Lukewarm Takes #15: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
For the most part, I’m okay letting Marvel run popular culture. I long ago accepted that Sammy Super Hero Fan and Carlton Comic Book Geek now call the shots, and are intent on subjecting us to an endless series of “super hero movies” and “comic book television programs” with the Batman and the Superman and the Steel with the Inhumans, not to mention Blank Man.
I get it: “geek” is chic. These movies make millions of dollars and play all over the world. That’s okay. I may be a Wallace Shawn-like public intellectual. In fact, I may be exactly like Wallace Shawn. But that doesn’t mean I can’t turn off the old brain bone and watch some caped oddballs fight crime in one of these popcorn diversions.
If it were up to me, it’d be literally only movies like My Dinner With Andre all the time, 24/7, but I’m willing to yield the entirety of pop culture to the comic book nerds and the superhero Poindexters on one condition: that I receive an enjoyably stupid CGI/live-action version of the heroes in the half shells themselves, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, those mutated crime fighters I adored as a dumb-ass twelve year old and have intense nostalgia for as a dumb-ass forty-one year old.
When I learned that Michael Bay, who created the definitive versions of The Transformers and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was producing a new, “grittier” version with his feisty yet elusive muse/public sparring partner/foil Megan Fox, my heart sang out with joy. Surely this preeminent entertainer would do right by the zany mutated adolescent amphibians!
So when 2014’s Teenage Mutant was released and it failed to meet my high expectations, I was nothing short of shattered. The unthinkable had happened. Michael Bay had let me down. The little-loved yet much-seen reboot aspired to be a series of things a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie simply should not be.
For starters, it was too sexy, which is not really a complaint that should be levied against a movie ostensibly about four disconcertingly realistic-looking, sewer-dwelling, asexual mutated turtle-men. Then again, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a Michael Bay production and his cameras have a history of shamelessly ogling Megan Fox’s body, relentlessly sexualizing and objectifying her as it leers at her in her skin-tight ensembles.
The over-sexualization of a female lead should not be a problem with a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but the movie double downs on all the things that make Michael Bay Michael Bay, and also the worst. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie similarly should not be too “realistic” and “gritty” and “dark.” Those are not qualities I want in a fucking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I’m not interested in exploring the psychological dynamics at play in the Turtles’ relationship. I’m not overly concerned with these mutated sewer monsters’ angst and creepy sexual fixation on Megan Fox’s April O’Neil.
And I don’t want a giant sewer rat that looks like an actual giant rat-man who might haunt sewers, dispensing wisdom and Wilford Brimley-like old man attitude (sometimes known as “guff”), nor do I want Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles defined in no small part by their uncanny verisimilitude.
Truth be told, I don’t want any of that shit. I just wanted a dumb fun guilty pleasure about some enjoyably campy icons of my childhood. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit me towards the end of my pre-critical stage the first time around so I was hoping a reboot would have the same kind of powerful nostalgic appeal. I was frustrated. The reboot was pretty much worthless and I didn’t exactly have high hopes for it in the first place.
I just wanted a movie that did not purposefully choose to be joyless and un-fun, a “grim” re-imagining of something that did not call for, nor benefit from such treatment. Yes, the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot set the bar awfully low, so when I started hearing on places like We Hate Movies that its sequel, last year’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was both better than its predecessor and better than expected, it was encouraging but also not exactly high praise.
I’m not sure this will erase any of the pain of learning of the surprise death of beloved American icon and troubadour Tom Petty, nor make you feel any less horrified by news of the latest mass shooting, but I am pleased to report that the hype is true: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is surprisingly fun.
I’m not going to lie: for decades I’ve felt like the universe owed me a fun new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. With Out of the Shadows, it finally delivered. Good job, universe. You’re off my shit list for at least another week. The unexpected improvements begin with a welcome and long-overdue de-sexualizaton of Megan Fox. True, in an early scene she dramatically strips down to some of her trademark naughty Catholic schoolgirl garb for the sake of work, almost as if stripping down and opening herself up to the camera’s perpetually ogling gaze is her superpower.
It’s as if the film is making a point of getting the cheesecake shots out of the way immediately because for the rest of the film Fox is first a surprisingly adept and able comic foil for the Turtles and then as an active participant in saving the world from an alien invasion engineered by Krang, an absolutely disgusting squirming, sentient brain monster of an alien tyrant forever accompanied by a giant robot host body it coexists alongside uneasily and unhappily.
Krang is stomach-churningly ugly and disgusting, a hideous outer space monster voiced by Brad Garrett. As with so much of the rest of the film, Out of the Shadows doesn’t really know what to do with this fan favorite bad guy other than bring him in for the big cosmic third act climax but his character design is inspired and his mere presence helps make this a weirder and more interesting, if messier and more overloaded film.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are consistently the least interesting aspect of the movie, even Mikey, the vaunted “party dude” introduced here by his other salient characteristic, a love of pizza. The movie attempts to generate drama and genuine pathos out of a choice the turtles face whether to take a mutagen that could return them to human form, and with it, the possibility of a “normal life” or to reject it and continue to embrace their lives as misfits operating in the shadows but the heavy stuff just weighs the movie down and keeps it from lustily embracing its b-movie soul.
As with everything else, the stunt casting is a lot more effective here. Tyler Perry is a lot of fun in an out-of-character, out-of-fat-suit turn as Baxter Stockman, a bow tie-wearing scientist who’s part grown-up Urkel, part Dr. Blackenstein and part comic strip Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Will Arnett, wasted in the first film as the comic relief, is much better employed here as a pompous buffoon taking credit for the Turtles’ heroism who becomes part of Team Turtle in the final stretch. And Laura Linney picks up a paycheck as a tough-as-nails government official who is won over by the Turtles.
What is Laura Linney doing in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows? Getting that money! Go ahead, girl! I ain’t mad at you! Get that Nickelodeon money! But it’s also possible that after going toe to toe opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages, she figured the only true acting challenge left was sharing the screen not only with Michelangelo, AKA “Mikey”, the party dude/pizza lover of the quartet, but the rest of his brothers as well. Rumor has it that although she plays a stern authority figure here, in actuality, Linney considers herself a “Party dudette”, and consequently something of a contemporary of Mikey.
I do not want to oversell Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. It is, for the most part, a goddamned mess. There is way too much going on in pretty much every scene. The filmmakers don’t introduce new characters organically so much as they shoe-horn them awkwardly into an already over-stuffed narratives.
Yet if characters like Be Bop and Rock Steady are not integrated elegantly into the action—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not an elegant motion picture—they are nevertheless an awful lot of fun. With their New Wave wardrobes, punk haircuts and irrepressible enthusiasm, they’re like henchmen characters from some misbegotten 1987 Cannon exploitation movie re-conceived as hideously yet joyously mutated hybrid monsters.
Be Bop and Rock Steady’s affection for each other is infectious. It’s a pleasure to spend time with people who like each other and what they do the way Be Bop and Rock Steady do, even if they happen to be a villainous giant warthog monster and rhinoceros monstrosity.
Honestly, if you are making a crazy-ass b-movie and you have a choice of either showing some sloppy-ass secondary bad guys mutating into a giant warthog monster and/or rhino or not showing it, then for the sweet love of the risen Christ, you owe it to audiences to show them that shit.
So I really respected that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went ahead and showed that shit. Unlike its predecessor, it understands that the core appeal of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that it features a fuck-ton of freaky-ass shit, like, well, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They’ve been normalized by decades of fame and ubiquity, but when you really think about it, the idea of mutated turtle-men fighting crime out of the sewers under the tutelage of their giant rat-man Sensei is a little bit on the kooky side. Teenage Mutant Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadow honors that ridiculousness.
Out of the Shadows is dedicated to the radical and counter-productive notion that a movie about superhero, pizza-loving teenage turtle crime fighters should be fun and goofy and also appropriate for kids and not a grim wallow in somber self-mythologizing. I think the best way to go in would be with the low expectations prompted by the 2014 film’s unrepentant shittiness.
Expect too much of this goofball endeavor and you might be disappointed, but approach it the right way and you might find that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is exactly what you need to turn your brain off and escape your worries for 115 minutes and not a goddamn thing more.
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