It was summer of 1988 when my brother and I finally mustered up the courage to ask our dad the question. We were staying with my aunt, and we decided this was serious enough to pull dad into a private room to inquire; the question wasn’t just for anyone’s ears.
“Dad, we were, um, wondering, um, if we could get Ninja Turtles figures…”
The answer was bound to be no. Just a year before, my brother had received Masters of the Universe figures as a gift, but was not allowed to keep them. I still don’t know how to play video games, because we were never allowed to get a Nintendo.
“Yeah, I don’t see why not.”
We could hardly believe it. Had dad just said yes? Not only that, but he took us to the nearest Kay-Bee toys, and bought them for us! I got Raphael, and my older brother, the natural leader, got Leonardo.
Twenty-six years later, I seem to be living in a golden age of nostalgia, where what I loved as a child is given back to me as an adult, repackaged and re-mastered with updated talking points and culture nods. The world remakes itself for me to buy it once again, both for myself and for my kids. This is a kind of fountain of eternal youth, where I may drink and drink, each sip remixed, the base flavor always the same… Okay. Enough metaphors and exalted diction. I’m talking about the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or TMNT) movie which came out this weekend. But don’t worry, this post isn’t going to hate on reboots as much as meditate on them.
I’m a literature professor, so I don’t have the luxury of being able to treat the reboot as some evil invention of post-modern pop culture. Many of the greatest works of narrative art in world history are reboots: Virgil’s Aeneid, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Nolan’s Dark Knight. The good of any story, it turns out, is much more in the quality of telling than the novelty of the concept.
I tried to keep all this in mind this weekend as I prepared to watch the new movie. But the prospects weren’t promising. Michael Bay, the producer, hasn’t made a decent movie since Bad Boys 2, and the director, Jonathan Leibesman, seems not to have ever made a decent flick. Nevertheless, I showed up opening day with my classic TMNT shirt on (sans sais, which turn out to be illegal to carry in Texas).
The opening day matinee was sparsely attended. As far as I could tell there were a dozen or so twenty- and thirty-something guys with expectations as liberally drizzled with skepticism as their popcorn was with butter. There were a couple kids, but not as many as I expected. On the whole it was my peers and I, who had played with the action figures of the late 80s and watched the cartoons and movies of the early 90s, and were looking, not too expectantly, for a possible jolt to the awe buried somewhere in our souls.
II. (Spoilers Ahead)
Though the movie was not completely awesome, there were things that I really enjoyed about it; first, the turtles themselves were true to their characters, especially Michelangelo, whose jokes, more often then not, are actually funny. Given that it’s a 100-minute movie, we don’t get a lot of time for the turtles to interact, but what we get is energetic and honoring to the source material.
It turns out that this is April’s movie just as much as it is the turtles’ movie. Whereas in previous incarnations, the main back-story and conflict center around shredder and splinter in Japan, in this one, the backstory belongs to April. In her girlhood, she befriended her scientist-father’s lab animals, and saved them from he fire that destroyed her father’s lab and claimed her father’s life. Present day April, a young reporter forced to jump on trampolines to be the eye candy in Today Show-style puff pieces, longs to be a serious journalist, only to be held back by those who want to relegate her to the trampoline forever. That this version of April is played by Megan Fox – relegated to brainless eye-candy roles as the actress often is – is sly on the movie-maker’s parts. April gets reunited with her past when she meets both the turtles she saved (now grown) as well as the evil businessman responsible for that fateful fire. This backstory connection gives April and the turtles a sentimental, even nostalgic connection. As they tumble across Manhattan, I got the sense that this is a story about a girl and her pets in some fantasy that is, in the end, less experienced by adults than it is imagined by that little girl. Though adult April gives off flashes of Louis Lane, her real pop culture analogue is Nancy Drew. (I have learned that this backstory was loosely based on the IDW comics backstory, in which April was a lab assistant who named the turtles. I like the 2014 version of this better.)
But placing the central conflict between April and her father’s killer, and thus writing out the Splinter-Shredder backstory, makes the obligatory showdowns between the turtles, Splinter and Shredder largely meaningless. Shredder is no longer the age-old enemy who must be stopped to avenge Splinter’s honor (and, in some versions, Splinter’s murdered wife), but simply some really big mean guy who happens to work with April’s dad’s killer. The sentiment of jealous resentment and generations-long grudge (a sort of negative nostalgia) that hangs over the Shredder of yesteryear is gone. He is simply a video game boss, whose most interesting feature is his magnetic, boomerang knives. This problem also applies to Karai, Shredder’s right-hand woman, who is less than disposable in the new movie, but downright likable and even fascinating in the current TMNT TV show.
I think these uninspired versions of Shredder and Karai are due to a lack of interest on the filmmaker’s parts that this franchise has been, until now, about ninja, and is thus rooted in the world of martial arts, of pop-Japanese-mysticism, and the incarnation of both in badly dubbed, spectacularly choreographed Bruce lee flicks. Further, ours is a post-Matrix world, where fans know that slow-motion, explosion heavy, American action film tropes can be elegantly wed to those earlier, kung-fu import tropes. Sadly, nowhere in the film do we get a fight scene as enjoyable or beautiful as anything in the Matrix movies, let alone anything in the recent Ip Man movies. Though the director said the action was inspired by The Raid, he seems to have learned nothing from that film except that actions scenes should be loud and fast-paced. If I had my way, I’d recommend Leibesman remake the film using the excellent and under-appreciated Attack the Block – a film that understands both teenage goof-offs and samurai swords – as his inspiration.
At a deeper level, Leibesman does not seem to understand or portray ninjutsu as the tradition that grounds the culture and morality of the main characters. Instead, ninjutsu is Splinter’s arbitrary choice for a method of self-defense to teach his adopted turtle sons (if you couldn’t tell already, family is a big, not very well explored, theme in this movie). Further, the foot soldiers are not ninjas – as they are in the source material – but rather burly mercenaries who fight mostly with automatic weapon and tasers. This gives our heroes little chance for the sort of martial-arts based sparring that fills many an enjoyable fight scene in earlier incarnations. Instead, there is a generic smashing and thrashing that takes up most of the action scenes. The welcome exception to this is the snow chase and the Splinter/Shredder fight scene, but the balletics of both are marred by truncations in narrative and blocking.
If the new movie has a source material, or a closest iteration, it would be the 1990 movie of the same name. Though there have been three movies since then, none of them have been reboots as much as “further adventures of” type stories. I was seven in 1990 and remember what a big deal the movie was. I was not allowed to watch it when it came out, as my careful parents were worried it would make my brothers and I more pugilistic than we already were.
But we – who still faithfully toted our action figures wherever we went – found a loophole: some friends of my parents had bought the VHS of the movie soon after it was released, and one night when we were over at their house for dinner, while our parents were talking, we slipped into the living room and found the movie. I still remember the feeling of transgressive fun that the glossy black slipcase stirred in me. We watched as much of it as we could before my parents found us. Realizing they had been outwitted, they let us finish it.
I haven’t watched it again since the early 90s, and I’m a little afraid to. The impression that I got from it was that being a teenager was a life of danger and difficult choices. This was highlighted most not by the turtles themselves but by the runway kid who is lured into the foot clan by the evil Shredder. Would I be able to resist the lures of ninja-gang rebellion when it came down to it, I wondered? I got another sobering dose of reality when it turned out that Raphael – my prized action figure – was not a role model; hotheaded and independent, he tries to take on the foot clan alone and gets beat up, captured and humiliated. The most affecting shot of the film for me is when the foot soldiers drop a bound, gagged, and beaten Raphael through a skylight into a bathtub for his brothers to find. Grim stuff for a seven-year-old. But I think I learned a little about which activities and attitudes to avoid if I wanted to be a good brother.
Back then I believed that movies were the highest form of storytelling; If a story was made into a movie, it had reached the pinnacle of its existence. And could only get better if it was made into a trilogy. The last 20 years have complicated this belief, as I’ve written about on this blog before. TV now rivals film as the ultimate visual story-telling medium. Part of this is the rise of the character as the supreme component of screen-based storytelling. We want to see the many adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, Walter White, Batman, The Doctor, etc. If they do make a Doctor Who movie now, it won’t feel like a peak and an ending point as much as an olive branch to the not-yet-initiated, as many of the Marvel movies feel. Further, it could be argued that what has made Marvel’s recent successes – especially Avengers and Captain America 2 – so beloved is that they felt like the season finales to their previous movie episodes. And it’s only in 2014 that Batman movies become so popular that TV execs decide to make a Gotham TV show. In the Star Trek world of the 60s and 70s, it was the other way around.
All of this is a long is introduction to a simple point: the 2012 TV show is the best of the TMNT screen incarnations. While there is still some retro charm here and there in the 1987 TV series, the new series benefits from being made in an era of cartoon storytelling that has learned from and incorporated the great animation styles of the intervening decades, most especially those of Pixar and anime. And it has learned from the long-form genre TV storytelling tropes of Buffy, X-Files, and Veronica Mars. It is not as good a show as these, but it has learned from them. The character exploration and development of the turtles is especially good, and the weekly themes/moral lessons are reminiscent of the recent Clone Wars show at its didactic best.
In fact, I’m tempted to say that if TMNT has an important cultural function beyond mere entertainment, it is in its main conceit, which is essentially set up for moral lessons: four teenagers with differing dispositions and talents learn to work together and overcome relational and physical obstacles under the guidance of their master/father/teacher. TMNT, like Harry Potter, is a school story, albeit not in a Scottish boarding school. I don’t know that any incarnation of TMNT has capitalized on this as much as the new show; one of the ways it does this is making April not a young professional, but a girl in high school, who deals with parental issues and troubles in her studies alongside the turtles. Placing April as the turtles’ peer also allows for teenage relational drama that isn’t quite possible in the many incarnations in which April is the adult sister/unattainable crush of the turtles. The tv show has just finished its second season and shows no sign of stopping; for well organized ninja battles, long-form character development and teenage insight, I’d recommend the show, not the new movie, as the thing to watch.
And yet, TMNT may just not be as suited for the screen as it is for the page. Many think the turtles started in the 1987 TV show and toy franchise, but this itself was a reboot of the 1984 black and white, independent comic. To go back and read this book – which I’ve done over the last month – is nothing short of a revelation. The first happy revelation is that TMNT began as a melodrama parody of gritty 80s marvel comics like daredevil. Peter laird and Kevin Eastman, already well established on the Indy comics world of the early 80s, decided, as a joke, to write a violent ninja noir starring turtles. What they thought would be a hilarious one-off sold well, however, and they continued for ten more issues before hiring more new writers to help with the now quite popular series. Since 84, TMNT comics has continued, off and on, sometimes jumping publishers, until the present day. Eastman and laird still return from time to time to begin new story arcs or write the finales for others.
The second revelation is that the black and white art of the original arc is fantastic. What the pages lack in color they make up for in sheer plentitude of detail. At least once per issue, there are marvelous two and sometimes three page spreads, usually depicting epic standoffs between the turtles and their foes in lushly particularized scenes: trash filled alleys, dark department stores, alien wastelands, the New England countryside, and lots and lots of rooftops overlooking monstrous Manhattan cityscapes. The most visually interesting part of the new movie is the opening credits, which are animated in the Eastman and Laird style, but with less care and grubby detail.
In a way, I’m glad that the new movie is innovative in some ways and deficient in many others. It shows that there are still new things to be done with an old franchise, but also that it’s not easy to match the lasting quality that has popped up from time to time in earlier incarnations. TMNT will never be a wholly serious story, nor has it ever been very idea-driven. At its best it meditates on the condition of the American teenager as he relates to the expectations and lasting mistakes of previous generations. The formation of adult identity out of the storm and wealth of adolescence is a story we’re nowhere near done telling. And sometimes it can be well told using turtles. Teenage turtles. Yes, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.