Born from a self-published comic book, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spawned an empire of toys, cartoons, and live action movies thirty years ago. The exploits of four mutated turtles named after Italian artists and their rat sensei rode a wave of popularity into the mid-90s. Based on Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Mirage Studios comic, TMNT began life as an indirect spoof of Daredevil (Splinter for Stick, The Foot Clan for The Hand, etc.), and grew into a staple of the late 80s and early 90s.
After over a decade of flitting about on the fringes, the Turtles returned with a vengeance, starring in a popular CG-animated show on Nickelodeon. The success of the next wave of Ninja Turtles was thanks at least in part due to adult fans’ nostalgia, although the sewer-dwelling pizza lovers found a new home in the hearts of younger audiences as well.
A return to the big screen brought fair to middling reviews but box office numbers sufficient to justify a big-budget, big name sequel with Megan Fox returning as April O’Neil and Arrow’s Stephen Amell hopping aboard as Casey Jones. The return of comic/cartoon villain favorites Krang, Rocksteady and Bebop also signifies that Platinum Dunes/Nickelodeon pic is bringing the full brunt of the retro Turtles for its sequel. However, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is only the tip of the retrospective iceberg. The trend of recycling styles and invoking the warm fuzzies for prior decades is a long-ingrained aspect of the studio system.
Hollywood Digs Deep (to Recycle)
There are few things Tinsel Town loves more than revamping an old property for a new generation, as well as misty-eyed older generations. Hollywood’s love of rebooting may seem like a modern affectation, but the roots of remake fever stretch back quite some way. Every decade or so, the trends of a bygone era – typically between twenty and thirty years prior – become the fascination of the present day.
In the '40s, the expressionism of the '20s and the popularity of crime fiction during Prohibition fed the empowered women and darker-edged vibe of film noir. The '50s brought with it the fallout from the 1930s and '40s. The Atomic Age, robots, and alien lifeforms from Depression-era sci-fi created a wealth of irradiated monsters and alien critters ranging from the thought-provoking (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to the z-grade creature-feature fodder (The Horror of Party Beach). Remakes of 1930s and foreign fare weren’t uncommon either, with pictures like The Blue Angel and Bundle of Joy updating elements from bygone eras.
The '60s remained inordinately attached to '50s culture as well, while also delving into elements from the '30s and '40s. Beat Culture and the darker edge of film noir inspired '60s films like Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show, which reveled in complex, non-linear storytelling exemplified by those eras (and foreign films as well).
During the '70s and '80s, though, the nostalgia cycle really began to crank. Happy Days, American Graffiti, and Grease all reflected a fascination with 1950s elements, especially the greaser subculture. Remakes of minor '50s classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Omega Man (originally The Last Man on Earth) presaged a whole host of '80s sci-fi and horror remakes, including The Thing, The Blob, and Invaders from Mars. The '70s also ended with an innovation which drove the '80s - mostly thanks to Star Wars.
Merchandising Created the '80s?
George Lucas’ seminal space saga and its prescient cross-marketing had a major impact on the entertainment industry of the '80s. Linking films and television programs with commercial products caused the entertainment industry to look at not just box office, but how their projects could link up to spinoff shows, breakfast cereals, action figures, and character-emblazoned lawn darts (or not), etc.
It was during this era when the Ninja Turtles were born, thanks to cross-marketing. If not for Playmate’s interest in expanding the brand exposure for their burgeoning toy-line, the entire franchise may have remained a minor blip/comic book feature indefinitely. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was perfectly book-ended into the Valley Girl/surfer-obsessed culture of late '80s and early '90s. The show and movies tapped into the tail ends of the 80s fads, especially the lingo and laid-back vibe.
However, by the time the creatively titled TMNT 3 came out in 1993, the cynical nature of the decade, merged with with the attachment to '60s counterculture, effectively dissipated the fun-loving neon and spandex wave the Turtles rode in on. Ironically, the marketing over-saturation which created popular franchises like TMNT also built the sardonic outlook which contributed to their (temporary) downfall.
From Footnote to Foot Clan Reborn
The initial success of the original live-action films blew over following the third sequel's mediocre take in 1993. After the classic cartoon finished its run in 96, the Turtles floated around the sewer in various incarnations for the next decade or so. A short-lived live action series came and went quickly in the late 90s, while the second wave of animated series ran from 2003-2009. Yet it was the most recent CGI-animated series, kicking off in 2012, which brought TMNT back to the forefront of pop culture.
Cresting a wave of popular reissues from the 80s and 90s, cartoon purveyor Nickelodeon acquired all rights to the Turtles from Mirage Group. The studio set out to recreate a modern incarnation loosely based on a blend of stylized anime and CG-elements successfully employed by shows like The Clone Wars and the Teen Titans. The popularity of the rebooted show allowed the cartoon maker to team with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes for the 2014 eponymous film reboot.
A co-venture between Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount, the first TMNT rebooted the series for a modern film audience. Using motion-capture techniques combined with live-action, the film brought Megan Fox and Will Arnett into the fray, along with the voice work of Tony Shalhoub and Johnny Knoxville, among others. The film reimagined the Turtle’s origin story, giving protagonist April O’Neil a more direct connection to the titular heroes. It also brought an updated look to the Turtles and their main malefactor, Shredder.
Despite garnering negative reviews from critics, the film was a moderate success, grossing nearly $500 million internationally and securing several sequels. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows will, in effect, bring the nostalgic elements of the franchise full circle. The inclusion of Dimension X, Bebop and Rocksteady, vigilante Casey Jones, as well as Tyler Perry as Baxter Stockman, marks a distinct homage to the heyday of the cartoon – especially since Krang and the two mutated villains originated on the cartoon show.
The Eighties Come Full Circle
The return (and success) of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles speaks to power behind the memories of contemporary Hollywood. Many today's up-and-coming tastemakers are the same children influenced by the pop culture touchstones of the '80s and '90s. Nearly half of the millennial generation was born with little or no memory of the media glamorized by the wistful elder members of their generation. As a result, many younger Gen Yers, as well as Gen Zers, seek a connection to the trends of yesterday or an updated version they can cling to for significance.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is merely a piece of the nostalgic vanguard sweeping the modern era. Favorite '80s and '90s properties like Masters of the Universe and Power Rangers all experienced a major surge in interest or full-fledged revivals in the past few years. Live action reboots of film and TV properties, such as 21 Jump Street, Shane Black’s upcoming Predator reboot, Dredd, and other hotly contested reboots like Ghostbusters or Labyrinth all owe their existence to a combination of retrospective yearning and pre-existing properties which require little brand awareness.
Studios understand that there’s a market out there for films, TV shows, and products from this era. Despite the resistance from some older fans and movie purists, many filmgoers are interested to see how recent classics translate into contemporary fare – hence, the return of classic properties like TMNT.
How Much Nostalgia Is too Much?
Whether you’re a fan of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, their modern incarnations or both, their contemporary reboot is merely a symptom of a larger Hollywood condition – nostalgitis. Reboot fever is sweeping the entertainment industry and has been since Hollywood's early days. Of course, over the past few decades studios have excelled at recycling. As a result, dozens of beloved franchises found their way into the Hollywood gristmill, many becoming watered-down, reconstituted entertainment (The Karate Kid) or high-concept reformulations which didn't quite recapture past glory (Star Trek).
However, Hollywood’s reboot trend isn’t all bad. Sure, filmmakers may be traipsing across the sacred grass of '80s franchises like Evil Dead, but they’re also resurrecting lesser-known entities such as Voltron or Highlander, as well as questionably-executed fare like Judge Dredd. Re-imaginings can also bring new interest and new fans to older films and gift existing source material with fresh eyes and an improved budget, much like John Carpenter’s redux of The Thing.
To paraphrase Pablo Picasso, all art is theft. Creators often borrow from the past, and Hollywood is no exception. As long as audiences are interested in watching older movies renewed, and younger audiences seek a connection to the past, reboots and remakes aren't going anywhere. If there's money to be made, Hollywood’s obsession with remakes won't abate anytime soon.
How do you feel about Hollywood’s interest in repurposing '80s favorites? Are you excited for more reboots like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or dreading each remake? Let us know in the comments.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is in theaters now.