Before Capes Were Cool #12: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

We’ve talked about Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman casting a shadow over almost every subsequent superhero movie up to and including 2000’s X-Men.1 But this week’s movie, which was in development at around the same time, was in some ways equally influential. Batman suggested a formula that risk-averse Hollywood could follow: take something the public thinks of as juvenile—superheroes—and add darkness and grit until you make it “adult” (for superficial values of “adult”). Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles presented studios with an alternative strategy for bringing comic book action-adventure to the screen: take something the public thinks of as edgy—alternative comics—and lighten them up and smooth them out for mass audiences.

It’s easy to overlook, but TMNT was actually an independent film, distributed by New Line Cinema. Hollywood was not very interested in making a TMNT movie, despite the fact that there was a hugely successful toy line and animated series that brought in jillions of dollars in licensing. Earlier in the 1980s, studios had tried to bring television cartoons to the big screen with spruced-up animation and celebrity voice actors. But Transformers and My Little Pony fizzled at the box office, and GI Joe was relegated to direct-to-video; it seemed clear that parents weren’t eager to spend money to sit through what were generally dismissed as ninety-minute toy commercials when their kids could watch the same basic thing at home every day for free.

Yet, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a smash success, bringing in literally ten times its budget at the US box office.

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The most obvious difference between TMNT and the aforementioned failures is that this one’s a live-action movie instead of a cartoon; you couldn’t get this on weekday afternoon television. But the real key to its success was getting Jim Henson’s Creature Shop on board; the complex animatronics work was a breakthrough at the time and arguably the thing that got mainstream audiences to pay attention to it. The suits still look great today! Plus, Turtle effects aside, it was pretty cheap movie to make; it’s largely just stuntmen fighting other stuntmen. They filmed just enough in New York to sell the setting and then shot the rest in alleys and warehouses and backlot sets elsewhere. Plus, not for nothing, Batman had come out the previous year, and this film shared a similar aesthetic. It was dark—like, photographed to be dark—and urban with a little bit of grit for flavor. It’s amazing how far the having the color black onscreen goes in convincing general audiences that it’s okay for grownups to watch a movie like this; if nothing else, the adult who gets dragged along to this sort of thing by their kids must think, “Well, at least there won’t be so many goddamn bright colors!”

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But the story is the interesting thing to look at from an analysis perspective because it did a really seamless job of integrating the adult elements of the original comic with the juvenile elements of the cartoon series to produce something that both audiences could enjoy.

TMNT as a media property is a bizarre overnight success story. Based on a small-press indie comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, TMNT originally began as essentially an in-joke for 1980s comics fans, mashing up then then-popular trends and adding funny animals. You take Marvel’s angsty Chris Claremont/Bill Sienkiewicz New Mutants and mix in the ninja-laden antics of Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Claremont and Miller’s Wolverine. Indeed, several core elements of the Turtles “lore” that have stayed constant across multiple media adaptations are actually explicit references to Daredevil that only register as jokes if you know the material:2 Miller’s evil ninja clan, the Hand, is parodied as the Foot Clan; Daredevil’s mentor is Stick, while the Turtles’ mentor is Splinter; it’s even implied that the radioactive ooze that mutated the Turtles is the waste runoff of the canister that blinded Matt Murdock and gave him his powers. TMNT leveraged a savvy marketing operation with low print runs to create an instant collector’s item among comics fans and speculators.

From its success, the “black and white boom” of indie comics was born. These comics were sold at conventions and at specialty comics shops, and were able to operate outside of the Comics Code Authority that regulated titles from Marvel and DC and the few other publishers that sold to general newsstands. As such, the indies could give comic fans all the sex, violence, and naughty language they craved but that could only be implied in X-Men or Teen Titans. And a lot of these books were quite graphic; TMNT was no exception. That is, indeed, sort of the whole joke of the concept, seeing goofy-looking turtle-men slice and stab their bloody way through waves of ninjas.

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But because the characters were goofy-looking turtle-men, they happened to be marketable. It’s the easiest thing in the world to say, “Kids like anthropomorphic animals. These characters are anthropomorphic animals. Maybe instead of being grim killers, they could be funny and friendly instead?” And so, toy company Playmates was able to package Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into a successful toy line and children’s cartoon. The Turtles got color-coded masks to keep them distinct, friendly eyes with irises and pupils instead of the all-white Batman-style eyes of the comics,3 and they played up the “teenage” part of the title to present them as fun-loving,  slang-spouting goofballs who only used their weapons in non-lethal ways or against unliving robots.

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The 1990 film makes the decision to hybridize the two versions of TMNT, and it’s a hybridization that works a hell of a lot better than Joel Schumacher’s attempt to find a middle ground between Burton’s weird gothic Batman and the silly-on-purpose Adam West series. The movie is actually a reasonably faithful adaptation of some of the plot elements of the comic book; even the sequence where the Turtles retreat to a farm in the country is lifted directly from an arc in the source material. But there’s been just enough of the cartoon mixed in to make it more palatable and to connect with the kids who watched the show, without taking away from the more serious, grounded tone. Roger Ebert, damning with faint praise, said this film “probably is the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie,” and I think that’s truer than he even realized; director Steve Barron and screenwriters Todd Langen and Bobby Herbeck compared and contrasted each element of the TMNT concept between the comic and cartoon and selected the version that would make the best four-quadrant, kid-pleasing and adult-appeasing movie.

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So April O’Neil is a TV reporter like in the cartoon instead of a computer programmer and antique store proprietor like in the comics because it’s more familiar and more relevant to the plot, but she doesn’t wear the cartoon yellow jumpsuit. The Foot Clan are humans like in the comic instead of robots like in the cartoon because it’s less fantastical that way, but all the battles are bloodless and generally safe for kids to watch. The Turtles themselves retain their comic book edge, particularly in Leonardo’s brooding and Raphael’s abrasiveness, but it’s lightened with the fun-loving antics of the cartoon. Shredder, who is just one of many antagonists in the comic, is used as the villain because he’s the primary antagonist in the cartoon, but he isn’t played as a buffoon here; and like in the comics, he’s killed in battle, but Splinter and Casey Jones do the deed instead of Leonardo, leaving the Turtles’ hands clean.

And they use the color-coded masks because frankly, that’s just a good idea.

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I’ll be honest: this is not a movie I revisit often. Like many kids of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Turtles were a part of my childhood, but for whatever reason, they didn’t really stay with me as I got older the way superheroes did. I have fond nostalgia for this movie, but not passion the way I do with, say, Batman or Superman: The Movie. But I think this is a very well-made, thoughtfully conceived movie with a lot of interesting choices, and I have to agree with Ebert’s assessment that this might be the most satisfying possible incarnation of these characters for a mass audience.

HERO/ZERO/SIDEKICK/ANTIHERO:4 Objectively a HERO, but personally a SIDEKICK.

NEXT: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wasn’t the only edgy indie comic to get softened for cinemas in the 1990s. Hollywood snapped up the rights to a bunch of other weirdo indie books and toned them down to varying degrees of success in the Clinton era, and we’ll look at some of these over the next couple of weeks.


  • 3/5: Tank Girl (1995)
  • 3/12: The Mask (1994)
  • 3/19: Men in Black (1997)