This Power Rangers review contains no spoilers.
The standard defense for a franchise entry that’s getting bad reviews is some variation of “we made it for the fans, not the critics.” It’s usually a way to deflect critical barbs while communicating to audiences that even if the movie or TV show in question isn’t a critical darling, it was made with the best intentions. It’s a flimsy excuse under the best of circumstances, but it might actually be valid in the case of Power Rangers.
You know the story. Five small town teenagers suddenly find themselves in possession of pieces of alien technology that grant them powers, and soon are thrust into a millennia old conflict between the heroic Zordon (voiced by Bryan Cranston) and Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). The Power Rangers movie doesn’t depart much from that oft-told TV tale, although this one is a little slicker, and its core cast (Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, and Becky G) are more ready for prime time than their predecessors.
Perhaps the two most obvious pieces of franchise DNA present in this film are ones you shouldn’t want to emulate: Michael Bay’s Transformers and the Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films. The Transformers franchise, of course, brings the oversized robots, while the TMNT bring the team of teenaged superheroes, and perhaps the greater slice of nostalgia. Fortunately, Power Rangers is not as soulless or noisy as the Transformers films and not as aggressively juvenile as the last two TMNT flicks.
Like last year’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Power Rangers takes a director known for making a youth-oriented genre film on a small budget and throws him into the deep end with a storied piece of intellectual property and a Zord-load more resources. Just as Dave Green approached his TMNT effort with plenty of reverence for the source material, so does Power Rangers director Dean Israelite.
And make no mistake, this movie treats its subject matter with the utmost respect. One impossibly obnoxious piece of product placement aside, there’s not a whiff of cynicism about Power Rangers. We have five flawed teenagers trying to be better people and learning to work together, and it’s completely earnest in its messages about teamwork, friendship, and redemption. There’s something to be said for a movie aimed squarely at a younger audience casting such a wide net in terms of the diversity of its heroes, and this is something that more traditional superhero movies could learn from.
Unlike the Transformers franchise, it invests considerable time in getting the audience to relate to its human leads, and it mostly succeeds. It’s refreshing to see the movie lean so hard into the human element of the story, and the young cast is up to the task (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s RJ Cyler as Billy is a particular standout). But when you’re trying to do that while also married to the extended superhero origin story format, it makes for an extraordinary amount of clunky exposition. Throw in the obligatory “discovering of your powers” scenes and a full blown extended training montage, and Power Rangers starts to get a little stale by its midway point.
The problem is that so much time is spent getting these kids together and up to speed that there’s virtually none left to establish the villain. Despite a very cool opening scene that presents Rita’s connection to Zordon and the Rangers, and opens up intriguing possibilities for the wider Power Rangers universe, Elizabeth Banks is left spouting dialogue that’s juvenile even for a character named Rita Repulsa, reduced to cartoonish threats and “Crush them!” exclamations. I realize this isn’t supposed to be Richard III, but a little more effort to give the villain some menace and motivation would have helped.
Director Dean Israelite gets the most out of his young leads, and Power Rangers is surprisingly better at its high school drama/comedy than superheroics. By the time the team is finally suited up, Zorded, and ready to do battle with Rita, it’s clear that the movie’s best moments are behind it. The headachey final battle is nothing that we haven’t seen countless times, with better special effects, in dozens of other blockbusters.
Despite all the fireworks of the finale, this movie often looks and feels like it would be more at home on your TV than in a theater. It’s a little claustrophobic, the low budget toku quirk of the TV series is replaced with by-the-numbers blockbuster alien tech designs, and the charm of those frenetic costumed martial arts fights is lost when replaced by CGI, shaky cam, and slow-motion.
If Power Rangers took a few more risks or elaborated on some of the mythology it hints at, it might be a more satisfying movie with wider appeal. But at the very least, younger audiences looking for a baggage-free superhero franichse to call their own or those just looking for a big helping of nostalgia with their popcorn could do a lot worse. This probably isn’t the movie that “legitimizes” Power Rangers among people who feel they need validation from critics. But longtime Power Rangers fans will genuinely love this movie, which never resorts to self-mockery and (villain problems aside) doesn’t talk down to its audience. I suspect that was the goal all along.