In the midst of chaos in Spider-Man: Far From Home, Midtown High teacher Mr. Dell (played by J.B. Smoove) remarks that the scary, multi-colored storms known as the “Elementals” resemble the Power Rangers. “You’re thinking of Voltron,” quips Martin Starr’s fellow teacher, Mr. Harrington.
Nerd alert: Both men are pretty much right. But a casual reference to the “Power Rangers” — the very same ‘90s teen superheroes who fought alien monsters in spandex with the powers of friendship and karate — actually digs far into Marvel’s history. Because, once upon a time, Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee came up with the idea for Power Rangers.
As Inverse reported previously, in the 1980s, Stan Lee sought to elevate Marvel beyond a comic book publisher and into a formidable media brand.
In 1977, Marvel produced a live-action series, The Amazing Spider-Man, which starred Nicholas Hammond as the web-slinger for 13 episodes on CBS. The series wasn’t a hit in the U.S., but it was a big success in Japan. Through this, Marvel struck a deal with Japanese studio Toei to produce an original Japanese Spider-Man series. The result was 1978’s Spider-Man, which envisioned a radically different take on the web-slinger.
How different was Japan’s Spider-Man? Put it this way: Instead of mild-mannered Peter Parker, race car driver Takuya Yamashiro (Shinji Todō) avenges his father’s death after he is injected with the blood of a warrior from Planet Spider. He also had a giant robot. That’s how different.
Toei was used to this kind of production, as it also oversaw some of Japan’s most popular superhero TV shows like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, the forerunner to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
In fact, Marvel’s deal with Toei allowed Marvel producer credit and creative input into some seasons of Super Sentai. In 1979, Marvel and Toei co-produced a series called Battle Fever J, with a lead character — Captain Japan — meant to be a crossover counterpart for Captain America.
As part of Toei’s agreement with Marvel, Toei allowed Marvel free reign to adapt any of its shows for American audiences. Stan Lee reportedly enjoyed a 1981 Sentai series, Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan, which Lee went as far as producing an English dub reel (said to have cost Marvel $25,000) to pitch to networks.
Recalls Lee’s former boss Margaret Loesch in a 2017 interview with Inverse, “Stan brought me this video and said, ‘Maggie, I think this is a hit. You need to look at it.’ I thought it was funny and different, but it was in Japanese. I called Stan and said, ‘Stan, it’s all Japanese.’ He says, ‘I know! But isn’t it great?’”
In a 1983 interview with Marvel’s Gene Pelc, who acted as a Japanese liason for Marvel, Pelc teased Stan Lee’s idea for an American Sun Vulcan:
“He can sell it as is with a new voice track, or take the prints and cut out the parts where Japanese actors appear, which is about one-third of the film, and reshoot that with American actors, and cut back to the how with the special effects and opticals and visuals, thus creating a series that looks American.”
Unfortunately, American networks hated Stan Lee’s pitch. They didn’t see what was so funny or appealing about costumed superheroes who knew karate and jumped into giant robots. The words Loesch remembered networks lobbed at her and Stan Lee were “foreign” and “junk.”
After a few years, Marvel lost the rights for Super Sentai. The show would end up with music mogul Haim Saban, who produced the show (after his own starts and stops, one of which included a pilot with John Wick: Chapter 3 star Mark Dacascos as the Red Ranger) into Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which aired in August 1993 on the Fox Kids Network. In a funny turn events, the Fox Kids executive who greenlit Power Rangers was none other than Margaret Loesch.
In my 2017 interview with Loesch, the former TV producer revealed to me that Stan Lee didn’t even remember his part in making Power Rangers a success.
“Did you know that Stan didn’t remember that he was the one that discovered Power Rangers?” Loesch said. “I had to tell him. He sees so many projects and then he moves on. Stan is a very pragmatic person. If he’s not successful with selling something, he moves on. It was a few years later that I said, ‘Stan, you get credit for this.’ And he said, ‘I do?’”
Spider-Man: Far From Home is in theaters now.