It took longer than expected, but at last, someone gave ‘90s cheese superheroes, the Power Rangers, the moody, gloomy reboot treatment. At 43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, critics are divided on Power Rangers, but with a $40 million opening weekend in the U.S. alone, it’s a legitimate hit. But to compete with the big properties in 2017, a franchise needs to have a larger cinematic universe. Luckily, there’s some untapped potential waiting in creator Haim Saban’s portfolio. Enter: the VR Troopers.
Sure Ryan Steele, Kaitlin Star, JB Reese, and a talking dog named Jeb aren’t household names, but a lack of notoriety didn’t stop Marvel from enlisting Robert Downey Jr. to become Iron Man, either. So in the wake of the successful Power Rangers, let’s hope somewhere in L.A. a screenwriter is hammering out a refreshing take on the three teens powered by a strange interpretation of virtual reality. There is plenty to work with.
In 1994, hot off the success of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers — a Frankenstein series made from a Japanese kids’ show with new material starring American actors — Saban hoped to make lightning strike twice. Using the same formula that madePower Rangers a hit, Saban adapted a 1987 Japanese superhero show titledChoujinki Metalder and produced a pilot, titled Cybertron, in which a teenage karate master searches for the truth behind his father’s disappearance. Actor Jason David Frank, a breakout star from Power Rangers, was slated to star but was later replaced by martial artist and country singer Brad Hawkins.
After Frank returned to Power Rangers, Cybertron was reworked, with footage from two more Toei shows, Jikuu Senshi Spielban and Space Sheriff Shaider, added. The solo Cybertron series became an ensemble, titled VR Troopers, in which three California teens harnessed the power of virtual reality to fight a super-villain disguised as a Lex Luthor-esque mogul.
With a title like VR Troopers that wouldn’t look out of place in an Image Comics catalog, the show didn’t make any attempt to be smart, prescient science-fiction like 2001 or Ghost in the Shell. But maybe it’s better that way. Today, VR is bundled software on smartphones and video game consoles, but two decades ago it was still a fun sci-fi idea that just barely made sense. This allowed the series to be a ripoff of Power Rangers, and that’s just innocent fun. But given technology’s ubiquitous presence in the daily lives of millions, the VR Troopers could be the timely superheroes Hollywood desperately needs in its tentpole calendar.
The Power Rangers never had any crossover with the VR Troopers, who existed in their own continuity, so there is zero precedent for popular storylines between them, a la DC’s Batman v Superman or Marvel’s The Avengers. (Saban’s Masked Rideris a different story.) Still, the explosion of superhero movies powered by nostalgia means that Saban could easily find a way to make it work. So long as the material can be approached as honestly and earnestly as it was for Dean Israelite’s Power Rangers, then there’s no reason the VR Troopers can’t hack their way to Hollywood.