. He’s gentle with Billy and patient with Trini and Kimberly. He occasionally butts heads with Zack, but it’s nothing too serious that keeps them from making up moments later.
There’s also the fact that Jason does not have a romance in the film–and the kiss seen in the trailer was cut from the film. The character who fills in a lot of these beats for Jason–the person who makes him a better person, who pushes him, and who he has a long moment of eye contact with later in the film–is Billy. Jason and Billy’s relationship is a surprisingly emotional one, and while the depth of their relationship is entirely up to fan interpretation, it’s nice to see a male friendship devoid of posturing machismo.
The one character that feels like a misstep is the Pink Ranger, Kimberly (Naomi Scott). Kimberly is a former cheerleader who is the victim of bullying by her teammates. Only, it’s revealed later that Kimberly is in fact the bully. She shared her friend’s sexual photos without permission (which falls under revenge porn), and as a result, her whole friend group dumped her. Jason, being the kind leader, tells her that she shouldn’t let that define her and that doing a bad thing doesn’t make you a bad person. But doesn’t it, Jason? Revenge porn is a terrible crime to commit, and Kimberly’s reasons for doing so aren’t even explained. Doesn’t cyberbullying somebody and then acting like the victim make her an actually bad person, especially when there’s no scene in the film showing her apologizing to the actual victim?
In other aspects, Power Rangers is certainly not a perfect film. The action scenes feel shoehorned in, and the CGI doesn’t get any better than what we saw in the trailer. Elizabeth Banks is laughably bad as Rita Repulsa, and Goldar just looks like a gloopy mess made out of Cheez Whiz. But Power Rangers is an important film. The characters are not tokenized, and their identities are integral parts of the story that help shape their worldview and interactions. The groundwork has been laid here for a franchise that allows teens of varying marginalized identities that get to be, as Billy says, superheroes. The producers have already announced they have a six movie arc planned, and I’m excited to see where they take us.