Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sacred Teenage Mutant Ninja Cows

Its been interesting to age out of being the target group for big budget treatment of nostalgia projects and watch the same approach now being taken to the folks who were in elementary school when I was in high school or college.

The first (and BEST) Transformers cartoon aired when I was in elementary school, and we've been through three feature films worth billions.  We've exploited the exploitable franchises by relaunching Thundercats (I guess it airs on Cartoon Network?), DC and Marvel superheroes, we're getting our second GI Joe movie this year (you disappoint me, America), and for some god forsaken reason My Little Pony is a thing right now.

Not to mention the relaunch of Star Trek and the last three Star Wars movies.

I'll go ahead and pat myself on the back.  I was reading Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a comic way back in middle school during the initial run after it had created the black & white indie comics explosion.  I didn't see the cartoon until it had been airing for a while, but I did shock the 9th grade basketball team by relating way, way more about the TMNT than they ever wanted to know prior to the schlocky 1989 feature film's release.

When they became ubiquitous enough to get mentioned in a David Byrne song*, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had become a fad along the lines of, well, Tranformers or GI Joe for a generation of kids.  Like those franchises, the shows/stories and toys had been the productized and infinitely accessible mythology which could be considered a shibboleth for the generation, just as the name Optimus Prime or Roadblock might have been for my own.

It seems that over the weekend Transformers director Michael Bay, the man who makes movies everybody hates but everybody still plays to go see, announced that he's producing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles big budget picture.  And then informed the audience that his turtles aren't mutants, but aliens (because, that's better, I guess).

And some folks aren't very happy about it.

We're aliens, 'cause, sure, why not?

1.  I agree that if the household name of your product is "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles", you kind of have to provide characters that meet four basic requirements, and the then the rest sort of writes itself.
2.  The most important part of any heroic character that fans are going to care about (and now you're talking about a generation of kids now old enough to be putting money in IRAs) is the origin.
3.  I'll acknowledge that the origin of the TMNT isn't exactly Shakespeare, but it is what it is, and whether its fits Michael Bay's idea of a workable premise (which, really, Michael Bay?), its what a few million kids around the planet know by heart.  The fact that you were too busy sucking as a filmmaker the past 20 years to notice TMNT doesn't really change that.
4.  What does exist of the motivations and background of the TMNT, including their conflict with their Darth Vader, The Shredder, is all pretty earthbound.  So that "alien" decision means we're going to get a whole lot of other changes, pushing the franchise to a point where I'm not sure what will be recognizable.
5.  There ain't not a damn thing in the world any of you can do about Michael Bay and the studio execs @#$%ing up on something as easy as the TMNT.

How many rejiggers have we seen to superheroes, sci-fi and everything else we hold dear over the years, and now Hollywood has turned the eye of Sauron on the little indie comic that never should have escaped the gravitational pull of the 80's direct market and has decided to do what Hollywood does so hilariously badly that its a running staple of shows like Party Down?  We've been around long enough to know the dumb jocks and humorless d-bags from accounting at the studios are going to screw with the pizza-eating, sewer dwelling cartoon friends you had once upon a time just because they can.  Michael Bay is simply too old to have been either parent or child during the TMNT heyday.  And with his head firmly crammed up a particular ass that somehow appeals like crazy to movie goers who really, really do not care about how good a movie is, he is perfectly positioned to not give a @#$ about The Secret of the Ooze as he sets off to make more money than southern Europe will this year with his movie.

Look, I don't want Hollywood to screw with the TMNT, and they have plenty of evidence to show them what works and doesn't.  We've had how many TV shows, at least three feature films already (all of which were just shameful) and the second most painful holiday special of all time produced in their name...  This is well worn territory.  And while its never been done particularly well (and it could be), I can't be surprised, and I can't take the fan outrage at this seriously after how many times I've been disappointed by fairly drastic changes I thought really demonstrated a basic misunderstanding of a character or franchise.  Especially after y'all were a bunch of jerks about my hand wringing about anything and everything to do with Superman.

In a way its comforting to see that we're returning to Hollywood critics lashing out at sci-fi movies (see John Carter) and butchering the character they're adapting (see Tim Burton's Batman or any superhero film but Superman done until Spider-Man).   In some ways it feels right.  This is the fandom I enjoyed!  Who needs this mainstream exceptence nonsense!  Let it end with The Dark Knight Rises!

Come, my Nerd People!  Join me in the dank sewers from which we once crawled, when Comic-Con was not full of bikini-models, but a respectable con was a ballroom at the Holiday Inn off the interstate, where that one guy with the beard was just talking way too loud and we were all kind of creepy!  

Nah.  I don't really want it to go back to that either.

John Carter was a pretty good reminder of what can happen when someone who actually cares about the material doesn't beat and pulp the source material into something digestible by critics or moms and girlfriends who don't want to see a sci-fi movie, anyway.  More or less, staying true to form has more often than not meant that you get scathing reviews (something that, growing up, I took for granted so much that we knew better than to listen to Siskel & Ebert on anything we had hopes for seeing, and you certainly didn't read the local paper's criticisms of the latest sci-fi epic).  We just assumed that if someone made a superhero movie, it was going to be cheap and schlocky, and half the fun was enumerating the ways in which the folks who brought it to TV or film missed the point.

Oddly, I'm not sure that if you were watching TMNT as a kid, circa 1991, that by the time you were out of high school, you had time to get used to the idea that Hollywood held you and your kind in nothing but contempt.  You entered into the world as an adult in which people took Spider-Man seriously.  You were in a golden age, my friend.

But watching a producer stand on stage, disavow knowledge of the source material, get mad because "dammit, we paid the creator guys.  That means WE UNDERSTAND THE MATERIAL BETTER THAN YOU!"  You don't understand - that's how its always been.  That @#$% is OLD SCHOOL.  If you didn't grow up with late night talk show hosts setting up directors and actors, asking them if they read any of the comics (while shaking with laughter), and seeing the actors or directors shake their head and say no, then explain how THEIR take was a good one...  man, then you did not grow up as part of the glorious struggle for sci-fi and nerd credibility.

I might add, I don't think DC and Warner Bros. have ever sorted this out.  Its why first Tim Burton tried to produce a movie that wasn't about Superman in any way but name, and then McG and JJ Abrams almost did a Superman movie in which Krypton never explodes...  

Here's the thing:

Everyone knows the name Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and everyone knows, basically, what the characters look like.  Kids have had a break from TMNT for about two years on TV or at the movies, and that's really long enough for whatever Bay does to be brand new to kids.  And its not adults who will be buzzing to see this movie, its going to be kids asking their folks to take them to see the movie.

Kids didn't care that the basic premise, a fight over Energon - basic foodstuff for Transformers, never made it into the Transformers movies.  They had no way of knowing that was what the Transformers mythology hinged upon, at least in the cartoon.  And they won't care if the TMNT are not mutated turtles from the sewers of New York.

Just as I am repeatedly told that DC is now making its comics for a younger batch than 36 year old me, so too is Bay making his movie for actual kids.  Its the way it works.  It just doesn't seem to work very well, but that doesn't seem to be the point.

 *"Strange Ritual" off Byrne's self-titled 1994 album which I still associate with the first year Jamie and I were dating.


horus kemwer said...

"There ain't not a damn thing in the world any of you can do about Michael Bay and the studio execs @#$%ing up on something as easy as the TMNT."

There is exactly one thing: Not pay any money to see the movie.

The League said...

Well, there's a few ways to look at that.

1. I did not pay to see GI Joe or any Transformers after the first. There is a GI Joe sequel coming and we're headed for a 4th Transformers. Me not paying hasn't had any effect.

2. This has meant I haven't actually seen the movies, and so I personally haven't spent either my own money or mental energy on them.

3. Somebody did pay to go see the movies. I refer to my note about how folks just want an excuse to get out of the house, and that seems to drive the existence of these movies.

4. I accept that kids don't know or care, nor is it their deal to care about core concepts that made a franchise work in the first place. I accept that parents and casual film goers also don't know.

I am aware that its my personal bug-a-boo that I want movies to adhere to source material unless, you know, you're really going to rock it (see: The Shining). But I feel that way because it seems so many adaptations that have failed or tanked did so after intense meddling by the studio to make toys, "modernize" or otherwise tamper with a proven formula (see: most 90's superhero movies). Of course, the opposite has also been true (John Carter is a fun, fun movie that nobody paid to see). And in some cases, there's just no explanation for what happened (see: The Spirit. Or, really DON'T).

But me paying or not paying doesn't change anything. The only force here is that Transformers was a toy kids cartoon and it has now made more money than Yemen as a movie.

Matt A. said...

I don't understand how you can take the mutant origin out of the TMNT characters, since the word "Mutant" is right there in the name. But I'm sure that's old hat.

No matter what I think about such things, studios will use "market research" to justify taking any brand and turning it into a cut-n-paste movie script (see: "Candyland"), changing whatever they need to make it match up with what the statistics say the 10-14 year old kids like.

At this point, it's just the name and likeness of the characters being used to make money. But then, as I said in your Christmas post, I view the kid friendly take of TMNT in the TV show to be just as much of a money milk.