Cowabunga? The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Forgot to Be Fun

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Which creates a weird tautology: Liebesman makes the turtles more violent than they've ever been, but then makes them, also, answer for that violence. The destruction they bring in the name of liberating a fake New York City must be rationalized by saying something about the real one. Their universe must be justified through metaphor.

The most cynical interpretation of this is that the new version of the TMNT franchise, like many similar reboots of many similar franchises, is, commercially, trying to have its pizza cake and eat it, too: It's hedging, basically, through symbolism. It's attempting to serve the most sought-after audience demographics (American boys, international audiences generally)—people who might not know or care that Krang, the disembodied brain who is a mainstay of the early-90s cartoon, is missing from its story—while also catering to the superfans. The writers, sure, have thrown in some nods to '90s nostalgia for good measure. There is a scene that finds the turtles, inexplicably but delightfully, beatboxing in an elevator. And Will Arnett, co-starring as badly needed comic relief April's cameraman, Vernon Fenwick, gamely attempts to bring the nerd-camp spirit of the original TMNT into the Bayified version. 

But those moments of throwback absurdity—the only moments that feel true to the spirit of the franchise as a whole—are rare. To the extent that they read as afterthoughts. In its haste to make itself epic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles failed to make itself endearing. It ignored the wacky absurdity that made TMNT so charming in the first place. All comic book franchises need mythology; not all of them, however, need metaphor. 

That's the cynical interpretation, though. The less cynical one is that Liebesman and Bay simply fell victim, in their reboot of TMNT, to the prevailing trends of the Comic Book Movie, which hold that any new entry in the genre must generally be fraught with real-world implication. So: Iron Man is in part a metaphor for the military-industrial complex. Batman, for terrorism. X-Men, for racism. Superman, for American exceptionalism. And on and on. 

The metaphorical impulse comes from a good place: With great power comes great responsibility, and all that, and what is more powerful, right now, than Hollywood? Resonance with the zeitgeist is, of course, what gave these franchises much of their enduring power in the first place. But it can also be limiting in its expansiveness. It can mean that the universes each franchise creates, whether they belong to Marvel or DC or something between, must be freighted. It's Christopher Nolan's world; we're just living in it. 

And Christopher Nolan's world can be exhausting. Particularly when it implicates franchises like TMNT, which are at their best when they are—much like teenage mutants themselves—allowed to be innocent. And that's because, sometimes, we viewers are at our best when we're allowed to be innocent. Sometimes you just want to see a guy in a spider suit, scaling a building. Sometimes you just want to see a dude in his exo-undies, flying around the planet. Sometimes you just want to see Star-Lord, rocking out to a mix tapeAnd sometimes you just want to see four ninja turtles, doing the robot and then eating some pizza.

The Nolanized posture, for all the obvious good it has done in taking comic book movies from "flicks" to "films," can, if used bluntly, prevent these little joys. It can preclude escapism itself. It can conflate the worlds of comic books with the world at large. And it can, worst of all, lead to movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—movies that, in the name of being "films," forget to be fun. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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