Well…That was a weird one. Honestly, it’s hard to give this one a review score. On the one hand, “Raphael: Mutant Apocalypse”, despite a small pacing issue, was a well told story. The conceit of this final season being “Tales of the TMNT” allows for strange scenarios. It’s admirable for the creators of the show to take a risk like this. After years of building up a mythology and many characters, they boiled it all down to the core foursome.
This didn’t feel like a “what if” episode though. The way this was told feels like this is really what happens to these Turtles in their timeline. A massive mutagen bomb detonates in New York. All humans are mutated and apparently die. Only mutants remain, in a world that is stripped of life. And when you watch the episode in that context, after getting to know these characters for many years….well it’s all kind of sad.
This was a story of the Turtles not as teenagers, but as adults in an impossible reality. The episode starts with Raphael and Donatello, the only two survivors of the characters we’ve grown to love over the course of the series. Raphael is old and weathered, a long beard dominating his face. He’s scarred and weary of the life he is forced to live. Donatello, on the other hand, is a cyborg. His body was destroyed by the mutagen bomb, but (much like his IDW counterpart) his mind was downloaded into the body of Metalhead. It looks like in many futures, Donnie is destined to become one with the technology he loves so much.
It’s not long before we meet our primary antagonist for the tale; Verminator Rex. He is the leader of a gang of mutated Honey Badgers, bandits who steal from other survivors. They target Raph and Donnie for their vehicle and supplies, but they are on a much greater mission. They need to track down a girl with a map.
Donnie and Raph eventually fight them off, blowing up a cliff face to create separation between them and their foes. They stop at an abandoned rest area to look for supplies, but Raph is ambushed by none other than the girl Rex was tracking. Her name is Mira (she’s a meerkat, so of course it is), and the map is actually a tattoo on her arm. Her whole village tattooed the map, so as not to lose it, because it supposedly leads to Oasis. Unfortunately, Meera is the only survivor of her village.
While she initially tries to steal our duo’s van, she eventually falls in with the team. That will happen after several attacks by Rex and his crew. From here on out, the road trip becomes a mission to find those who can help Meera make sense of the map (it’s encoded in what everyone calls gibberish) and eventually lead them to Oasis. The team faces new threats, as Rex teams up with a clan of mutated lizard people, and reunite with old family.
Mira seeks an old wise man, who her village called the “Holy Chalupa.” This of course turns out to be Mikey, who’s been holed up in a Mexican/Italian pizzeria with Ice Cream Kitty and Chompy. He’s a little crazy, having only Kitty, Chompy, and some robotic restaurant mascots to talk to. He’s also been subsisting off of canned pizzas and insects for years.
Verminator Rex, however, is backed by Maximus Kong, Warrior Chief of the Wasteland (among many other titles listed by Mira in what is an obvious nod to Game of Thrones). Kong is a massive mutant, head concealed by a metal helmet. He drives an impossibly large vehicle, centered by a giant creepy skull, and commands sentient oil mutants who have their own cute, miniature wasteland armor. He wants Mira and her map, because the Oasis is the only land he hasn’t conquered, and he’s been searching for it for years.
This, of course, turns out to be Leonardo, revealed in a fight with Raphael. Leo is in a constant state of rage, caused by his second mutation in the center of the mutagen bomb. Leo nearly kills Raph, but stops when Raph refuses to defend himself and tells Leo that he loves him. The reminder of his family, combined with a massive crash of his impossibly large vehicle into the side of a mountain, finally snaps Leo out of his rage. Memories start flooding back to him, and we finally see what happened so many years ago; Leo saved his brothers from the epicenter of the mutagen bomb, but was stuck in the middle of the blast.
As stated in the beginning, it’s really hard to put a rating on this episode. “Raphael: Mutant Apocalypse” is an obvious send up to Mad Max, and even borrows some plot points from Fury Road. The creative team have always done a great job with these tributes, and this episode is no exception. The style is spot on; even the camera work is reminiscent of George Miller.
It was a smart move for Nickelodeon to air this as an hour long special. None of the cliffhangers were particularly suspenseful. It was pretty obvious that Raph and Donnie would be reuniting with Michelangelo. Would anyone believe Leo was being called the “Holy Chalupa?” Similarly, it wasn’t surprising that everyone survived the restaurant getting blown up, or that Raph and Mira would escape the Pit. Because of this, it was nice that we didn’t have to wait 3 weeks to get the whole story. Instead, we got a full length featured tale.
That being said, the conclusion did seem to come out of nowhere. After Leo is finally wrestled to his senses, there’s a quick whiteout, and suddenly we’re in Oasis. The four brothers have arrived with Mira, without incident. It’s a weird cut. Was there absolutely no trouble following the rest of the map? Did the brothers not see what each had been up to this whole time? Is no one concerned that Leo became a Wasteland conquering murderer? Does he feel no guilt over this? Would a whole other episode solve this problem? Who knows? But it’s jarring to rush to “everything’s great now.”
Additionally, the whole episode is just bittersweet. The episode was initially planned as the series finale, complete with a “For Kevin and Peter” at the end before the credits roll. Could you imagine this being the last episode you saw of this TMNT? Where after all the trials and tribulations, the victories and losses, the growth of each character, and the death of Splinter, it all ends with pretty much everyone dead? There’s no mention of April, Karai, Shinigami, the Mutanimals, or Renet! Casey’s lone appearance is HIS SKULL USED AS A BOMB TO SELF DESTRUCT THE TURTLE VAN! It’s no wonder Nickelodeon changed the airtime to Friday evenings.
But it’s moments like these that you have to remind yourself that not every story has to have a truly happy ending. Bittersweet is a valid decision. These Turtles have gone on all kinds of journeys, and this is the way that Ciro Nieli and his team decided to end it. Ultimately, it ended with all four brothers together and a new home.
A couple shout outs: The story is reminiscent of Andrew Modeen and Jim Lawsons “TMNT Odyssey.” We covered Modeen’s successful crowdfunding effort to create the followup “TMNT Origin.” Both stories take place in the original TMNT Mirage continuity, although they’re not technically canon. Regardless, “Odyssey” sees the Turtles in their advanced years, traveling through time to stop an evil force that is wiping out timelines. Think “Raphael: Mutant Apocalypse” combined with “Turtles Forever” and you’ve got a pretty good idea. You can check it out here if you missed it: http://www.thegreenlanterncorps.com/tmnt/odyssey.pdf
As usual, there were some pretty good references in this episode. Verminator Rex is a nod to Verminator X, a character from the Archie Turtle comics. He was a half cat cyborg, much like Rex is a honey badger with cybernetic enhancements. The mask on Casey’s skull (really hard to get over that) in the turtle van is a reference to the mask he wore in Image Comics. The Space Heroes the Next Generation joke was also good. It’s nice for the crew (or at least Raph) to finally realize that the shows they watch parallel the adventures they have.
“Raphael: Mutant Apocalypse” showed us the future of the Nickelodeon Turtles and it looks like our heroes have a rough life ahead of them. The risky conceit gave us a cruel world where the Turtles are torn apart, some literally, and forced to forge on when all they care about is taken away. Did the risk pay off? It’s hard to judge. If you’re willing to be open to the story of the episode, it’s really well told. That being said, it’s fair to say it’s not what we were expecting to see for this series. It’s so far in the future, and we’re given so few details on how this world was created, that it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t fit. But because we’re given so few details (Who dropped the mutagen bomb? How was it created? Why?) it’s hard to argue that it does. Additionally, the ending is so bittersweet, the whole experience comes off as sad. But sad doesn’t equal bad.
Judged on it’s own merits, “Raphael: Mutant Apocalypse” is probably a solid 9. But taken as a whole with the rest of the series, it comes down to a 7. There’s a weird symmetry of seeing this episode follow “Lone Rat and Cubs.” We saw the Turtles at the beginning of their lives, a troubled existence made better through family. This episode achieves much the same, only at the opposite time of their lives. It’s brutal and unforgiving, but ultimately tells it’s tale well. It’s hard to dock it, but it’s so brutal in it’s honesty that it got in the way of enjoying it when compared to the rest of the series. The Turtles deserve a happy ending.
Maybe that’s why Nickelodeon chose not to air this as the series finale? I guess we’ll find out as the series begins to wrap up.