Over the next few weeks I will be counting down my favorite (and least favorite) superhero films. For the purpose of this list, the only “rules” for what constitutes a superhero film will be that it reasonably seems like a superhero film. I won’t be applying any ridiculous standards that end up making Batman not a superhero because he has no super powers, or anything like that.
For those of you thinking, “Wait, 23? Isn’t that kind of a lot?” Keep in mind, the past few years alone have seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and the unprecedented Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoy reading!
#18: TMNT (2007)
Though it was not as well-received as other incarnations of the heroes, I felt the 2007 computer-animated film TMNT found the ideal “middle ground” in which the characters could really flourish, and to this day I consider it a bitter disappointment that the film didn’t serve as a launching point for an entire series of computer-animated Ninja Turtles films. Computer-animation brought the turtles to life in a way that both traditional animation and live-action costumed versions couldn’t quite match. It was with bitter disappointment that I heard the franchise was instead turned over to Michael Bay for a live-action reboot, though the status of that project is now in flux with production on indefinite hold. Despite my misgivings, I am doing my best to reserve judgment and hope for the best if and when work on Bay’s reboot resumes.
Rendering the turtles with computer-animation finally gave the filmmakers the ability to bring the turtles to life in a way that both the traditional animation and live-action version can’t quite equal. They were finally able to depict the adventurous turtles performing spectacular acrobatic and athletic feats that makes it possible to fully realize the fun, adventurous atmosphere of this franchise.
The plot strikes a balance in being refreshingly light-hearted in comparison to the first live-action film, but not quite as silly as the live-action sequels or the Saturday morning cartoon responsible for this franchise’s burst in popularity. I feel like the Ninja Turtles franchise really hit its true stride here, realizing that it can take itself seriously without being completely serious. The computer-animated film did tip its cap toward being a spiritual sequel to the live-action franchise, however, with a brief opening montage stating that Shredder had been previously defeated and several references to the original films visible on Splinter’s “trophy wall.” The film is not devoid of complication, however, and actually explores conflict between the turtles themselves on a much deeper level than arguably any other incarnation.
At the film’s opening, Leonardo is in seclusion in South America, sent there for training by Master Splinter. He has been gone longer than expected, feeling himself unequal to the task of leading his brothers. April O’Neil, now using her investigative talents as a treasure hunter rather than an investigative journalist, encounters him there and tells him about how his brothers have drifted apart in his absence. Michelangelo, now working as a birthday party entertainer, seems to be the only turtle to have retained their adventurous spirit, but this leaves him feeling lonely when he returns to the hideout every day to find Donatello working as a phone IT specialist and Raphael sleeping all day in order to maintain his violent vigilante career as “Nightwatcher.”
The way in which the turtles drifted apart without Leonardo is actually quite believable, and a nod to well-established individual character traits of each turtle. Leonardo is convinced that his brothers need him again, and returns to New York. Donatello and (especially) Michelangelo are overjoyed to see him, but Raphael simmers with resentment which is really building toward a culmination (finally) of the historical baggage between these two characters.
With Leonardo’s return, Splinter gives the turtles permission to go to the surface to train, but not to fight until they can act as a team. Naturally, the turtles encounter a situation they really can’t ignore, leading to the first action scene of the film. The turtles find a huge monster destroying part of downtown Manhattan, and an old enemy: the Foot Clan, now led by female ninja Karai. Leonardo argues for a truce, but the turtles soon find themselves fighting both the monster and their traditional enemies. Here, we find out for the first time that the film features well-choreographed, eye-candy action scenes which will continue for the rest of the film. With the turtles now aware of the scope of the threat their city faces, they return to the sewers to plan their next move.
Before they can make their next move, however, the tensions between Leonardo and Raphael finally boil over, with Leonardo confronting his brother’s “Nightwatcher” persona, and then facing his brother in the fight this entire franchise has hinted at but never until now delivered. Their rooftop fight is personal, nasty, and revealing. The brothers’ negative traits (Leonardo’s sense of superiority and Raphael’s anger issues) are on full display. The aftermath of the fight leaves Raphael shaken, even moreso when he witnesses Leonardo being captured.
After Raphael admits his failure to Master Splinter, he, Donatello, Michelangelo, April, Casey, and Splinter himself set off to rescue the lost turtle. The rest of the film is an absolutely spectacular series of well-made action/adventure scenes in which the turtles finally rediscover their unified spirit and work as a team. After their victory, the film teases a sequel by having Karai warn the turtles to enjoy their victory while it lasts, claiming that they will soon have to face an “old enemy.”
There are a lot of things to love about this take on the Ninja Turtles franchise. I’ve already extolled the virtues of the computer animation, so I don’t want to overdo it, but I truly believe this was the best available medium for this franchise and am genuinely concerned about them taking a step back by returning to live-action (even more than I’m concerned about Michael Bay’s involvement, which is saying quite a bit.) This film also eschewed the franchise’s tendency to cast female characters exclusively in secondary roles, reimagining April O’Neil as a treasure hunter who can clearly hold her own in a fight and who fights side-by-side with the turtles during the endgame, while Karai fights Leonardo to a standstill, clearly a match for any of the turtles.
Many critics actually complained that this film lacked the “irony” of the live-action films, but I think that’s a silly complaint. I loved the unironic heroic vibe of this film, and I was looking forward to a revival of the Ninja Turtles franchise. Indeed, Karai’s last lines of the film tease a return of Shredder with her as a formidable new ally. I really couldn’t wait for hinted-at the series of computer-animated adventure films that (sadly) never came.