Saturday, 22 December 2018

Series REVIEW: Power Rangers Ninja Steel


It was only eight years ago that fans were looking forward to a brand new era for Power Rangers, as the franchise returned home to Saban Brands following its nine year stay at Disney. Following Disney's declining interest in promoting the series fans were positive about how its return to Saban would revitalise the brand, and in many ways it did. The Power Rangers brand became more globally recognised than it had been in a long time, and in 2017 we even got an (albeit poorly performing) feature film. But fast forward to 2018 and after four series stretched out to last two years each, a poorly received anniversary season and some questionable writing, fans are ready to say goodbye to Saban once more and looking towards a brighter fusion as Hasbro take over. The "Neo Saban" era bowed out with the release of Power Rangers Ninja Steel in 2017, which as per the other shows in this era returned for its second half the following year as Power Rangers Ninja Super Steel – which also featured the franchise's 25th anniversary celebrations. The release of Ninja Steel marks the second time a Super Sentai season has been skipped over for Western adaptation, with Ressha Sentai ToQger being passed on in favour of the supposedly more marketable Shuriken Sentai Ninninger.


Ten years ago Galvanax, champion of the intergalactic game show "Galaxy Warriors" came to Earth in search of the mythical Ninja Nexus Prism. Earth's greatest ninja Dane Romero sacrificed himself to thwart Galvanax's plan, separating the powers of the Prism into six Ninja Power Stars. Galvanax leaves with Prism (unable to call upon the powers), as well as Dane's son Brody.

In the present day Brody finally finds a way to escape from Galvanax's ship, arriving on Earth with fellow slaves Mick Kanic and Redbot as well as the Prism and Power Stars in tow. Together with high school students Preston Tien, Calvin Maxwell, Hayley Foster and Sarah Thompson, they are able to unlock Power Stars and become the Power Rangers Ninja Steel. The five teenagers are then later joined by country singer Levi Weston, who takes the sixth power star to become the Gold Ranger.

The Ninja Steel Rangers battle against the contestants of Galaxy Warriors as they project both the planet and the Ninja Nexus Prism, eventually culminating in a battle with Galvanax himself. But even after Galvanax's defeat the fight is far from over, as his subordinate Madam Odious takes over to finish what he started.


It’s no secret that the Power Rangers series that I have the most respect for and/or interest in are the ones that distance themselves from their Super Sentai equivalent as much as they can. And in this respect, Ninja Steel is a series that shows plenty of promise. From a Power Rangers perspective falling back on the high school setting is immediately off-putting, but the idea of the villains hailing from an intergalactic gameshow is bizarre and original enough to offset it. It also means that Ninja Steel works in a tonne of new villain base footage, as well as using some suits more frequently than Ninninger did as well using some a lot less. For example, Galvanax’s Sentai equivalent Gengetsu Kibanoni only appears in nine episodes of Ninninger, while Galvanax himself is the main villain for the whole of Ninja Steel’s first half. It even manages to work in assets from ToQger, heavily reworking one of its villains into the Galaxy Warriors host Cosmo (albeit with a new face mask). On face value, Ninja Steel seems to have a lot going for it.

The show also features an immediately likeable cast, bringing in some new backgrounds for the characters as well as the new dynamic of having a pre-existing couple as part of the team. As far as high school friends go they are a significant step up from the dynamic of the Megaforce team, who didn't gel quite as well as believable group of friends . Peter Sudarso follows in his brother’s footsteps in not only being a fantastic blue ranger but also a joy to the franchise (the Christmas Ninja Super Steel team up between him and the Blue Dino Charge ranger is a series highlight), while Sarah also comes off particularly strong over the course of the series. Brody and Levi both bring along some of Ninja Steel’s more crucial story beats, and though more could have certainly been done with Calvin and Hayley’s dynamic it still adds something a little different to what’s otherwise a fairly predictable formula. But one of Ninja Steel’s biggest joys isn’t its rangers - it’s its mentor. Kelson Henderson (SPD’s Boom, as well as numerous other roles in the Disney era) returns to the franchise as Mick, not only offering sound advice to the rangers but also eventually getting to become a ranger of his very own.


The villains are pretty good too, with the divide between the two halves’ main villains a much more logical progression that Dino Charge’s more abrupt switchover. Galvanax works well as the hot-headed big bag, while Madam Odious’s schemer compliments him nicely. Also it’s incredibly refreshing to get a female lead villain for the first time in years. Though the supporting villains aren’t quite as strong, the quality of suit design Ninja Steel has on offer means that they’re all somewhat memorable in their own way.

However all of these positives fall completely flat in the face of Ninja Steel’s actual content, which from a writing perspective sees Power Rangers hit a new low. It isn’t the overall story that’s the problem, it’s the individual ones - many of which have the rangers learning the most basic of life lessons or even doing something genuinely insufferable until they get to that point (Calvin-centric episodes are particularly bad in this regard). Admittedly it’s the same formula that Mighty Morphin followed, but that was 25 years ago. The show should have evolved at this point and instead it feels like its regressing. Power Rangers is a kids show first and foremost, there’s absolutely no denying that. But it’s also a show capable of far more mature storytelling, and rather than try and tell stories that hit a broad audience Ninja Steel is far more content in talking down to its audience - and not just its older fans either.


But an even bigger problem in all of this isn’t the storytelling, it’s the humour. Ninja Steel constantly relies on fart jokes and gross-out humour for comedy, and it’s never once clever or well-placed. It’s so excruciatingly unbearable that it it brings the tone of the show immediately down, scraping the very bottom of the barrel as Power Rangers and opting for the easiest jokes it can. Its comedy that’ll resonate with its youngest viewers, but only while they’re at that particular age. Most of this problem revolves around Victor and Monty, the show’s Bulk and Skull-type characters who get into their own misadventures as Victor repeatedly tries to earn his 50th trophy. The pair were on the receiving end of plenty of internet scorn during Ninja Steel’s airing but they’re actually pretty fun characters - a stereotypical jock and a stereotypical nerd that hang out together, and even though Victor often takes advantage of Monty it does feel like they have a genuine friendship. But when they have plots like eating numerous cans of beans to fart their way out of tests, it’s really hard to defend them as characters that don’t do the show anything but harm. Again Mighty Morphin wasn’t a stranger to physical comedy, especially when it came to Bulk and Skull and the amount of things they’d find themselves covered in.

Finally of course there’s also ‘Dimensions in Danger’ - the 25th anniversary episode that brings back a number of familiar faces from Power Rangers history. To its credit the variety of characters and series the episode pulls from is fairly vast, with guests including Wes (Time Force), Gemma (RPM), Koda (Dino Charge), Rocky (MMPR-Zeo), Catherine (MMPR-Turbo), Trent (Dino Thunder), Antonio (Samurai), TJ (Turbo-In Space), Gia (Megaforce/Super Megaforce) and of course Tommy Oliver himself. That’s a nice range of characters even if it almost entirely stems from Saban’s tenure over the franchise, and the episode also has a few other nice surprises that you wouldn’t necessarily expect as well. But again it’s another case of the show having its heart in the right place but not quite having the scope to pull it off, as even the extended edition of the episode is nowhere near enough time required to do the story justice. ‘Dimensions in Danger’ also suffers significantly from essentially being the Jason David Frank show, with Tommy get so much more screen time compared to the other guest starts it makes you wonder why they bothered getting so many of these faces back. Amongst the numerous lows Ninja Steel has it’s a notable episode for sure, but for an anniversary episode it leaves a lot to be desired - especially in a year when the Power Rangers comics were pulling off the same thing on a much bigger scale with its Shattered Grid storyline.


There's no putting it softly – Power Rangers Ninja Steel is not a good series. But the saddest thing is that it had so much potential, not only sporting an almost completely original plot that completely separated it from its Super Sentai equivalent but also a cast that’s both memorable and likeable. But the material they're given to work with, the poor stories and the excruciating dumbing down of humour really make most episodes a real struggle to get through. The lowbrow humour might resonate with its target audience, but childrens' shows have repeatedly shown themselves to be more mature than this in the past few years and Power Rangers as a brand has and can do better. Though not the worst the Neo Saban era has had to offer it’s a sad end to a fairly pitiful chapter in the franchise's history. Next year's Beast Morphers will likely be a transitionary series, but all things considered the only way is up right now.

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