Last week, in response to early negative reviews, Megan Fox said, “How much money did Transformers 4 make? Exactly. Those people can complain – they all go to the theater. They’re gonna love it – and if they don’t love it, they can fuck off, and that’s the end of that.” And was she ever right. Even with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 20%, TMNT made $61.5 million in North America, beating out the light-years-better Guardians of the Galaxy. That 62% of audiences is why we can’t have nice things.
More than just a horrible piece of filmmaking, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a perfect expression of White Male Bro privilege that pervades big summer movies. It is the ne plus ultra of douche. If TMNT were a person, it would be wearing a deep-V and shutter shades, pushing a red plastic party cup into your hands. Which is screwed up beyond all recognition, considering that the majority of the Nickelodeon film’s intended audience shouldn’t even be at that party.
I’d warn about spoilers, but you’re not going to go see this movie anyway. (I hope.)
Let’s talk about Megan Fox. I think Megan Fox really needs a friend who can help her make better choices in movies, like the underrated-if-uneven Jennifer’s Body. Someone who will sit her down and tell her that it’s okay to be cast as something other than the vixen, in movies where “arch your back a little bit more” isn’t the acting direction. Someone who is not Michael Bay.
In TMNT, Fox plays television reporter April O’Neil, traditionally the long-time ally – not love interest, not sidekick, not eye-candy – to the Turtles. While the original character owes a debt to, say, Lois Lane, she’s not just a girl hostage/damsel in distress. April came into the Turtles’ orbit through sheer bull-headedness, making herself a target of the Foot Clan by doggedly reporting on their organization. In her 1990 film incarnation, for example, she had no idea that the Turtles existed, much less expected them to rescue her. Once she became their confidant, she wasn’t there to be ogled. She was their eyes and ears, their liaison with the world above the sewers, and a mentor in the ways of civilization – a counterpoint to Master Splinter’s teaching the ways of the ninja. It was clear that the Turtles cared about her, but as a kind of mother figure. And if she was a crush object for any number of little boys watching in the late eighties and early nineties, it’s because she was smart and daring. Her pocket-festooned jumpsuit and disheveled hair were a visual shorthand for her status as a girl who got things done.
None of which you’ll see in this new movie. The basic job description is correct: April is a television reporter for Channel 6 News. This April, though, is constantly being hit on by horn-dog cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), belittled by the news staff, and transparently gaslighted by her boss Whoopi Goldberg (yes, really), playing a variation on the cartoonishly irascible EiC à la J. Jonah Jameson or Perry White. April is at the very bottom of the pecking order at Channel 6, forced to do pieces on fashion, exercise and trampolines (in order to have Megan Fox on a trampoline, of course) which Vernon compares to the froth on a cappuccino.
It’s worth noting that in the 80’s cartoon, Vernon was April’s on-camera rival for top reporter. She was not just a successful reporter, but the most successful investigative journalist in the city. Not here, though. Even when she has enough of a lead and physical evidence for a credible assignment (if not yet a full news report) she’s still treated as if she’s hysterical. The original character’s competence and credibility have been stripped from her. To be fair, she does her share of ill-advised running half-cocked into becoming a hostage (because that’s how women show their moxie in this kind of movie).
While it could be argued that this is an “origin story” and she has to earn her stripes, ultimately the film does its best to undermine her at every turn. Her boss, her colleagues and her roommate all treat her without respect and the one (human) ally she has in the film helps her only because he believes it’ll get him into her very tight pants. As if it wasn’t enough, it seems like the universe itself is out to make sure she lacks even a shred of agency.
Because, you see, destiny. It’s not enough the April conforms to the Faux Strong Female archetype that inhabits so many bro films – nothing that happens in the film is ultimately her choice. April is not important of her own accord. She’s a reporter because her father, the Genius Scientist, died in a fire started under mysterious circumstances. Her father was working with bad guy Eric Sacks (more on him later) on the substance that turned her pet turtles and rat, her dad’s test subjects, into the sewer-lurking monstrosities you’ve seen in the trailers. April is important because of her dad, and her dad’s friend, and her pets. April has no intrinsic value beyond functioning as a way for her dad’s former business partner to find out that his evil plan to destroy the word for money is totally back on.
Yes, that’s the plot, and no, I’m not getting into it any more than that. It’s bad enough that TMNT uses the same destiny shtick that drove Star Wars: A New Hope and is no longer quite as fresh forty years later in Amazing Spider-Man. Seriously, Hollywood, I know you totally believe that, like, everything is totally connected because of this one time you got really high and saw the source code of the universe – quit it. Just stop. Life is built of unexpected cause and effect, coincidences, and random happenstance. Not everything has to be neatly tied up with a bow.
To add actual injury to two-hours-plus of insults, I actually feared for April’s safety during the entire movie. No, not because she keeps barreling into danger, but because the Turtles themselves are… how do I put this…?
The very first time the Turtles encounter April, they knock her off her feet from the shadows. Then as she’s lying prone on a rooftop, a voice in the shadows says she’s “so hot, my shell is getting tight”. Yep, that’s Michelangelo, and it’s close to the first thing he says in the film. Because the best way to show that you’re a fun loving dude is to make a boner joke about a woman you have just knocked out. In a Nickelodeon movie.
But it’s okay, he’s really, truly in love with her. We know this because he doesn’t stop cat-calling her during the entire film (for those counting, that means that the character that is arguably the protagonist is being sexually harassed by two separate characters every time they interact with her). It’s the kind of attitude that makes me wonder what frat the Turtles are going to pledge to.
Michelangelo is by far the worst in that scene, of course. Leonardo is just condescending and Raphael prefers to simply threaten violence, but at least they’re not creepy… right? As she picks herself up off the ground during that first encounter, the Turtles tower over her, seven feet tall and brimming with weapons. They’re not innocuously gathered around her. They’re looming. They loom.
The second time April encounters the Turtles, it’s because she’s tried to use her computer to follow up on their story, allowing her IP address to be stalkerishly tracked. It may very well be a perfectly innocent plot device, if one has no notion of the pervasive threat of invasion of privacy and physical violence that women have to live with every day. The only way that a movie can be this completely incompetent when it comes to how it interacts with its female protagonist is if the production team has never actually spoken with a woman.
(They also put a bag over her head and take her to their lair after meeting her in a dark alley. At least they didn’t tie her up.)
And in case you’re wondering, since the Turtles are most assuredly male, this flick definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.
Now, because of the constant straight-up objectification of Ms. Fox, you’d think you might miss the blatant racism without which any Michael Bay production would be incomplete. You can rest easy knowing that TMNT features both yellowface and whitewashing! Yes, I know that this movie was directed by Jonathan Liebesman. But since producer Bay was reportedly very hands-on and made himself the centerpiece of the movie’s promotion, I’m calling this a Michael Bay joint.
To put this into context, we need to delve into some arcana. Back in the 1980’s, when Eastman and Laird first created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was as a parody of Bronze Age superhero comics like X-Men, Batman, Punisher and, especially, Daredevil. The Daredevil comics of the 1980’s were all about street level crime and gang violence in pre-Giuliani New York City. They featured a noble ninja master named Stick, and an evil ninja clan called The Hand. The radioactive ooze even fell off a truck and hit a kid in the face before landing in the sewer. So you could say there were some parallels. Was TMNT spoofing mainstream comics’ exoticization/cultural appropriation, or fully engaging in it? Couldn’t tell you. The 80’s were full of white folks becoming martial arts masters. It was a strange time.
Regardless, the origin story began with a Japanese ninja master, Hamato Yoshi. Hamato was involved with the Foot Ninja Clan (whether as an enemy or a member depends on the exact version of the canon you’re talking about). Hamato ran afoul of fellow ninja master Oroku Saki. In the original comics and the movie, Oroku murders Hamato, after which Hamato’s faithful pet rat escapes the dojo with a heavy rodent heart. In the 80’s cartoon, Hamato flees to America. Either way, Splinter is born when the Japanese rat is mutated into a ninja master, or the ninja master is mutated into a Japanese rat. They key is that, in either case, Splinter is legitimately Japanese, steeped in ninja culture, and trained all his life to master the arts. (In the comics and movie, there are scenes of the cute little rat doing cute little ninja moves alongside his master.)
It’s ultimately a way to connect the Turtles to a ninja tradition. In fact, given that Splinter is their father, and their exposure to American culture doesn’t come until later, one could say that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as originally conceived, are Japanese-American. There’s no reason to change that for the movie, right? Except that it means that Splinter just happens to find the baby turtles in the sewer and they all happen to get mutated. That’s too much random happenstance for the modern movie. Remember, everything needs to be connected. DESSSSSTINY. So the movie’s Splinter is a lab rat, part of the same experiments by April’s father and Eric Sacks that created the turtles. He is, in other words, an American lab rat.
Since it’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, rather than Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (in the US, anyway), the ninjitsu has to show up somehow. So how does this version of Master Splinter, the old, wise fighter, learn the ancient martial arts? From a book he finds in the sewer.
Let that sink in for a moment. Master Splinter is a ninja master because he read a book that someone flushed down the toilet. That is the extent of his ancient Japanese wisdom. (The book is in English, by the way.) As a result of memorizing the book cover to cover, Splinter begins to dress in exotic robes robes, chooses a Japanese mon clan emblem, grows a Fu Manchu mustache, and starts speaking in a ridiculous accent.
No, I’m not kidding. Master Splinter, wise leader of the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles, is basically an overenthusiastic anime fan. He’s Mickey Mouse in yellowface. If you’ve ever wondered how to take a property that repackages a foreign culture for easy consumption by American kids and make it even more appropriative, now you have your answer.
Lest you think that the good guys were the only recipients of this particular brand of “cultural homage”, I’d like to direct your attention to the once-proud Foot Clan. Regardless of whether you remember the Foot as faceless ninja flunkies, or faceless robot ninja flunkies, their being faceless and ninjas are both key. The new movie gets the faceless part right, with every member of the foot wearing what looks like a wooden Michael Myers mask (just as creepy as it sounds). The ninja part, not so much. The Foot Clan are an army of black-clad paramilitary thugs with machine guns ordered directly from central casting. There is not one thing about them that’s even remotely ninja-esque. They were so generically paramilitary it hurt to watch. We’ve seen colorful cartoon ninjas show up in modern toy-based live action movies before. And you, sirs, are no colorful cartoon ninjas.
“But hold on,” you might say, “if they’re just a group of thugs, why are they called the Foot Clan? Doesn’t that tie them back to the tradition of extended warrior families?”
They’re called ‘The Foot Clan’ because they crush the City beneath their feet. Obviously.
And then there’s their leader, The Shredder. In the comics, cartoons and original movies, the evil ninja Oroku Saki, after defeating Hamato Yoshi, rechristened himself The Shredder and brought his evil ninja ways to New York. When first announced, the 2014 movie had a lot of really, really bad ideas. There was talk, for example, that the Turtles wouldn’t be teenagers, mutants, ninjas or even turtles, but in fact aliens fighting off an invasion by another group of aliens. That got scrapped, thankfully. What didn’t get scrapped was the casting of Michael Bay mainstay William Fichtner as the Turtles’ primary antagonist, Eric Sacks.
I’m sure you see where that was going. Eric Sacks. Oroku Saki. Clever. See, poor Eric grew up in Japan. He was ostracized and bullied as a foreigner (which I guess is technically racism, but just doesn’t seem quite correct). His life was miserable, until he was taken in by a nameless hardass ninja master who taught him the ways of becoming a rich industrialist. I mean, I assume that’s what the ninja master taught him, since all Sacks does in his one action scene is shoot a gun.
The original plan (as much as the filmmakers try to deny it) was to have Eric Sacks be The Shredder, making it the first time the character wouldn’t be portrayed as Japanese. Imagine a movie about ninjas, with Japanese imagery everywhere, and not a single Japanese character. The mind just boggles.
And it turns out that this, finally, may have been too much even for TMNT‘s incompetent, oblivious creative team. In the final movie, The Shredder is actually a separate character, presumably Sacks’ nameless master, who is onscreen long enough to spout a few lines in Japanese about restoring the Foot Clan to their former glory (never mind that the Foot Clan are just a group of hired mercenaries who have already taken over the city), then spends the rest of the movie silently beating on the Turtles as a giant samurai robot thing.
So, yeah, nice save, guys. Totally nailed it.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is terrible for a lot of reasons. Even without the blatant sexism and racism, it still would have been extremely bad. Enumerating all the ways this film went wrong would make for a post that’s twice as long. This film comes from a place where it’s absolutely OK to have a female character relegated to just being a pretty thing with a destiny and cultural signifiers can be completely severed from the culture that created them, because they’re, you know, cool. A place where bad decision-making is shorthand for “Strong Female Character” and cultural appropriation can be fixed with a halfhearted last-minute rewrite. A place where none of this is a problem.
A place of privilege, in other words.
There are those who are going to say that I’m taking this too seriously, that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a kid flick. If it is a kids’ movie (and there is a boner joke that begs to differ), then it’s a kids’ movie for future cat-calling casual racists.
And they’ve just confirmed a sequel.