Cowabunga? The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Forgot to Be Fun

The franchise's latest reboot is also the latest victim of the comic movie industrial complex.
Paramount

If you did not happen to come of age in the 1990s, here are the main things to know about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: They are, first things first, turtles who are also mutants—the result of exposure to a mutagen ooze—who are also ninjas. They are teenagers. They are named after artists from the Italian Renaissance (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael). They are led by a rat who is also a mutant-ninja and whose name is Splinter. They live in a sewer. They eat pizza. They fight a villain named Shredder, who is also a ninja.

You should also know that in the '90s, at the height of their real-world popularity, the Turtles went on a music tour. It was called the "Coming Out of Their Shells Tour," and it featured turtles who looked like they'd been forged in Chuck E. Cheese's workshop performing songs like "Cowabunga!" and "Follow Your Heart." These songs served as complements to the theme song from the Turtles' first cartoon, which declared, "They're the world's most fearsome fighting team / They're heroes in a half shell, and they're green."

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are ridiculous, is what I'm saying, and that is the source of their charm. They may be Comic Book Heroes in the most literal sense of the term—they were created in book form, by the artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, in 1984, and swiftly converted into action figures, video games, cartoon series, and, now, five (5!) films—but they are not Superman. They are not Batman. They are not even, mutant status aside, X-Men. They do not, like their fellow heroes, traffic in metaphor; they do not speak, symbolically, to The Way We Live Now; they do not seem to experience dark nights and/or Dark Knights of the soul.

Eastman and Laird initially intended their reptilian quartet to be satire: The original TMNT comic book was a dark, fusion-y parody of Cerebus, Daredevil, New Mutants, and Ronin. And each new interpretation of the TMNT idea has kept true to this basic spirit of camp. The 1991 version of the TMNT movie—the wonderful terribleness of which was pretty well revealed in its title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze—featured the film debut of Vanilla Ice. Who also sang the movie's theme song. Which featured the indelible refrain "go ninja!—go ninja!—GO." Which is all just to reiterate the thing that is pretty well revealed in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' own title: that they are, above all, mutant ninja turtles. They are sublimely absurd. This is the whole point.

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It is a point, however, that has been almost entirely forgotten in the latest reboot of the franchise, directed by Jonathan Liebesman and produced by, among others, Michael Bay. The new version of TMNT—it is titled, unimaginatively, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—has the look and feel of a Transformers movie. There is a lot of CGI. There is a lot of stuff that explodes. There is a lot of Megan Fox. 

The movie's plot, such as it is, goes like this: New York City is under attack by an evil gang, the Foot Clan, who are under the leadership of Shredder, who works with—spoiler!—the evil billionaire Eric Sachs (William Fichtner). The turtles come out of hiding to defend the city, with the help of the TV reporter April O'Neil (Fox), who is also, it turns out—spoiler?—the daughter of the scientist who made the turtles into mutants in the first place. Who was also, it turns out, the partner of the evil billionaire-who-is-also-working-with-Shredder. Who in this adaptation looks like what might result if the Iron Throne had a one-night stand with a Ginsu knife. 

Anyway, the mutant turtles fight the Foot Clan, whose members generally die, because anonymous villains. And then they fight Shredder, who does not, because sequels. But ultimately—not at all a spoiler!—the mutant reptiles, and New York City along with them, emerge victorious. Cowabunga.

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An early script of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles called for the turtles to be not mutants, but rather "edgy, lovable aliens"; the unsurprising backlash from fans made Bay and his fellow franchisers return the turtles to their original mutant status. But vestiges of the desire to transform the turtles into something more mock-turtle-y remain. In the 2014 interpretation of the franchise, the turtles are far more—and also far less—humanoid than they have ever been before. They are no longer, as in all previous versions, bright green; they are instead a kind of muted, olive-y gray. They are at once bumpy and smooth, shiny and matte. They have bulging muscles. Their rendering in general emphasizes the "mutant" thing over the "turtle" thing; the ninja reptiles' weapons of choice (swords, nunchucks, sai, and bo staff) seem to be attached to them at all times, exoskeleton-style.

Paramount

The 2014 turtles, basically, are no longer simply lovable ninja-scamps who fight an inexplicably large number of martial-arts-trained villains in New York City. They are, instead, vaguely weaponized. They are vaguely militarized. They are vaguely metaphorical. 

Which is another way of saying that, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Michael Bay and his protege have given us yet another Comic Book Movie—one that plods, explosion after explosion, under the weight of its own vague symbolism. The 2014 TMNT interpretation, like all TMNT interpretations, is about—and this really cannot be emphasized enough—turtles who are also ninjas who are also mutants who are also teenagers. But the more salient fact, in the Bayian rendering, is that they are turtles who beat things up and make things explode. Turtles who double as soldiers, fighting their battles in sinister settings within an American city that is under a constant threat of attack. Turtles who must, per the moral-metaphorical logic of the Comic Book Movie Hero, represent justice and jaundice, striving and salvation. Turtles who must have something to say about conflict and crime and 9/11 and John Rawls and existence and otherness and The Human Condition. It's ninjas, all the way down

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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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