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.

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.

But the nonsensical nature of the film takes on strange resonance today. The movie’s crime wave is thwarted by some giant turtles and a psychopathic hockey fanatic—a solution that comes from nowhere, the result of a mutation grown in New York’s own sewer system. As the 1990s began, something similarly unpredictable was about to happen.

Over the course of 15 years, crime rates for every type of violent offense fell nationally by an average of 40 percent. In New York City, the average rate of decline was almost double that. The data for more recent years hasn’t been as deeply analyzed, but crime has, at the worst, stabilized. And no one really knows why. In The Great American Crime Decline, Franklin Zimring calls the 1990s a “black box of assumed causations.” Theories on the true source range from the end of the 1980s crack epidemic to the long-term effects of legalized abortion to increased policing to mass incarceration to the declining use of lead paint. New York City in particular, at first glance, would seem to represent a prime example of a place where more police led to less crime. But, Zimring argues, far too many factors exist, from the scope of New York’s policing changes to the variations in the dynamics of various cities.

And it’s not just New York. Looking at the trend from a worldwide perspective in 2013, The Economist asked “Where Have all the Burglars Gone?,” as analysts struggled to find a source for declining crime rates across the “rich world” of the G7. So New York City in 1990 was as dangerous as the city had ever been; in 2014 that city, and countries from the U.S. to Estonia, are safer than ever. If the world is going to get more movies about wiseacre turtles, then those movies will have to draw on new fears.

The updated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might, at first glance, speak solely to the computer-assisted bloat that infects current big budget films. Its trailer alone tells us a lot about what’s different in the 2014 version. These turtles are louder. Their skateboards are rocket powered. Their archenemy is dressed in at least 90 percent more knives.

But the trailer also features many of the same story beats as the original, translated through more than two decades of shifting national mythology. For here, too, is the same subway platform from the 1990 version, the same sense of threat invading a public space. April is once again in the path of danger. But this time she isn’t a lone woman on an empty platform but part of a crowd of people turned into hostages. Where the first film’s criminals had fists and nunchucks, they have now been updated with rifles and high explosives. Eighties ninjas have mutated into 21st-century terrorists.

An earlier trailer’s voiceover provides an interesting counterpoint to the news report of the original. “Crime, violence, and fear have run rampant,” intones the voice of the film’s now anglicized villain. “Our great city is being destroyed. People want justice restored to this world. People want heroes. But heroes are not born. They’re created.” The images of green fluid and laboratory equipment imply that, where the mutants of 1990 were accidental, these turtles are pure engineering. The hint of intentionality echoes the Chosen One motif added into the Spider-Man story for Sony’s recent reboot of that franchise. It’s comforting to think that no matter the crisis, be it pickpockets or terrorism, human ingenuity can offer a solution. But as crime experts continue to try and untangle correlations from causations to figure out why so many cities are safer now, the 1990 film seems more and more uncanny. Sometimes, salvation is just a mutation.