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Is There A Definitive Version of TMNT?

In an age where properties are constantly retooled and rebooted, there inevitably is the discussion about what version is truly the definitive one. Whether it’s Batman, the X-Men, or Sherlock Holmes, these pop-culture fixtures can become icons, and a certain version, whether right or wrong, can end up as the version that sticks out in the cultural zeitgeist. The same can be said for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

For years, the campy Batman show of the 1960s was for many the defining iteration of the Caped Crusader. Now, an argument can be made for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy or even the version recently seen in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But just because one version of a particular character is the most popular does not make it the definitive one. Popularity may be a contributing factor, but a definitive version should be all-encompassing. For example, Batman is many things, including a gritty vigilante and a bona-fide superhero facing extraterrestrial and supernatural threats. When you take a step back, it’s apparent that there is one version of the character that encompasses everything that people love – and is of exceptional quality: Batman: The Animated Series. The same can be said for the 1980s X-Men comics by Chris Claremont. The question is “does something like this exist for the Ninja Turtles?”

Three short years after their debut, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exploded in a fully formed mainstream phenomenon. Bright, colorful, and fun, the Turtles of the popular cartoon by Fred Wolf Studios stood in stark contrast to the gritty, black and white comics published by Mirage Studios. A marriage of these two iterations appeared on the big screen in 1990 with the release of the motion picture Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For many, this is viewed as a definitive version of the Turtles. The overall tone is much darker than later film incarnations, but it is not without its moments of levity. Like the popular cartoon, the Turtles do have their multicolored masks, but they (and Splinter) maintain their Mirage origins. Casey Jones isn’t completely unhinged, but when we meet him he is willing to cross lines that even Raphael wouldn’t. Judith Hoag’s April O’Neil is a nice blend of the animated series’ and comics versions. While the sequels and even the more recent films do not hold up very well, the 1990 movie remains the standard for which all TMNT movies strive to be.

But for as great as the 1990 movie is, there is a lot that people associate with the franchise which are noticeably absent. For example, what about Kraang or the Ultroms? What about other mutants? What about the space adventures with Fugitoid and the Triceratons? Are these not beloved parts of the canon? If so, then it is difficult to argue that the 1990 movie is the definitive version of the Turtles. However, as far as live-action efforts are concerned, it’s safe to say that this is the best.

Perhaps animation is the key. There is the aforementioned Fred Wolf series from the 1980s and 1990s. This is the version that made the Turtles a global phenomenon. With a catchy theme, cool gadgets, and colorful villains, it’s no wonder why this struck a chord with a generation of kids. But while it may the most well known version of the TMNT, it lacks any sort of narrative depth, as well as a few key elements of the Turtles’ lore.

There’s also the white-washing of Baxter Stockman. For those who’s only exposure to the Turtles is the animated series, they may know Baxter as the meek and feeble servant to the Shredder who, as the result on a science experiment gone wrong, was transformed into a half-man, half-fly hybrid. He was also white, which would be okay if he wasn’t already established as an African American back in his first appearance (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2). This error has been corrected in every subsequent incarnation of the character, but this is one of the biggest marks against the classic cartoon.

I could keep going, making an argument for the 2003 and 2012 animated series or any of the comics series (yes, even the Image Comics Volume 3), only to tear them down with equally valid counterpoints. So why even write this article? Well, it’s to demonstrate that a definitive version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles simply does not exist. These characters are so fluid and open to interpretation that they can fit nearly any mold you put them in. If you prefer the gritty storytelling, Volume One of the Mirage Comics fits the bill. Like something goofy and mindless? The 1987 cartoon has your back. Enjoy complex, long-form storytelling? The IDW comics are up your ally. Prefer your Turtles to be a communal experience? Then the various beat-em-up video games of the 1990s are for you.

Boiling the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles down to one version for the sake of calling it “definitive” is a disservice to the characters, their creators, and the ever-growing fandom. The fact that so many different versions of these beloved characters exist is actually a blessing, as there is a TMNT to fit any fan’s personal preferences. So pop in your copies of The Next Mutation, crack open your back issues of Image Comics’ TMNT, or start playing the original Nintendo game because that’s your version of the Ninja Turtles, and no one can take that away from you.

The Author

Dan Gehen

Dan Gehen

Dan Gehen is a lot of things, but one thing he's been for his entire life is a TMNT fan (this has been verified by watching embarrassing home videos of his formative years). Though the classic 1980s cartoon caused his 3-year-old version to drive his parents insane via the constant repetition of "cowabunga dude", his true appreciation for the heroes in a half-shell came from the 1990 feature film as well as the comics by Mirage Studios. Today, he continues to enjoy comics from a variety of publishers, including the current TMNT series from IDW Publishing.

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    AWESOME ARTICLE!!! This is so true and very well written. BRAVO! BRAVO! TURTLE POWAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

  • tvmoviestuff

    You make an excellent point Dan. The tmnt franchise varies from comic to comic, show to show, etc. As a fan, I would love to see a dark and serious live action movie. Or I can settle for an animated film like TMNT (2007). There is tons of potential to recapture elder fans.

    • newsball

      again i was really suprised at the 2007 movie and it is on netflix so for those who haven’t seen it watch it there as they treated everyone evenly even mikey, and again as pointed out you had a great voice cast in chris evans as casey, and sarah michelle gellar as april, and it kind of worked in elements of the the first live action version, as i think that might be the definitive as it was the most serious, and had potential as you knew where the 2nd one was headed

  • Jay Nicolosi

    It’s the 2003 cartoon. It has e-ver-y-thing. Damn near perfection.

  • Elisa

    Nice article! I think it’s a good thing that there isn’t a definitive version with so many characters, it can give different ones a chance to shine and also crossing over so many different themes – fantasy, sci-fi, action – each incarnation can have their unique take on the world and characters.

  • Melanie Servidio

    Didn’t the Turtles Forever movie kinda prove that all the versions are definitive? They’re each just a different major dimension that encompasses the many sub-dimensions. Essentially forming the turtle-verse.

  • ANDREW b

    I get it, we all do. As an adult and as a person thats seen all incarnations come and go I see your point. But one thing that shines clear in your article is a distaste for the image comics line. If you’re writing an impartial overview of the turtles and trying to state how there is no ‘definitive’ version, try not to make it so obvious as to your disliking of at least one incarnation. I for one rate the daring story telling of volume 3.

  • Supporter

    I like you said, the 1990 movie was a perfect blend of the original Mirage comics and the popular 1987 series. The lack of Krang, Bebop, Rocksteady and Fugitoid don’t take away from it. It had the core of the Turtles lore, the Turtles themselves, Splinter, April, Shredder and the Foot Clan.

    I prefer the gritty action and stories of the Mirage comics. That’s where it all started so I like to think of that version as the take every other version should look to for inspiration rather than the 1987 series, as popular (and enjoyable) as it was.

  • William Kerfoot

    This is actually a good question. A lot of TMNT stuff has revolved around taking stuff from the source material, cleaning it up for a more wider audience, and even adding some original stuff that is either borrowed or stolen from that version in the hopes that it will also work for this latest one. Personally, I’m just focused on which versions are better than this one and that one. Those are the definitive versions as far as I’m concerned. Of course everyone has a different order on what’s the best and that’s what makes this fun to talk about.