In one month, Saban’s Power Rangers will reboot the ‘90s kids’ fad into a modern PG-13 blockbuster. There’s a tangible emo grit at play in the trailers, and it’s no surprise that director Dean Israelite has been describing the film using words like “edgy” and “badass” in interviews. Thing is, this isn’t the first time the Power Rangers went grim and gritty like their prestigious Marvel and DC contemporaries.
Power Rangers RPM, which aired on ABC in 2009, isn’t just dark among other kids’ shows. It’s also smart, clever, and so hysterically funny that it should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best cult science-fiction series. Though it’s still Power Rangers with colorful costumes, anime-style robots, and lessons about friendship, RPM was about flawed heroes living in a hopeless world. In Power Rangers RPM, an uprising led by an A.I. named Venjix has left the doomed city Corinth as the last human enclave on Earth. Corinth is protected against Venjix by a group of individuals called the “Ranger Operator Series” who fight for mankind. These Power Rangers can’t save the world because the world is over. But their 32-episode run is the darkest — and most fun — season of Power Rangers no one watched.
And no one watched it because Disney wanted nothing to do with it.
In the 2000s, the Power Rangers were under ownership by Walt Disney, who acquired the brand from Saban in 2001. Disney tried to absorb the multi-colored heroes into its magical domain of intellectual properties, but the company faced blowback from parents who were horrified by the violence in the show. In 2010, the New York Times wrote that “Disney decided not to brand the Power Rangers” as its own, making them “a black sheep” in its company portfolio. The show aired at odd hours on Disney’s kids’ TV blocks, sending ratings into the abyss in 2008. Disney was ready to cancel Power Rangers after its 16th season, but due to issues with foreign financing and the toy company Bandai, Disney was obligated to produce one more season of a has-been relic from the ‘90s.
The dark premise for Power Rangers RPM — which has a strong cast of YA stars like Rose McIver (iZombie), Eka Darville (Marvel’s Jessica Jones), and Adelaide Kane (Reign) — came from new showrunner Eddie Guzelian, who wrote family movies like Lilo & Stitch 2 and The Tigger Movie. Guzelian’s marching orders by Disney were “to shoot for something that was ambitious” because he had “nothing left to lose.” Though he was fired halfway through production and replaced by current showrunner Judd Lynn — “It’s a complicated issue,” he said in 2009 — much of RPM was his doing. Before the show premiered, he spilled a truckload of beans in a lengthy fan Q&A on the message board RangerCrew.
“I really can’t explain Disney’s attitude towards the show but I can definitely, from personal experience, attest … that they act ashamed to be producing it,” he wrote.
Since Disney didn’t care (allegedly), Guzelian was given full control over the campiest show in history and set out to attract an older audience. Barely a year after The Dark Knight, the only way to reinvent the wheel was to go grim. “It seemed like something might be gained by setting up a situation where the villain’s entire goal is to conquer this one, last city on Earth,” Guzelian explained of the show’s apocalyptic setting, which he reasoned “built a sense of urgency” for a stagnant show approaching 20 years. “I was hoping that would immediately just ratchet everything up a notch or two.”
The series also paid homage to iconic dystopian films like Mad Max and The Terminator in order to hammer in its new attitude. Guzelian believed these “obvious” references would resonate because its imagery is timeless. “Even if you have never seen The Road Warrior, the image of a mysterious badass dude in all black roaming a vast wasteland is going to have some kind of strong impact because it is an iconic universal image … [it] speaks to us all on some base elemental level.”
One of the first few scenes of Power Rangers RPM is, in fact, a mysterious man in black roaming the wasteland. Dillon (Dan Ewing), who becomes the Black Ranger, is a broad-shouldered rogue with no memory of his past life. He’s reluctantly caught up in the fight against Venjix, becoming a Power Ranger involuntarily. As Dillon continues to unravel his past — which mines some dark, dystopian tropes like body horror, androids, and labor camps — he grows closer with his compatriots, who are all as conflicted as he is.
The RPM Rangers aren’t plucky California teens but soldiers who have demonstrated courage under fire. Scott (Eka Darville), the Red Ranger, is an Air Force pilot struggling under the shadow of his late brother; Flynn (Ari Boyland), the Blue Ranger, is a brawny mechanic whose flaw is that he wants to help people, no matter the cost; and Summer (Rose McIver), the Yellow Ranger, is a spoiled heiress who lost her family after Venjix took over. Dillon joins a few episodes into RPM, along with an eccentric punk named Ziggy (Milo Cawthorne) — a former mob patsy who betrayed his boss to help a children’s hospital. Two more Rangers, fraternal twins Gem (Mike Ginn) and Gemma (Li Ming Hu), join as the Gold and Silver Rangers, and their horrific origin story as former slaves for Venjix is masked by their child-like hysteria.
The analog to Mighty Morphin’s Zordon in RPM is Dr. K (Olivia Tennet), who was at first a disembodied voice like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels. But Dr. K is later revealed to be a knock-kneed scientist with a Miss Swan haircut and a harrowing backstory similar to the Rangers, which characterizes her as an empty soul seeking fulfillment in her mission to stop Venjix.
“I came to believe that the show was in desperate need of a real change,” said Guzelian of his characters and the overall tone. “There were times it felt like the characters [in previous seasons] were just going through the motions, sleep walking, and it felt like somewhere along the way, the audience had fallen asleep along with them. For better or worse, I decided that I wanted to do something that would … reach out the TV screen and slap viewers across the face.”
Guzelian’s ideas paid off. Power Rangers RPM was ignored by the majority of critics and by Disney itself; Guzelian alleges Disney hardly bothered to promote the show, with nary a press release (one was put out by Bandai to promote the toys). But the response from fans was lit with excitement and awe. User reviews on IMDb are glowing, and fans on message boards at the time were equally enthusiastic. And the dark tone, some fans believe, isn’t polarizing.
As Chris Sims on ComicsAlliance argues in a retrospective piece, Power Rangers RPM isn’t cynical. “Heroics that are free of cynicism, presented in a world where friendship, loyalty and kindness are as important as robots punching each other,” wrote Sims. “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.”
Power Rangers RPM was the last iteration of the show until Saban reacquired the brand in 2010. But as a movie reboot approaches, it’s more than worth bingeing on a forgotten, stand-alone season that reinvented Power Rangers before they had a shot at a major movie franchise. “With a show like Power Rangers,” Guzelian wrote in that long Q&A, “it can be very easy to get lost in the spectacle … or the desire to sell toys, or the need to use footage … and forget that all of those things [that] should really only exist to develop the characters and serve the story. If not, the show is lost.”