A dreamy longing for a better America is entrenched in the DNA of nostalgia. Donald Trump’s nostalgia, a call to “Make America Great Again,” is utilized as a weapon: It has the power to harm and infect the minds of future generations. But in the right hands, nostalgia can be used as a tool for good. In contrast to those with an intangible notion of how to actually make America “great,” it’s films like Power Rangers that are wielding the power of nostalgia for an altruistic good. Did we really need another Power Rangers movie in 2017? The answer is no, we did not — but I’m glad we got one.
Power Rangers is a cinematic reboot of the television franchise that began with Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, which depicts American teenagers as the lone guardians of our planet against villains from outer space. The series debuted in 1993 — just the right time for me to become obsessed. At 7 years old, I watched the series every day after school. I was drawn to its bright colors and dubbed Japanese fight scenes (the series reused stock footage from the Japanese show Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger for its fight scenes). My mother watched with me, because Tommy the Green Ranger was hot, something I would come to realize myself, once I hit puberty. But I also suspect that my mom had no problem with me transitioning from PBS fare like Sesame Street to Power Rangers, because they have a shocking amount in common.
Sesame Street has become a symbol of liberal values. With the GOP opposition to funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the hypothetical loss of the series has been used to illustrate how dangerous it is to defund PBS and other educational artistic endeavors that benefit younger generations. This might seem a lot to heap on the furry shoulders of Sesame Street, but the series has always had the goal of uplifting children in urban, inner-city homes that often dealt with poverty and racism. To this day, the series continues that with the addition of two new muppets, with autism and an incarcerated parent, respectively. When you think of Sesame Street and Kermit the Frog wistfully singing about the “Rainbow Connection,” you think of a ragtag group of friends who’ve come together with the best of intentions for their community. Which is exactly what the multicolored rainbow of heroes on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers were intended to be.
Amid the Japanese stock footage and out-there story lines, the teenagers who donned suits as Power Rangers — Jason, Kimberly, Billy, Zack, and Trini, initially — were community activists. They volunteered in martial arts, participated in Big Brother programs, helped the elderly, cared about the environment, and were generally saccharinely obsessed with doing the right thing. Episodes didn’t end with fights; they usually ended with the Rangers learning a lesson, and the monsters they did fight were often metaphors for each episode’s social issue of the week.
That remains a part of the franchise’s DNA in Power Rangers, but the new film also recognizes that the world we live in is much different than 1993. As diverse as the series was, it was antiquated for the black ranger to be an actual black person, and the yellow ranger to be an Asian. The races are switched up in Power Rangers, with a black Billy (RJ Cyler), an Asian Zack (Ludi Lin), and a Latina Trini (Becky G). The ultimate theme of the film is that friendship will save the day, and that’s never more realized than in a dramatic scene midway through the film, in which Billy’s life is in peril and his new friends go to bat for him. In a real world where the bodies of black men are often shown as dead bodies or a new addition to our prison industrial complex, making a black Billy the heart of the team is a bold statement. Furthermore, Billy is autistic and Trini is a lesbian, adding degrees of representation in black and Latino communities that are rarely depicted onscreen in a positive light.
It’s part of a wave of recent nostalgia that seeks to course-correct the past (like the heartwarming gay moment in this year’s live-action Beauty and the Beast) rather than adhere to its racist roots (like Marvel’s Iron Fist, for example, which sticks to the series’ racist Orientalism aesthetic). And sure, it’s obviously a movie designed to make a shit ton of money — there’s some rather hilarious, plot-oriented product placement for Krispy Kreme — but if you’re going to drag your kids to the multiplex to have them watch superheroes and robots and aliens fight one another, wouldn’t you rather they learn something too? And if the message is that the most marginalized in our society are worthy of friendship and capable of feats of heroism? Go, go, Power Rangers.