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Geekly Mailbag: 'Power/Rangers' talkback, and how to run a studio the Geekly way

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Stop Stop Power Rangers! Last week I attempted to explain why the Power Rangers “Fan Film” rubbed me the wrong way. A couple readers took issue with my takedown, while another reader had a larger question which could spark some interesting discussions. Let’s dig in!

I do sort of agree with your Power/Rangers article, Darren. But damn, you were really, really harsh. I have a couple tiny power rangers in my bedroom, and I’ve loved the project since I was a baby. The only reason I felt like I enjoyed the fan film was because they discussed it as a “parody” of the modern reboot, which makes everything needlessly gory, sexy, and overall, no fun. If it’s viewed as a satire by all involved, I think we should at least give it the benefit of the doubt. Power Rangers is a really cool property and despite its numerous mistakes and racial tensions, I think it had good concepts in teamwork, gender, and doing the right thing in the face of adversity. Hopefully Hollywood will remain true to those initial concepts in re-visualizing it. But damn, you were really harsh.

Jeff

I get it. I watched Mighty  Morphin’ Power Rangers. I used to play various Power Rangers games on my friend’s Game Gear. I had a VHS copy of the original Power Rangers movie, and so help me god, I think I watched that VHS at least four dozen times.

But we need to be honest with ourselves: Power Rangers, as a franchise, is a bottomfeeding globo-corporate nightmare of reheated concepts stolen from vastly better projects. Most of the nostalgia franchises that rule Hollywood now were created, once upon a time, by people with a genuine sincere interest in creating something new and different. Power Rangers was a cut-rate localized remake of a cut-rate show. It’s main purpose was to sell toys. It worked! Our parents bought those toys! The fact that Power Rangers is terrible doesn’t devalue our youth in any way. It’s easy to forget this, because we live in a universe that constantly rewards our nostalgia for things we loved when we were kids—but a lot of stuff we loved when we were kids was bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad. This is okay! Kids love stupid things! But grown-ups are supposed to be smarter than kids.

Does this mean that it’s impossible to make a good Power Rangers movie? Absolutely not! The history of comic books post-1980 is a history of intelligent creators taking concepts that inspired their youth and imagining a whole host of new, more adult, sometimes darker, often just more thoughtful stories. Grant Morrison has spent the most recent phase of his career making intriguing new stories about Batman and Superman often by steering into the skid of those characters’ goofiest mythology—A different Batman for every country! A 5th-dimensional bad guy named Mxyzptlk!—and pushing that goofiness into a new level of madness and profundity.

I would love to see what Grant Morrison could do with Power Rangers. (I would love to see what Grant Morrison could do with the phone book.) But Power/Rangers reflects the baser impulses of the Frank Miller school: Taking a goofy concept and dressing it up with the steroidal mannerisms of the worst ’80s action movies. Power/Rangers clearly wants to be The Dark Knight Returns; unfortunately, it feels more like Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin, a reprehensible uber-bro riff on the Caped Crusader.

I don’t buy the “satire” thing. What is Power/Rangers satirizing? Our nation’s thirst for violence? Bullplop: The whole point of Power/Rangers is to show off how cool it would be to do a bloody Power Rangers. Director Joseph Kahn and producer Adi Shankar have talked about how they imagined that the original Power Rangers were basically child soldiers—but again, the main point of Power/Rangers seems to be that it’s super sweet when child soldiers grow up into adult badasses.

If you want to see what R-rated bloody satire looks like, I recommend the Paul Verhoeven Holy Trinity: RoboCopTotal Recall, and Starship Troopers. These are all steroid-pumped action movies of the highest R-rated order—and Paul Verhoeven knows how to shoot action scenes coherently, unlike Joseph Kahn—but they’re also genuinely funny, witty riffs on American culture. RoboCop is about America’s lust for law-and-order gunplay. Total Recall is about a man who wants to be a badass action hero—and it’s never quite clear just how much his continued victory in the movie is actually a downward spiral into his own dreams. Starship Troopers is about 9/11 and the lust for military vengeance that led to Iraq—even though the film was released years before either of those things ever happened. (Starship Troopers is also, quite clearly, about the rise of fascism in Germany; make of that what you will.)

That’s satire. Power/Rangers is trash.

Hi!

Read your review of the Power Ranger corporate funded fan film, and while I thought it was a bit harsh, I don’t necessarily disagree with you.

To me, as a kid who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, it just wasn’t the Power Ranger. I forget the episode where they shot machine guns at the monsters OR when they straight up murdered people.

Oh yeah, that didn’t happen! Ever! I mean son of a gun, it’s based off a kids show for crying out loud; not Law & Order: Criminal Intent!

I really don’t like the trend of the “dark and gritty reboot” that Hollywood has taken since Batman Begins. Not everything needs to be dark. Not every hero needs to be brooding in a dark corner by theirselves and act all jaded. Guardians Of the Galaxy proved comic book based films can be light hearted again, and I hope that becomes the new status quo. We don’t need another Spider-Man moping around all the time.

Thanks,

Keith

Co-sign on all counts! This year marks ten years since Batman Begins, which strikes me as Patient Zero for the whole “gritty reboot” phenomenon. Batman Begins was so completely not what the previous Batman movie had been—you can feel the anxiety of anti-influence in how strenuously Begins avoids being Batman & Robin. Comic book fans had been hoping for a Frank Miller-ish Batman movie for almost two decades; Begins is the moment that the idea of Frank Miller went global. (It arrived a couple months after Sin City, and 300 started production later the same year.)

I have to believe that Keith is right: That, on a base level, the moviegoing public is ready for something different. Guardians is certainly the Talking Point for “something different,” although it’s worth pointing out that Marvel Studios has always avoided the “gritty” thing; even nominally “darker” sequels like Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World are candy-colored banter action-comedies. For that reason, it’ll be interesting to see what the public makes of Batman v Superman, a movie which will serve as the foundation for a whole new megafranchise—a megafranchise conceived by Frank Miller zealot Zack Snyder, the only man on earth who prefers Bearded Aquaman.

Let’s get heavy here though, guys:

Hi Darren!

I was reading your latest Mailbag and, first of all, I’d like to say I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on Origin stories. Even though I’m a huge Nolan fan (let it slide, Darren.) and I love Batman Begins, I was so annoyed when it was announced Batman vs Superman was filming the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. WE ALL KNOW HIS PARENTS GOT KILLED! I don’t even feel anything when I see this because of the sheer amount of times I’ve seen it. They’re taking the emotional punch out of things. 

Anyway, my question to you, o Darren Franich, is how you would run a studio. Assuming you HAVE to have sequels and franchises, what I’d love to do would be to create an awesome movie where the story takes place, let’s say, in a post-apocalyptic world and some people can do magic and some can’t. I don’t know, it’s just an example. And then, instead of just doing sequels, I’d hand the keys to my universe to different, interesting filmmakers. 

So Edgar Wright could do a comedy set in this universe. And Del Toro could do a dark, creepy creature film. And Marc Webb could do a romcom. Instead of trying to homogenize everything and make every movie look and feel the same, I’d love to see a single universe from as many different points of view as possible and see how different filmmakers interpret what this fictional universe offers. 

(I guess the Star Wars standalone films could be something similar to this if they were original films set in that universe and not origin stories (ughhhhhh) of characters we know)

I’d also have a kind of writers room for my studio, the way Pixar and Disney do. Many screenwriters and directors put together will always make a movie better, don’t you think? 

Love your articles! 

Pablo

This is a heavy question, not least because it requires me—Person Who Spends At Least Ten Percent Of The Week Saying What Hollywood Is Doing Wrong—to try and figure out what Hollywood could do right.

I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that I am taking over a studio that doesn’t actually exist in our actual universe. That means I won’t immediately have access to a huge archive of pre-existing franchises—the way that Disney has Marvel, and Warner Bros. has Harry Potter, and Fox has Planet of the Apes. That means that my studio—let’s call it RKO with an eye towards film history—needs to figure out how to compete in the megafranchise era without an obvious megafranchise to draw upon. This is, in fairness, something a lot of studios are dealing with right now—it’s why Universal is trying to turn “Monsters” into their version of superheroes, why Sony tried to pretend that Spider-Man could support a whole Avengers-esque multi-film universe.

First off: I want 2/3 of the movies my studio makes to be original. This sounds like pie-in-the-sky unreality, but I want to clarify that the original movies will all be cheaper than the franchise pictures. Less money invested = less damage to the bottom line if we wind up accidentally making another Jupiter Ascending. (And about those 2/3 original movies: 2/3 of them will be absolute one-offs, while the other 1/3 will be potential franchise launches.)

Let’s talk about those franchises, first. The worst idea for RKO right now would be trying do our own version of Avengers: Attempting to come up with a superhero franchise. Superheroes are big now; they won’t be big forever. Reading the tea leaves of Hollywood right now, you can sense a shift in the wind towards outer-space action: Gravity and Star WarsInterstellar and Guardians of the Galaxy. So my first act as studio head would be to pay whatever price is required for the film rights to the late Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.

The “Culture” books aren’t a franchise per se: Banks wrote nine novels and sundry other stories set in a far-future space-society, filled with bigger-than-huge technological advances and also a whole host of twisty-turny conundrums that could only arise in a society where pretty much everything was fluid: Morality, race, gender. In short, it’s exactly the kind of series to look towards when you’re trying to create the sort of saga Pablo is talking about.

I would kick off the series with Consider Phlebas, an incredible breakneck thriller which follows a shapechanging mercenary named Horza on an episodic journey through the violent margins of an intergalactic war. It’s like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly meets Halo—and my absolute dream would be for a genius like Bong Joon-Ho to put his own stamp on the material, although I’d be just as happy getting an action guru like Gareth Evans or a genre stylist like Adam Wingard in the mix. (Because Consider Phlebas is the kind of awesome title that movies never have anymore, I would change the name to The Changer or possibly Planet of the Dead.)

That’s a franchise that could platform upwards or downwards: The Player of Games is essentially a battle-of-wills conversation movie (I would get Settlers of Catan mastermind Klaus Teber to design a line of games based on the games played in the book, for sale at your local toy store), while Use of Weapons is a Nolan-esque tale of an intergalactic superspy that could practically become a spaced-out Bond franchise unto itself.

My other big franchise gambit: Bet big on a videogame adaptation. This sounds like absolute madness in the context of movie history—there has never even been a halfway decent videogame film, unless you count the collective madness of the Resident Evil series—but that just means that videogame adaptations are waiting for their Spider-Man moment, waiting for the movie that is good enough for all the generations who love videogames to finally feel like Hollywood has brought what they love about a genre to the big screen.

Most major videogame franchises are owned by conglomerates that also own studios: A tricky prospect for my poor RKO, which in this fantasy universe is owned by GloboChem or some other non-media super-company. But that’s okay. I want to run RKO on the Moneyball model: I want to take a lot of undervalued assets and promote them. Lets take a beloved title like Perfect Dark and reimagine it as an female-fronted action franchise. Let’s see if we can find the rights to Worms and turn it into a kid-baiting cartoon that’s less Toy Story and more Looney Tunes. And I mean that literally: At a moment when everyone in Hollywood has drunk the Kool-Aid on 3D animated films, let’s invest in 2D animation.

My biggest gambit with a videogame franchise? Get a brilliant filmmaker who’s used to telling twisted-narrative stories, and set him loose on Chrono Trigger. Let me be bold: A Chrono Trigger movie could essentially be a more epic version of The Lego Movie, a fast-paced film that blends fantasy and science-fiction with a time-hopping narrative—a narrative which seems practically built for a twisty-turn plotline that would lead to Inception-esque deep dive analysis and repeat viewings, assuming you can get the right filmmaker to make it. (As far as I can tell, the film rights to Chrono Trigger belong to Square-Enix. Videogame companies are usually absolute hell to work with, because they demand too much control—this is basically what sank Peter Jackson’s Halo film. I have to assume they’d be willing to relinquish some of that control on the Chrono series, which hasn’t been sequelized in 15 years.)

Now that I’ve bet big on my franchises, what about the other 2/3 of my development slate? RKO isn’t the kind of place that can just throw a lot of money around. We need to think smarter while also thinking bigger. I’d take a page from the hitmakers over at Blumhouse, the company that produces low-budget high-reward pictures like Insidious and The Purge.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that RKO is able to reach out to a boatload of talented young filmmakers right before they get big. I would create a Power of 10 model for those filmmakers. Their first movie would need to be $1 million: No questions asked, final cut. If it makes money, then their next movie will have a $10 million budget. If that makes money, then comes the big investment: A $100 million picture. This is actually less crazy than the current Hollywood model, which promoted Colin Trevorrow from the under-$1 million Safety Not Guaranteed straight to the stratosphere with Jurassic World, a film that apparently costs $150 million.

The goal here is to nurture talent while also challenging them—and to create a kind of big studio version of the system Miramax had in the ’90s, when directors like Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Smith stuck with the Weinsteins because the Weinsteins kept on giving them more money to play around with. Conversely, I would never do a writers’ room for the studio. The whole idea of a “brain trust” only really makes sense in animation, where it’s possible to keep tweaking a movie because production essentially never ends.

I worry that this is all getting too granular and too idiosyncratic, so here’s my boldest move as the head of a studio: I would banish the PG-13 from our development slate. Most blockbuster films shoot for a PG-13 now, so I think it’s fair to say that the PG-13 is one of the absolute worst things to happen to the artistry of major Hollywood movies.

PG-13 creates a neither-here-nor-there aesthetic: Movies that are violent without actually showing the ramifications of violence, movies that are “sexy” without showing any sex. They’re Michael Bay movies—but they’re also superhero movies, and Hunger Games movies that can never be as tough as they should be. I love hard-R movies and I love G-rated movies and I love films that straddle the line in thoughtful ways. If a movie is going to be an action movie, it should be R-Rated. If a movie is going to be a kids’ movie, it shouldn’t do the constant naughty wink-wink double entendre that every animated movie goes for post-Shrek.

Movies don’t need to be PG-13 or R-rated to be intelligent and grown-up. Example: Like, every movie made by Hollywood before 1960. This could, admittedly, force my studio into direct contention with the MPAA, since it’s possible that a movie like The Maltese Falcon could get a PG-13 rating nowadays for no other reason than that it’s about adults having grown-up conversations. (“Rated PG-13 for Adult Themes.”) This would be just fine, since I would also take another page out of Weinstein playbook and wage a constant war on the MPAA.

Also, I’d reboot the f– out of Big Bad Beetleborgs.

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