Pursuing Happiness at a Power Rangers Convention
Three days, 5000 fans, no shaming.
I never stopped watching Power Rangers. Even now, at 24, I still wake up on Saturdays with cereal and karate-chopping robots on TV. And on this particular Saturday, I’m joined by 5000 other adults in their best mighty morphin cosplay in Pasadena, about 15 miles from Hollywood. At Power Morphicon, the mecca for Power Rangers devotees, a convention center becomes a safe space for fans who havent outgrown the east-meets-west mashup superhero series.
Even as I geek out with my friends, it’s hard to not think about how we look to the outside world. Pasadena, known for the very American Rose Bowl parade, is overrun for one weekend every two years by 20 - 30-something adults with toy morphers (devices the Power Rangers use to transform) on their wrists. During Comic-Con, regular people recognize Batman and Princess Leia. Power Morphicon, with bulky Megazords and bug-eyed Kamen Riders walking the perimeter, is a lot more jarring to civilians.
Imported 23 years ago from Japan by media-mogul Haim Saban, the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was an overnight phenomenon when it landed on U.S. after-school TV in 1993. But due to its loyalty to the Japanese original, Super Sentai, it rebooted every year, and eventually the franchise faded from relevance. In this era of nostalgia-driven pop culture, Lionsgate is betting these superfans and a new generation of children can make the series a hit once more; Power Rangers, a new reboot movie, is due out in March 2017. At the convention, Lionsgate has an interactive photo booth where your picture becomes one of the posters. But this is mostly a celebration of the TV show that we never abandoned.
Launched in 2007, Power Morphicon is part-flea market, part-fantasyland. It is for the hardcore fans, the true believers who stuck with the franchise for two, often lonely, decades. Daniel, a fan in his late-20s cosplaying as the Silver Ranger, recalls a time when he was bullied for his fandom. He laughs about it now. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “I just brush it off. Whatever makes you happy, makes you happy.”
That’s probably why I’m here at Power Morphicon, too. To most of the world, Power Rangers isn’t appropriate, let alone cool, to enjoy when you’re older than eight. I made the mistake of being an out and proud fan in middle school, and learned my lesson. I tried hard to keep my fandom hidden in high school and college. But eventually, people found out, because they always do.
But at Power Morphicon, I don’t have to worry. Fans who held strong to their love are rewarded tenfold: across the 55,000-square foot hall, old and new toys from Japan or somebody’s dusty garage are stacked eight feet tall. On the other side, the actors who were Power Rangers, or voiced the evil aliens on the show, sit behind tables for pictures, autographs, and small talk. For fans, meeting their heroes face to face and obtaining that elusive collectible is worth all the jokes and suspicious looks from the outside world.
In the age of cinematic universes and cosplay, most fandoms are generally seen as cool, but Power Rangers hasn’t ever breached that nerd-cool status. So I ask myself and the others who traveled far and wide to Power Morphicon: Why do we love Power Rangers?
“Power Rangers was an epiphany in my life,” says Marlon Younge, a 30 year-old healthcare rep from Manhattan. It’s probably why I have a group of like four or five best friends. The camaraderie is dope.”
Younge, who came to the convention with four of those best friends, says he’s always been an enthusiast for superheroes, embracing the “fraternal aspect” of the Justice League and such. But there’s something about Power Rangers, with its karate-chopping robots and racially diverse cast, that always excited him — even if he kept it a secret.
“People did not know I liked Power Rangers,” Younge added, reminiscing about his high school secret. “That’s truth. No one knew except my two best friends because they liked Power Rangers too. You hear someone make a joke, and that clicks like, ‘Oh, is that not cool? Is that not okay?’ As a kid you don’t know how to cope with that, so you play it safe.”
Just outside the convention, a group of fans cluster in a circle, talking shop about their fan-run blog. Talk to enough Power Rangers fans and you’ll meet a handful who turned their fandom into some kind of career. Podcasters, YouTube vloggers, they all share similar origin stories: They began watching after school, hid it to avoid bullies, and owned it into adulthood.
“The idea of having a group of friends with you that just get you and you to save the world together, even as a kid I could recognize I wanted to do that,” says Paula Gaetos, 31, a library and archives paraprofessional who writes on Japanese pop culture. “I want to do something with my best friends that makes the world better.”
The only child in her Filipino-American household, Paula says she felt isolated at home (she was the only “American” among her cousins), which was compounded by social isolation in school.
“In junior high I was an outcast,” she remembers. “I was the uber-geek who would sit there reading science-fiction on my lunch break and then do my homework. When I started watching Power Rangers, it’s like, ‘These are your best friends you’re saving the world with.”
Today, Paula is doing something with her best friends: She runs The Tokusatsu Network, a news site and podcast about Power Rangers and its Japanese series for an English-speaking readership. “As much as I am the one that founded the site,” Paula explains, “it’s been a team effort. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t get to work with [fellow Morphicon attendees] Carol or Michael. I’m way too introverted to do this by myself.”
Paula owned her identity when she transferred to an all-girls school, combining geeky passions with a new, grown-up interest in fashion. “I would be out at parties and I’m the ‘Cool Kid’ wearing a Power Rangers t-shirt underneath my blazer. People came up to me going, ‘Hey! I like that.’” This was about the time Marvel’s superheroes began dominating movie theaters, signaling a shift in the wider mass culture.
Power Rangers proved to be a creative inspiration on a professional level, as well. Kyle and Lindsey Carozza say that while they are bigger fans of the Japanese original, Power Rangers has also played a big role in the Cartoon Network series they created: Mighty Magiswords, about siblings who become “heroes for hire” by collecting magical swords around the world. “These collectable gimmicks are a big thing and I love how they tied into the narrative of the show,” says Kyle Carozza says about Power Rangers.
Talk to enough fans and you’ll notice a common “coming-out” narrative. Michael, the former host of the YouTube series Geek Crash Course, said a girlfriend dumped him because he admitted to loving Power Rangers. “I tried to walk away in Lost Galaxy,” he says, “The problem with Power Rangers, is one or two years later it’s for you again. Lightspeed, I couldn’t get away from it, so here I am.”
Michael and Paula tell me the ingenuity of bootlegging a Japanese kid’s show is their reason to keep tuning in. “Power Rangers is a whole is a problem solving thing. How do you take 11 minutes of somebody else’s show, shoot 11 more minutes and make a singular organism that functions?”
“Even if the script isn’t there,” Paula adds, “there’s a craft in how the suits are designed, there’s a craft in the action. As we grow older and watch more stuff we’re noticing that a lot more.”
Everyone seems to have a different reason for liking Power Rangers, which fuels passionate discussions in every corner of the convention center and hotel lobbies: Is RPM canon? How did Jason get his powers back in “Forever Red”? What happened to the Dragonzord?
“What I like about Power Rangers is that its a niche thing,” says Chris Cantada, a vlogger from the Philippines. Dressed in a special Green Ranger costume from his Power Rangers fanfilm, Cantada has an audience of more than 120,000 subscribers on YouTube who tune in for his cosplay and low-budget SFX shorts. “You appreciate the fans more because they really take the time to come to this event from all over.”
Chris participates in other fandoms. He’s got Star Wars tattoos down his sleeve and has been a fan ambassador for Marvel Studios in Singapore. But Chris always comes back to Power Rangers and its smaller, more dedicated fandom. “The strength of a fandom doesn’t mean quantity, it’s quality.” Chris knows anyone can be a Star Wars fan. But at Power Morphicon, “The people who come here, they really love it.”
I really do. 23 years since that afternoon when my sister flipped the TV to Fox Kids, I still can’t explain why I’m tuned to a children’s show that aggressively targets 4-6 year olds. Maybe Power Rangers are the perfect superhero fantasy. Much as I read comics, I know not just anyone can become Superman or Thor. But under those motorcycle helmets, anyone could be a Power Ranger. Maybe I could, too. I didn’t play a lot of sports and I’ve never felt strong — I wrestled in high school. I lost every match. — but for a half-hour every Saturday, I can imagine being greater, kicking alien butt with my best friends.
As soon as the convention opened its doors, I popped by the Lionsgate photo booth, making small talk with the insanely friendly staff. Before they take my picture, they ask: “Which Power Ranger do you want to be?” If they only knew.