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March 16, 2017

On Power Rangers and Mega-Consequences

All right, we’re a little over a week away from the release of a brand new Power Rangers movie (and in the midst of a Twitch streaming marathon), so I figure this is as good a time as any to launch into a tangentially-related discussion about it.  But before I do anything else: Lost Galaxy has the best theme song of the entire franchise.  Yeah, I said it.  Come at me.  Fight me 1v1.

At this stage, it’s impossible to know for sure whether Lionsgate’s soon-to-drop film is good or not.  We can all make guesses based on the evidence presented -- trailers, interviews, and so on -- but there are only two ways to confirm its quality (or lack thereof): take in as many reviews as possible, or see it in the flesh.  I’d imagine that there’s a decent number of people who are already crying tears of blood over what’s been shown off so far -- I’ve almost hacked up a lung on a couple of occasions -- but you know what they say.  Innocent until proven guilty.  It’s a shame that proving innocence or guilt requires a time/money investment that might prove physically or spiritually painful; still, that’s the way it goes.

In any case, Power Rangers has gotten me thinking.  It pretty much had to; as your friendly neighborhood tokusatsu fan, 48% of my brainpower is devoted to visualizing OTT transformation poses.  So let’s get to it.

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen a lot of the recent seasons of Power Rangers, though I want to.  Okay, to be fair I’ve seen all of Linkara’s History of Power Rangers episodes up to this point, so I think I’ll be okay by seeing some of Dino Charge and Ninja Steel at some point in the future.  Until then?  To my credit, I’ve seen a not-insignificant chunk of the Super Sentai footage that some of those recent seasons draw from, up to and including some seasons that’ll probably never hop across the pond.  Fun fact: there’s a season that has its Rangers themed around trains -- which isn’t all that surprising when you consider that A) trains have a pretty marked fandom/culture in Japan, and B) it’s not the first time a toku series has dealt with trains.

It’s safe to say that I’m a fan of the Sentai stuff, which by extension makes me a fan of Power Rangers -- even though I haven’t seen a ton of it lately, but I’m more than willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.  I’m not saying that either one is perfect, of course.  PR is largely beholden to its Japanese counterpart, which can lead to a lot of issues in translating the story over -- and even then, it seems like there are a ton of compromises (thanks to executives, writers, and more) that hamper the process as well as the final product. 

Meanwhile, the Sentai can grate on the nerves a bit too much with some of its characters and plots; even if you look past that, I’ve got no problems admitting it’s an acquired taste.  Or to put it bluntly: some of the stuff in there plays out like a fever dream.  I don’t know how well they did with Dino Charge, but its source material -- Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger -- is the sort of thing that makes you need to sit down and take five.  After the first episode.

Whether it’s PR or SS, there’s one issue in particular that’s hard to overlook -- and if you’ve seen the last seven minutes of the episode from either one, you can probably guess what that is.  Part of the franchise’s appeal comes from the Rangers’ ability to summon Zords, towering mechanical armaments that help the suited-up heroes take on giant baddies.  Cars, trains, planes, rescue vehicles, animals, dinosaurs, mystical creatures, spaceships, the works; no matter the form, you can always count on them to combine into one massive machine -- the Megazord -- to fight it out and win with a show-stopping finishing move.  In recent years I’ve cooled off on the Zord battles; I prefer it when they fight on the ground, and get ultra-hyped whenever there’s a battle outside their suits.  For what it’s worth, though, I can still appreciate a good mecha melee.

Then again, that just brings up a major issue: more often than not, the Rangers and their giant-sized foe end up doing battle in the middle of a city.  Inevitably, that means there’s going to be some major damage, and not just to a robot or a monster.  Buildings get knocked over or outright blown up on a regular basis; enemies stomp around and unleash some devastating special attacks; the Rangers can rarely wrap up a single episode until they use their Megazord finisher to make the baddie explode in a skyscraper-sized blast of pyrotechnics -- complete with them turning to face the camera, because…well, you know the rule.

In the wake of Man of Steel and the backlash it faced for the insane collateral damage it inflicted upon Metropolis, it’ll be interesting to see how the new Power Rangers movie reconciles the Megazord battle with the wanton destruction it can (and likely will) cause.  I mean, the obvious solution is to have them fight in an unoccupied location -- like the old rock quarry -- but then you miss out on all the death and hysteria afforded by putting countless lives in jeopardy.  What kind of movie would skimp on that?

Still, I think it’s a safe bet that PR/SS are in an okay place with their Zord battles -- and in the end, I guess I am too.  Based on what I’ve seen, those battles never really translate into anything meaningful story-wise; they might as well take place in a different dimension, for all we know.  That lets the writers and the show at large sidestep some nasty connotations; you can’t make audiences (children, especially) think about all of the widespread death and otherwise-ruined lives if you never, ever talk about it.  It’s a built-in failsafe…but damn, does it feel like a cop-out.

I might be alone on this, but I have a theory that Japanese children are actually the toughest mofos on the planet.  Why?  Just look at stuff like Super Sentai (and Kamen Rider, similarly).  One of the recent Sentai Installments, Dobutsu Sentai Zyuohger, had its main villain deploy a spherical energy field that steadily collapsed around a city -- and anything that dome touched ceased to exist.  That was in Episode 10, and showed no shortage of citizens panicked, screaming for their lives, and begging for help. Even the Rangers were on edge.  While they did eventually stop the murder-dome (following a battle with a mech way stronger than anything they’d faced up to that point), as far as I know, they didn’t find a way to reverse the damage done.  In other words?  There’s probably a shit-ton of people in that city that are dead.  Just fucking dead.

Near as I can tell, it never gets brought up again.  Ever.  We’re talking about an event on the scale of a natural disaster, and there are basically no consequences for it; right after the two-episode arc that has the Rangers dealing with it, the follow-up focuses on -- drumroll please -- the Green Ranger being forced into working at the local bookstore and reading to children.  How many potential, salient story beats did the writers vault over just so they could avoid some negative connotations -- connotations that A) still exist even when they go unaddressed, and B) somehow become even worse because they’re not addressed? 

For the most part, PR and SS -- and more, like Kamen Rider -- more or less take place in the same universe.  It’s what allows the various crossovers to take place between teams and franchises.  If that’s the case, then it leads to some really damning implications; more often than not, the heroes at the end of each season have to take on the final, main baddie after or during the deployment of his cataclysmic ace in the hole.  They win eventually, but boy are there some massive losses incurred. 

In terms of Kamen Rider, I’ve seen the quasi-apocalypse brought on by an invasive parasitic plant, which was followed in the next series by the forcible destruction of space-time and the conversion of people into data by a mad scientist.  The successor never brings up the predecessor’s apocalypse, nor does the successor’s successor.  Hell, in every series I’ve seen, the Riders are just “urban legends”.  And it’s like…what?  Huh?  The existence of the Riders is pretty hard to run back, given that a plot point in Kamen Rider Drive was the Rider’s cooperation with (and presence in) the police force.  Even if they don’t, it’s kind of hard to ignore that time when it seemed like nuclear weaponry was the only option left -- at least if Super Saiyan Jesus Nobunaga hadn’t gotten involved.

Side note: Kamen Rider is weird.

If you’ll let me get a little Aristotelian, I’d like to make an assertion: the stories I like are those that follow through on what they set up.  For (almost) every action, event, or plot thread, there’s a consequence that follows.  An effect.  If X, then Y.  Speaking personally, I’ve always tried to gear my story stuff in a way that follows a formula: asking “What if?” and then following through as thoroughly as I can.  What if this is the premise?  Then I see what I can do with it.  What if this character has this ability?  Then I tap it in-universe.  What if this event happens?  Then I chain it to causes and especially effects.  It’d probably help explain why everything I touch turns into a cinder block-sized pile of pages, but whatever.  It’s my nindo -- my ninja way.

When a story isn’t willing to go into those consequences -- isn’t ready to explore the Y that follows an X -- then it comes off as a huge disservice.  Every time you take a moment to focus on a plot point or subject outside of the basic through line, it presents a slew of unique possibilities.  Character development.  World-building.  Thematic heft.  New plot threads that can be followed.  Tonal shifts (or bolstering) as needed.  It’s a way to make a story feel grander, more thoughtful, more impactful, and more credible.  I won’t soon forget how Uncharted 4 promised all of that via its tagline (featured on the back of the box) that says “Every treasure has its price.”  Uh-huh.  And that’s exactly why a scumbag thief gets to have a successful TV show, a picturesque beach house, and a genius daughter who shows up on magazine covers -- despite the death and destruction he caused for the sake of “treasure”.   Oh, but no one important to him actually died, so there were no consequences whatsoever.

“Every treasure has its price.”  Yeah, no, fuck you.

So one thing that gets to me about PR/SS and other toku shows is when it doesn’t follow through on the consequences set up by the actions.  And I know what you’re thinking: a lot of that stuff is for children and exists to sell merchandise.  There’s no way they can show the fallout from every single event, especially the catastrophic ones meant to show how cool this year’s set of toys are.  Fair point, I suppose -- but there’s still the other thing that gets to me.  Remember what I said about Japanese children being the toughest mofos on the planet?  Knowing that their fiction includes a couple of popular toku shows -- and the content they include -- I’m surprised they haven’t staged a coup without a shred of emotion or mercy.

As of writing, the latest Sentai installment is Uchuu Sentai Kyuranger, which is head-turning for the fact that it dumps a full nine Rangers into viewers’ laps by the fifth episode.  Also, it’s space-themed, which is an automatic plus.  But what’s really noteworthy is its basic premise; yes, the Rangers have to take on the villainous Jark Matter and save the universe from evil.  Basic stuff.  We’re talking Wikipedia-level summaries here.

Unfortunately, Jark Matter has already won.  They already control the universe, with the ability to influence and corrupt every galaxy they have their hands in, whether it’s with economics or society.  They’re more than willing to do heinous stuff like eat the dreams of innocent children, with adults that are complicit in it just so they can stay safe (and it’s not as if they’re taking physical harm, so it’s all good, right?).  Meanwhile, it’s more or less a given that Earth -- while not shown yet, as far as I know -- has been conquered by the bad guys. 

By extension, that means that the Sentai teams that preceded them, the ones tasked with guarding the earth, failed.  Given that Kyuranger takes place in the future, it makes you wonder if they’re the only ones left -- which means that they’re insurgents tasked with toppling a universe-spanning empire with tyrannical control over countless facets of day-to-day life.  Said facets include being willing and able to murder dissenters, up to and including children.

Yep.  This is definitely a kid’s show. 

Uh…I think.

Lest you think I’m playing favorites, it’s important to note that this isn’t just a Japan-only thing.  You could kinda-sorta argue as much because PR borrows liberally from the source material (some seasons more than others), but the western version can, has, and will become its own beast when given the chance.  That includes its own slew of consequences; so yes, even if they aren’t showing the fallout from certain giant monster battles, they’re still exploring the X-Y relationship as best they can, even when they don’t have to.  Because “this is a kid’s show” and the idea is that they don’t have to try.  But as MovieBob once argued, that’s not an excuse; if anything, it’s a reason to try even harder.

I won’t act like I’m the authority on PR, but I was under the impression that -- up until the switching of hands from Saban to Disney, and maybe a little ways past that -- the series followed through on a continuing story arc that started with the original “five teenagers with attitude” and continued to Zordon’s death and beyond.  Setting aside the fact that Zordon died (killed by a Ranger no less, albeit as part of a heroic sacrifice), there have been plenty of other ways before and after that have let the series continue down certain threads and narrative trains of thought.  In Space was the culmination of the original story arc that started with Mighty Morphin’, partly because that was supposed to be the big series finale.  But support from the fans helped them turn back the doomsday clock -- and thus, we got Lost Galaxy.

And in Lost Galaxy, we got a continuation -- albeit a departure -- from the arc prior to it.  It is, after all, the season in which the Pink Ranger actually died.  In her stead, we got another Pink Ranger to fill out the rest of the cast; said replacement was, in fact, the villainess of the previous season.  Having been freed from her acute case of brainwashing and corruption, Karome (the sister of former Red Ranger Andros and formerly the space tyrant Astronema) goes through a redemptive arc where she tries to turn over a new leaf -- which is supported by her needing to face her past self, her heinous actions, and the weakness in her heart.  That’s some heavy shit that the writers didn’t have to put into the “kid’s show”, but they did it anyway because it made the story better.  Because it did what a story should do: follow through on its beats, including the consequences involved.

I would bet that seasons of PR have done the same, and probably went beyond that (Time Force would be a prime example, if I had to guess).  They went above and beyond.  Why?  Because they wanted to, no doubt.  On the surface, PR/SS is about getting kids on the hook with flashy action and cool stuff so that they can do their part to sap parents’ wallets dry.  That’s always going to be a facet of the franchise -- and other franchises, including my beloved Kamen Rider.  But the saving grace is that they can go beyond just being merchandise shills.  As pieces of fiction, they can go beyond their mercenary origins and end goals, and do what needs to be done.

What “needs to be done” is “be good”.  And if the Rangers, across all their origins and incarnations, can continue to do that -- can continue to explore the consequences set up -- then we’re always going to be in for a hell of a good time.

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