Let me start off by clearing the air and saying I love the Ninja Turtles.
I’m obsessed with them. Even sitting here writing this, I’ve got my Playmates 2012 Nickelodeon Raphael seated next to me (thus far, my favorite Raphael figure), and, of course, the brothers aren’t too far off either.
The heroes in a half shell were a staple in my household when I was growing up, to the point where my 50-year-old mother knows more about the franchise than I can remember (she recalls a tale where I cried my eyes out, accusing Bebop and Rocksteady of kidnapping her when I was three).
Toys, role-playing items, VHS tapes, bed sheets, the works; the TMNT were as important in my upbringing as learning to read and write.
Recently, having had this discussion with a friend, I asked the question: Out of every franchise that spawned itself in the 80’s, why has TMNT remained so stable?
Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, GI Joe, Silverhawks, M.A.S.K., Tigersharks, just to name a few, are all franchises that were part of my upbringing, and part of many of my generations'. Through the years, some of the aforementioned franchises have all had attempted revivals and/or reboots, while some have had none at all.
Even my beloved Transformers, without a doubt my favorite animated franchise, or series for that matter, had its ups and downs, and currently, thanks to a set of films and stellar comic series, the franchise has stabilized once again.
And in contrast to all of the above, the TMNT have had a stable run of three animated series in the US, five feature films, a fantastic on-going toy property by Playmates, and several comic book franchises, all of which were met with great success. The only low point I can think of in the franchise is the live-action ‘Next Mutation’.
The title alone shouldn’t have let the series survive. ‘Teenage’. ‘Mutant’. ‘Ninja’. ‘Turtles’.
Look at ‘Masters of the Universe’. That’s one hell of a strong title. ‘Thundercats’. ‘Silverhawks’. Yet, from the get go, the mouthful that is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as absurd as that title is, remains strong.
The premise should be even worse: Four mutated turtles are raised in the New York City sewers by a mutated rat (or human, depending on the series), who names them after his favorite renaissance artists, and trains them as ninjas to fight against a secret organization of evil ninjas.
Yet in the 30 years since its inception, the TMNT endure.
The above premise is usually thrown at you within the first episode or issue of any new series. And that’s all you need to know. This is what you’re getting into. Enjoy.
What brought the franchise into its own was the original animated series. By today’s standards, it was ridiculously goofy, something the crossover film that ended the 2003 series really made a point of putting across.
The originally Mirage comics, which can be harkened to the grittiness of a classic 80’s Frank Miller comic, are good. Really good, and if you haven’t read them, I recommend picking them up.
What made the animated series so special, in a time where other franchises were touting the smart, serious, strong-jawed leader as the hero (here’s looking at you Duke), here was a group of mutated freaks that said it’s okay to be weird. It’s okay to be kooky. It’s okay to be the serious leader. It’s okay to be the brainy one. It’s okay to be a sarcastic hot-head. It’s okay to be a goofball.
The Turtles were just brothers being who they were. No one was given any more importance than the other. They represented the freedom to be whoever you are. They were what all good storytellers know makes a good character.
They were relatable.
I have yet to find a group of people who all agreed on which was their favorite turtle.
My favorite is Raphael. I could relate to his sarcastic and raging nature, particularly in my teens. My friend loves Leonardo because of his role as the team’s backbone; another thinks Donatello’s intelligence makes him the real driving force behind the foursome.
My sister cannot get over how cute she thinks Michelangelo is, to the point where I’ll often find my Michelangelo figures missing because she’s taking selfies with them.
And the scary part of all this is, they are still relatable, the stories have matured, and the core of each character remains the same.
No single franchise has gone out of its way to appeal to every corner of the masses, and to this day continues to make the effort to do so.
Even the toys weren’t afraid to break barriers. Astronaut Turtles, Farmer Turtles, Universal Monster Turtles, Star Trek Turtles, ‘unofficial’ Ghostbuster Turtles, and as of a month or two ago, LARP Turtles.
Yes, LARP Turtles.
The green mean fighting machines were whoever you wanted to be.
This is why Playmates claims it was the best selling boys toy in 2013, and I believe it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the stock of a toy line change so frequently in any store, there are very few shelf warmers in the Nickelodeon toy line, in fact you’ll generally find the toys are sold out.
It’s this one of multiple reasons, this nature of the franchise, in this writer’s opinion, that makes the series such a solid staple of culture.
I grew up on the adventures of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. I continue to support them. My children will probably do the same.
Finally, to sum up how important the mass appeal of the franchise is, having spent time in a 3rd world country, these are the rare characters you’ll often hear the under-privileged refer to:
Batman. Superman. Spider-Man.