Don't call it a comeback: Despite a new movie, Power Rangers has been here for years

A new film about the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers might seem like brazen nostalgia, but the truth is, the show never actually went away, writes Jonathan Ore.

TV show praised for its diverse cast, positive messages for kids

The new Power Rangers movie capitalizes on the franchise's 25 years of popularity and stars, from left, Naomi Scott, R.J. Cyler, Dacre Montgomery, Ludi Lin and Becky G. (Kimberly French/Lionsgate via AP)

On the heels of the new Beauty and the Beast film and a spate of '90s TV reboots including Full House and The X-Files, the Power Rangers are set to return to North American theatres for the first time since 1997.

But this revival is a little different from the rest. Unlike the aforementioned programs, Power Rangers never actually stopped running.

While the new movie, directed by Dean Israelite, lifts its characters from the original series, Saban Entertainment has been making season after season of brightly coloured superhero adventures with a new cast of rangers (and a new line of toys) every year.

Sure, it hasn't recaptured the heights of its popularity when it launched as Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers in 1993, when its mix of campy high school antics and monster fighting took North America by storm.

Power Rangers action figures were that year's Cabbage Patch Kids dolls and the mainstream press whipped up panic over reports that kids were karate-kicking each other in schoolyards. A live appearance by the actors in Los Angeles' Universal Studios in 1994 caused massive freeway gridlock.

But as a sign of its lingering popularity and the sheer volume of material available, livestreaming site Twitch is currently airing a marathon of every Power Rangers episode ever produced — 23 seasons and 831 episodes running consecutively over the course of 17 days.

That's a whole lot of martial arts, spandex suits and giant robot-versus-monster fights.

This promotional shot of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers from the '90s captures the gang at the height of their popularity in North America. (Saban Entertainment/AP)

"There's just a never-ending wealth of stuff to talk about with Power Rangers," says Diana McCallum, writer and co-host of the Talk From Superheroes podcast.

"It's got a near-unlimited resource of things to discuss. It's more like a comic book franchise than a TV show, in that way."

Colour-coded fighters

The film's setup is the same as the show that started it all. Five high schoolers of varying degrees of delinquency are chosen to become a group of super-powered heroes tasked with saving the world.

The colour-coded squad fight off the evil witch Rita Repulsa and her legion of golem-like monsters with a mixture of martial arts and robot dinosaurs called Zords.

Elizabeth Banks provides a sleek new take on the cackling villainess and Bryan Cranston plays Zordon, a former Red Ranger and mentor to the new team. Meanwhile, Bill Hader provides CG-fuelled comic relief as the assistant robot Alpha-5. (This isn't Cranston's first Power Rangers role — he voiced a few monsters-of-the-day in the original TV program.)

McCallum attributes the show's longevity to its simple focus and positive messages.

The Power Rangers visit San Diego Comic-Con 2016 in July 2016. (Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Saban)

"There are no heavy moral conundrums; the team doesn't ever fight amongst themselves," she says. "It's such a clear-cut good-versus-evil fight, that it's really easy to watch."

And its diverse leading cast was a godsend for a nerdy girl in the '90s.

"Power Rangers has girls in every single episode, and they're part of the team," she says. "It was really important, because I was a nerd, and all of my friends were guys, and they made me be April O'Neil if we were playing Ninja Turtles. And I was like, 'Ugh, I don't get to do any martial arts.' But when they played Power Rangers, I got to be a Power Ranger."

Israelite's film builds on the diversity trend. Billy the blue ranger, played by RJ Cyler, is on the autism spectrum. And one scene suggests that Trini the yellow ranger, played by singer and social media star Becky G, is struggling with her sexual orientation.

Delving into the lore

Power Rangers' action scenes were taken from the Japanese show Zyuranger, which only recently hit North American shores unaltered on DVD. (Shout Factory)
While the film attempts a new interpretation of the franchise, fans have been delving deeper into its roots.

Like G-Force and Robotech before it, Power Rangers was originally adapted from a Japanese source — the superhero show Super Sentai.

Saban Entertainment hired American actors to play the part of the heroes' civilians and paired it with fight scenes and other footage from the most recent Super Sentai season to cut costs.

Super Sentai has an even longer history than Power Rangers, dating all the way back to 1975. Every year, Toei Entertainment introduces a new Sentai team. With few exceptions, they're used as the foundation of a new season of Power Rangers the following year.

Awareness of Power Rangers' Japanese origins has risen over the years, as fans began translating and sharing unreleased seasons of Super Sentai and comparing the differences between it and the western versions.

In 2015, Shout Factory secured the North American rights to release a DVD of Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, the season that the original Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers drew from.

The new Power Rangers film reflects the fact that the series has constantly reinvented itself. (Kimberly French/Lionsgate via AP)

"It was always a little iffy as to whether Super Sentai would ever hit North America, because you suddenly have the potential for brand confusion with Power Rangers," said Brian Ward, Shout Factory's senior director of video production and digital media.

The DVD sold so well, they've since released three more seasons, with more on the way.

They 'reinvent themselves every year'

The big challenge for the Power Rangers movie — and the franchise as a whole — will be balancing how it caters to the continuing influx of younger viewers and adults who grew up with Power Rangers.

"There will always be a tightrope between hardcore fans who have been there since the beginning — and can sometimes seem like gatekeepers to the property — and being accessible to new fans," says Ward.

"But I think if any franchise can do it, Power Rangers can do it. They literally reinvent themselves every year. And they have always been able to welcome new audiences with every new season."

About the Author

Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, entertainment and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.