Meaning: Strong as a Lion
Role: Team Leader
Named After: Leonardo da Vinci
Personality: Calm, Levelheaded
Splinter – Father
Raphael – Brother
Donatello – Brother
Michelangelo – Brother
Karai – Rival/Love Interest
Leonardo is the leader of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As the oldest brother, he is responsible for strategic operations, and maintaining order among the other ninjas. He is smart and dependable, leading by example rather than simply order. However, when the situation calls for it, Leonardo has no problem delivering a command with the coolness of a seasoned veteran. Leo uses every ounce of his rigorous and dedicated training to protect the ones he loves, completely willing to sacrifice his own life for all of them. Despite his cool demeanor, he often finds himself at odds with Raphael, whose “fight first, ask questions later” mentality does not always mesh with the calculating mind of his older brother.
First introduced in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book, Leonardo was set up as important, but not spelled out as the leader. He wears a red bandana, like all four turtles, and immediately steps into the role of calm, collected strategist. His biggest struggle has always been his confidence. In early battles with and dealings to unite the Foot Clan factions under Shredder’s replacement, Karai, Leo faltered when it came to believing in himself. Whether stemming from feelings of insecurity over such a pivotal role on the team during his most informative years or from knowing that a teenager taking charge of the others’ lives can have disastrous consequences if done improperly, Leo has always struggled. However, as he grows, develops his training, and matures, Leonardo becomes a strong, confident leader worthy of every ounce of faith Master Splinter placed in him.
In 1987, Leonardo mutated from a baby turtle on the small screen, and was once again cool, confident, and calm. Noticeably different from his original introduction was the explicit mention of his role as team leader. Leo was the very definition of the “good guy”, always coming down on the side of what was right. Like his comic counterpart, he suffers from a lack of confidence, which prompted him to leave the team for a while. Like all his other incarnations, Leo had a brief love interest with a female ninja, named Lotus Blossom here (possibly this series’ version of the usual Karai).
TMNT: The Next Mutation played on the most common aspects of Leonardo’s character that had been developed to that point, particularly his leadership qualities and constant struggle with Raphael. When revived in 2003, Leo was the leader by default, and still very much a hero among heroes. However, his confidence issues also arose again, and were developed to the point that he even developed post-traumatic stress disorder after countless life-threatening battles with the Foot Clan and Purple Dragons.
Other aspects of Leonardo’s personality formerly touched on but undeveloped were given greater importance, specifically his connection to the spiritual side of ninjutsu training. Early in the series, he is shown to have a strong connection to the Sword of Tengu, and then later exhibits powerful ki during his dragon training with the Ninja Tribunal. These were direct results of his rigid discipline in ninjutsu’s every facet.
In 2012, Leonardo again appeared as the leader of the team. He is still calm and collected in battle, never struggles with knowing what is right, and sticks to rigid training in all aspects of ninjutsu. The major addition to his portrayal was the adolescent aspect. In all other incarnations except the original, the “teenage” part of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was missing, and did not play a role in the overall development of the character. This series changed that, and made it an ever-present reminder that Leonardo, for all his wonderful points, is still vulnerable to mistakes and rash decisions of adolescence (as is evidenced by his interactions, again, with Karai).
The four films take all the basics of Leonardo and create a very rigid do-gooder who follows all rules and calls the shots in battle. Only in the fourth film do other parts of his personality emerge. After his hiatus from the streets of New York, Leonardo returns home to take up the mantle of leader again, only now he possesses a stronger sense of self and justice, without any of the whimsical aspects presented in the first three films (if the fourth can even be considered a continuation of the others).
Since his inception, Leonardo has been a strong archetype for the hero. He has stuck to the letter of every rule laid out for him whenever possible, which has often caused quite a bit of discord with his brothers. (The movies were the biggest culprits of this, rarely allowing Leo to escape from the rigid “leader” character.) While the original comics will always be the source material and the character that every other incarnation springs from, Leonardo has become much more than what his original self was supposed to be. After all, he wasn’t even explicitly called the leader in the book until well after that fact had been established in other media.
Leonardo, like all the turtles, suffers in the 1987 animated series by being too cartoonish. All four are supposed to be these intense ninjas who fight to protect their family and home, but when they made the transition to the small screen, their edge was taken away. (The easiest place to see that in action would be the special Turtles Forever movie from 2009. The comic, 1987, and 2003 versions are all side-by-side, and written almost exactly as they were prior.) However, in the first cartoon, all the turtles are reduced to caricatures of what they were supposed to be, with Leonardo specifically losing a lot of himself due to the popularity of Raphael and Michelangelo, and the subsequent desire to give those two more screen time. Even his appearance in this series showed a marked departure, with no way to discern that he is a teenager, and barely any understanding that he’s actually a turtle, considering the addition of very distinct humanoid fingers, toes, and nose-like beak.
While it took the most ridiculous twists and turns as the seasons progressed, the 2003 series is arguably the best for Leonardo’s character development to date. It certainly didn’t touch on every aspect brought forth over the years, but it did provide a deeper understanding of who he was, what his training was meant to accomplish, how that training could negatively impact his state of mind, and what ultimately the fruits of his labors could bring. He even adopted his own students by the end, bringing his ninja development full circle. This incarnation provided the most of Leonardo to be infused into future versions of his self.
For everything that has been developed (or not) in all other versions, the 2012 Leonardo gets to deal with that one aspect that the television audience has never seen: a teenage mutant ninja turtle. The newest show really plays up this particular aspect and makes it a part of all his interactions, especially when dealing with Raphael’s temper and with his usual romantic interest in Karai. It’s also the first time that Leo – and all the turtles, for that matter – look as if they are actual mutated turtles. The human aspects to their characters are kept to a minimum, leaving a believable representation of mutated turtles.
If there were any way to create a Leonardo that incorporates all of the various elements developed throughout his incarnations, it would likely be one of the most well-written and fully formed characters in the history of fiction. Unfortunately, each new series has picked what it wants to use, and that’s often left other important aspects frozen out. Fortunately, now that there is so much to draw from, Leonardo will always be a strong hero archetype that others can be formed from.
Leonardo’s two-sword style is called Niten Ryu.
Leonardo specializes in kenjutsu, the sword technique discipline of ninjutsu.
Leonardo loves to read classic literature.
Leonardo has a fear of snakes.