Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Irony alert: Fans decry alleged unfaithfulness of Michael Bay's Ninja Turtles, a property immortalized by an unfaithful and (horrors!) kid-friendly cartoon.

This isn't exactly 'new news', but the irony took awhile to sink in, and it somewhat ties in with that "Titanic was real?!" piece I wrote last week.  As pretty much all of you know, the Michael Bay-run Platinum Dunes is producing Paramount's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot due next year. Jonathan Liebesman is directing, but the real source of umbrage is a comment Michael Bay made a few weeks ago concerning the possibly updated origins of everyone's favorite teenage mutant ninja turtles.  To quote, "These turtles are from an alien race, and they are going to be tough, edgy, funny and completely lovable."  With that comment, the entire Internet exploded with petulant fanboy rage, the sort of thing that makes film lovers in general look bad, with would-be fans aghast that Mr. Bay might alter the characters and make them 'alien' instead of 'mutant'.  I won't go into the specific reactions from specific parties, but eventually director Liesebesman told everybody to chill out and correctly explained that, according to the comics, the mutagen that turned four turtles into a 'ninja fighting team' was in fact alien in origin. Not only is this a prime example of fans going absolutely insane due to filmmakers (specifically ones as loathed by the geek set as Michael Bay, arguably because he makes big-budget spectacles that cater to jocks instead of nerds) have the gall to deviate from alleged sacred source material, but it represents a kind of cultural amnesia in terms of why those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are still somewhat popular 25 years after their creation.  I'm talking about that horrifying unfaithful and kid-friendly cartoon that ran for ten seasons starting in 1987.  You probably can sing the theme by heart.

I'm pretty sure most of the would-be complainers did not read that original black & white run of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird comics when they first debuted in 1984. At the time, the comic book was intended as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the current runs of X-Men and Daredevil.  The core reason that TMNT became a mainstream property is the syndicated afternoon cartoon show that debuted in 1987 and ran all the way until late-1996.  Hell, I'd argue that all-but the die-hards only watched that cartoon for the first 65 episodes, at which point the show wrapped up its primary arc (a series finale if need be), left syndication and went to CBS Saturday mornings for 128 more episodes.  That cartoon was somewhat of a ground-breaker in its day, a bridge between the somewhat flat and monotone He-Man and She-Ra and the noir-infused/unquestionably brilliant Batman: The Animated Series that would debut in September 1992 (yup, almost twenty years ago).  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was bright, colorful, well-animated, and boasted an incredibly vast line-up of characters both good and evil.  It was absolutely kid-friendly and was almost never overtly violent, with an emphasis on slapstick comedy over action.  But the show had character and personality because each of its heroes and villains had distinct visual looks and personalities.  Regardless of how well it holds up today, there can be no denying that the animated series is what made the property more than just a cult comic.  Without the cartoon, there would be no Konami video game (which was a game-changer on its own, but I digress), no feature film series (the first of which remains one of the best comic book films even twenty-two years later), no arguably more-faithful 2003 animated series, no 2007 animated movie, and no upcoming reboot.

This is where the alleged irony comes in.  Had the original comic book come out say in 2009 and the cartoon announced today, there is little doubt that the fans of the cult property would be absolutely up-in-arms.  They would be screaming about the kid-friendly character designs, the campy tone, the bright colors, and the overt silliness on display.  They would be screaming that the producers were 'raping their childhood' or some other perceived silliness.  Whether or not kids or young adults today feel more entitled to have their input respected when it comes to geek-centric properties or whether the Internet and mass-media's pandering to said demographic has merely made their cries seem louder and larger in volume (Drew McWeeny covered that territory), the fact remains that the kind of freedom to take these 'iconic' properties and play around with them is arguably far-more-limited in today's 'fantrum' culture than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.  Batman & Robin came out fifteen years ago, and you could argue that the biggest impact it made is that forever equated 'screwing with the property' with box office doom.  Even though it's generally a false meme, the idea that Sam Raimi's Spider-Man or Chris Nolan's Batman Begins were big hits and critically-acclaimed primarily because they were overly respectful and faithful to the source material is a strong one (the truth is that they succeeded because they were damn-good movies that worked regardless of their source material).  So it is arguable that the original kid-friendly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, the very thing that skyrocketed the property to the top of the pop-culture food chain, would have to overcome the same kind of derision and fan-outrage that this current Ninja Turtles (as its now called) reboot faces today.

Regardless of whether the world really needs yet another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, regardless of whether this is a prime example of the constant regurgitation of seemingly expired 80s/90s properties, the current example of almost arbitrary fan outrage is more humorous and ironic than usual, because it shows a cultural amnesia to why the property has stayed in the cultural memory banks for so long in the first place.  Like Batman forty years ago, it is precisely the sort of kid-friendly adaptation that fans now view with derision that catapulted the property into the mainstream public eye in the first place.  And it is likely that this very cartoon, one that changed or deviated from the source material however they saw fit, is where they were first introduced to the heroes in a half-shell in the first place.

Scott Mendelson


Dave Atteberry said...

As long as studio executives and Hollywood creative types keep strip-mining old franchises for stories and characters they will have to deal with the fact that there are people who actually care and are invested in these intellectual properties. The internet and social media have just given those who care about such things a voice to share their opinions. Not everyone who has an opinion can articulate it in an insightful manner or in a way that they feel makes their voice heard. Hence the pervasive shrillness of the geek-o-sphere when it comes to these issues. Squeaky wheel gets the grease more often than not I suppose.

(I do find it hilarious that in the case of the TMNT that there was aliens and space travel in the original comics run. Oh the irony.)

J. R. said...

I think in adapting something, you can change as much as you want, so long as the title is still accurate. Like, it would be silly to make a Transformer movie in which the robots didn't transform. It would be silly to have a movie called Battleship that is more about invading aliens than naval combat. So, if you're going to call it Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then those four things should be part of the characters. Change the supporting cast, change how they became what they are, change who they're fighting all you want. But at least make the title accurate. Of course, I've heard that this is going to just be titled Ninja Turtles. So, whatever.


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