Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Rise (and Rise, and Rise Again)

In a superhero era rife with reboots, callbacks, and “Legacyquels” of varying success, the amphibious Fab Four have proven surprisingly evergreen.

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If I told you that one of the best animated films of the year — with some of the most dynamic animation and creative action of the decade thus far — started as an independent comic taking the piss out of Frank Miller, you’d probably think I was a crazy person. Which, understandable, but the road from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s mutant quartet from black and white satire to one of the most shockingly enduring pillars of family entertainment is proof that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Like that time Golden Harvest and Jim Henson made a TMNT movie and it became the most successful independent movie of its day.

I’ve now seen multiple generations of fans grow up on widely variable versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and yet — even as comic book adaptations have never been more lucrative — they never seem to get mentioned alongside the “big dogs” in spite of their strangely enduring popularity. And while that seems like it should probably be an accident, I’d argue there’s much more to it.

While there are major landmarks in live-action along the way (not just the seminal 1990 adaptation, but also 2016’s TMNT: Out of the Shadows which sadly suffered for its inferior predecessor’s sins at the box office), I want to dig into how roots in 2D comic art and animation have helped these characters endure. Because so much of why this property refuses to join other post-Transformers toy-etic franchises on the scrap heap of pop culture is its ability to thrive through necessary update and reinvention while still remaining recognizable at a glance. Not only is this a line you can trace all the way back to the Turtles’ roots, but it’s a big piece of why Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is such a familiar-yet-refreshing experience.

Part of this is that the concept of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always been an inherently intriguing juxtaposition of contradictions (turtles=slow, ninjas=fast), but it sure doesn’t hurt that even the silly 1987 cartoon lucked into being remembered more for its evocative (and just all around better than it had any right to be) key art than for whatever mostly nonsensical adventures that actually filled the 20-odd minutes of each episode.

Not a lot from 35 years ago you could show to a kid today and have it be just as immediately recognizable to them.

The color coordination and basic roles (leader, heavy, tech, comic relief) of the animated series got solidified by the live-action films and carried into later incarnations, as did the additional personality conflicts and potential flaws those movies introduced. There’s a deft balance of keeping what works without being afraid to mix things up, and there are certainly plenty of examples of whoever was handling the turtles at the time failing to find that balance and fall on their face (pour one out for Turtles in Time and The Next Mutation). But every few years another animated version inevitably breathes new life into those half-shell heroes.

In our modern pop culture landscape increasingly crowded with continuity-obsessed franchises endlessly passing torches and bringing back old faces to anoint new ones so the cycle can continue, a secret weapon of the turtles has been a steadfast refusal to be bound by “canon.” The most recent Rise series is an obvious example of shaking things up in a big way, but looking backwards it reads like each new entry getting massaged to the next evolutionary step to match the times. And while multiple universes and big crossovers have become familiar occurrences for big screen comic book adaptations, the turtles were bouncing around the multiverse nearly a decade before Miles Morales met Peter Parker.

Turtles Forever says: “Eat your heart out, No Way Home.”

Because the leads have always been either muppets or animated creations of some sort, the series has never been bound to a single actor or ensemble the way Superman or the Avengers have been. No need to write huge checks for Harrison Ford to come back when you can just tweak some designs and origins for a fresh start that already seems familiar. Looking to tap into some of that big YA energy in post-Harry Potter / Twilight world? Why not age down supporting characters like April and Casey to the same age as the turtles and really lean into the “Found Family” groove so successful in modern genre fiction?

Another emergent factor is that, after a point, a lot of the creative teams are of an age to have grown up on previous incarnations of the turtles, and you can see where showrunners have repurposed character arcs or major story beats in new contexts with sharpened focus or impact. For example, about midway through its run the 2012 CGI animated series (considered by many to be the platonic ideal of “classic-style turtles” complete with — you guessed it — more multiverse shenanigans) echoes the “retreat to April’s family farm upstate after being temporarily beaten in NYC” from the 1990 movie. But because it’s a season finale rather than Act 2 of a film, it builds to it with a cumulative scale and wealth of converging storylines that it feels positively apocalyptic (for a kid’s show).

And then they start the next season parodying ’80s horror films and bigfoot urban legends, because they’re absolute lunatics and I love them for it.

“That’s right, we did an entire episode riffing on Big Trouble in Little China and we even got James Hong back!”

The 2012 show strikes an impressive balance of meat-and-potatoes “mutant/ninja of the week” action with enough “lore” mumbo jumbo to recapture the feeling of watching the original show without having to actually go back to a show that frankly doesn’t particularly hold up. This is also a series that continually works to push its medium forward each time at bat, from the intricate animatronic costumes from the Jim Henson workshop to the mixture of 3D computer animation with stylized 2D elements that TMNT ’12 employed all the way to the heavily anime-inspired hyper-kinetic action of the Rise version. As a fan of action cinema, I don’t necessarily go to kid’s cartoons for my fab fight scene fix, but the most recent Turtles incarnations occupy the same shelf as Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra in delivering quality animated dust-ups.

Another consistent edge this property has had is the ability to balance silliness with genuine emotional pathos. Particularly across its stronger entries (for example: the 1990 film, the 2007 animated TMNT movie, and even Out of the Shadows in a few key areas), there’s a mildly surprising earnest streak when it comes to the emotional stakes of the characters. The genuine affection between these brothers and their adopted father and their circle of friends amidst all the ninja antics, mutant mayhem and alien shenanigans is likely a big reason for why there’s always an audience waiting for this affable nonsense.

I’d argue it’s also why the series gets away with the kind of ludicrous meta gags that would snap most stories in two, but that the radical reptiles regularly spin gold from.

The ’90s were wild.

Uh, no, not that one.

Batman vs. TMNT should not be as awesome as it is, and yet.

Look, this idea is so stupid that it circles the planet and comes all the way back around to brilliant — especially since the filmmakers lean into the pulp delights of both properties with equal zeal. And after all, why shouldn’t they cross over? Superman met Spider-Man on the paneled pages when the wall-crawler had only been around for 14 years, and the Turtles are closing on 40. So of course something that began life as clowning on Frank Miller’s Daredevil run would pair well with freaking Batman, and obviously the parallels between the Bat Family and the TMNT are rich for dynamic pairings you can mine for comedy and narrative beats, and now that you think of it, yes, you absolutely always wanted to see the Dark Knight and the Shredder beat the absolute shit out of each other.

But what makes something as dismissable as Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles one of the best “comic book movies” of the past decade (I said what I said) is that it commits to the bit all across the board. The movie may be in on the joke (Bruce Wayne drinks coffee out of a Superman mug), but the characters are straight-faced enough that it never comes off as disposable in spite of itself.

And by the time we arrive at this year’s Rise of the TMNT movie, there’s a lot of “itself” to be “in spite of.” Functioning more or less as a feature-length finale to the series of the same name that started a few years ago (itself a fairly bold reinvention that gradually worked toward a more familiar status quo), the story also works overtime to function as a standalone yarn featuring a lot of familiar parts in new configurations. Starting off in a Dark Future Timeline in the mold of X-men: Days of Future Past or The Terminator and using a time-traveling Casey Jones on a mission to thwart it as an audience surrogate, the film can catch everyone up to speed without slowing down. Which it has absolutely zero interest in doing at any point, zipping through a chase sequence and into essentially an extended third act for most of the film’s svelte 82 minutes.

But for all the obvious crunch it was under, the mainstays of strange yet evocatively familiar imagery and crazy-ass action with earnest domestic drama carry what should by all rights have been an overstuffed mess into a genuinely thrilling and thematically sound highlight of the summer. You’d think the obvious star would be the set piece potential offered by the turtles’ new-to-this-series mystic powers, and don’t mistake me — those make for some of the best “superhero shit” I’ve seen all year. The use of Leo’s teleportation ability is consistently inventive and the anime influences worn on both sleeves evolve into full-on Voltron or Dragon Ball territory by the finale.

However, the movie’s dramatic sensibilities prove to be equally reliable. The conceit of making Raphael the leader and Leonardo the showboating star quarterback that’s always frustrating his older brother is a smart not-quite inversion of the classic dynamic, and the way the turtles spend most of the film getting their asses kicked by a truly nasty reinvention of the Krang (this movie goes shockingly hard for a Y7/PG) makes every victory feel like a grand slam. The film wraps up as both a familiar setting of the table for anyone familiar with the series while also being a game introduction to this particular universe (my kid wanted to start the show immediately after the credits rolled).

“A family that bickers but comes together when it really counts” is pretty much always in style.

Of course, the other reason the mighty mutants have endured this long is sheer dumb luck. If not for that, the turtles would have joined the Street Sharks or Rex and Tops from Adventures in Dinosaur City, but they keep lucking into the hands of people who know how to use that genuinely inspired kernel that Eastman and Laird landed on in 1984 to make something that catches hold in the next generation of kids. And goodness knows my generation has refused to let enough things end that there’s no need to weep for what started as a one-off gag and has had multiple complete adaptations if the next generation decides they got no time to cowabunga.

But I like their chances. It took some Avengers movies before kids knew Iron Man and Captain America as readily as Leonardo or Michelangelo. Given the reliable demand for family-focused animated films, and the fact that the next big-screen outing is coming from some of the minds behind animation superstars like The Mitchells vs. The Machines and Gravity Falls, I have a feeling we’ll see the Turtlemania cycle start all over again.

“The year is 2023, and there’s a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film coming to theaters. Time is a flat circle.”

Look, they gotta sell those toys somehow.

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