The Weird Prescience of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Do not look to sewer-dwelling reptilian heroes for depth. Do look to them for a strangely resonant portrait of contemporary attitudes about crime and its causes.
New Line Cinema

The first line of dialogue in the 1990 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes from a television news segment. “Much more than just a series of small, isolated incidents, it’s now apparent that an organized criminal element is at work,” reporter April O’Neil tells us. Police “have yet to come up with a single eye witness.” A montage of pocket picking and petty theft flashes on screen, with close-ups of the New York Post, front-page headlined, “Crime Wave Escalates.” A television has a gratuitous “I Love New York” sticker stuck onto it. Later, over the end credits, Partners in Kryme give us a recap in their theme song: “The crime wave is high with muggings mysterious. All police and detectives are furious.”

Outside of movie theaters, the crime wave indeed was high. The police and detectives indeed were furious. The first year of the ‘90s marked the highest crime rates both nationally and in New York City itself since the beginning of modern crime analysis in the 1930s. After briefly abating in the mid-‘80, violent incidents were on the rise in New York City, including murder, assault, and theft. So when April stands alone on an empty Manhattan subway platform, her vulnerability is more than just that of yet another onscreen woman in peril. Her inevitable assault by a gang of ninjas is high fantasy, but it was a fantasy based on a very real fear.  A person was more likely to be assaulted or robbed in New York City in 1990 than any other time in living memory.

Of course, no parent walked out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with their wound-up eight-year-old and thought, “That really captured our collective fear of being mugged by teenagers. Radical!” But viewed today, it’s striking how much the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles encapsulated contemporary attitudes about delinquency and violence, and showed weird prescience about the decade to come. The 2014 reboot, out Friday, reveals that more than two decades of declining crime rates have changed the relationship between New York City and the films that are set there.

For a movie ostensibly about mutated crime fighters, the 1990 Ninja Turtles spends a surprising amount of time on the adolescent son of April’s boss. He’s been getting into trouble at school lately, we’re told, and when he runs away from his father, he arrives at a lair for juvenile delinquents that’s more Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island than gangland hideout. The set is like a precursor to the Lost Boy’s treehouse in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, with “depravity” ranging from skateboarding to roulette wheels and arcade games. An impossibly young Sam Rockwell tells two new recruits they can have and do anything they want, and one of them asks for cigarettes.

The greatest crime here seems to be a general lack of supervision. When the villainous Shredder arrives to address the youth, he advertises ninja-based promotion. “You are here because the outside world rejects you,” he tells them, promising community and family. He doesn’t seem to have a scheme beyond that. Contrasted with the apocalyptic arms race of today's action movies, the low stakes seem almost quaint. This was blockbuster filmmaking in 1990, a bunch of guys in rubber turtle suits fighting a gang of teenage thieves. But in revealing an adolescent source of for its chop-socky menace, the film also stumbled into an accidental manifestation of a fear that was still years away from being defined.

In the mid-‘90s, crime analysts developed a controversial theory. The country was full of preteen boys, and in a few years, supposedly, those boys were going to grow up and become hardened criminals. “Get ready,” warned public-policy specialists like James Q. Wilson, stoking fear of the “cloud that the winds will soon bring to us,” when all those nascent ne’er-do-wells came of age. In 1996, John Dilulio would write that, “America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘superpredators’—radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.” It was a theory that would be eventually disowned by even the men who helped create it. But in 1990, with crime at its peak, and no end in sight, the suspicion that wayward youth posed a violent threat pervaded even the silliest of onscreen scenarios.

To be sure, no one should accuse Ninja Turtles of even approaching political or social depth. This is a New York that, for all its crime, is devoid of drugs, homelessness, or the socioeconomic selectivity of crime itself. For its paucity of people of color, it could be mistaken for a film by Woody Allen or an episode of Girls. Other 1990 films set in New York City addressed crime or urban issues with greater realism (King of New York, Q and A) and richer satire (Gremlins 2). Perhaps the most glaring spiritual insult is the suggestion that any New Yorker for whom eating pizza is a trademark would choose to order from Dominos.

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Adam Hofbauer is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Movie Mezzanine and Bright Lights Film Journal.

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