If you were a child or parent in the ’90s, chances are you encountered the Empress of Evil, Rita Repulsa. Arguably the most recognizable villain from the franchise, Rita was known for her horned hairstyle, magic staff and noxious voice. She spanned six seasons of Power Rangers‘ history, debuting as the first arch nemesis of the Power Team. In addition to her tenure in the canonical series, the character has appeared in three feature films, video games and comic books, including an ongoing story by writer Kyle Higgins (Nightwing, Batman Beyond 2.0). When you stop to ask yourself, is it endearing or unsettling she’s remained so popular? Rita’s fans range in age, culture and gender, crossing just about every boundary you can think of. Hardened men who grew up watching the show consider call her “OG.” Quite unusual for a female character from a kid’s show. Let’s take a look at Repulsa’s history and find out what made her so enduring.
Once upon a time, Rita ruled Fox Kids’ 4:30 time-slot. The Mighty Morphin’ formula featured five to six Rangers juggling high school and community work with a monster sent from Rita’s palace on the moon. Her objective was typically to conquer the earth, though sometimes she only wanted to destroy it. We’ll get into Rita’s alternatively cunning/impulsive demeanor later. The monster was a means to end, some pipe dream or full-fledged plot configured on the moon. In the universe of Power Rangers, especially during the seasons fans dubbed “the Zordon Era,” what we’d call flaws in logic or plot holes were part of the paradigm. No one onscreen asked why Rita (knowing the identities of the Rangers) never issued a monster with commands to slit a sleeping Ranger’s throat or geographically shift her warpath away from Angel Grove. Off screen, we all asked. But I think that was just part of the show’s consciousness. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.
Episodes usually ended with the destruction of Rita’s monster or the undoing of her plot. In a post-scene, we’d see the nemesis complaining of a headache or lashing out at her core henchmen. The rinse, lather, repeat cycle lasted for sixty episodes with little growth for Repulsa or any of the cast. Whatever baggage or development she receives comes from the unfolding backstory. We learn early on that Rita and her forces conquered many worlds during their war with the sage Zordon “ten thousand years ago.” Eventually she and Zordon reached a stalemate. The sorceress and her minions were trapped within a “space dumpster” and the sage was caught in a “time warp,” courtesy of Rita herself. Wrinkles, warps and twists in time seem to be Repulsa’s specialty, we learn throughout the first three seasons. During the pilot, “Day of the Dumpster,” she’s obviously released by two witless astronauts on the moon. Soon after, we get references to Rita’s war with Zordon, during which monsters of the day like the Knasty Knight “made mincemeat” of Zordon’s forces on planets with mystifying names like Tarmac 3 and Sorcery 7. Ultimately, Rita’s repeated failures earn the attention of Lord Zedd, and we get another piece of the backstory. It seems Repulsa was a mere regent left in charge when the “true emperor” departed to conquer other galaxies (a quasi-Space Opera theme runs throughout the original seasons, echoed dramatically by the Zordon Era’s final installment, Power Rangers in Space.). Having been gone so long, one can assume the sorceress never expected Zedd to return at all.
Concerning her origin, the third season gives us Rita’s father, a regal mutant with a skeletal theme named Master Vile; and her brother Rito, who is basically a conglomeration of Goldar, Squatt and Baboo, as well as a comedic counterpart for the former. Rito Revolto is also skeletal themed, with a perplexing camo motif. From Rito and Vile we learn of child Rita, a willful girl who used a birthday dragon to burn down the family castle when she really wanted a planet to rule. Earlier, while spying on Yellow Ranger Trini (in what could have been a dream sequence), she complains of never being able to play with dolls like the younger Trini, because she had to “practice evil spells.” So here we have a curious mix of spoiled brat and the girl who was pushed too hard, producing a tenacious, sometimes sarcastic, irritable villain with a regal flair.
Unless I’m missing something, this is the extent of Rita’s backstory. Her onscreen story deepens after Zedd banished her from the moon. Somehow piloting the replacement space dumpster, she took advantage of the overlord’s centennial “recharge” and crashed near the palace. Once restored, she concocted a plot with Finster to regain control: Rita aimed to subvert Lord Zedd with a love potion, becoming his consort and mistress of the moon palace. Once reinstated, she planned to overthrow her betrothed, going so far as to banish Zedd in like fashion. From comments made throughout the remainder of the second season, we can deduce Repulsa planned to stage this coup once the Rangers were out of the way and the universe was conquered by Zedd. If I could describe Rita in one phrase it would be single-minded.
During Rita and Zedd’s wedding arc, significant changes to the villain’s casting came into effect. In an effort to free Repulsa from stock Japanese footage belonging to the show’s parent franchise Super Sentai, an American actress named Carla Perez filled the physical role, with original voice actress and–in my mind–co-creator of Rita, Barbara Goodson, providing her voice still. To logicalize the change in Repulsa’s appearance, Finster provided the sorceress with a youth restoring potion used as a topical.
To return to her onscreen history, Rita’s plans to overthrow Zedd were immenently threatened by Goldar, who harbored a grudge against the witch or just vastly preferred Lord Zedd. In the third season, he manages to expose her ruse, going so far as to reverse Rita’s love potion. As it turned out, Zedd had truly fallen in love with Rita since the wedding. Any plans the sorceress had to overthrow him were never discussed further. Instead, Rita and Zedd focused their attentions on conquering the Earth together. One can assume in her single-mindedness, the villainess saw a transparent union to be more beneficial or she had grown fond of Zedd as well. Regardless, their ploys for world domination, vengeance and mischief persisted through the season’s numerous mini-series events and filler episodes, until Master Vile’s aide brought the couple to the brink of the Power Rangers Zeo season.
When Power Rangers received a revamp for its fourth season, Rita and Zedd were almost immediately “put on a bus” to make room for the new villains. The premiere saw them chased out of their ruined home by the forces of the Machine Empire. Fearing destruction, they sought shelter with Master Vile until much later in the season. An interesting subplot developed for Power Rangers Zeo, featuring a feud between the previous lunar villains and the Machine Empire’s Royal House of Gadgetry. Their attempts to reclaim power brought them into conflict with the Zeo Rangers occasionally. Most significantly, Rita and Zedd attempted to steal the Gold Ranger’s powers from a depleted Jason Lee Scott. Ultimately, she and Zedd were able to destroy the dynasty with an explosive peace-offering a la the Trojan Horse. From Rita’s cameo in Turbo: a Power Rangers Movie, we can assume the couple reestablished their domain and somehow salvaged the moon palace. We can also assume, from her snarky message to Divatox, they’ve taken a break from world domination for the moment.
throughout the fifth season, Power Ranger Turbo, Rita is absent, personally. She does appear, alongside Zedd, Divatox and King Mondo and Queen Machina of the Machine Empire in a holographic message establishing the sixth season. The reason for this absence, if we take her big screen dialogue with Divatox into account again, would probably relate to her single-mindedness. In this case, Repulsa and her spouse were probably busy recouping and gathering their forces. They do appear, after all, in the following season with a full-fledged army.
Concerning the holograph in Power Rangers Turbo, a Ranger-like robot from “the year 2000” arrives in the late 90’s to warn the Power Rangers’ new mentor Dimitria of universal upheaval at the hands of an alliance of the series’ master villains. The message is intercepted by Dimitria’s twin sister Divatox, Rita’s ‘frenemy,’ to use a current term. By the end of the season we learn that Zordon has been captured by the demonic Dark Specter and, presumably, his United Alliance of Evil, of whom Rita and Zedd are members. Divatox calls Dark Specter “the grand monarch of all evil,” and in the premier of the following season, Power Rangers in Space, she and the other core villains are summoned to a meeting on the Cimarian Planet. From Rita’s presence there, we can assume she and Zedd joined Dark Spectre in order to achieve the power they were unable to claim on their own. We can also assume Rita herself was more than ready to jump back into the fray, as she battles with Divatox for permission to lead the Dark Specter’s assault on the Power Rangers. The only thing stopping her was Dark Specter, who gave the assignment to Astronema, the supposed “Princess of Evil.”
Power Rangers in Space was supposed to end the franchise. It was developed to wrap up all lose ends and plot threads from the previous seasons. As such, it marks the end of Rita Repulsa’s “It’s time to conquer Earth!” arc. During the two-part finale “Countdown to Destruction,” Rita and Zedd are charged with conquering a planet protected by the Gold Ranger–presumably Triforia, if Power Rangers Zeo was any indication. Leading an impressive army of Putties, Tenga Warrirors, previously utilized monsters and famous henchmen, the couple makes several appearances before the final curtain. Ultimately, when Zordon sacrifices himself aboard the Dark Fortress, a wave of energy from his time warp floods the galaxy, whipping out Dark Specter’s forces. Mondo and Machina were vaporized, along with our old pals Finster, Goldar, Squatt and Baboo. Divatox’s nephew Elgar, thank God, is reduced to dust too, along with every other general, henchmen and revitalized monster from prior seasons. Rita calls out for rescue from husband Zedd as the light approaches. But instead of being burned away, she reappears as a healthy, horn-free young woman, next to a suburbanite Lord Zedd. The couple is last seen together tango’ing away.
One would expect that to be the last we’d see of Rita Repulsa. But the journey receives an epilogue, almost ten years later. During the finale of Power Rangers Mystic Force, we learn that Rita has resurfaced as the Mystic Mother. Apparently the source of the Mystic Rangers’ power and link to the Morphing Grid, a la Zordon for the Mighty Morphin’ team, she is referred to as the “Empress of Good Magic” and leader of the Mystic Ones. So here we have a full-fledged journey from megalomaniac sorceress to benevolent sage. Mystic Mother was instrumental in helping the newer batch of Rangers defeat their enemy the Master and even offered some words of encouragement. Aside from appearances in other media (the 2017 feature film with Elizabeth Banks and Boom! Studios comic books), this is the last we see of the sorceress formerly known as Rita Repulsa.
Utterly tenacious, her legacy brings the mythic Hero’s Journey to mind. In Repulsa’s case, we might call in the Villain’s Journey, or the Ex-Villain’s Journey. Her’s was a surprisingly complex, semi-deep story in a universe where characters self identified as good and evil. She retained her core nature down to her final appearances. As Mystic Mother, she bellowed, barked and griped at the Master, refusing to die or admit defeat. Rita was a fighter, a misguided sage who took the long road towards enlightenment.
Something tells me we’ll see you again, Rita…