Well, here’s a fun bit of trivia for you. Power Rangers, the 2017 reimagining of the 90s TV phenomenon Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which hit theaters early this year, is currently enjoying a higher audience score with review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes than the new, highly-anticipated Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Cause for celebration for those in some geek circles. Cause for alarm in others. And others still meet this “news” with an understandable shrug and scroll. Here’s why I think this little factoid may be interesting.
ComicBook.com noted that the latest entry in the beloved space fantasy is sitting pretty with an extremely encouraging 93% critics score, and an audience score that rests in the mid-to-upper 50s. Meanwhile, the Teenagers with Attitude have garnered a somewhat less morphenomenal 57% critics score and a 66% audience rating, as of this writing. On the surface, it might seem like people simply liked Power Rangers more, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Especially when one considers the massive difference in the number of reviews tallied, and the fact that Rotten Tomatoes allows people to add scores before the film opens to wide release. Meaning any overzealous fan who sees a trailer and doesn’t like how Character X looks cooler than their favorite can decide the movie’s trash before ever seeing it for themselves, and the result is a score partly based on hopes and fears rather than true value and creative merits.
And let’s be real here. It’s Star Wars. It was never not going to be one of the biggest movies of the year and gain more attention, both positive and negative, than almost anything else one could think of. That would be true whether the film was the greatest thing since blue milk or a dumpster fire during the countdown to destruction.
But what sets the two films apart is less worthy of attention than what makes them similar. While Power Rangers is a hard reset from the original tale and The Last Jedi is the next chapter in a continuing narrative, they both seek to reinvent. To free up mythic franchises that may have fallen into a pattern of predictability and simply grown too familiar. They liberate their respective brands of weighted shackles, bringing in new ideas, subverting expectations, and pushing for theme-driven, thoughtful stories to compliment the visual splendor audiences have come to expect from them. Which personally makes me a very, very happy fan in both cases, but there are some with a rather different outlook.
Change can be hard to accept. Even moreso when what felt like an obvious expectation is altered. In my view, The Last Jedi is a far better film for its ability to spin Star Wars around in its barber shop chair and force it to have a look at itself before asking “Are you sure you want the same cut again?” You get the sense no one asked that in a while. Or that maybe the ones who did were a little too aggressive about it, so the answer was always “yes.” Director Rian Johnson somehow managed what, until a year or so ago, seemed impossible. He got Star Wars, as a brand, to agree to try something new. And it’s far better off for it.
Elsewhere in movieland, Power Rangers had a similar journey. Based on the cheesy-fun adventures of a group of super-nice, mega-successful teens with what should be no time on their hands but the ability to somehow still do any and every extracurricular activity known to man, helping out in their community and all but rescuing cats out of trees with big smiles and almost no serious conflict without the easy excuse of blaming it on a harmless, personality-altering spell, the people at Lionsgate had their work cut out for them. They needed to modernize the bleep out of them, and that meant possibly un-bleeping a few of those expletives and offering something a little more recognizably real, with a dose of cleverness often lost in early television offerings, though many of us love them so.
Both offerings ruffled feathers with a certain segment of viewers, often with the same kind of reaction. And that includes the pre-decision-making based on promotional tools that plague so much of the internet in an ever-circling drain of negativity. The truth is, some people just don’t like change. It could be the greatest change ever and it would still be an irritant because it’s not what was assumed would happen or imagined ahead of time. New creative choices will be dismissed as pandering or misunderstanding what the title is “really about”. As if that was up to us.
Of course, while these kinds of views are largely nonsense, that doesn’t make any work immune to criticism. People are allowed to feel the way they do. Even if they’re wrong. And, in many cases, they are. Like, a lot.
Power Rangers and The Last Jedi are both movies that want more from their respective franchises and some of their loudest detractors, though we’ll scarcely hear it in these words, appear to want less. Star Wars as a film franchise was criticized for years for being too derivative, too samey, feeding from its own taco platter. As soon as they started changing things, the narrative shifted that it was too different. Well, damn.
I don’t truthfully believe that the biggest criticizers of these franchises genuinely want less from them, so much as they’re not all built with the same immediate expectation for something different. If I tell someone for seven straight days that the movie they’re about to see will blow his frakking mind like nothing he’s ever witnessed before or since, a certain type of person will almost automatically be disappointed in the movie, even if it’s one of the year’s best offerings. Expectation can often ruin experience. And with a film as enormous as Star Wars, there’s no greater culprit for overblown, overhyped, impossibly swollen expectation. Even for those that aren’t terribly huge fans, the culture is so predisposed to slant itself toward the film that you just assume it’ll be a big deal anyway. And all that energy, all that thought about what shape the next thing might take, though it can be great fun along the way, eventually becomes a detriment for a select number among us.
“That’s not how it’s supposed to go.” “I thought this person was supposed to do the other thing.” “Why are there people under 40 saving the day when I came for the senior citizens?” “Why are my senior citizens not flawless gods like they are on the poster I’ve had on my wall since I was 9?”
Well, I’d imagine it’s because the movie thought about them as people first. Also, we have a bunch of other stories already in the can showing us the kind of stuff we’d seen even before that, or other stuff we could easily have come up with ourselves (and have). If we go into the experience with a map to the entire story already in our heads, what more is there for the actual story to do except follow it and then send you on your way? I can’t imagine anything more boring than something that simply fills in creative slots like nerd Mad Libs and never offers any surprises or avenues for new things I didn’t already know about before I sat down. And yet, based on the feedback some have given (often several times, from the same nine people, for hours), what is desired is the samey, derivative, ultra-obvious stuff many of the same detractors complained about the last time we were in this position.
The fact is, comparatively speaking, nobody saw Power Rangers to have much of an opinion on it either way, and those of us that did had the reaction that we had. I loved it for its reinvention, its attention to the characters, their bond, and the themes that brought them through the adventure. Many valid criticisms can be lobbied against it, but they’re sadly overshadowed by the tiring echo of fans who would rather pick apart its differences from the obvious than celebrate what makes it special in the first place, which in my view is quite a lot.
Likewise, The Last Jedi seeks reinvention, but is under a much larger microscope. The reason critics’ reviews favor it more than audience scores is because critics are used to seeing everything. Not putting all their hopes and dreams into a few key things every year and calling it a parsec. If it looks too similar to a thing I’ve seen before, I’m not going to reward it for that – I’m going to say it’s not trying hard enough. I’m not going to complain if someone takes a withering trope and, literally and figuratively, tosses it over their shoulder – my first reaction is to cheer. And, you know what, I never thought that certain character was interesting in the first place, so thank the Force this movie was bold enough to tell us the truth about them: they’re not good enough to take up as much space in my brain as they were threatening to. I’ll be glad to move on from them and get to the lightsabers and red salt.
It’s a lot different from what we expected. And that’s just fine.