Longtime fans of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out of the woodwork this weekend, as the new film registered the biggest debut for the franchise in their cinematic history. That includes three well-liked live-action films, as well as a 2007 animated picture that generated lukewarm responses. But fans may have been missing out on the strangest and most essential Ninja Turtles text of them all. Perhaps they should have been watching Turtles Forever.
Turtles Forever was actually an offshoot of the recent television series, which ran from 2003-2009. Produced by Mirage and 4Kids, the show was a pretty well-liked adaptation of the property, ending with a three-part film that celebrated the 25th year anniversary of the franchise. And they did so by exploring and interrogating exactly what the brand had meant, analyzing exactly why the Turtles have been so popular, and how they've evolved beyond their initial incarnations.
Few fans acknowledge the actual origins of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were creating a spoof. The eighties were a time in comics where Frank Miller's worldview was king, and grim 'n' gritty was the order of the day (this approach, combined with commercial excess, was the theme of the nineties). Their parody of the X-Men was to create the least kickass animals in the world – turtles – and turn them into ninjas. Their mockery of The Hand (the ninjas that Daredevil fought in Marvel Comics) was the Foot. It was a gag, something the duo put together as a joke. Seeing it emerge as a pop culture sensation is akin to someone making Airplane! 2 and turning it into an actual deadly-serious disaster movie.
In Turtles Forever, nostalgia is the hero and the enemy. The Turtles of the '03-'09 series are faced with an unlikely ally: the Turtles from the 1986-1995 series, arguably the most famous incarnation of the group. The lineups are the same, as Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo match up, more or less. The difference is how we perceived children's fare yesterday versus today. The newer characters are, by contrast, tougher, more sarcastic Turtles, prone to actual martial arts combat. The earlier versions, with their softer animation and more generic appearances, don't engage in brawls as much as they rely on silly slapstick and pratfalls.
The main threat, something of an afterthought, involves the Shredder and Krang from both animated shows combining their powers to destroy the Turtles of every timeline. Naturally, the more modern incarnations blast the original Shredder for being such an incompetent, yet another of the film's various critiques of the original show. However, while these barbs are couched in affection – the new Turtles gradually warm to the older ones, needing them to save the day – they seem like both an effort to critique the earlier series while also lambasting the fanbase of the more modern group. The ground-level approach of the new Turtles basically requires the whimsy and imagination of the older crew.
The plot eventually gets the Turtles face to face with the TMNT from "Turtle Prime," a black-and white universe where the heroes are chiaroscuro nighttime avengers with a taste for violence and a tendency to speak in hard-boiled voiceover. In this moment, there are three teams of Turtles, face-to-face, literally unrecognizable, and it's at this moment when Turtles' fandom sees itself in the mirror. There's a certain respect for that which you don't see out of, say, Grant Morrison's Batman comics: the sense that a pop culture character is the sum of its collective interpretations. In Turtles Forever, all Turtles are hero, all Turtles are valid.
The thrust, and threat, of the plot should resonate with any fan: the possibility that one might eradicate one specific interpretation of the beloved characters. And even the restrictions of an animated series keeps references to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies to a minimum (eagle-eyed viewers will spot them), Turtles Forever plays like the ultimate Turtles experience, something like a guide to one of the most curious kids' phenomenons of the late twentieth century. Some who see the new film would want to disregard previous interpretations, but most understand that the Michael Bay-produced movie is simply the latest in a long legacy of Turtles interpretations, no more or less valid than the last.