Op-Ed: The Character Assassination of Leonardo
Recently, Nickelodeon revealed its plans for the latest TMNT animated series, titled “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” While we were given a look at the fancy new logo and the new voice cast, the biggest news is the changes to the characters themselves. While Mikey and Donnie were left relatively unscathed, the same cannot be said for their brothers. Raphael is now the team leader. As unnerving as that may sound, it is not without precedent. Several episodes of the 2012 series – as well as the movie TMNT: Out of the Shadows – saw Raphael take on leadership roles. However, the changes made to Leonardo demonstrate not only a lack of understanding of who the character is, it makes him fully unrecognizable.
Before continuing any further, I am aware that these are opinions I have formed based on only the information available to us at this time. More facts and details may trickle out which may render this editorial obsolete. But for right now, we know only a few things about the Rise incarnation of Leonardo. He’s voiced by Parks and Recreation‘s Ben Schwartz. He is not the team leader. He is the self-proclaimed “coolest” member of the quartet. That’s it. Of those three items, the only one to like is the casting of Schwartz, who by all accounts is a genuinely funny and likable person in real life, and I’ll reserve judgment on him until we are actually given a performance to evaluate. The other two items, however, spit in the face of a characterization built upon over several decades.
Everyone has a favorite Turtle. Most people claim either Mikey, Donnie, or Raph are their favorites, and its easy to understand why. Mikey is the fun one. Donnie is smart enough to build anything from whatever they come across in the sewers – plus he can be a bit of a goofball too. Raphael is angsty and won’t take crap from anyone. Leonardo, by comparison, is the boy scout of the group. His defining characteristic is that he leads the team, and that’s pretty much it (although that can be attributed to the famous theme song). His nickname among the fanbase (and later incorporated into the 2012 series) is “Lamenardo.” But for some fans, he is their favorite Turtle for that very reason. He may be “lame,” but he’s also the one that the other three turn to for leadership and to make tough decisions. In addition, there’s been a concerted effort to boost his profile in recent years.
Leonardo played an integral role in the 2003 animated series. He was shown not only to be just a leader, but a skilled warrior that could go toe-to-toe with the best fighters in the world. He took on the Shredder single-handed and not only survived, but defeated him in resounding fashion. The show also played up his reverence to Splinter and the path of honor. He became kind and welcoming, which enabled him to befriend others including Miyamoto Usagi in the inevitable crossover. This character development continued with the launch of the 2011 comic series from IDW Publishing, and the 2012 animated series from Nickelodeon. In the IDW series, Leonardo was captured and brainwashed into being the Shredder’s chunin. During this period, not only was Leonardo under intense psychological strain, but his absence was felt by his brothers.
These are great stories featuring Leonardo. The IDW series in particular has done a lot to give readers a definitive version of the Turtles – Leonardo included. The problem is that the audience for these stories is limited. September 2017 saw sales of the main TMNT comic of 12,936, good for 156th place. Most young Turtle fans gain their appreciation and understanding of the characters from the cartoons. And if the news is true, a generation of Turtle fans won’t know who Leonardo really is.