Who knew that four anthropomorphic reptiles – named after renaissance artists – with a penchant for ass-kicking would turn out to be such enduring icons? Yet here we are, on […]
Who knew that four anthropomorphic reptiles – named after renaissance artists – with a penchant for ass-kicking would turn out to be such enduring icons? Yet here we are, on the 35th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
It wasn’t until a few years after they appeared in 1984 that I first heard of them – it was through reading Marvel comics that I first caught glimpses of TMNT imagery; adverts for comic stores back then seemed to be pushing TMNT quite hard in their listings of ‘hot’ comic books. I caught sight of an issue or two in my local, short-lived comic shop (Krypton Komics – hi Gary!), but they were always placed up high in the Mature Readers section, which I could have reached (despite my diminutive stature at the time) – but was far too embarrassed to.
It was only through RPG-obsessed friends at school that I was really able to find out about the Turtles properly, via the excellent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TTRPG by Palladium Press (officially called ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness’) – which was packed with huge amounts of background detail and profiles of all of the major players in the TMNT universe. It also allowed you to come up with some seriously twisted, far out characters – and was very close to the dark, violent tone of the original black and white indie comics.
Going back to those original comics, though they were black and white, all four turtles originally wore red masks in any colour artwork they appeared in (different colour masks, as well as other visual embellishments and some personality traits were added for the more-kid oriented animated series a in late ’87).
Now, this next fact may be one of those that isn’t as little-known as I think it is (in the same way that every millennial gaming YouTuber seems to think it’s mindblowing that the Western Super Mario Bros 2 is just a reskin of Japanese NES platformer Doki Doki Panic), but I’m going to bring it up anyway. There are a lot of elements in early TMNT that parody Daredevil and Frank Miller in general (Daredevil’s mentor is named Stick and the turtles have Splinter, for example, along with the Foot Clan being a parody of the Hand ninjas from the Marvel Universe), but did you know that the accident which ends up mutating the turtles – into the creatures we know and love – was strongly implied to be the exact same accident that blinds Matt Murdock and gives him his incredible radar sense powers?
In any case, it didn’t take long for TMNT to absolutely explode in popularity, crossing over from the indie comics scene into the mainstream with the aforementioned animated series and accompanying toy line. There’s some curious cultural differences with the animated version in certain territories – due to heightened concerns in the 80s about levels of violence in cartoons aimed at kids, the name of the cartoon was changed to ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles’ in some European regions (including the UK). The theme song changed, all logos (including on all toys and associated merchandise) displayed the Ninja-omitting name and even some imagery was changed in the cartoon itself (Michelangelo’s nunchucks were completely altered into a different type of weapon, for example).
This was made even weirder for more mainstream viewers in 1990, when the live action movie came onto the scene – the title wasn’t changed at all, yet the Hero Turtles version still continued concurrently. The 1990 version was an excellent hybrid of the darker original and the jauntier, more colourful animated version that so many kids had been used to, with some fantastic animatronics and prosthetic suits by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
It was around this time that the Konami arcade game was released; and what a fantastic game it was! A four player, scrolling beat ‘em up in a beautifully adorned cabinet, the Turtles arcade game felt like it was absolutely everywhere in the early 90s – it was one of those games that seemingly everyone was familiar with. It had a cartoon-faithful, still-gorgeous pixel art aesthetic and remains a great game even today and forms part of Konami’s series of excellent multiplayer beat ‘em ups based on huge pop culture properties of the 90s (The Simpsons and X-Men being a few other examples).
Though TMNT faded somewhat in the mid-90s (at least from the point of view of mainstream audiences), not helped by the dire third film in the live action franchise and, later, a Power Rangers-esque live action TV show named Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation (which introduced a female turtle named Venus de Milo), the animated series was rebooted in 2003 and ran for seven seasons.
In the midst of this, in 2007 a CG-animated movie – known simply as ‘TMNT’ – was released. Darker in tone than mainstream audiences were perhaps used to, it wasn’t a huge worldwide success either critically or commercially – but in my opinion it is definitely one of the best adaptations to date in a number of ways. One of the movie’s highlights – and almost worth the price of admission alone – is a fight between Leonardo and Raphael that is beautifully shot and brilliantly choreographed; the long-simmering tension between the two characters is built up incredibly well in the film, leading to anger and resentment finally boiling over into a spectacular fight sequence. There are other touches that make it well worth checking this film out, as well as some really surprising voice talent (Patrick Stewart, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Chris Evans being just a few of the recognisable names in the cast).
Entertainment behemoth Viacom purchased the rights to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 2009 and their output so far has been mixed, to say the least. Their Nickelodeon-branded animated series reboot, which started in 2012, ran for five seasons and is generally an excellent adaptation of the source material – though the tone can be light and comedic, there’s definitely darker elements, as well as some changes to the lore that aren’t always successful.
Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures released two live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies; one in 2014 and another in 2016. The first felt not unlike a Michael Bay-directed Transformers movie, with many incoherent plot elements and comic relief characters (not to mention embarrassingly cringey objectifying of Megan Fox by both the ogling camera and characters in the film) giving it a similar tone. The second tried to go back to some of the more traditional elements of the story, with Baxter Stockman, Casey Jones and Krang all appearing – but the climax felt almost identical to the one in the first film and it still suffered from the problem of the male gaze when it came to Megan Fox. Though neither film was directed by Michael Bay, he produced the films – and his fingerprints are all over them in style terms, with hugely over-proportioned CGI turtles and a very OTT Shredder, covered in extending blades, who wouldn’t look out of place in a Transformers film.
The most recent animated series – Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has seen an incredibly radical departure in terms of the overall look – introducing a very lo-fi, simplified and over-exaggerated feel to the visuals – and the characters themselves. Perhaps most controversially, Raphael is the leader of the team in this incarnation. Having seen a few episodes, I can say it’s definitely not gelled for me – but it has been renewed for a second season that has yet to air (I should probably mention the animated, feature length crossover with Batman here – based on a recent, very successful comic book series – but I won’t say too much, as I’ll be covering that separately for the blog very soon!).
There have been countless video games in this time, of course (though some have been fun, in my opinion they’ve never reached the heights of the original Konami arcade game or the 16-bit – and Game Boy – games that Konami also released in the late 80s and early 90s). The IDW comic series, debuting in 2011, has seen a variety of spin-offs and crossovers during its run – with the main title alone being a sprawling, multi-character epic that is well worth reading for any Turtles fan. There’s a miniatures-based board game (Shadows of the Past), also published by IDW, that raised close to $900,000 when launched on Kickstarter in 2016 – and further expansions are planned to be releasing soon.
Which brings us pretty much up to speed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who – despite missteps in the handling of live action and cartoon-based adaptations from time to time – don’t seem to be going away any time soon. Having been a fan since I first borrowed an already dog-eared copy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness RPG from a friend in the late 80s, I’m glad these old friends of mine are sticking around. Happy anniversary guys!
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