Dear god, how I hated that Power Rangers fan film. It’s bad enough when an all-powerful Fortune 500 megacorporation turns a beloved childhood property into a cynical trend-spotting cash-grab. Bad enough when they turned Lois Lowry’s gorgeous and thoughtful The Giver into Off-Brand Twivergent Games. Bad enough when they made Superman a neck-snapping bicep lunk. Bad enough when Michael Bay turned all your favorite toys into fratboy-fascist CGI sludge. (Optimus Prime as a petulant murder bro: Fine, whatever. A Ninja Turtle saying “She’s so hot, my shell is tightening!”: A bridge too far, Bay.)
But corporations can’t help themselves. A corporation isn’t a person, no matter what the Supreme Court says. Joseph Kahn is a person, though. Kahn was best known as a music video director before a couple weeks ago, when the short film Power/Rangers hit the Internet and broke the Internet. Power/Rangers was technically a “fan film”—a dark and gritty kinda-parody of the TV show where high schoolers used martial arts and giant robots to battle alien robots.
Or something. The plot of Power Rangers never even mattered to the people doing the plotting. Nostalgia can gild anything into a masterpiece, but Power Rangers was always a hucksterist nightmare of repurposed footage, bad acting, and racial/gender politics that are positively hilarious as long as you’re a white dude.
When Power/Rangers hit the Internet, a lot of people started sharing it. Then the corporation struck back. Haim Saban, who owns the trademark, got it removed from the Internet. Fanboys cried foul. Kahn was all-too-happy to play the Frank Capra underdog. When Power/Rangers fell off YouTube, Kahn tweeted: “Bad day for free speech, fair use, and Fandom in general.” Kahn was just a fan of Power/Rangers, made a movie for the fans, he said. He had no ulterior motive for making Power/Rangers, he said. When the video went back on YouTube, Kahn declared it a victory for the First Amendment. “Free speech,” he tweeted on March 1, with the famous Banksy image showing Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald holding hands with a naked Vietnamese girl.
This is all pretty highfalutin talk, considering that the main motivating factor behind Power/Rangers seemed to be “Wouldn’t it be totally sweet if the Power Rangers had sex and said ‘f—‘ a lot?” What bold thinking! What boundary-bursting artistic exploration!
The whole “I just did this for the fans” thing won’t wash, not at all. Power/Rangers was a professional project, featuring professional actors, based on an iconic nostalgia property that was guaranteed to garner big video streams. The idea that Kahn isn’t making any money off the project is an absolute canard. This was a stunt for attention; he’ll get his next job because of Power/Rangers.
And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The Internet runs on people getting attention by drifting off big-name properties.(Look, Wes Anderson does X-Men! Look, the long-awaited-by-psychopaths mash-up of Yogi Bear and The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford! Seriously though, what if Roger Corman directed The Hunger Games?)
But there is a lot wrong with Power/Rangers. Kahn wants to be taken seriously? Fine: His video is dumb, brutish, visually incoherent, narratively pointless. I don’t know how you cast Katee Sackhoff—one of the great firebrand personalities in the history of genre television—and then tie her up for pretty much the entire running time. The notion of Sackhoff as a cool badass Pink Ranger is awesome—but because Power/Rangers is an idiot bro-fest, it turns her into a mournful bride, an interrogated victim, and finally a twist-ending evil succubus. (Cool use of female characters, bro.)
I don’t dig fan fiction, but there’s something respectable about how its practitioners push beloved characters in directions their creator could never imagine. (The most interesting fanfic is the weirdest.) Power/Rangers producer Adi Shankar has played around with this before—a couple years ago, he worked with director Joe Lynch on Truth in Journalism, which takes a version of Spider-Man villain Venom and puts him in an homage to (of all things) the French comedy-noir-mockumentary Man Bites Dog.
Truth in Journalism didn’t have much of an impact. “Homage to French comedy-noir-mockumentary” isn’t SEO-friendly. Power/Rangers sure has had an impact. And feeling their oats, Shankar and Kahn didn’t even bother couching Power/Rangers in vague homage; they just made their own version of Power Rangers. They’ve portrayed themselves as outsiders taking on the system, aligning themselves with “fans.” This marks the first time in history that anyone who directed Torque has been considered a Hollywood outsider.
Maybe Power/Rangers came from genuine love. That doesn’t change the fact that Power/Rangers is a cynical attempt to do a “cool” version of Power Rangers. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if the Black Ranger banged a bunch of chicks, killed a bunch of Koreans, and then got shot in the head?” It sure wouldn’t! Turn 12!
The big depressing secret is that—with a few less f—s and a few less blood splatters and maybe just a little bit more for the only female character to do—Power/Rangers is exactly the kind of boorish, gritty, bargain-Snyder movie that Hollywood is making right now. Hell, it’s the kind of movie Hollywood will probably actually make out of Power Rangers.
After the video went back on YouTube, Kahn tweeted: “THANK YOU to everyone who fought for free speech.” I too believe in free speech. And so in the spirit of free speech, I have a message for the makers of Power/Rangers: F— off.
Questions? Counter-arguments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll respond in the next edition of the Geekly Mailbag.