One of the summer’s most anticipated movies is finally here, and the verdict is almost unanimous: it’s a critical and commercial hit. No, I’m not talking about Barbie or Oppenheimer, but rather Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the latest reboot starring Paramount’s greenest and slimiest IP. This time around, they’re animated (again), and the unique look has drawn comparisons to the Spider-Verse movies from Sony. That’s high praise nowadays, and the consensus is that Mutant Mayhem has more than earned it.
So why the hell did I leave disappointed and let down after the credits rolled? I’m a lifelong Turtles fan, but I’m not nitpicky; I’ve embraced the change the TMNT franchise has gone through over the years, from the kid-friendly animated series in the late ’80s to the Michael Bay-produced live-action movies from a decade ago to the last reinvention, the radically different (and quietly awesome) Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And while Mutant Mayhem‘s animation is stellar (more of this style please) and the characterization of the core four is spot-on, the movie is let down by a litany of errors — a tired plot, a misuse of the franchise’s villains, a betrayal of April O’ Neil’s strong personality — that contributed to my ultimate disappointment.
Editor’s note: The following article contains major spoilers for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Seriously, everything is spoiled. Reader beware!
Rocksteady. Bebop. Baxter Stockman. Leatherface. Wingnut. When Mutant Mayhem‘s lineup of villains was announced, it was like a geek buffet of noteworthy and deep-dive characters from the TMNT comics and cartoon shows. The writer and director had obviously done their homework, and wanted to come out of the gate swinging with an all-star lineup that didn’t rely on Shredder, Krang, or the Foot Clan to liven things up.
So why in the hell did they end up either sidelining them completely (Baxter appears briefly and then is killed off) or making them all allies of the Turtles by the end of the movie? What purpose did it serve to convert the Turtles rogues’ gallery to the side of the angels after only one movie? None. Bebop should not be helping Donatello destroy an enemy; he should be pummeling him with his fists and making lame jokes.
And while I understand this complaint may come off as just another fanboy whining about somebody changing a cherished property from their youth, it’s not. I love change; change is necessary to keep thing vital and interesting. But so are villains, and if you kill all of them or make them good by the end of the movie, you don’t have anywhere to go from there unless you backtrack, which would be lame.
In addition to wasting the majority of it’s established villains, Mutant Mayhem also commits the cardinal sin of giving the spotlight to a new villain who is the least interesting character in the whole movie. To my knowledge, Supafly hasn’t appeared in anything before this movie, and it seems whoever came up with him didn’t bother to develop him beyond his too on-the-nose code name.
Supafly’s origin is simple and dull: he’s a mutated fly who vows revenge against humanity for killing his master, Baxter Stockman. He’s one-note as he’s nearly all-powerful; he can take down all the Turtles, Splinter, and his mutant family even before he mutates into a giant kaiju who is capable of destroying NYC. That lethal combination of unoriginality and juiced-up powers means he’s really not all that compelling to watch, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason why we should care about his desire for mutant domination. (Unlike, say, the X-Men’s Magneto, or any classic villain you can think of.)
This is partly due to the writing and also due to the actor who plays him. Unlike the other vocal talent in the film, Ice Cube doesn’t embody the character; instead, he just sounds and acts like a pissed-off Ice Cube. There’s no nuance, no attempt at any kind of depth. And yes, I know I’m asking for depth for a character that’s a mutated fly that eats trash and oozes slime, but the bar for animated movies is high right now. Across the Spider-Verse showed you can make a one-note character surprisingly complex, and Supafly just doesn’t measure up to Spot or Miguel O’ Hara.
When I first saw April O’ Neil’s redesign and heard that The Bear‘s Ayo Edebiri was voicing the character, I was immediately hooked, intrigued, and excited. This April felt fresh and exciting, unlike the cheesy sexpot version that Megan Fox played in the live-action movies. Yet after watching Mutant Mayhem, I walked away feeling a bit depressed at what had been done to her. April had been thoroughly given the Aaron Sorkin treatment, and not in a good way.
What does that mean? In brief, Aaron Sorkin, the writer of such classic shows as The West Wing and movies like The Social Network, frequently saddles his strong female characters with one or more outrageous, totally stupid flaws to humanize them. The Newsroom‘s MacKenzie McHale was the worst of them, a seemingly tough, intelligent reporter who would often make embarrassingly simple mistakes (like sending her breakup message to her co-workers instead of the intended party) to make her more palatable to the audience.
April’s flaw is that she vomits … a lot. She does so whenever she’s in front of a camera, which is a big problem because she wants to be a television reporter. And yes, when this is first introduced in a flashback, it’s kinda funny and played that way. It’s a traumatic incident in her past that she’s working to get past; OK, I buy that. But when she finally gets her heroic spotlight by broadcasting the Turtles heroism from Channel 6, her moment of triumph is hijacked by her vomiting on the air … again …i n front of the entire NYC television watching audience. This is meant to be a recall of a visual gag seen earlier in the movie, but it fundamentally undermines April’s character. She was supposed to be stronger than that, more together, and over it; instead, the filmmakers just make her the target for a cheap punch line. April, Ayo, and the audience deserved better than that.
Tell me if this logline sounds familiar to you: A team of mutant misfits must stop an evil madman from unleashing a device that will overrun the world with superpowered creatures. Humans will be rendered virtually extinct, and ground zero for the event takes place in New York City. If you guessed that this was the plot to 2023’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, you’d be right. But you’d also be correct if you guessed that this scheme was the main climax in 2000’s X-Men movie.
And that’s the main problem with Mutant Mayhem; for all of its innovative visuals, it has a shopworn plot that’s already been used. Combine that with Supafly’s ridiculous kaiju transformation, and subsequent destruction of midtown Manhattan, and you have an “homage” to Godzilla movies that really is just wholesale theft. The Turtles has so much to work with: ninjas, interdimensional aliens, science experiments gone wrong, etc. They really couldn’t come up with something better than a hackneyed plot to turn the human world into a mutant one? With a giant monster destroying a helpless city? Been there, done that.
And that brings me to most egregious thing about Mutant Mayhem, which is what it does to everyone’s favorite pizza-eating team: it makes them acceptable to human society and safe for anyone to touch. A key plot point in the climax of Mutant Mayhem is when Supafly appears to be victorious, he’s defeated with the help from NYC’s human population, who aid the Turtles in finally eliminating him. Supafly’s takedown is broadcast on Channel 6, and the Turtles are shown as the heroes they always were. The last scene depicts them shedding their trademark ninja costumes, adopting bland oversized hoodies and jeans to make them look like everyone else, and attending high school. The lesson: Conformity is cool! Don’t be different! Being unique is for suckers.
Wait, what? Don’t the filmmakers know that the Turtles are at their most appealing when they operate from the shadows, protecting a human world that loathes and fears them? That’s what makes them so interesting to begin with! Comic books commit this sin too; remember when the X-Men are periodically accepted by humans or when Spider-Man revealed his secret identity during Civil War? The status quo was changed, but not for the better, and those two properties quickly reverted back to what made them work to begin with.
Mutant Mayhem drags the Turtles from the sewers and gives them a happy ending; that’s great for the characters, but terrible for a freshly rebooted franchise. Who wants to see the Turtles struggle with band practice or navigate the high school caste system? Or for them to be fully embraced and loved by everyone? I don’t, and I’m not sure anyone else does either.
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