There are, as the saying goes, only three truly original American art forms: jazz, comic books, and Power Rangers. I’m not being cute, either—there’s nothing more American than Power Rangers. Twenty-five years old this week and still chugging along, the franchise is one of the most singular entities in entertainment. There’s nothing like it, and it had to happen here in these United States. Power Rangers, quite frankly, couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
The first thing you have to understand about Power Rangers is that it is a monster of mad science, cobbled together in a lab by a businessman who saw an opportunity to turn around a show kids would love for cheap. Haim Saban is the first reason Power Rangers is uniquely American, and only partly because he’s the reason why the show exists. Born in Egypt to a Jewish family, Saban would eventually immigrate to the States in the ’80s to start Saban Entertainment.
One day Saban, the story goes, saw the Japanese show Bioman, and never got over it. Bioman was a super sentai show, the umbrella term for a nearly unbroken string of shows originally produced by Toei Company usually featuring a team of people who could transform into superheroes to fight an evil force bent on world domination. Designed as children’s entertainment, super sentai shows were formulaic and cycled out roughly every year, with an entirely new series replacing the old one.
Saban, seeing potential for super sentai shows to take off in America, wanted one—so he cut a deal with Toei for the rights to its latest series, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, a show about ancient warriors powered by dinosaur-gods brought to the present day when their nemesis escapes after a millennia of imprisonment. Here’s where things got truly wild: Saban didn’t want the whole show—he only wanted the action scenes, with the Zyurangers fully costumed, fighting monsters and piloting robot dinosaurs.
In between those scenes, Saban would inject new footage with American actors, creating an entirely new show. Original stories kicked off by scenes featuring a diverse cast of “teenagers with attitude” would then segue into footage from Zyuranger, dubbed in English with lines that made sense for the new plots Saban had crafted. The result was Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, the Frankenstein’s monster of children’s television, and an overnight sensation.
Like a lot of millennial boys, I grew up with Power Rangers. I was engrossed by the sudden introduction of Tommy Oliver, the evil Green Ranger, his redemption and loss of powers, and his dramatic return as the White Ranger. I watched the show every day after school and did all the moves.
Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was a soap opera for children. Tommy and Jason were romantic rivals, original cast members made heartbreaking exits, new ones joined and the whole thing—as the show’s creators ran out of Zyuranger footage behind the scenes—ended in a sweeping, dramatic fashion, blowing up literally everything kids had spent the last couple years thrilling over to bring the cast over to a new show, Power Rangers Zeo, in order to adapt footage from a brand-new super sentai show.
This would continue for years. Themes and cast members would be swapped out as needed (and they were needed often—despite its massive success, Power Rangers was low-paid, non-union work) all in the service of one giant continuous story that concluded in 1998 with Power Rangers in Space. Following that, the show became more like the super sentai series it adapted, resetting every year or so with little carryover, bringing old favorites back for special occasions.
At its best, Power Rangers could be sweeping, mythic and large, full of stories of sacrifice and loss—but also while never leaving behind the kids that watched it. Maybe you couldn’t morph or pilot a giant robot dinosaur—that was okay. As long as you were good to people around you, you stood up to bullies, you helped people who needed it, stuck up for those who couldn’t stick up for themselves, you could be a Power Ranger too. At its worst, it still sold toys.
It was all very silly and tremendously formative. Sure, Power Rangers would never really be respectable, but as an adult, it’s hard not to admire the whole enterprise. Because a funny thing can happen when no one respects you: You start pulling together all kinds of strange and ballsy shit. Like when Power Rangers in Space ended with Zordon, the space-wizard responsible for the very first Rangers, commanding the Red Ranger to euthanize him in order to purge the universe of evil. Or the entirety of Power Rangers RPM, a surprisingly bleak series that starts with the apocalypse and did a whole episode about a character named Dr. K, a woman who was abducted by a government think tank at an early age, locked in a bunker and forced to develop weaponry for the government her entire life, never once being allowed outside. You can find some beautiful, fascinating things happening in places where no one else is looking.
Twenty-five years on and one of the most incredible things about Power Rangers is that it persisted. It survived a sale to Disney in 2001, returned to Saban Entertainment in 2010, and this year was acquired by Hasbro for $522 million. All for a franchise that is, in many ways, a shadow of its former self. Power Rangers is now largely the domain of dedicated fans, the kind that document every appearance of cast members and track ratings on dusty fansites. There’s a regular, successful convention. Actors like Jason David Frank, Tommy Oliver himself, are generous and grateful for the role they’ve played in the franchise, regularly giving interviews and returning for anniversary episodes like this week’s Power Rangers Super Ninja Steel special, where Tommy returned to take on a doppelganger of himself as every major Ranger he’s ever been.