In this photo released by Warner Brothers Pictures, actors portraying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are photographed on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York in 2007, prior to the release of the feature film TMNT.
In this photo released by Warner Brothers Pictures, actors portraying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are photographed on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York in 2007, prior to the release of the feature film TMNT. Marion Curtis/AP
You know what they say: You can take the mutating ooze out of four ninjutsu-trained turtles, but you can't pry it out of a fan's greasy, pizza-clutching fists. Or something like that.
That's what we've learned in the past week, anyway, after Michael Bay made a pair of statements on his forum, Shoot For The Edit, about the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie he's producing. The title? Ninja Turtles. And the titular half-shelled crime fighters? They're no longer sewer-dwelling mutants — now, they're aliens.
Predictably, outrage followed.
Forgetting for a few moments that Michael Bay has an official forum — evidence, at last, that the internet has a place for everyone — it's worth taking a look at what he wrote. I've snipped a few of the choice comments below:
"The characters you remember are exactly the same" ... "Everyone on this team cares about the fans" ... "We are including everything that made you become fans in the first place" ... "We are just building a richer world."
If any of that looks familiar, it's because it should be. We've heard some variation of each promise every time a comic book superhero or Saturday morning cartoon is rebooted or re-imagined into a big-budget affair. For studios, these projects exist for two reasons: to make money, and to sell branded retail goods to make even more. That's the status quo — and, quite literally, the bottom line — and yet, yelps of outrage ring across the Internet whenever those interests don't align with fans'. (Which is ... always.)
No, this isn't about Michael Bay doing something terrible. It's about how the terrible things we love can pervert nostalgia into something nasty.
The fans complaining about Ninja Turtles forget the very reasons why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took off in the late 1980s — just like Transformers (another Bay-trodden franchise), its success went hand-in-hand with merchandising and gaming domination. Claiming that Michael Bay soiled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ignores the commercial path the franchise took from comics to video games to television to film. We're talking about something, after all, that had Vanilla Ice cameo in one of its movies and made no qualms about pushing every imaginable kind of product on its audience. ("Radical! It's April O'Neil's boss!")
This is not George Lucas digitally altering Star Wars. Nor is it George Lucas turning Darth Vader into a whiny kid. (Man, that guy is just the worst.) This is a notably successful vestige of late-1980s culture getting recycled to thicken a few Hollywood wallets. But if that's the case, what's fueling the outrage?
Maybe it has something to do with how we treat things tinted by nostalgia. For many, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a favorite, even meaningful, childhood memory. There's no need to revisit it – save for impromptu watchings of "Ninja Rap" on YouTube – because the ideal version of it only exists in their heads. They love it because they remember loving it, not because it's objectively good.
For comparison: As a kid, I couldn't get enough of an animated movie called Rock-a-Doodle. It was a weird musical that let Glen Campbell croon as an Elvis-inspired rooster, and to this day, I can hum most of the melodies. Rock-a-Doodle matters in the grand scheme of my childhood – I watched it with my family, sang along with it, and laughing at its weird, dark humor.
I watched it again last year. It was terrible.
While I'd bet that Rock-a-Doodle is almost definitely worse than anything branded by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I still learned a lesson from it: Kids have really, really bad taste. It's not wrong to carry that into adulthood, but if something was formative enough for you, it's worth pretty carefully interrogating the way you think about it as an adult.
So yeah, it's dumb to call it Ninja Turtles. And yeah, Michael Bay deserves to be castigated for making movies that are little more than visual orgasms. But there's a place in the world for nostalgia, and a place for a good story. And given how we learned to love Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and Leonardo in the first place, it's not surprising that those two places turned out to be pretty far apart.