After a late night screening of the crown jewel of my childhood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I perused the interwebs in search of photos of April O’Neil, looking to fuel the fire that was first kindled in my seven-year-old body and then lay dormant for another twenty-one years, biding its time, like an 80’s demon of poofy hair and childhood lust.
I also came across this: Roger Ebert’s bigoted, anti-reptilian diatribe, during which he awards the second Ninja Turtles film only one star. Not only that, he blames youth violence on the Turtles, and claims they denounce individuality and the all-American spirit, unlike such heroes as Superman and Spider-man. If only they wore berets and smoked tiny hipster cigarettes, we could have finally made the connection to their French overlords and left their half-gutted shells at the foot of the Eiffel Tower as a patriotic cry against socialist brainwashing.
Now, I’m sure Roger Ebert has no memory of this review. But in the spirit of true internet civility, I’m going to completely ignore the decades of contribution Ebert has made to film, and take a single 500 word opinion piece he wrote 20 years ago on a tight deadline, and I’m going to rant and cry and blow every word way out of context.
You’re welcome, America.
The Ninja Turtles aren’t responsible for the violence in humanity
Right off the bat, Ebert claims that “A recent national survey reported that 95 percent of grade school teachers could trace aggressive, antisocial classroom behavior to the Ninja Turtles…”. This is nothing more than the standard, recycled nonsense about a various work of art or entertainment corrupting young minds and turning kindergartners into skull-cracking rape machines. In what publication did he find that highly scientific and unbiased survey? Liberal Guilt Quarterly? Or maybe from the scholastic journal of Bored Housewife Who Wants to Feel Important So She Dusts Off the Cliffnotes From Her Community College Psychology Class And Half-Ass Analyzes Her Eight-Year-Old Son? Probably that one. They’re known for their hard-hitting investigative journalism.
Everybody, everywhere, knows this is bullshit. The Matrix didn’t cause Columbine. KISS didn’t lead to all that devil-worship that’s still plaguing the country. And the Grand Theft Auto videogames didn’t cause teenagers to jack cars and gradually build criminal empires, one dead hooker at a time.
It’s not like violence in kiddie fare first came about with the Ninja Turtles. Remember the Disney classics? Perhaps Mr. Ebert forgot about what happens at the end of Old Yeller? Unless that rifle fired balls of sunshine, I’m pretty sure that dog became compost. And what about Swiss Family Robinson? This cheery, rated-G for all ages film involves a family stranded on an island, working together to harvest food, build homes–and massacre about a hundred pirates, with coconut-bombs and avalanches and custom-dug tiger pits. By the end of the movie, there are enough corpses strewn on that beach to be a scene from Saving Private Ryan.
The Ninja Turtles are complete outcasts
Most superheroes, if they’re not straight-up worshiped by the masses, have something going for them that makes social interaction a breeze. Superman is masculinity-incarnate. He’s tall, dark and handsome, with blue eyes and a chiseled jaw. And he has literal buns of steel. Every female on the planet wants to trace the “S” on his chest with her tongue.
Bruce Wayne? Same build as Superman, with billions of dollars to go with it. If not for Batman’s obsessive and spartan personality, Wayne Manor could be the Gotham City equivalent of the Playboy Mansion, filled with all kinds of beautiful gold diggers. I bet Alfred would much rather hand out invitations to the Bat-grotto than spend his days stitching up knife wounds for his creepy loner boss.
And Peter Parker? He doesn’t have a trust fund or a bachelor bad grown out of alien crystals. But he’s also not a bad-looking guy, with no more obstacles to overcome than every other human male on the planet. And that’s if he takes the dating high road and goes out as himself. If he opts to troll for ass in his Spidey suit, I’m sure he can have his web bouncing in no time.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will NEVER GET LAID. Never. Ever.
They have no female counterpart. They’re horny, insecure, hormonal teenagers–and there are only four members of their entire race. All male, all related. It’s going to take more than a copy of The Game and a wingman to get them some action. They’d have to frankenstein some poor female turtles from Petco, in the hopes of transforming them into voluptuous girlfriends.
And it’s not like any human woman is ever going to bat her eyelashes at them. How would that work? “Sorry Mom, my new boyfriend isn’t Jewish. But he DOES have a retractable penis. And his core body temperature adjusts to match whatever environment he’s in. We’re in love.”
No, our heroes have nothing to look forward to but decades of kleenex tissues and turtle wax. But does that keep them down? Hell to the no. They still go out every night and spin-kick rapists in the face.
Which is the nobler sentiment? To do good deeds for a society that showers you with female affection and cultural standing? Or to do it just fucking because?
All the Ninja Turtles get to do is glance out at the legs of the pretty people from a storm drain. And that’s good enough.
The Ninja Turtles have no superpowers
Let’s run the checklist again. Superman isn’t called the Man of Steel because he’s the mascot for some shitty school in Pittsburgh. A rare rock from an alien world is the only thing that can do him serious harm. While other super-powered beings can certainly kick the shit out of him, it seems more like an inconvenience than anything else. Once he figures out the right chess move from his list of super powers, the competition is stomped. He’s hardly ever in any real danger. And all of his abilities are given to him, unearned, by the yellow light of our sun. He is the very definition of the superhero 1%.
Spider-Man is also given incredible powers through no work of his own. While some incarnations have him augment these abilities with scientific ingenuity, the films show Peter Parker as nothing but an emo photographer who happened to hit the genetically-modified lottery. He never really has to work to improve his skills, either. Except in the second film, where he has to overcome crippling performance anxiety.
Batman is the closest in ability to the Ninja Turtles, since he has to train his muscles to pull off every back flip and rabbit punch he cranks out. But still, he had access to the world’s finest instructors. He’s kind of like whatever female celebrity is currently on the cover of Women’s Health, bragging about dropping the last of her pregnancy pounds. It’s easier to do when you have a private army of chefs, nutritionists, and personal trainers, as well as the motivation of a seven figure paycheck to forgo that snickers bar.
From whom do the illustrious Turtles learn their martial arts? From a one-eared rat who lives in a sewer. If that didn’t work out, it’s not like they can sign up for self defense classes at the YMCA. And, not only are the Ninja Turtles barren of all superpowers, they’re actually at a disadvantage from the average human male.
Martial arts come from the careful study of the human animal–its strengths, its weaknesses, every facet of its psyhiology carefully mapped and studied over the course of thousands of years. It’s the culmination of what we’re capable of in terms of physical defense, and requires complete control over the body. How much harder must it be for the Ninja Turtles to maintain their center of gravity? They have to carry their fucking houses on their backs wherever they go.
Ebert claims the Turtles lack a sense of wonder compared to the standard super heroes. But despite the fact that they’re short, disproportionate, and only have three knuckles on each hand, they still kick ass with the best of them.
The Ninja Turtles have no resources
Superman needs nothing but a few rays of sunlight to transform into Jesus’ tougher brother. Batman, again, has billions of dollars, and access to military-grade facilities. Spider-Man has the most common trappings of any hero besides the Turtles, but he still lives in a decent apartment and has access to everything he needs, which amounts to little more than a few surplus Spidey suits.
The Ninja Turtles have absolutely no money, nor the means to generate any. In the first movie, Raphael bitches loudly about losing a sai, going out several times and shadowing April O’Neil for the sole purpose of getting it back. Why? Because he’s only got two. Unlike Batman, he doesn’t have a sweatshop cranking out Batterangs, along with thousands of i-Pad screens. The Turtles have to wait until somebody flushes a ninja weapon down the fucking toilet before they can arm themselves. How long is that wait?
What happens after Wayne Manor burns down in Batman Begins? Batman relocates to a penthouse while an even better crib gets built on the ashes. Superman’s house is grown instantly out of magic crystal. No matter if you fuck it up, there’s more where that came from. The Turtles are the only ones sending a positive message to kids: take care of your shit, because it’s hard to come by.
The Ninja Turtles risk more physically than other superheroes
For Superman, see invincibility. Batman has access to the world’s finest healthcare. And if he needs an organ transplant, I’m sure the less-benevolent branches of Wayne Enterprises can scrounge one up from an African orphan. And Peter Parker probably has Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New York.
After Raphael gets his ass kicked by the Foot Clan, his brothers helpfully place him here:
Not exactly Stanford Hospital. And what happens when a Turtle needs an organ donor? He has three possibilities in the whole world. And the odds are good that they’re lying in a splattered green puddle next to him.
Considering the scarcity of medical resources available, the Ninja Turtles wouldn’t be faulted for spending their entire lives in a bubble. Instead, they go out each night and engage in incredibly dangerous activities, all for a people that wouldn’t give them so much as a flu shot.
The Ninja Turtles don’t have contrived character flaws
The Turtles’ very existence is a flaw from mother nature herself. That’s a lot of baggage to carry around, but because that’s part of who they are, they can let their freak-flag fly and still be cheerful and passionate. With the pretty heroes, there’s no real chance of them feeling like outcasts, so various character machinations take place in order to gin up a false sense of conflict.
The Turtles don’t go through wild roller coaster rides that hack writers call “character arcs”. We all recognize these characters, and we all hate them. You can always tell that the writers have no idea what’s going on inside their heads, have no sense of them as individuals, and are just using them as cheap battering rams to bludgeon viewers with any kind of feeble emotion that might make a scene slightly dramatic, no matter how illogical the action, or how much damage it does to the character.
The Turtles have understandable longings. They want respect, female companionship, opportunities in the world, and a place to live that isn’t waste-high in feces. Those are pretty modest wishes, made all the more poignant by the fact that they probably won’t be coming true anytime soon. But that doesn’t turn the Turtles into super villains, or petty criminals, or even whiny guys in hoodies who wear guy-liner. They just bang out another day, patrolling the back alleys of New York with outdated, inefficient melee weapons and a can-do attitude.
Ebert says that “Today’s kids are learning from the Turtles that the world is a sinkhole of radioactive waste, that it’s more reassuring to huddle together in sewers than take your chances competing at street level, and that individuality is dangerous.” That would certainly be the interpretation of the snotty, beautiful superheroes, ones who can effortlessly soar through the sky and bang Kardashians. The only time Superman sees the street level is when he sends some asshole crashing down into it. Or when he’s at his own parade, or getting the keys to the city, or any other event that really emphasizes how alien and alone he is.
The Turtles embrace their flaws and use them to serve a higher calling, one of honor and virtue. So what if they’re covered in radioactive slime and sanitation chemicals? Not every hero can step off the pages of a JC Penney catalog. That was an important message for kids back in 1991, and it’s even more important now, in an age where vampires sparkle in the sunlight instead of turning into a pile of squealing ashes, where the curse of being a werewolf means you get six-pack abs without fucking around with that rolling ab crunch thing, and the only ugly characters are the villains.