Next year there will be a new live-action movie version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coming at us from Michael Bay (he of Transformers infamy), and the producer’s recent hints that the Turtles’ origin is being revamped met lots of harsh feedback from fans online. But even if the continuity-screwing turns out to be true, this professed Turtles fan has to ask– is there enough to TMNT to get up-in-arms about in the first place?
Last week fans across the internet got into a (predictable) uproar regarding Bay’s comments that his TMNT movie would possibly re-imagine the Turtles as aliens instead of the mutated house pets from previous incarnations. Involved parties– from the new movie’s director to TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird– have all been chiming on the latest geek controversy, in an apparent campaign to soothe any damage done by Bay’s comments.
It’s quite possible that Bay misspoke when he said “These turtles are from an alien race,” and he was actually referring to the alien origin of TCRI, the company that created the mutagen which morphed our heroes into the ninja warriors we’ve followed for thirty years. That alien connection has been in-canon since the original comics published by Mirage back in the early 80’s. But even if that’s not the case, and Bay’s new take on TMNT really does see the heroes on a half shell coming to our world from a different planet… is the reimagined origin really worth getting bent out of shape about?
I’ve called myself a Turtles fan for most of my life, but the TMNT track record hasn’t exactly been solid gold– the original Mirage comics are plenty cool, but they really came to be as Eastman and Laird’s attempt to parody popular comics of the day, like Frank Miller’s Daredevil and X-Men. I caught up on those comics only after getting into Playmates’ amazing toy line, which is still really the fondest part of Turtles for me. While I adored the 80’s cartoon as a kid, it hasn’t held up at all– it’s actually pretty tough to try and get through an episode watching it today. When compared to other (frankly, better-crafted) 80’s cartoons like G.I. Joe, Transformers or Masters of the Universe, it’s very clear how poorly the first Turtles ‘toon has aged. The live action movies didn’t fare much better… the first one is still a passable (if dated) retelling of the classic origin, but “Secret of the Ooze” aged even worse than the cartoon, and “Turtles in Time” was so bad I hated it even as a 13-year-old mega-fan of the franchise. The more recent CGI movie was similarly disappointing– with weak character designs and fairly cheap effects work, the CGI take failed to really hit home with either kids or adult fans like me.
There have been a few decent Turtles adaptations since the 80’s… the first few dozen issues of the Archie comic series were pretty fun reads, and the Fox/ 4Kids cartoon reboot in the early 2000’s did a great job of adapting the original Mirage storylines, making them just kid-friendly enough to avoid controversy and classic enough to not feel like other ripoff-anime shows of the time, which are already completely obsolete just a few years later. However even these better takes on the Turtles mythos both collapsed on themselves over time– it seems whenever too much continuity is built out on the (let’s be honest) simple, spoof nature of the source material, TMNT just can’t hold that much weight.
So that really just leaves the toy line as the main connection I have with the brothers, and in a case where 4″ action figures are my fondest memory I just can’t help but feel like maybe this cow just ain’t that sacred. I’m no fan of Bay in general, so I’m absolutely not trying to defend him here– he has effectively ruined Transformers for me, having completely phased out the style and feel of my beloved robots in disguise with the thuggish, mean-spirited characters from his movies and a cluttered, junky aesthetic to the robots that has carried over from the films into pretty much everything else in Transformers pop culture. It’s quite possible (maybe even probable?) that Bay will mishandle TMNT to the same extreme degree by which he ruined Transformers. But unlike the tale of the Autobots and Decepticons, TMNT never really had much depth to its story, and when I look back the only mythology I really care about are the stories I came up with playing with my Turtles toys when I was ten. Those memories are something Bay can never screw with, no matter what the new movie ends up being. It’s always good to keep a critical eye and to hold creators to task to make something worthy of fans’ expectations. But throwing a fit on the internet rarely accomplishes anything, and when I really think about it, TMNT honestly seems too slight a property to really defend and hold in any kind of high regard.