by Nathan Sacks
The latest franchise reboot, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, belongs to a new and interesting breed of films in our culture: films that audiences declare failures long in advance of their release. Recall the responses to John Carter and The Lone Ranger. In both cases, box office and critical response were assumed to be awful, and critics and prognosticators were almost gleeful in their collective savaging of these films. Of course, many thought these films weren’t really that bad, but those opinions were swiftly forgotten in favor of the damning Internet hive response. These movies seemed to be convenient scapegoats for so-called experts who are obsessed with box office and Tomatometer percentages (i.e. everything other than film qua film). I felt like the only critic at my screening who went into the movie with a positive outlook. The easiest and most obvious thing for a movie critic to do is complain about a movie when everyone else is ready, even eager to do the exact same thing.
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Producers: Michael Bay, Ian Bryce, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Scott Mednick, Galen Walker
Writers: Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Evan Daugherty
Cinematographer: Lula Carvalho
Editors: Joel Negron, Glen Scantlebury
Music: Brian Tyler
Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek, Johnny Knoxville, Jeremy Howard, Danny Woodburn, Tony Shalhoub, Tohoru Masamune, Whoopi Goldberg, Minae Noji, Abby Elliott
US Theatrical Release: August 8, 2014
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
This situation might be slightly different in that no one my age cares about formerly beloved, important characters like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars or the Lone Ranger, yet many people my age still have an abiding passion for the Turtles. In fact, “abiding passion” may be a bit mild, given the number of people dressed in Turtles gear I saw at my showing. Twentysomethings in particular view the Turtles through the lens of rosy-tinted nostalgia. Many became furious a year ago about rumors that the Turtles would be aliens, rather than mutated turtles. “How dare they?” vacillated collective internet fandom between bouts of grousing about how Michael Bay “ruined [their] childhood.”
Maybe it’s time to admit that the problem is teary-eyed nostalgists demanding that new reboots conform to their childhood memories, and not Michael Bay.
As is often the case, the “classic” version of the Ninja Turtles these folks want to see on screen has nothing to do with the original versions of the characters. They are most likely thinking of the Ninja Turtles as seen in the cartoon, or maybe the movies. Before that, however, the Ninja Turtles were an independent black & white comic book created by two artists, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Reading the comic books now, you might be surprised by the devilish and adult-friendly humor, which mocked the serious tone of 80s comics like Daredevil and X-Men. The cartoon that came later in 1988 basically removed any sense of satire or cleverness from the concept, and instead left four grab bags of irritating catchphrases who stumped for billions of dollars in action figures and Pizza Hut.
So when people complain that they wanted “classic” Turtles, they are basically pining for an era when product placement didn’t bother them. Such is the nature of nostalgia: it conveniently forgets the negative aspects of childhood (early bedtime, lack of freedom, oppressive and needlessly punitive parental standards) in favor of the positive (the ability to feel unmitigated happiness, lack of responsibility, summers off). Ninja Turtle fandom is a product of selective memory and little else. Fans think the versions of the characters who shout lame catchphrases (“I love being a turtle!”), eat pizza, and pal around with April O’Neil are the versions that everyone loves, and therefore the movie should conform to that. Eastman and Laird’s characters had satirical bite and originality. The fact that they managed to parlay a small black and white comic into a billion dollar phenomenon is indeed amazing and laudable, but the version of the Turtles we see in film today has nothing to do with what they created. Only through the eyes of the woeful nostalgist could anyone see the original Ninja Turtles cartoons or movies as the “classic” versions.
This new movie has Michael Bay’s name attached, but it is actually directed by Jonathan Liebesman, who directed Wrath of the Titans and Battle: Los Angeles. Liebesman seems to have spent every single press interview assuring fans not to worry, that he will be preserving their childhoods in amber. It speaks to the new blockbuster paradigm in America where filmmakers and studio heads are like politicians, having to please various interest groups and develop toothless, repetitive products so as to not possibly offend anyone.
There are plenty of bad things about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, including almost always dire attempts at humor. However, this film, like John Carter and The Lone Ranger before, is far from a disaster. The film does have some style, which is more than you can say for Bay’s Transformers movies. And unlike Bay, Liebesman seems to get the concept of editing and narrative continuity, and the action scenes are visually clear, for the most part. There are no scenes where Shredder punches a turtle and he ends up on a different street in a different neighborhood in Manhattan, for instance. The special effects in particular are major technological advances over previous Turtles films. Due to motion-capture technology, the Turtles for the first time appear to look and sound different from each other. There are interactions between the four brothers and their master Splinter that are charming and funny. When reviewing Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze back in 1991, Roger Ebert commented that the Ninja Turtles were solely defined by their different weapons: “It’s as if the whole sum of a character’s personality is expressed by the way he does violence.” Ebert might have been pleased by the efforts Liebesman and special effects artists make into giving the characters different facial features and characteristics. For the first time, the Turtles look like actual mutated turtles, not frogs with shells.
The main problem with this film is how predictable it is, and once more I believe it is because Liebesman is trying to appease so many masters, including an audience that asks, nay DEMANDS that they receive more of the same, instead of something new or different. I could almost set my watch by the plot developments: I knew going into it that there would be an early battle between Shredder and Splinter that Splinter would lose, and the Turtles would use that battle to escape the sewer and go off on their own. The only trope I predicted that didn’t happen was Raphael quitting the team—he only threatened to do so several times.
Those disappointed by the new Ninja Turtles movie are getting exactly what they deserve: a spineless, repetitive reboot that contains all the scenes and moments that fans want and expect. Those rosy-tinted memories of youth, watching cartoons and eating cereal, will never return because the Ninja Turtles cartoons and movies were never good. The first movie is okay, a surprisingly dark tale about gang violence and trauma. The second movie was an extended commercial for Pizza Hut (who must have made millions off the Turtles in the early 90s) and the third was interminable. None of these are even close to classics, and no catchy theme song is going to hide the fact that that the cartoon was much other than garbage meant to sell toys. People are so blinded by their childhood that they seem desperate. Here is just one example: saying that the new Ninja Turtles theme song by Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa, and Ty Dolla $ign (“Shell Shocked”) will never be as good as Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap.” If you actually think that Juicy J of Three Six Mafia and Wiz Khalifa are inferior performers to Vanilla Ice, congratulations, you should probably never write about rap music.
Again, I believe that Michael Bay is not to blame for this. He is a scapegoat. He is giving people exactly what they want, because (at least based on rumors that the Turtles were aliens) they will complain greatly if he doesn’t. What else should he have done? It’s time for critics to realize that they can’t bemoan the rise of reboots and the dearth of art in film on one hand, and complain about their childhood being ruined by filmmakers on the other. This movie is the perfect representation of what people of the Buzzfeed generation want and crave. Remember Krang, lol?
There used to be a time in history where craven nostalgia and fan entitlement were looked upon with disfavor—or even if there wasn’t, I think back wistfully to those times and like to pretend they exist.