Posted by: Joshua Bell on Wednesday, February 25, 2015
POWER/RANGERS fan film shows why grim-dark is grim-dumb
If you've been following my writing for a while, you've probably picked up that I detest hollow, needlessly cynical, faux-mature "gritty" reimaginings of once colorful and optimistic characters and franchises. It's a juvenile, self-absorbed misunderstanding of the entire concept of maturity to think that simply being darker makes something better or more complex. And seeing grown men constantly demanding a beloved franchise become more "adult" simply to soothe their own insecurities about still liking something intended for children only robs it of everything they enjoyed about it in the first place.
Lately, the studio most guilty of this trend is Warner Brothers, as you can see in basically every DC superhero film made this century. But they're far from alone. Star Trek and Spider-Man have gotten the same treatment, and Fantastic Four is next in line. It seems just about everyone outside of Marvel Studios have decided that superheroes just aren't allowed to be fun anymore.
So with the promise of a Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers movie in 2016, I can't help but become anxious as I wait to see what form the film will take. Will Saban elect to stick to the fun (if campy) tone that's kept the TV series going for more than two decades now? Or will they bow to blockbuster trends and give us a drab, joyless, self-conscious drag? Only time will tell.
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In the meantime, however, we've been given an unexpected gift: a glimpse at a possible future, and a worst case scenario for how a "dark and gritty" Power Rangers movie could end up. Joseph Kahn, the offbeat, eccentric genius behind Torque, Detention, and the best music video Taylor Swift ever made, has released a 12-minute fan film entitled POWER/RANGERS, and like everything else Kahn has done, it's... something else.
It shows a dystopian future in which Earth has been taken over by the Machine Empire (if you don't know your Power Rangers lore, the Machine Empire is... well, exactly what they sound like). The Rangers are all grown up and their lives have gone horribly wrong. Blue Ranger Billy has become a weapons manufacturer, Yellow Ranger Trini is dead, Red Ranger Jason was murdered after his wedding to Pink Ranger Kimberly by Bulk and Skull (who later OD on meth), Black Ranger Zack is a fitness guru that spends all his time doing hookers and blow, and Green Ranger Tommy is a wanted man living on the streets.
The main focus is on Kimberly (played by eternal fancasting favorite Katee Sackhoff), who's being interrogated by Rocky (played by unicorn slayer James Van Der Beek), formerly the second Red Ranger and now an agent of the Machine Empire. Rocky wants to capture Tommy, as he's suspected of murdering the other Rangers. To say any more would be to spoil the film (in as much as you can spoil a 12-minute movie), but suffice to say, it doesn't end well for anyone.
Here's a safe-for-work version of the short film in question (the NSFW version has fallen victim to a bogus copyright claim by Saban).
I have to admit, the film threw me the first time I watched it. Being already worn out by so many grimdark reboots of things I love, and apprehensive about the possibility of the same happening to my beloved Power Rangers, the whole thing felt almost like a slap in the face.
Watching Bulk and Skull, two of the most enduring, lovable characters in the show's history, being portrayed as foul-mouthed white trash who sell out the human race to aliens, murder their friends, and then die of drug overdoses was basically the equivalent of watching Winnie the Pooh go postal on the Hundred Acre Wood. But after watching it through a few more times, it became clear that what I was seeing was not meant to be taken remotely seriously. It's a Joseph Kahn film, after all. In his own words in the video description, this is his "take on the FAN FILM".
In an interview with HitFix, Kahn had this to say.
Kahn: I've seen repurposed stuff on the Internet where they take a property that's serious and make it even more so, like a Batman fan film or something like that, or a video game or whatever. I've actually seen stuff like where they've taken ridiculous stuff like Mario Brothers, and then tried to make the dark and gritty version, and they obviously play it for laughs. I think the trick that I really wanted to do with this was to make that dark and gritty version that everybody keeps talking about, but really do it. Really see if I could totally accomplish it with essentially a really incredible, incredibly silly property.
In that context, POWER/RANGERS makes a lot more sense. He's making fun of the fad of grit-ification but taken it to its furthest extreme by playing it completely straight. It's a commentary not just on the film industry, but also on fan films themselves. I've watched plenty of fan films before, and I know that what Kahn is saying is true: many of them take themselves far, far too seriously. In fact, a grimdark Power Rangers fan film was released not long ago, only without any of the irony of Kahn's version.
So the fact that Khan's film is meant as a joke is clear. How effective a joke is debatable, however, because the reactions to this thing have been all over the place. For fans like myself, either the joke didn't register, or it did and they just didn't like it. Many others, who either aren't fans or only casual fans who haven't watched the show since they were kids, took the thing 100% seriously and seem to think it's the greatest idea ever. All over the internet, headlines are calling it "badass", and commenters are saying this is exactly what they want the actual Power Rangers movie to be.
For me, this raises questions about the very nature of satire. To what extent is a comedian responsible when people don't get the joke? This isn't a new issue; Remember last year, when Stephen Colbert got called a racist for a joke on his show that went completely over the heads of certain people? Or how about all those guys who saw Fight Club and then went out and formed actual fight clubs, completely missing that the movie was a condemnation of that sort of empty macho posturing?
It's hard to find fault with the film in this case, because arguably making the point any more explicit would to be to compromise it. Part of the joke is that, for the most part, there's no winking at the camera or transparent self-awareness. It's taking the most over-the-top extremes and being completely serious in their presentation, which is, in and of itself, the joke. This isn't a Robot Chicken sketch. It's an experiment to show just how far the idea of a dark and gritty reboot can go and why it's ultimately a dumb and futile enterprise.
So I can't really fault Kahn for being too subtle. At the same time, much like Fight Club, it's really hard to enjoy the film as a piece of satire, simply because the reaction to it irks me. All I can think is, "A lot of people out there actually, unironically want this," and the thought just depresses me. If taking this concept to its worst extreme doesn't show people what a terrible idea it is, what could? And what if Saban and Lionsgate take the response to Kahn's fan film as a sign that there's a market for this vision of Power Rangers, and take the actual film in this direction? It's not out of the realm of possibility. Remember those awful Mortal Kombat web shorts Kevin Tancharoen made that landed him a job making a real Mortal Kombat feature film? (Sure, it didn't end up happening, but still.)
Joseph Kahn will not be making a Power Rangers movie. He's openly said he has no interest in it, and that's for the best. A feature-length version of POWER/RANGERS would be utterly pointless. The joke works as a simple short film, but dragging it out for two hours would get old fast. Better that he's free to pursue his own projects and interests, and I'm excited to see what he does next. In the meantime, he's certainly left us with something to think about, if nothing else.
Final thought: I believe the most telling and interesting thing about POWER/RANGERS is that when you get down to it, it's not really any more "mature" or "adult" than the actual show, despite its aesthetic shift. It may not be safe for kids anymore, but it's still (very deliberately) mindless junk food. The characters are just as flat and devoid of personality, the premise is just as silly, and the plot is just as nonsensical and formulaic. It's still mainly an excuse to watch people fight in rubber suits. The only real upside is that the acting is generally better, and the effects are vastly improved. That's pretty much the film's ultimate lesson: simply making something darker and more realistic doesn't improve shit. If anything, it just makes it dumber.