When you think Power Rangers, you probably think gripping character development and brilliant social commentary. Wait–what?
Power Rangers hit theaters last weekend and while it didn’t set the box office ablaze, it garnered a lot of good will from long time fans of the original 1992 tv series. It’s not surprising a franchise that specializes in color-clad robots fighting giant monsters managed to be a decently entertaining action flick. What is surprising, shocking even, is the amount of reverence graced upon the characters. Without a doubt, the greatest parts of Power Rangers were the character-driven moments. In those moments it delivered an unexpected masterstroke on the topics of diversity and inclusion.
In a much publicized creative decision, Trini the Yellow Ranger (portrayed with adorable pluck by singer/actress Becky G) was revealed to be queer, thus giving cinema its first LBGTQ superhero. While it’s a significant movie moment and a driving force behind the character, her orientation is treated in the film with so little sensation it seems to border on apathy. In a moment of fireside team bonding Trini discusses her “girlfriend problems”, or rather her apprehension in letting her family find out about them. Trini’s fellow rangers greet the news without judgement. It’s discussed no further and the conversation moves along to the next subject.
Motion picture convention has conditioned us to believe that should be a major plot point in the film, however, it’s dropped just as quickly as it’s revealed. It’s understandable that some may find this frustrating, or even pandering on part of the filmmakers, but it’s clear there is a much more subtle intent. A lesser film would have used this as the opportunity to stand on a soapbox and make a grand statement about sexual equality. Power Rangers refuses to do so. She never speaks about it for the remainder of the film–and by omission they normalize Trini’s orientation.
As diversity becomes more of a goal in post-modern media, the more likely instances of tokenism become. Often times projects that aim to broaden their appeal suffer from banality, or even worse, perpetuate harmful stereotypes. The almost nonchalant nature in which Trini’s orientation is discussed avoids this. She’s free of labels–free of being forced to conform to what our view of someone queer is so that some trite message can be conveyed. Trini becomes simply another Power Ranger rather than ‘the gay one‘. It’s a commendable for move a film that could have easily played it safe–and that isn’t the only risk it took.
Power Rangers double-downed on its message of inclusion with Billy Cranston, the Blue Ranger. The character is self-described as being “on the spectrum”. In other words he’s autistic and the first of his kind for onscreen heroes too. Similar to Trini’s sexuality, Billy’s autism is also handled with careful subtlety. He’s neither Rain Man nor Sheldon Cooper. His condition isn’t an impairment or a super power–though, he is a gifted engineer. Not only is Billy the most well-developed character in the movie, Power Rangers essentially is his movie.
In a standout performance, RJ Cyler realizes Billy as a socially stunted yet keenly opportunistic explorer. His story moves in lock step with the formation of the Power Rangers. He is the glue that holds them together. His sense of wonder–his sweetness–anchors the team in their darkest of hours. Much of the film’s comedy also hinges on Billy, but we laugh with him and never at him.
He isn’t shielded or coddled by the Rangers. In fact he’s thrust forward and often turned to for inspiration. This isn’t to say he’s represented without struggles. His condition is lived in. He can’t detect sarcasm or irony from his friends. He fumbles over his thoughts and words in stressful moments–but these are treated as hurdles rather than roadblocks. It’s an empowering, and more importantly, realistic depiction of autism earning praise from many advocacy groups.
Power Rangers, while unremarkable in many ways, may just be the most important genre film this year. In times where so many wrestle with uncertainty and doubt–both in the world and within ourselves–it brings us two characters that resonate in a way no one could have predicted.
The film dares to address the facade we often create, whether to fit in or to isolate ourselves. It’s only when we open ourselves to one another, accepting each others faults and fears, do we unlock a truly transformative power. These are heavy concepts for a film meant to sell action figures, but a welcome divergence from the perfunctory attempts that litter Hollywood. You don’t have to like the movie, but you should respect the boldness put forth by Lionsgate and Saban. We can only hope it’s the first component in a greater mechanism–one that can power us towards a more inclusive future.