The Many Media Mutations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Thứ sáu - 17/05/2024 22:39
As the Ninja Turtles return with a new movie, we're looking back at the true multimedia they've built across comics, TV, film, games and more.
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1984 was the year that two unknown comic book creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, unleashed their independent comic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Much to the surprise of both men, their comic book was a massive success. Within a few years, the TMNT had spawned an animated series, action figures, a live-action film, video games, and a long line of merchandise that can rival even Batman.

Now, one year shy of TMNT’s 40th anniversary, the Turtles are back on the big screen with the new animated film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. The latest movie is another reboot, but at its core it remains the story of four teenage ninjas who just happen to be turtles. They’ve carved out an indelible place for themselves in pop culture, and that’s why we’re taking a look back at the many media mutations that the TMNT have had over the last four decades.


In 1983, Eastman and Laird called their comic book company Mirage Studios because it was a mirage. It was just the two of them at first as they were trying to find their way into the industry. By 1984, the duo self-published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a parody of several contemporary comics, especially Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil. For example, the evil ninja clan in the TMNT is The Foot as a nod to Daredevil’s evil ninja clan, The Hand. The Turtles’ Master Splinter was also a take off on Daredevil’s mentor, Stick. And even the traffic accident that caused the Turtles’ exposure to mutagen echoed Matt Murdock’s classic origin story that ultimately turned him into Daredevil.

The fan response to Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo inspired Eastman and Laird to continue the story as an ongoing series. And as Turtlemania grew, the first animated series led to a split of the comic book rights. So while Mirage was continuing their series across four separate volumes, Archie Comics was able to publish comics based on the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. However, the Archie Comics run eventually veered off from the TV show continuity with an expanded world, new villains, and even a slow transformation of April O’Neil from a reporter to an action heroine in her own right.

Image Comics and Dreamwave Productions both briefly published TMNT comics, but the franchise has had its longest continuing series at IDW, where the flagship Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic launched in 2011. It currently has 141 issues under its belt. IDW also lined up TMNT comic book crossovers with Batman, Stranger Things, Street Fighter, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, The X-Files, Ghostbusters, and Stan Sakai‘s Usagi Yojimbo.

Eastman and Laird parted ways over creative differences, with Eastman selling his share of the franchise to Laird in 2000. And by 2009, Laird was ready to walk away as well when he sold the TMNT to Nickelodeon. Subsequently, Eastman became involved with IDW’s Turtle comics and co-wrote the first series with Tom Waltz, while Eastman also worked on the art with artist Dan Duncan. Subsequent creative teams have kept the series going, and in 2020, the spinoff comic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin, served as a reunion for Eastman and Laird, as they and co-writer Waltz and artists Esau Escorza and Isaac Escorza chronicled a dark future for the lone surviving Turtle.


1987 took the Turtles to new heights with the launch of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. This show was widely credited with fleshing out the personalities of the Turtles – Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo – while also introducing reinterpreted versions of Splinter, April O’Neil, Casey Jones, and the Turtles’ nemesis, Shredder. Unlike the comic, it was also very kid-friendly, which helped it sell a lot of Turtles action figures and merchandise. Prior to becoming a sitcom maven for CBS, Chuck Lorre co-wrote the theme song for this series, which was incredibly catchy, and it remains a huge part of the franchise even to this day.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing to come out of this era was the Coming Out of Our Shells! album and subsequent live tour in 1990. Michelangelo was the lead vocalist for the band and played guitar, while Raphael provided drums, saxophone, and vocals of his own. Leonardo played bass guitar and Donatello was on keys. Splinter, April, and even Shredder had songs of their own. You can read more about this wild part of TMNTs history in GameSpot’s deep dive into the Coming Out of Our Shells tour.

The Turtles’ popularity was so great that they even got their own two-episode anime in Japan in 1996, which was called Mutant Turtles: Choujin Densetsu-hen. It’s not that different in tone from the ‘87 series, but Shredder and his minions, Bebop and Rocksteady, do briefly get super powers from magic MutaStones. And so too do the Turtles, who literally became superheroes. They even briefly went the full Super Sayan and combined into a single being: Turtle Saint.

Following the ten-season run of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fox Kids and Power Rangers studio Saban Entertainment tried to reignite the franchise with a live-action series entitled Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. But this attempt to give the Turtles a Power Rangers-like series fell flat, and a lot of the blame for that fell on the show’s awkward introduction of a new turtle as part of the crew, Venus de Milo.

While the IDW comics introduced its own version of Venus, all of the subsequent TV shows have either ignored or mocked the idea behind her genesis. However, this series did bring about an actual live-action crossover storyline with Power Rangers in Space, years before a separate comic book crossover between the two long-running franchises.

After a few years away from television, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returned in 2003 with a new series from 4Kids Entertainment. This was a reboot from the ‘87 Turtles that completely re-envisioned the characters and attempted to stay closer to the comics in terms of tone. It ran for seven seasons, which is second only to the ‘87 TMNT in longevity. The series ended with a TV movie, Turtles Forever, which teamed up the 2003 Turtles with their counterparts from the ‘87 series and even the original Turtles from the comics!

Nickelodeon kicked off its control of the franchise in 2012 with the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a fully CGI-animated cartoon that rebooted the Turtles once again. Among many other changes, the Turtles themselves acted more like teenagers and April O’Neil was an actual child rather than an adult as she had previously been portrayed. This series also embraced a more anime-like style while walking a fine line between light-hearted stories and occasionally veering into serious territory.

The most recent animated series, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, premiered on Nickelodeon in 2018 with a very drastic reinvention of the entire mythos. In this incarnation Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo have actual mystic powers and their body types wildly vary from each other. April was once again a child, and their original enemy was an alchemist called Baron Draxum before Shredder eventually entered the picture in the second and final season. The series spawned a Netflix original film that introduced Casey Jones from the future as the Turtles fought the Krang.


Two years after the premiere of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, the heroes in a half shell made the leap to video games courtesy of Konami. In June 1989, the first TMNT game hit the Nintendo Entertainment System and it allowed players to control the Turtle of their choice as they tried to rescue Splinter and April O’Neil and save New York City from Shredder. It has a reputation for being difficult, and some players still can’t get by the underwater sequences without dying.

Later in 1989, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game took everyone by surprise with its side-scrolling action, voice samples, and graphics that looked remarkably close to the animated series for that era. The story wasn’t that dissimilar to the NES game, as up to four players got to pick their Turtles, save April, fight the Foot, and head to the Technodrome for a final showdown with Shredder and Krang. But it was amazingly fun, and its sustained popularity made it the highest-grossing arcade game of 1990. And it remains a fan-favorite 24 years later.

Konami ported the arcade game to the NES, but the less than impressive graphics were disappointing. Another NES sequel followed in 1991 with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project. However, the more significant release of the year was the arcade sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. As the title suggests, that game sent the Turtles on a time travel adventure while giving them a rematch with Shredder and his forces. When Turtles in Time came to the SNES in 1992, it quickly became one of the most popular games on the system.

Sega Genesis players weren’t entirely left out in the cold, as Konami brought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist to the system in 1992. But that was the beginning of the end of the golden era for Konami’s TMNT games. Aside from the fighting game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters in 1993, the Turtles were absent from console games for a decade.

In 2003, Konami adapted the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series into a trilogy of games, as well as a fighting game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Melee. Ubisoft took over the Turtles license for its adaptation of the 2007 TMNT film and the fighting game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up. Activision was the third video game publisher to handle the franchise in 2013 with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, which had nothing to do with the movie that shared its title a few years later. The most significant game during the Activision era was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan, which was developed by PlatinumGames.

To the surprise of many, the Turtles appeared as guest characters in NetherRealm Games’ DC fighting game, Injustice 2. This unexpected crossover allowed the TMNT to battle many of DC’s iconic heroes and villains, as well as fellow guest characters Hellboy and Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero and Raiden.

Subsequently, DotEmu took over the TMNT rights and released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge in 2022. This throwback side-scrolling beat-em up intentionally called back to the style of Konami’s first TMNT arcade game. And it also allowed the players to control Splinter, April, and Casey Jones in addition to the Turtles as they take New York back from The Foot. DLC for the game is coming later this year, and it will add Usagi Yojimbo to the roster as a playable character.


Given the Turtles’ dominance in other media, a movie was inevitable. New Line Cinema picked up the rights and hired director Steve Barron and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to bring the Turtles to live-action. In 1990, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arrived in theaters with a largely faithful retelling of the team’s first meeting with April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) and Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) as they took on Shredder (James Saito with David McCharen providing his voice) and the Foot.

Things arguably started to go downhill in 1991 with the hastily produced sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Paige Turco stepped in as the new April O’Neil after Hoag wasn’t approached to return, while François Chau took over the physical role of Shredder and McCharen returned as his voice. The film also introduced two new mutants, Tokka and Rahzar, as well as the infamous cameo by rapper Vanilla Ice. Wrestler Kevin Nash briefly appears as Super Shredder for the film’s final battle.

The third film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, arrived in 1993 and it moved away from the traditional TMNT villains and settings. Instead the plot focused on an attempt to rescue April after she had been mysteriously transported to feudal Japan. When the Turtles followed April back in time, they were forced to battle Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono) and his army before finding their way back to the present.

After a 14-year absence from theaters, the CGI-animated TMNT brought the heroes back and gave them a more personal dilemma. Because Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) decided to spend an extended period training in Central America, Raphael (Nolan North), Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley), and Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) drifted apart. Future MCU star Chris Evans voiced Casey Jones, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar lent her voice to a more action-oriented April. While dealing with their internal issues, the reunited team also had to face Karai (Ziyi Zhang) and the Foot before an even greater threat emerged.

Michael Bay didn’t direct the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot – Jonathan Liebesman was the director of record – but it sure feels like a Bay film, including the casting of Transformers’ Megan Fox as the new April O’Neil. Bay produced this movie, and the Turtles were given slightly grotesque CGI makeovers as Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) took on Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and the Foot. Will Arnett also had a supporting role as April’s co-worker, Vern Fenwick.

Most of the cast returned for the 2016 sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, with a few exceptions including motion-capture actor Pete Ploszek as the new voice of Leonardo, Brian Tee as the new Shredder, and Tyler Perry as Dr. Baxter Stockman. This film also introduced several characters who were absent from the previous film, including Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), Rocksteady (WWE wrestler Sheamus), Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams), and Krang (Brad Garrett). But despite the high levels of fan service, this film couldn’t match the success of its predecessor.

Although it didn’t hit theaters, the 2019 direct-to-video animated film, Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is a worthy addition to the TMNT flicks. Troy Baker did double duty as both Batman and the Joker, while Eric Bauza lent his voice to Leonardo alongside Darren Criss as Raphael, Baron Vaughn as Donatello, and Kyle Mooney as Michelangelo. The movie was inspired by the previous comic book crossover published by DC and IDW. After an initial misunderstanding with the Dark Knight, the Turtles teamed up with Batman, Batgirl (Rachel Bloom), and Robin (Ben Giroux) against the might of Shredder (Andrew Kishino), Ra’s al Ghul (Cas Anvar), and a whole slew of Batman foes.

That brings us to this week with the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Seth Rogen produced this CGI-animated film, which was directed by Jeff Rowe. This time, the filmmakers intentionally cast much younger actors to portray Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), and Raphael (Brady Noon) alongside Splinter (Jackie Chan) and April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri).

Several familiar villains appear, including Bebop (Rogen), Rocksteady (John Cena), and Leatherhead (Rose Byrne). However, Shredder is not the primary enemy. Instead, this film uses Superfly (Ice Cube) and his gang of mutants as its primary adversaries. And this time, the Turtles will really have their hands full.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now playing.

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