Ask Chris #192: ‘Power Rangers RPM’ Is The Darkest Timeline
Q: What was so good about Power Rangers RPM? -- @ykarps
A: That's right, everyone: After deciding on a whim last year to sit down and watch every single episode of Power Rangers ever produced, all seven hundred and seventy-five (and counting), and last week, I finally did it when I made it through 2009's Power Rangers RPM. I'd already seen Samurai, and I'd been watching Megaforce as it aired, so that was it. And I wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.
But while I was watching it, I came to the conclusion that as much as I like Samurai and Jungle Fury and Ninja Storm -- in which a trio of teens give up on hiding their Kiwi accents about six episodes in -- there's not even a contest about which series is the best. RPM wins that argument hands down... and I kind of hate to say that.
Long-time CA readers, or, let's be honest here, anyone I've ever talked to for five minutes who has gotten a sense of my towering ego, may be tempted to think that this is because it means that I have to admit that I was wr... underinformed when I talked about how much I loved Samurai and the utter weirdness of teens inheriting a battle against nightmare creatures that came through the shadows and cracks in buildings in order to harvest the tears of innocent humans so they could sail their monster ship in from the Nightosphere. That's not it -- not entirely, anyway. That show still rules and I stand by all statements previously made with regards to its ruling.
RPM, though, pretty much blows it away on every level, except for maybe the costume designs. It's better acted, better written, the cast has chemistry that the Samurai rangers really lack and a romance subplot that was actually engaging and subtle, two things that are rarely seen in the entire franchise. It takes the existing formula and does new things with it that no other series had done, and it all works really well. But the other reason it's so good, the one that makes me almost hate to admit how great it is, is that it is dark.
And when I say dark, I don't mean that it's dark by Power Rangers standards. It's dark by mass media standards. I was describing it to Matt Wilson on an episode of War Rocket Ajax last week, and I was talking about the origin of their mentor, Dr. K. I got to the part about how their mentor is a young woman who was abducted and put into a secret Government think tank codenamed Alphabet Soup, where they stripped her of her identity and designated her with a single letter before putting her to work designing weapons. Then I told him about the flashback where she's sitting in a room on a chair that's too small, being presented with a birthday cake by her two faceless supervisors who have brainwashed her into thinking she's too sick to ever go out into the sunlight, and how they take away the cake before she can eat it and tell her to get back to work after she makes her birthday wish, and her response is "I wish I could remember my name"
Matt's response: "That sounds like some Hideo Kojima s**t."
He's not wrong, and that's far from an isolated incident. This is a show where the premise involves most of humanity being wiped out by a sentient computer virus called Venjix that has devoted itself to launching constant assaults on the last outpost of the human race in order to kill the majority of the population and enslave the rest. There's a sequence of episodes devoted to the origin stories of each of the characters -- of which Dr. K's is the climax -- where you find out that Ranger Yellow's parents are trying to sell her into an arranged marriage because they've gone broke, and that the reason she became a Power Ranger is because she watched the only person who ever actually cared about her die in front of her when the virus attacked. She never learned his first name either. It's kind of a recurring theme.
And it goes on from there. Ranger Green is wanted dead by the mob, Ranger Red is trying to live up to the legacy of a brother who died in the initial war against Venjix. The Gold and Silver Rangers who show up in the middle of the season were Dr. K's only friends at Alphabet Soup, two twins who finish each other's sentences and return to the show revealing that they survived and engaged Venjix in asymmetrical warfare from the Cursed Earth and are now obsessed with explosions. They're often the comic relief, but when you get right down to it, they're essentially a cheerfully traumatized pair of child soldiers.
So yeah. It's dark. Which is especially weird, because as I understand it, the source material, Engine Sentai Go-Onger, is about racecar drivers and their talking cars that look like cute stuffed animals. And for me, that makes it really hard to talk about, because the dark stuff is often what's really interesting about the show, and that makes it sound way more problematic than it actually is.
Superhero comic books -- heck, superheroes in general -- have a problem with darkness. That's not news, and odds are pretty good that you've heard that same thing before, probably from me, but it remains a huge problem within the genre. There's this false idea that's taken root at the heart of a segment of supehero "fans" that equates cynicism with maturity, and it pretty much ruins everything. Comics, at least, seem like they might finally be shaking it off, but in mass media, we have some moron claiming that a character like Captain America, a character created to represent the best of us and be an inspiration for the values that we're supposed to believe in even if the reality doesn't always measure up, can only be "interesting" if he's a jingoistic, imperialist asshole. There was a movie about the Avengers where a battle for the actual, honest-to-God fate of the world wasn't enough to motivate them to become a team and they had to be lied to about the death of someone they knew so they could really work up the energy to go out there and nuke some aliens. And we have a Superman movie, a Superman movie marketed to children (they sent me review copies of the "I Can Read!" storybooks and stickers to prove it) that ends with Superman deciding that the villain is right and that he can only win by using his super-powers to kill someone, a movie that was filtered to a flat grey because the people who made it are so ashamed of people thinking Superman is a cartoon character for children, which he is, that they didn't even want to take the risk of putting a bright color on the screen.
It's a problem.
And because of that, I feel like I have to qualify my enjoyment of any piece of superhero media that veers towards darkness. And, to be honest, it's why I can't really bring myself to fault Power Rangers Megaforce, which is not very good, for its pretty simplistic, reductive message of "The Environment Is Good." Or, in their case, the "envahrnment." I will never understand why Robo Knight has a Southern Accent, but, whatever, it's good for the kids.
As a result, the conversations I've been having about RPM all tend to start with "Well, it's really dark, but..." because a superhero concept that's dark and morally conflicted has become something that I increasingly loathe just on general principle. And I've finished that sentence with a lot of different words, like "it's dark, but it's really smart," or "it's dark but the cast is great," but there's one thing that I think sums it up better than anything else, and explains why the show's so good.
It's dark, but it isn't cynical.
That cynicism, especially cynicism in children's media, is what really bugs me. The idea that heroism and kindness aren't valuable is the sticking point, not the idea that you can tell stories where bad things happen. RPM is super dark, particularly when it comes to the origin stories, but it's also a very hopeful show, all things considered. Dr. K makes a perfect example -- her character evolves and changes from this maladjusted, hidden figure who will only refer to the team by their color designation to someone who cares about the people around her, fighting to protect them rather than fighting to fix her own mistake. The emotion on display when she finds out that the only two friends she has ever had in her life aren't dead because of something she did is pretty amazing.
It helps that the cast is actually really solid -- arguably the best that the series has ever seen -- but it's just as important that the show is smart. There's a balance between darkness and comedy, between fear and hope that never skews too far in either direction. It's never so bright that the action isn't thrilling, and it's never so dark that it seems mired down in despair. Although, that said, it actually is really funny, especially the episode where Ranger Green starts asking why there are always explosions behind them whenever they transform, and then uses this knowledge to defeat a monster.
It's shockingly character-driven, too. Most of the shows are focused on the toyetic stuff and keep introducing different robots, but RPM had less of the mechs than any series I can remember. I don't even remember what most of their robots looked like, because the shows were so driven by character interaction and the overarching story. Just the very idea of giving the characters origins so that each one was driven by an individual motivation rather than just standing around the juice bar when a floating head happened to need five teens of various social archetypes alone sets it apart.
Really, it comes down to being an engaging, well-produced treatment of the thing that super sentai (and tokusatsu in general) tends to do very well: Heroics that are free of cynicism, presented in a world where friendship, loyalty and kindness are as important as robots punching each other. The difference is that RPM does it differently, and while that definitely involves more darkness than what had been done before or since, it's more about being smart.
Also, these two dang ol' cuties got married in real life.
That cheers me up almost as much as Bulk and Skull being IRL best friends.