Power Rangers fan film morphs into copyright issue

Any ’90s kid worth their Salt-N-Pepa remembers the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the color-coordinated team of teenage martial artists who used the powers of friendship, multiculturalism and their giant robot Megazord to battle an ever-expanding cadre of intergalactic baddies every Saturday morning on Fox Kids. Now, more than two decades after their first adventure, the Rangers are back in action, and that action happens to be of the R-rated variety.

Earlier this week, a YouTube video entitled “Power/Rangers” went viral, racking up over 11 million hits as of this writing. The 14-minute short, directed by Joseph Khan, reimagines the kid-friendly show as an ultraviolent cyber-thriller, trading the original’s cornball charm and bloodless action-posing for higher production values and copious amounts of gore, drug use and enough four-letter words to sentence the average 6-year-old to a lifetime in time-out.

The basic setup is straight out of Alan Moore’s revisionist superhero comic Watchmen: Years after their adolescent escapades against the likes of Lord Zedd and Rita Repulsa, a new enemy is systematically killing off the now-adult Rangers, prompting the Second Red Ranger (played, fittingly enough, by ’90s icon James Van Der Beek), now a brutal totalitarian enforcer, to kidnap the Pink Ranger (Katee Sackhoff from the Battlestar Galactica reboot) and use her as bait to catch her old flame, the Green Ranger (Russ Bain). What follows is a kinetic action ballet that plays like the over-caffeinated love child of Zack Snyder and RoboCop director Paul Verhoeven. The tone is deadly serious, but sometimes the best jokes are delivered with a straight face.

Less than 24 hours after the short’s online debut, Saban Entertainment, which owns the rights to the property, issued a demand for the video to be taken down. Sure enough, the film disappeared from YouTube on Thursday, but producer Adi Shankar has vowed to fight the decision, arguing that “Power/Rangers” falls under the sometimes-nebulous definition of fair use, which permits the limited repurposing of copyrighted materials for reasons of parody, criticism or education. If Saban decides to force the issue legally, the result could end up setting an important precedent for fan-made content on video sharing platforms.

There have been plenty of relatively big-budget fan films over the years, and many of them have employed similarly radical tonal shifts in a bid to shock and intrigue viewers. The Pokémon fan base, for example, saw its beloved trading card game transformed into a dystopian blood sport in Ki-Voltage Productions’ popular 2010 short Pokémon: Apokalypse, which involved the eponymous critters being stolen from their loving trainers and forced to participate in underground death matches. The Internet is awash with unauthorized fan creations ranging from the flattering to the perverse, but most companies are reluctant to pursue legal action for fear of alienating their most rabid supporters. So why would Saban pick a fight over “Power/Rangers”?

Before rushing to judgment, it’s important to consider the source. The folks behind “Power/Rangers” aren’t exactly struggling young artists hoping to catch the eye of their idols. Khan has been a successful filmmaker for over a decade now. He helmed the 2004 motorcycle actioner Torque and the enjoyably meta 2011 horror comedy Detention, as well as a variety of music videos for the likes of Eminem, Rihanna and Britney Spears.

Shankar is even more established within the industry, having served as the producer of acclaimed genre pictures such as The Grey, Dredd and Lone Survivor. He also has a long history of financing his own expensive fan films, which he calls “bootlegs,” including the recent Punisher: Dirty Laundry, starring Thomas Jane in the role that should have made him famous back in 2004, and the Man Bites Dog-inspired short Venom: Truth in Journalism, a found-footage thriller revolving around Spider-Man’s symbiote nemesis. Shankar doesn’t actually own any of these characters, but he feels well within his rights to make these “bootlegs” because he doesn’t directly profit from them.

Here’s another issue to consider: What exactly constitutes fan-made content? “Power/Rangers” was never envisioned as a glossy tribute to some forgotten show of yesteryear. It’s an action-packed provocation that knowingly spoofs Hollywood’s post-Batman Begins mania for “dark and gritty” reboots while reveling in the twisted absurdity of comparing the Power Rangers to child soldiers with PTSD. At the end of the day, the whole thing is essentially a live-action Robot Chicken sketch with a runaway production budget.

So why is Saban so intent on taking “Power/Rangers” down? Is the company worried about having its prize brand tarnished? Is it concerned about innocent children stumbling upon the graphic content in the video by mistake? Sadly, the real reason behind all this legal saber-rattling is much more material in nature. Saban is developing an actual Power Rangers reboot in concert with Lionsgate, and it doesn’t want the public to get confused ahead of that film’s planned 2016 release date. All I can say is this: If the Pink Ranger doesn’t curse like a sailor in the official version, I will be sorely disappointed.

Landon McDonald is a graduate student studying public relations. His column, “Screen Break,” runs Fridays.