What we need from a TMNT Reboot, Part 1: The Characterizations of the Turtles

What we need from a TMNT Reboot, Part 1: The Characterizations of the Turtles

With the Michael Bay-produced film (fortunately) put on hiatus, what should we expect/demand from a successful reintroduction of the Heroes in a Halfshell on the big screen?

So, as one can probably guess from the fact that I'm even bothering to write this, I am a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from way back. Having been born in 1988, I've never seen an era where the Turtles did not have some presence. I can remember watching the cartoon every Saturday morning, hounding my folks for the different action figures, tracking down the DVD's of the first three films (yeah, I even got three. Sue me, it was $5, and it's still good for an MST3K style laugh.) I took my little brother to see TMNT twice, bought Turtles in Time Reshelled for the PSN, I've seen every episode of the Mirage Series, dabbled in the comics (City at War was excellent) and (owing mostly to the prodding of a lady friend,) I've even given the Nickelodeon series a shot. Hell, I was Casey Jones for Halloween this year. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Turtlemaniac.

Having said that, you can imagine my reaction to this...

Yeah. Brain cells boiled, to be sure. And like many of you guys, I allowed myself some relief when I heard that Michael Bay's attempt to warp all the childhoods he missed with Transformers was put on hiatus. I then began to think about the fact that the Turtles franchise survives essentially on the current Nickelodeon series. After seeing every episode that has aired thus far, I can say that although I generally like the show, I would by no means call this the best media adaptation of the Green Machine. That crown, in my opinion at least, is still held by the Mirage series (I'll even give Fast Forward a break for pulling some interesting stories and concepts out of a premise that is silly even for the Turtles.) I'd say the first movie comes next (even with my problems with the finale, and then TMNT, which really only suffers from a weak antagonist.

Still, I recognize that, in this era of reboots, remakes and retreads, there will be a group of kids for whom the next big screen outing of the Ninja Turtles may be the definitive incarnation. That is an interesting prospect, but it must be terrifying for anyone involved (at least anyone who cares about the franchise and its fans.) Personally, I would love to be involved in a project such as this. As a seasoned fan, I have honed my expectations of the core of the TMNT, and yet I have found something to love about nearly every interpretation (beyond this sentence, you will likely not read a single word regarding Next Mutation or the Coming Out of Our Shells video. I'll mention the third film largely to point out mistakes, but it did a couple of things okay, and they will get due credit.) But there are certain things that any new version of the Heroes in a Halfshell will have to touch on to win over newcomers and satisfy old fans

So, basically, this article series is going to look at things that a new Teenage MUTANT(!) Ninja Turtles film franchise must do right in order to be successful, starting with the treatment of its characters. I will break it down character by character, and we of course begin with the azul-masked icon...

Put down the torch, I'm kidding. (By the way, that is probably #1 on the list of things you need to avoid if you don't want fans hunting you down, led by Peter Laird wielding a kusarigama. (Side note: I might have to draw that.) But in all seriousness, we'll start with Leonardo.

Leonardo, the sword-wielding leader of the group, has a lot in common with Cyclops of the X-Men- both are the field commander of their teams, both idolize their mentors, both are locked in rivalries with the hotheads under their command, and both have the potential to be seen as boring by the fans, which is unfair, given that when used properly, each can provide some of the strongest and most fascinating character moments in their respective universes.

Leonardo can be written off as the goody-two-toes of the Turtles (especially by Raphael,) but fans should and often do see more to him than that. Leo can be hard on his brothers, but nine times out of ten he is harder on himself. He carries a leader's burden: successes belong to the team, but failures revert to him (as Splinter said in TMNT, "There are no excuses when you are the leader.") This pushes Leo to be at his maximum, to push himself harder and further than even Splinter might. (This is excellently demonstrated in the story where Leonardo is forced to run a gauntlet against nearly the entire Foot Clan, first seen in the Leonardo one-shot of the original comics.) This can even push him into some situational arrogance, on full display in his excellent duel with Raphael in TMNT.

Leo is not without his soft side, though. His sense of justice, compassion, and honor run deep, and he is fiercely protective of his family and friends. In fact, one of the biggest changes in his character is seen after their battle with Shredder in the Season 3 finale of the Mirage series. (SPOILER WARNING: SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW.) After the Turtles and Splinter are badly beaten and forced to use the self-destruct protocol of Shredder's ship to defeat him, Leonardo becomes angry, bitter, and harsh to the point of Raphael commenting something to the effect of "I thought I was the hothead!" The reason for this is that Leo views himself as a failure because he could not defeat Shredder and protect his family without resorting to desperate measures, which would have killed them all if not for the intervention of the Utroms. It takes a pilgrimage to train with the Ancient One (no, not THAT Ancient One,) but Leo does manage to let go of his guilt and regain his good humor.

As I see it, any Turtles film MUST keep the following with regards to Leonardo- a strong sense of honor; a desire to protect his loved ones; a supernatural level of determination; a deep respect and love for Splinter; a rivalry with Raphael; and at least a taste of the pressures of being a leader. (And for the record, I don't truly care if the swords Leo uses are katana or ninjaken, as long as they're properly identified.)

From here, we move on to...

Raphael is a character who has become tricky to balance. He is in most incarnations the hothead of the group (except the iconic Fred Wolf series, where he somehow became a fourth wall breaking wisecracker.) He also retains a sardonic wit, but it can be easy to overdo both, turning him into either a spiritual clone of Wolverine or, as the new series demonstrates, a straight-up bully. But, continuing the trend of hidden depths, there's much more to Raph than his temper.

For all their competition, Leo and Raph have a lot of commonalities. Raph has a strong sense of justice and fairness, but also an innate desire to be the best, which drives him to question why he should have to take orders from Leo. In TMNT, Splinter described him as "strong, passionate, and loyal to a fault." He went on to say that these were the traits of a great leader, but they had to be balanced with compassion and humility, things that Raph has always struggled with.

Raph can be quite vengeful if wronged, but this doesn't mean he can't be level-headed and understanding at times. This is best demonstrated in his first encounter with Casey Jones. He's not usually for going easy on thugs, but he quickly intervenes when Casey comes close to killing some petty criminals. Instead of just wailing on Jones, Raph tries to appeal to his better nature and help him control himself, leading to them becoming fast friends. He also takes it upon himself to rescue April from the Foot Clan in the first film, even at the expense of his family's secrecy. He is the first to charge into a fight, but even he is smart enough (usually) to spot a no-win scenario and opt for a tactical retreat.

A big part of Raph's character is his relationship with Michelangelo (more on him later.) Raph has the least patience for Mikey's shenanigans, and is quick to take him down a peg. However, Raphael does have a great deal of protectiveness regarding him, and it's important that there is a balance with this (I've noticed that Raph can be portrayed as over the top mean in some cases, especially in the new series.) He also has a bit of this with Donatello, although it's not as clearly defined as with Mikey. Raph is quick to point out Donnie's nerd-like tendencies, but he is also willing to give credit when one of his inventions does the job.

Also, nearly every incarnation of Raphael has to deal with his anger issues. Unfortunately, only a few of them ever achieve lasting success here. Unbelievably, one of the strongest examples comes in the third film, where Raph plays mentor to a young Japanese boy named Yoshi (something tells me the original script would have had them in post WWII Japan instead of Feudal Japan, and this would have been revealed to be a young Hamato Yoshi. Too bad we don't see anything that interesting.) Raphael has to teach the boy to enjoy his youth and leave the warfare to the adults, and even remarks on the irony of a hothead teaching someone to control his anger (something that they missed out on in the first movie, favoring a more slapstick Raph/Casey showdown.) There is a slightly better-handled example in the Mirage episode "Lone Raph and Cub," where the sai slinger has to protect a spitfire kid named Tyler as he tracks down the mobsters that abducted his journalist mother.

Traits essential to Raphael: Strong sense of justice, loyalty, and passion; a competitive streak; rivalry with Leonardo; big brother instincts towards Mikey and Donnie; need to prove himself; anger issues that he at least starts to manage; vitriolic friendship with Casey Jones; protective streak (special note- HOTHEAD, NOT BULLY!)

Now, here’s the big one. Michelangelo is, to many people, the heart and soul of the TMNT. He was the first of the four to be sketched by Eastman and Laird, arguably the most iconic of the core four. What makes this ironic is that Mikey is the easiest to screw up. He has always been the most easy-going and child-like of the group, (for as long as they’ve had distinct personalities, anyway,) and he is nowhere near as serious as Leo, hot-tempered as Raph, or as brainy as Donatello. For some reason, some writers use this as an excuse to write him as a moron. Mikey was always something of a goof, but portraying him as flat out stupid is just wrong. I’ll give you an example: in the second film, Mikey is asked by Professor Perry to hand over a chemical needed in his formula to de-mutate Tokka and Rahzar. Confused by the name, Mikey asks “Not to criticize science or anything, but wouldn’t it be easier to just call it ‘the pink one?’” While it’s a silly line, the idea has some merit, as sometimes scientific jargon can go over the head of the average person. Even in TMNT, while Mikey is still written as a goof, he does have moments of intellectual competence. When Donnie is explaining the effects of Winters’ portal, Mikey puts it in simpler terms: “Oh, so it’s like Haley’s Comet, only monsters come out.” Donnie confirms this, unprepared for Mikey to say anything that intelligent. Mikey laughs and blurts out “I’m smart,” before crashing offscreen. This is pretty goofy for Michelangelo, but not outright dumb. In the 2012 series, however, all bets are off. Mikey has been designated (by himself) the namer of the mutants the team encounters. The first one, formerly a thug named Snake, becomes a humongous weed monster. The following discussion ensues:
Michelangelo: That's weird. You'd think he'd get mutated into a snake.
Raphael: Yeah, you would. If you were an idiot!
Michelangelo: But his name is Snake!
Raphael: So?
Michelangelo: You just don't understand science.

As a Michelangelo fan, that was painful to witness. Earlier in that episode, Mikey has a moment of dim-wittedness so pronounced it makes Donnie facepalm WHILE WEARING CLIMBING SPIKES. And then there’s a moment a few episodes later that just made me mad. Donatello is berating his brother for losing a gadget he’d just fashioned, when Mikey suddenly claims that it’s Donnie’s fault. When questioned as to how, he responds, “You know I can’t be trusted with nice things!” Donnie’s reaction is very close to mine, except I can’t expand my cranium to 5 times normal size.

I want to make something clear: Mikey is the comic relief. I know this, I accept it, I embrace it. While it’s said he is the most naturally gifted of the Turtles, he is a bit lazy, and he is a goof. However, I have never once heard Mikey described as “The Stupid One.” You look at 2 Stupid Dogs, you expect them to be morons. It’s generally accepted that, aside from combat and survival skills, Goku is a lunkhead. But while occasionally slow on the uptake, Mikey is by no means supposed to be a blithering idiot. It’s bad enough that even 2012 Splinter flat-out says that Mikey could never lead the Turtles.

Now that that rant is over, let’s cover the needed aspects of Michelangelo. First of all, he needs to be “The Party Dude.” To clarify, this doesn’t mean him breakdancing in nightclubs, necessarily. What this means is that Mikey needs to be fun-loving, laid back, and optimistic. Mikey is often the first to see the good in a person or a situation. His natural optimism allows him to get through scenarios that would have his brothers overthinking and freaking out. Also, Mikey has a natural empathy that makes him more trusting than the rest of the Turtles. While that can get him into trouble, it also helps him make real connections you wouldn’t expect (Leatherhead in the Mirage series, Mitsu in Turtles 3, etc.) It’s noteworthy that in the fan film “Casey Jones,” Mikey is the one to encounter the masked vigilante instead of Raphael, with his humorous and laid-back nature playing quite well against Jones’ brutality and cynicism.

Another thing that can’t be overlooked is Mikey’s natural skill. As stated earlier, he has the most raw talent for ninjutsu among his brothers. It’s not as apparent because of his easy distraction (what with his love of movies, comics, video games and whatnot.) I think he should keep the geek tendencies that he picked up in the Mirage series, as having a specialty like that adds a dimension to his character and makes him that much more relatable.) It might be interesting to give him a pet to establish his nurturing side, as was done with Klunk, the stray cat he adopted in the Michelangelo one shot.

I also feel that Mikey, more than an out-and-out clown, needs to be a troll. He has the wit and ability to get under his brothers’ skin like nobody else, especially with Raphael. Remember when they were watching the tube in Turtles 2, Mikey munching on a Butterfinger? Raph leans over and sarcastically snaps, “Hey, Mikey! You think you could crunch any louder? I can still hear out of this (ear!)” Michelangelo playfully shrugs and takes a big chomp out of the bar DIRECTLY IN RAPH’S EAR. It was a fun little moment that informed Mikey’s Bugs Bunny-like love of getting one over on his bros: comic relief without idiocy.

Still, Mikey is the youngest, so he needs to both stand out amongst and look up to his brothers. He should have a little bit of hero worship of Leonardo, but at the same time, he should seek to prove himself as capable a fighter. Raph, while annoyed by Mikey most often, should be ready to skewer anyone who threatens to hurt him. As for Donnie, the closest of the Turtles to Mikey, should be the easiest for him to relate to, but Mikey’s go-with-the-flow attitude would and should clash a bit with Donnie’s very analytical mind.

All of this is moot, however, if we do not have at least one moment that Michelangelo shows he can put away childish things and be a full on ninja badass. We need a moment like “Grudge Match” in the Mirage series, where Kluh (the monster Mikey beat on a fluke to win the Battle Nexus crown) took a moment in their one-sided rematch and threatened the rest of the Turtles. Michelangelo stopped joking and got DANGEROUS, turning the tables on a bloodthirsty opponent three times his size, and promptly opened a can of nunchaku-flavored whoopass. A moment like that, even against a Foot Elite, or whoever the second in command is in the movie, would go a long way in establishing why Mikey stands shoulder to shoulder with his brothers. A bonus would be if this moment has him protecting Raphael, providing an inversion of their dynamic.

So to recap, Michelangelo needs to: be comic relief without being a moron; have a few moments of honest trolling Raph; get someone to empathize with; get some bonding moments with Donnie; test himself against Leo; and get a chance to prove why he’s a Ninja Turtle.

Now we come to my favorite of the Turtles, Donatello. The brains of the outfit, Donnie is unfortunately easy to overlook. He is often looked at as just the guy who “does machines,” even though we never see any invention in the movies (except for the secret entrance in TMNT.) The fact that he has the simplest weapon likely doesn’t help, but it still isn’t right that he’s written off at times. The biggest character arc he gets is in the second movie, and that plot thread largely goes nowhere. Donnie doesn’t need to own the movie, necessarily, but neither should he get lost in the shuffle.

One thing I’d love to see showcased is Donnie’s technical savvy. This has been very underused in the movies thus far (the most interesting things he does are to replicate the Time Scepter from memory in Turtles 3 and become an IT advisor in TMNT.) I’d love to see him tinkering with some machines in the team’s downtime, or even working on their transportation (We have yet to get a real Turtle Van/Party Wagon/Battle Shell/Shell Raiser onscreen.) At the same time, technical prowess is just one facet of Donatello’s personality.

Donnie is a very introverted guy when compared to his bros, so that should be reflected without him getting glossed over. He should be just a bit quieter until something drives him to speak up, or someone addresses him directly. He should be able to open up to select people, such as Mikey, April, and Splinter. There are a couple of incarnations where he has a crush on April, but this should not dominate his characterization in a new film. If anything, they could build a close friendship through love of science or antiques, or something to that effect. And while Mikey’s hijinks should bug him a bit, he should have an easier time talking to his little bro than Leo or Raph.

Donatello has shown some angst in the past, owing to various factors. In the Fred Wolf series, he was dissatisfied with lack of recognition for his genius. In the second film, he was very disturbed to learn that the Ooze of their origins was largely an industrial accident (this was a very interesting subplot that got nothing in the way of payoff, unfortunately.) The Mirage series gave Donnie some guilt over being temporarily mutated into something akin to Tokka, resulting in him attacking Mikey. He also blamed himself for Splinter’s state of being during the Back to the Sewer season. I think the way to go for a new film would be to give Donnie some restlessness over being confined to the shadows most of his life. This seems the most likely reason he would disobey whenever Leo tries to keep the team in the sewers.

Also, Donatello is a bit more pacifistic than his siblings, preferring to talk things out or figure out an intellectual solution before things degenerate into violence. This is a hard balancing act, as one could easily make him look like, to borrow a term from Wreck-It Ralph, a pussywillow. Donnie may not be itching to fight, but if someone he cares about gets hurt or threatened, he can be a wrecking machine. A moment like this (perhaps the Foot threatening April or Splinter) would be a good opportunity for him to really cut loose.

Also, if Donnie has to have a crush on April, I think it should initially be a source of contention between him and Casey. These two are very different: Donnie’s an intellectual peacemaker and Casey is a belligerent musclehead (not ragging on him, he’s my favorite character after Donnie.) I think the two should have some instances of butting heads (over more than just April,) that could lead to a potential fight. However, an opportunity to bond over something (household/auto repairs, sports stats, stuff like that,) as well as some battles side-by-side, and you have the potential for at least as strong a friendship as Casey has with Raph. Then, when April and Casey do get together (don’t rush it into the first movie, please) Don can work out his feelings and come away stronger.

So, requirements for Donatello: displays of intelligence and ingenuity; moments of closeness with Mikey, April, Splinter and/or Casey; emotional reservation; curiosity with the surface; a moment to step out of his comfort zone and protect someone; logical figuring out of whatever feelings he has for April.

Well, as I got much deeper into the characterization of the four Turtles than I expected, we’ll stop here for now. If there are any important character points I missed, leave a comment and I'll try and incorporate it later. Next time, I’ll look into the other four must haves for the first film’s story: Master Splinter, April O’Neil, Casey Jones and the Shredder. And as every version of Shredder needs one or two main flunkies, I’ll examine the top candidates to play Dragon to his big bad: Rocksteady and Bebop, Tatsu, Hun, Baxter Stockman, and my personal pick, Karai. I’ll even look at the new guys, Bradford and Xever. I’ll be looking at their personalities, their dynamics with the Shredder, and how they would serve the story. Future articles will look at plot elements, casting suggestions, the approach to the action scenes, and franchise trademarks and how to handle them. Till next time!

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