We got our first good look at Michael Bay’s take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles today, and woof. I am a man who appreciates a good terrapin — I have owned numerous turtles and tortoises in my life and have loved the carapaced critters with all my heart, and I think they new Turtles look somewhere between hideous and repulsive.
But hey, that’s fine, because if this movie doesn’t work out the Ninja Turtles will simply mutate yet again. The Turtles have shown an incredible ability for reinvention, so let’s ignore Michael Bay’s appalling monsters for a moment and take a stroll through all the previous incarnations of the TMNT, from bogus to bodacious…
9) Live Action TV Series
Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation was produced by the company that made Power Rangers with a budget of approximately zero and well, they didn’t pull it off. Nothing really ever happened on the show and the outfits were horribly degraded versions of the classic Jim Henson turtle suits. Also, the show introduced the world to Venus de Milo, the turtle with boobs. Between that and costumes that looked borderline fan-made, the whole show felt more like a cosplayers YouTube video than a professionally produced television show.
8) First Cartoon Series
The first thing you notice if you revisit the “classic” 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon is how surprisingly good the early episodes are. Particularly the first season (which only lasted five episodes). Those first season episodes were well animated and had actual continuity and a bit of an edge to them.
The second thing you’ll notice is how goddamn awful all the episodes after the first season were. Like remember how, after the first handful of episodes, Michelangelo wasn’t allowed to use his nunchucks? And every fight ended in a chandelier falling on somebody? And that most of the episodes focused mainly on the “hilarious” antics down at the Channel 6 offices? I know this is where most of us first discovered the Turtles, but sorry guys, it was pretty lousy.
7) Third Cartoon Series
I’ll admit I’ve barely watched the most recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show, but Michelangelo says “booyakasha” instead of “cowabunga” in it, so to it I say, thanks but no thanks.
6) Independent Comics
Where it all began! It’s certainly a jolt to go back to these comics if, like most people, you were introduced to TMNT through the cartoons. The Turtles are saying dirty words! And the foot soldiers aren’t robots! They’re people who bleed blood when the Turtles stab them! Hoooly [checks to see if parents are listening] crap!
Unfortunately once you get past the initial excitement of discovering the Turtles’ mildly taboo, violent past, you begin to realize that the original Eastman and Laird comics aren’t particularly good. They sit on this weird precipice between parody and serious storytelling — the plots are absurd and the writing is stilted, and it’s never clear how much of the silliness is intentional. If it’s all a joke, it’s not a particularly funny one. There have been a few good indie TMNT comics (they usually happen when Eastman and/or Laird hand the characters off to somebody else) but for the most part the Turtles’ black and white past is an interesting footnote you can largely skip.
5) Second Cartoon Series
A more serious treatment of our rude dude heroes, the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon added a more complex universe and long-term storytelling into the mix. This version of TMNT verged on being a genuinely top notch series at times, such as when the original black and white funnybook Turtles, goofy 80s cartoon Turtles and serious 2000s Turtles all met up in the pretty excellent Turtles Forever crossover. For the most part though, the show fell just short of cartoon classics like Batman: The Animated Series or Gargoyles and has already largely faded from the collective memory.
4) Animated Movie
The Turtles did the Pixar thing back in 2007 with TMNT, and the results were surprisingly good. Sure, the movie looked rather cheap stacked next to The Incredibles or Wall-E, but it successfully walked the fine line between fun and serious and it was probably the most successful the Turtles have ever been in terms of action. For a team of ninjas, the Turtles have been involved in a lot of pretty rote, clunky action scenes, but this movie was exciting stuff and the fight between Raph and Leonardo is the most epic showdown in TMNT history.
3) Archie Comics
I’ll forever defend Archie Comics-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures as the most overlooked and underrated incarnation of the Turtles. The Ninja Turtles tend to whipsaw back and forth between goofy and grim, rarely finding that perfect balance in between, but these comics hit it. They’re bright, colorful and cartoony, and had a good amount of humor, but, particularly towards the later issues, they introduced more complex storytelling and adult themes in natural, tasteful way. Also, as illustrated above, TMNT Adventures featured a panel of Raphael punching out Hitler, so yeah, Archie wins “best TMNT comics” in a walk.
2) Konami Video Games
More recent Ninja Turtle video games are mostly just bland licensed titles that stick to whatever cartoon or movie they’re adapting as closely as possible, but Konami’s early 8 and 16-bit games were unique enough that I’d consider them an incarnation of the Turtles unto themselves. Konami’s Turtles games cherry picked from all the other Turtle incarnations around at the time — characters from the comics, cartoons and movies rendered in classic Japanese pixel-art style all hanging out together. Awesome. The games, of course, also played great. They were simple, and yet never felt like boring beat ’em up slogs, a formula literally hundreds of other games tried to copy to little success.
1) Live Action Movies
Maybe it was because I was already a little old when the Turtles hit big, but I never thought they were particularly cool. They seemed kind of nerdy to me, which was fine because I like nerdy things, but they were supposed to be cool — cool but rude even! Really the only time they felt legitimately cool to me was in the first two live action movies. The constant one-liners, the New York accents, hanging out with Vanilla Ice, these guys were, dare I say it, wicked tubular. Also, I’ll forever love Jim Henson’s fantastic Turtle suits. They felt natural in a live-action environment without losing the charm of the comics and cartoon, which is no easy task (I’m sideways glancing at you Michael Bay Turtles).
Oh, and for those wondering, no Ninja Turtles III doesn’t count. In fact as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t exist at all, lalala, all the old live action Turtles movies were great.
So, how would you rank the Turtles’ various forms? Where do you think the new Frankenturtles are going to end up ranking?