Superheroes and their epic team-ups (especially in musical form) dominate the world. In 2017 it’s rare for a Marvel or DC character to stand on their own without teasing another crusader lurking out of sight. But before the genre boom that’s closing in on 20 years, superheroes were almost exclusively for kids and Saturday mornings. Among the hottest in the ‘90s was Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. In 1995, Saban used the popularity of the Power Rangers to launch another superhero, and while his adventures were short-lived, the strategy preceded the cinematic universe that’s ubiquitous today.
In comics, superheroes always team-up to vanquish powerful villains, but in live-action TV, it used to be a rarity. Only once did Batman and Robin clash with Green Hornet and Kato. A series of TV movies that revived Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk failed to launch new shows starring Thor and Daredevil. But in 1995, hot off the success of Power Rangers, Saban Entertainment repeated its formula of adapting a Japanese TV show — in this case, 1988’s Kamen Rider Black from Toei — and editing it with new American footage to create Masked Rider.
Masked Rider wasn’t the first attempt to make lightning strike twice. In 1994, Saban produced VR Troopers, a similar show with a trio of teens who fought evil in virtual reality (a lack of common knowledge about computers made this premise trendy and absurd). VR Troopers didn’t take off and lasted just two seasons, but Saban and Fox Kids were unfazed as it went forward with Masked Rider.
In January 1995, Fox Kids executive Margaret Loesch announced the show at an affiliate conference, which she described as possessing “the best elements” from Power Rangers while being “distinctly different in concept and characters.” She undersold just how different Masked Rider would be.
Combining Superman with Marvel’s Iron Fist, Masked Rider followed Dex (T.J. Roberts), the royal prince of the planet Edenoi and possessor of the Masked Rider powers. After the evil Count Dregon enslaved his home planet, Dex follows Dregon to Earth to stop him. Taken in by an average American household, Dex protects his new home as the Masked Rider while learning to adapt to Earth culture. With a reliance on sitcom antics, Masked Rider was an even sillier show that out-cheesed Power Rangers.
Unlike VR Troopers which existed on its own throughout its existence on TV, Masked Rider was introduced to its target audience by piggy-backing off juggernauts. The three-part Season 3 premiere of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, “A Friend in Need,” acted as the backdoor pilot of Masked Rider in which the Power Rangers get a distress signal from the home planet of their adorable robot sidekick, Alpha 5: Edenoi, which is being ravaged by Count Dregon.
The Power Rangers — except for Kimberly (Amy Jo Johnson), who stays on Earth due to a bad cold — travel to Edenoi, a desert planet blanketed in a constant sandstorm. That’s when they meet Dex, who mistakes them as soldiers of Dregon and fights them, living up to typical crossover tradition. After cooler heads prevail, the Rangers assist Dex in finishing off Dregon’s forces. At the end of the three-part saga, Dregon secretly follows the Power Rangers to Earth. Dex’s father, the King of Edenoi, urges his son to travel to Earth to help protect the planet. Thus begins his own show, Masked Rider.
Today, this is a normal for TV, but to kids in 1995, this was the most mind-blowing shit ever. Power Rangers was a low-budget series that so regularly used the California desert as a generic “alien planet,” but kids bought it and its far-reaching worlds like Aquitar, KO-35, and Edenoi. In a world as crazy as the Power Rangers, it wasn’t unfathomable to think there could be other superheroes, but Masked Rider delivered on that idea tenfold, giving way to an entirely new series. Though it spanned just two seasons and its toy sales were abysmal, the expansion of a superhero universe impressed a generation.
Today, many of Marvel’s movies act as launchpads for the next superhero, often in fan-pleasing end credits (Iron Man 2 teased Thor) or as supporting characters, like Black Panther and Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. After a killer performance as Frank Castle in Daredevil, Jon Bernthal received his own spin-off solo series, Marvel’s Punisher, which is currently filming. DC too has made its attempts, and it seems to be working well enough. The Flash was the first to make a superhero musical with sister series Supergirl, which is an achievement on its own.
Saban did not invent superhero crossovers. Comics have been doing that for decades, and for a variety of reasons, neither Marvel nor DC would repurpose that strategy until decades later. In fact, the Power Rangers feels behind the curve; the new film from Lionsgate and director Dean Israelite, arriving at the apex of superhero tentpole dominance, is only the beginning of a planned six-movie arc. But who knows, maybe Masked Rider is one of them.