You have four anthropomorphic adolescent mutant turtles, a kind old rat who is their father, and an evil villain who would give Freddy Krueger nightmares… Right off the bat, you’re hooked.
In the ’80s, with this story plot, the Turtles were perfect. It was a fresh idea, originally a parody of the four popular comics of the early ’80s, with altruistic characters reminiscent of the time in which they were created. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were born in 1984 in a comic book released by Mirage Studios. The global scene at the time? Relatively peaceful times, a booming economy, and an overall sense of carefree among its young audience.
But times have changed. Social and political climates have changed. We’re more cynical now. And just as the times have pushed us into a new era, the turtles need a plot lift.
The middle-aged crowd that fondly remembers the original turtles from the ’80s will easily see that the heroes (in a half shell) that have been used in the new turtle movies are so stale that they’re drawing flies. These include the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot and its 2016 sequel Out of the Shadows. If they’re aiming these at millennial kids, then good luck.
So what does the TMNT franchise need to do to save itself from imminent irrelevance?
Put the Turtles Back in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The first thing would be to actually focus on the turtles. Lead human characters April O’Neil and Vernon are not going to hold the attention and fire up a new generation of fandom who could fall in love with the TMNT fantastic four. Vernon’s a joke and April is just there. Meanwhile, Casey Jones is a vigilante looking for his identity, but is he a good cop? A bad cop? When did he become a cop in the first place? He was much more interesting as a psychotic character reminiscent of Jason.
Let April O’Neil return to a supporting character instead of the star. After 2012, fans endured her crossover from television news reporter to ninja-in-training. Although it seems the scriptwriters attempted to transition her role into a more active one for the sake of modernizing the script, we have to ask if it serves the overall story.
TMNT is about turtles, not television news reporters or bad cops. We live in a darker age now, so the turtles need to get serious, get fresh, and find their identity before they become known as another boring box office failure. Original TMNT fans might see the TMNT franchise back-seated to Blu-ray and comic books only from here on out.
Today’s TMNT fans need to see the turtles in smarter, darker plots. Think of how the studios reworked Superman. He’s smarter, tougher, and he’s not a wimp. He died in the last movie. He killed Zod by breaking his neck. They got rid of his blue tights and his weird habit of changing clothes in a phone booth in the middle of a crisis because none of that would work now.
The turtles need to find their identities again. In the current TMNT movie franchise, Leonardo has stepped out of character and has become, bossy and narcissistic. Raphael has become fearful, instead of fearsome. Donnie has become a real geek. And Mikey has been labeled a clown. Should fans of the Turtles from the ’80s bury their affinity for Mikey and Donnie now? They were cool and tough and had style, but now they’re mere caricatures of characters we once loved and admired.
For the turtles to work better in today’s world, they need to be more nuanced rather than dull archetypes. Their distinct traits need to push the story along, not feel forced. The turtles need to find who they are and where they fit in within a modern setting so they can remain relevant and interesting in the future.
Strengthen the Camaraderie
The turtles need to get back to their roots. They need to hang with their homies. The seduction of the original Turtles was that these were guys that you would like to hang out and share a pizza with, whether at your place or theirs.
It was obvious that the turtles loved each other, that they had each others’ backs, and they were really there for each other, no matter what! There was a strong sense of family, and they were proud to be turtles. Wherever they were, it was the place to be, even if that place was a drippy, smelly sewer. Art mirrored life in a way that fans could be proud of.
While the movie franchise still has the turtles as a group of good friends, they need to be more relatable and work better as a team to give its audience a reason to care.
Fans of the TMNT franchise deserve reboots and sequels that jive with their current world. Let’s hope that the next time we see the turtles that it’s a party we’d want to be invited to.