TMNT & Hollywood Strangeness
Looking back, I’d say that alongside Star Wars, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the property that was most influential in shaping my interests in all things geek. As a kid, I fell in love with the classic cartoon (dat theme song!), and was intrigued when a friend’s older brother introduced me to the gritty, gonzo world of the original Eastman & Laird comics. Hell, I loved the turtles so much, I even saw them live and in concert. While I sometimes go years between visits, TMNT is a brand I always return to when I want to connect with my childhood (though, I must say, I prefer the comics now to the animations). TMNT is important to me, which is why the new trailer for Michael Bay’s… interpretation of the turtles has me feeling a bit like Eric Cartman.
Hollywood has become pretty awesome at translating the cornball cheesiness of our childhoods to the big screen. Marvel and DC’s recent successes have proven that comics, in all their ridiculous glory, can connect with audiences of all ages when treated intelligently and with respect for spirit if not the letter of the source material. Hell, Michael Bay has even (shockingly) demonstrated that principle his treatment of the Transformer franchise (well, the first movie, anyway…). I think it’s safe to say at this point that even just a little regard for the source, the story, and the audience is sufficient for win.
Which brings us back to Bay’s TMNT trailer, and the $64,000 question: Why?
No, my question isn’t, “Why TMNT?” Rather, my question is, “Why TMNT, when your trailer suggests you could’ve used, well, anything–aliens, cyborgs, anything else–in place of a my beloved adolescent anthromorphic Testudines?” I suppose one needs only to look at other prominent examples of Hollywood appropriation that falls way short of the source material, like “I, Robot” or “World War Z,” to grasp the answer. Name recognition sells. A recognizable brand enables both film maker and movie goer to shut off their imaginations, because there is already cultural buy-in. It takes Hollywood off the hook for persuading us that zombies, robots, or pubescent kung-fu hamsters matter, even if their treatment of the same may as well constitute an entirely new property. Recognizable brands put butts in seats.
Which brings me back to the trailer. These Arnold Schwarzenegger-looking juiced-up turtles are not the turtles I love.
Putting aside the fact that the trailer strongly infers an entirely different origin for the turtles, which can’t really be confirmed until I actually watch the film, it is obvious to see that much of the canon has been radically altered. Consider Michael Fichtner’s monologue that underpins the trailer–that is coming out of the Shredder’s mouth. I’m thinking that Fichtner is not going to be portraying Oroku Saki (and if he is, it’ll be classic example of Bay’s–and Hollywood’s–weirdsy relationship with racism).
There are some shout-outs: seeing the TCRI logo, for instance, was like a trip in the Wayback Machine. But it’s not enough to get a couple of incidental details right. You can update, you can spin, you can tweak for modern sensibilities, but you can’t fundamentally alter the firmament of the a property. The turtles are plucky, resourceful, heroes of circumstance, not intentionally engineered supersoldiers with veiny necks and weird lips. While Marvel and DC have largely learned to balance the need for wonder and the need for veritas in their respective properties, Hollywood writ large is still a flailing mess when it comes to reconciling childish properties with their increasingly adult fanbases. And that’s how you end up with Nick Cage as a Superman who doesn’t fly, in a suit without a cape, fighting a giant spider in the third act. Damn it, Michael Bay.