The WILD Evolution of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TMNT (VIDEO)

The WILD Evolution of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TMNT
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In this FandomWire Video Essay, we explore the WILD evolution of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT).

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The Evolution of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Mutant Mayhem TMNT

THESE are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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THESE are ALSO the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And so are these.

And these.

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And believe it or not, even these. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for everyone’s favorite heroes in a half-shell. From humble beginnings in the pages of a black-and-white indie comic in 1984 to the faces of one of the biggest multimedia franchises on the planet today, spawning countless comics, TV shows, movies, video games, and more. All of these works bring something new to the table while still being built on the same core idea of four mutant turtles fighting crime with the ninja skills taught to them by their rat sensei father figure.

But how exactly did the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles get to where they are today? The original comics were largely built off of one central joke, so how did the franchise keep going even after the joke stopped working? Or perhaps more accurately, how and when did it become more than just one joke? To understand how the TMNT evolved over time, we need to break this down into the three distinct eras of the franchise: the 80s and 90s, the 2000s, and the 2010s to now. So grab a slice of pizza and head into the sewers as we explore the wild evolution of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The 80s and 90s

When TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird wrote the original comics back in 1984, they were meant as a very straightforward and very adult parody series; lampooning major comic trends at the time like talking animals, mutants, and martial arts stories.

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More specifically, Eastman and Laird took aim at Frank Miller’s then-recent run on Daredevil, with the Foot Clan being an obvious spoof on The Hand and the implication in the first issue that the same toxic ooze incident that mutated the Turtles also blinded Matt Murdock. Other riffs on Miller’s Daredevil in the book included the heavy use of narration, the over-the-top violence, and the gruff, angry, and interchangeable personalities of the Turtles themselves.

Despite independent comics being a relatively small market, especially at the time, the critical acclaim and strong sales of TMNT eventually caught the attention of Playmates Toys, who correctly predicted that, with the proper adjustments, the series could sell extremely well to kids.

The creation of the Playmates TMNT line brought with it the tie-in animated series in 1987, which proved so popular that it eventually outlasted the toys themselves. When you think of Ninja Turtles, this show is probably the first thing that comes to mind and for good reason. Firstly, the 1987 series introduced the now-iconic color schemes and personalities for the four turtles. Leonardo: the leader in blue, Donatello: the brains in purple, Raphael: the hothead in red, and Michaelangelo: the party dude in orange. The animated series would also establish many of the franchise’s most iconic villains, transforming Shredder from a one-off nuisance that dies in the first issue of the comic into the main ongoing antagonist. And turning the alien hive-mind species the Utrom into a single character: the now-iconic Kraang.

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Thanks to its unique character designs and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would stay on the air producing new episodes for TEN YEARS, a then-unprecedented feat for children’s animation. And the consistent popularity of the series would lead to not only more toys and more comics, but also a slew of video games ranging from platformers to beat-em-ups to fighters, a…….rather unfortunate live concert tour, and perhaps most prominently, a trilogy of live-action films.

The 1990 TMNT film took the individualized Turtles and playful humor from the cartoon and dropped them into the darker and more grounded world of the original comics; succinctly adapting the first few arcs into a single feature. Released during the peak of the show’s run, this hybrid approach combined with the incredible puppetry used to bring the Turtles to life made TMNT a massive box office hit, grossing $202 million on a budget of only $13.5 million. While the two sequels didn’t do nearly as well financially and all three films were slammed by critics, with The New York Times’ Janet Maslin claiming the first film was “so poorly photographed that the red-masked turtle looks almost exactly like the orange-masked one,” the first two films, in particular, remain fan-favorites and represent the franchise’s first step towards greater evolution after its initial run of mainstream success.

The 2000s

Once the original series finally ended its run in 1997, TMNT would take a hiatus for a few years before being rebooted in 2003 for the 4Kids Network. This new series, while keeping the Turtles’ personalities and some of the humor intact, aimed to bring the franchise closer to its comic book roots. A darker tone, higher-stakes action, and the return of many comic-specific elements such as the Utrom and the serious scientist version of Baxter Stockman; while simultaneously de-emphasizing elements created for the 1987 series such as Kraang, Bebop, and Rocksteady, and the toyetic vehicles.

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While perhaps not quite as iconic as the original show, the serialized storytelling and generally more serious take on the material would make TMNT (2003) a huge hit with new and old fans alike, lasting seven seasons and spawning a new toy line and several video games. Granted, the last two seasons are generally disliked by fans, with many dismissing them as outright non-canon, but it did manage to go out on a high note with Turtles Forever, a made-for-TV movie that crossed over the 2003 turtles with their 1987 counterparts to commemorate the franchise’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

As for theatrical films, the TMNT only managed to get one of those during this era: a 2007 CGI film simply titled TMNT. For the record, that’s not an acronym here. It’s just called TMNT. Meant as a pseudo-sequel to the 90s trilogy, the film has become a cult classic amongst fans thanks to its unique visual style and excellent action scenes; but failed to make an impact at the box office and was once again panned by critics, with The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson describing the plot as “a distracting clunker that feels like it was written one line at a time by a bunch of overexcited fan-board commentators playing a round-robin storytelling game.”

2010s to Now

The 2010s represented a major turning point for TMNT as a franchise. Namely, because the rights to it were sold in their entirety to Viacom, the parent company of Nickelodeon, in 2009. Nick’s 2012 CGI Turtles show would be the company’s first outing with the property; blending together elements from nearly every previous incarnation. The serialized storytelling and more serious tone were carried over from the comics and the 2003 series, the sleek and stylish action scenes were influenced by the 2007 film, and the leaner character designs and self-aware humor were reminiscent of the 1987 series. Kraang from the original series and the Utrom from 2003 were merged into The Kraang. Tokka and Rahzar from the second live-action film got entirely new origin stories and even got to coexist with the rebooted Bebop and Rocksteady; whom they were originally created to replace. And April O’Neil, the Turtles’ one human friend who was always relegated to passive ally at best or damsel in distress at worst, became far more proactive; as well as being aged down from her mid-20s to 16 to be more in line with the Turtles as teenagers.

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During 2012’s five-season run, Paramount Pictures and Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes produced two new live-action films, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 2014 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows in 2016. Following in the footsteps of 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, the 2014 film ties the Turtles’ previously accidental origin into both the backstory of Megan Fox’s April O’Neil as well as Shredder’s master plan to infect all of New York with mutagen. While Out of the Shadows aims to bring the series closer to the 1987 cartoon with the inclusion of Kraang, Bebop, and Rocksteady, and the Technodrome. Both films were negatively received by both critics and audiences due to rushed and sloppy plotting, as well as the overly busy and overly large designs of the Turtles themselves.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TMNT movie with Megan Fox

Design controversies would also define the first impressions of 2018’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, fairly or not. Premiering just one year after 2012 wrapped its final season, Rise of the TMNT aimed to shake the franchise up with new character designs, new character dynamics such as Raphael being team leader instead of Leonardo, and new characters in general; specifically a rogues gallery made up almost entirely of new villains, though the Foot Clan, Shredder, and the Kraang would all eventually make appearances.

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Though initial fan backlash caused Nickelodeon to lose confidence in the show and it would ultimately be canceled after a truncated second season, Rise of the TMNT has garnered a massive fanbase in its own right thanks to its sense of humor, stylized action scenes, and the characterization of the Turtles themselves. Specifically how, unlike most previous versions, the TEENAGE Mutant Ninja Turtles actually act like teenagers. The inside jokes, the sibling rivalry, the more explicitly father-son relationship with Splinter, it all adds up to a much more authentic portrayal of the teenage experience.

The emphasis on the teenage angle also defines the latest movie adaptation of the Turtles, 2023’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, even going so far as to have actual teenagers voice the Turtles for the first time in the franchise’s history. Mutant Mayhem arguably represents the ultimate synthesis of everything TMNT has been up to this point.

Design elements from 1987, 2012, Rise, and even the Bay films can be seen in the Turtles themselves, and the central arc about their struggle to be accepted by others was previously explored in 2003, Out of the Shadows, and TMNT (2007). The film’s supporting cast is filled to the brim with vibrant and obscure mutant characters from throughout the franchise’s history and the sketchbook-esque art style harkens back directly to the original comics. All of these elements have quickly made Mutant Mayhem a favorite amongst fans, but it’s also the first theatrical TMNT film to win over mainstream critics, boasting a Certified Fresh 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with folks like Film Authority’s Eddie Harrison praising it as “a kids/family film smarter than most films for adults.”

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The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have certainly come a long way from their days as a relatively one-note Daredevil parody. The 1987 series gave them greater personality and a broader sense of humor, the 1990 film and the 2003 series blended the personalities of the Turtles with the comics’ grounded world and works like 2012, Rise, and Mutant Mayhem gave that serialized, action-driven storytelling a youthful and energetic facelift. However, no matter how different these incarnations may be, they’re all built on the same core ideas of found family narratives, stylish action, and self-aware humor to one degree or another. Every version of The Turtles is just as valid an interpretation as any other, with all of them even existing in the same canon multiverse as of Turtles Forever. By staying true to the roots of its source material while still adapting to modern audience expectations and remaining open to new ideas, TMNT’s evolution over the years has been a largely successful one; even if it’s also been very, VERY, wild.

Now, we want to hear from you, Turtles fans. What’s your favorite version of the TMNT? Do you have a favorite Turtle? And what are your hopes for the franchise’s future? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to subscribe and hit that bell so you don’t miss out on future videos like this one. Until next time, thanks for watching.

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Written by Reilly Johnson

Articles Published: 431

Reilly Johnson is a businessman, journalist, and a staple in the online entertainment community contributing to some of the largest entertainment pages in the world. Currently, Reilly is the President of FandomWire.