Power Rangers is great. Go see it. Okay, now that the review is out of the way, let’s talk about the best part of this movie. It’s Billy.
By the way, there will be spoilers. I already told you to go see the movie, so you don’t have an excuse.
The character of Billy Cranston has always had an odd, sometimes tragic place in the Power Rangers universe. Despite being a main character for nearly 200 episodes plus two movies, Billy was usually treated like a side show. He built gadgets and made things for the team, but he was also the butt of jokes even from his friends. In the early episodes, he even needed Trini to “translate” his geek speak. It wasn’t until later that he started to learn martial arts, but even then he was rarely viewed as a star in the same way that the Tommy, Jason, Kimberly, or even Rocky were.
On top of this, the actor who played him, David Yost, was also bullied on set. Many of the cast and crew mocked and insulted him for being gay. He ultimately left the show because, in his words, he “was called f——t one too many times.” His costars were even called into producers offices to be questioned about Yost’s sexuality. He admits that he was worried he would take his own life if he stayed. No one deserves that kind of awful, unforgivable treatment. That it happened to someone playing a bullied character—and a show that frequently taught how wrong bullying is!—was just a cruel irony.
I’ve been a huge fan of Power Rangers since I was a kid, but when I played back then, I never wanted to be the Blue Ranger. Of course, every nine year old always argues over who gets to be the Red Ranger (and later Green, then White), but I always bristled at the idea of being blue. Blue meant being a dork. Blue meant being unable to communicate. Blue meant being the outcast in a group that was supposed to stand by you. Even when the show tried to say that the bullied are valuable too, it felt like they didn’t really mean it. Learning about what happened to Yost on set when I became an adult all but confirmed that. Blue was a metaphor for anyone who wasn’t an attractive, athletic jock and blue wasn’t meant to be the hero.
Enter RJ Cyler.
In the new Power Rangers movie, the characters have been switched up a bit. Billy is now a young black kid on the autism spectrum. We first encounter him in detention where he’s being bullied by a thug of the week. Jason steps in to lay the smack down on the bully, telling him to leave both himself and Billy alone. It would’ve been so easy to leave it there.
Instead, from that moment on, Billy becomes the emotional core of the team before it’s even formed. He immediately develops a bond with Jason, offering to help trick the house arrest anklet that Jason got earlier in the film, so that the two of them can go explore a rock quarry together. This very loose justification for blowing up a dig site is what eventually leads to the teens being recruited as Power Rangers. It’s a flimsy plot excuse—Billy throws in a few lines about his dad taking him to dig around and find cool stuff—but it’s enough for a Power Rangers story. It also means that the movie literally never happens without Billy.
Along the way, Billy explains what it means to be autistic. Full disclosure: while I don’t identify as autistic necessarily, I once received an Asperger’s diagnosis from a time before autism was understood very well. Having been used to stereotypes and misinformation, I was fully prepared for a pseudo-psychology explanation of Billy’s condition that bears no resemblance to reality.
At first, we do get a bit of that. For example, Billy remarks that he’s incapable of “getting jokes.” This isn’t exactly true. People on the spectrum can “get” jokes as a concept just fine. They simply may have a different sense of humor than most people. They also might not laugh if they don’t find a joke funny, where most neurotypical people would at least offer a courtesy laugh. Getting stone cold silence for your dumb pun may lead you to believe that an autistic person doesn’t “get it,” but in reality, they might just be your most honest audience. Regardless, this comment isn’t the best representation. However, I also recall learning about my own neurological issues as a child and describing myself the way a doctor told me I was. In this case, Billy may simply be repeating something someone told him because he’s still learning about himself. At the very least, we see him laughing and getting jokes later (including a particularly heartwarming inside joke from Jason at the end of the film), so he clearly has a sense of humor.
Outside of this one issue, Billy’s depiction of autism is largely consistent with what I’ve experienced in my own life. Notably, Billy latches onto Jason immediately. While those with autism may have a hard time making friends, breaking that barrier is often like a floodgate. As soon as you make a small connection, they become your sole point of contact. In virtually every scene where something is going wrong, Billy specifically calls out to Jason. He doesn’t say “Guys, I’m slipping!” He says “Jason, I’m slipping.” Even among new friends, he’s most comfortable with the person he made the initial connection with and is hesitant to branch out. This might be the most relatable aspect of Billy’s personality shown throughout the film and it’s an incredibly useful tool to understand how the mind of someone with autism works.
Billy is also incredibly smart, which borders on becoming a trope in film for those with autism. Being on the spectrum doesn’t make you brilliant like Sherlock Holmes or a genius asshole like Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network, but it can lead you to becoming obsessed. Fortunately, Billy demonstrates this in a more grounded way. During the beginning of the film, he’s laser-focused on getting to the quarry and digging for whatever it is he hopes to find (eventually leading to the power coins and Zordon). He knows how to make explosives, but he’s far from being a genius. He doesn’t have a master plan, he just has to go do the thing that he decided to do. Later, he montages his way to finding the Power MacGuffin known as the Zeo Crystal with a room full of crazy. This is the closest we get to the “autistic genius” trope, but it’s at least just as much a product of his obsession as his intellect.
If you gave me all of this in a movie, I’d be happy. A relatively realistic autistic kid—who’s black no less!—who builds relationships and isn’t a useful genius or punching bag would’ve been good enough for me. However, the movie isn’t content with that. Billy isn’t just a good character on his own. He’s the centerpiece of the team.
Setting aside the fact that it’s Billy who drags Jason out to the quarry, that it’s Billy who finds the power coins, and that it’s Billy who morphs for the first time (while trying to stop a fight between Jason and Zach because Billy is just so good). Forget all that for a second. Billy brings the team together because Billy dies.
Yeah, Billy dies.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t last for very long, as anyone who’s seen the trailer could guess. However, it’s also not one of those “He looks dead for a second but then he coughs and wakes up” kind of things. Billy straight up drowns. The kids get trapped by Rita Repulsa, who threatens their lives if they don’t give up the Zeo Crystal. Billy, being the only one on the team who accomplishes any fucking thing, apparently, knows where it is. Rita finds out where it is and then cuts him loose, dropping him into a river. The kids fish him out, but he’s already dead. While everyone else was trying to ditch this responsibility or fight with the others, Billy did nothing but try to help and paid the ultimate price for it.
They carry him a long, long-ass way to the quarry (somehow avoiding detection, but who cares). Zordon confirms that, yep, he’s dead. The kids agonize over the loss of their new friend. Yeah, they haven’t known each other long, but they’ve already been through a little hell. These five were the only humans who knew what they were up against and now one has already died trying to save the world. They also haven’t been able to morph up until this point either. Their collective failure led to Billy’s death and there’s no way to undo that.
Well, not exactly. Obviously Zordon revives Billy through some hand-wavy plot point about the morphing grid. Zordon had planned to use this morphing macguffin (morph muffin?) to escape his pin art prison wall and get his body back. Instead, he sacrifices his one chance to escape in order to bring Billy back to life. It’s a cheesy, comic book-y moment that makes no damn sense and I honestly don’t give a flying fuck. Billy’s back. He deserves to be back.
The amount of development and care Billy’s given in this movie is only highlighted by how much the other characters are almost glossed over. Jason and Kimberly have relatively strong arcs—Jason learns that being a leader means not kidnapping cows, and Kimberly learns that being one of the mean girls doesn’t make you popular, it makes you an asshole—but Zach and Trini barely register.
This probably has more to do with run time than intentionally ignoring them entirely. Zach and Trini are still strong characters. Zach is a troublemaker who ditches school, but he takes care of his sick mom so he’s really just trying to survive. Trini is standoffish and avoids the group for most of the movie, but we learn that this is because she’s a lesbian who can’t admit it to her family. She never even says the words to the group, reflecting the very same fear that David Yost himself felt among his own generation of Power Rangers. I still wish this Zach and Trini got more development, especially given how much they were also overlooked in the original series, but even Yost himself says this is a step in the right direction.
At times, it’s hard not to see the entire movie as one big apology/devotion to Billy. I’m sure I’m reading it through a biased filter because obviously I adore this new Billy. And it’s equally obvious that a lot of thought went into every ranger’s character, even if they didn’t get the same amount of screen time. Yet, there’s always been a dark cloud hovering over the original Billy. Both in the original series and from a production standpoint, he hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves.
Nerds, minorities, and outcasts were all told by the original Power Rangers series that they could be heroes, too. Whether it was through an imperfect depiction of their characters, or the hypocrisy of some of those who worked on the show, that claim always rang a little hollow. Now, it feels like that wrong has been righted, just a little bit.
Before my group of friends went to see the movie, we were planning in a group chat. As we did when we were kids, everyone claimed a nickname for one of the rangers. I got the Blue Ranger. I didn’t pick it myself, and I felt that little twinge of “Awww man” that I did when I was a kid. After the movie, though, I couldn’t have felt prouder. Yes, I’m a grown-ass adult with a job and a life I’m happy with, but for a brief moment I got to be the Blue Ranger and I finally felt proud of it. If I get nothing else out of this movie, that’s more than enough.