As leader and eldest brother, Leonardo is in charge of strategy and maintaining the order between his brothers. He is the most dependable turtle in battle, and provides a strong example for the others, always willing to be a part of the action. But every day he grows more accustomed to giving out orders as well, helping his brothers act as a unit, harnessing their strengths for the greater good. Though often at odds with Raphael, Leo pushes through the trouble, and continues to expect the best from his team. Through years of training, Leonardo stands ready to protect everyone he loves, and would gladly lay down his life if so required.
Even when first introduced, Leonardo was always given special significance, though his position as leader wasn’t spelled out until much later. Like all the turtles, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book had Leo in a red bandana, but also as the strategist that should be considered a leader (though he often found his confidence lacking, inhibiting his growth and overall effectiveness). After the Shredder’s first defeat, battles with the Foot Clan and Karai left Leonardo wondering how he would continue to lead his brothers as their personalities developed in ways that didn’t always mesh. But he persevered, and ultimately was able to become the leader that Master Splinter had always envisioned. His brothers, his father, and his friends turned to him for support and guidance, knowing that he would keep them safe as countless threats to their lives appeared in New York City.
During the 1987 animated series, Leonardo retained his cool confidence, but his role was also much more defined. He was explicitly enumerated as leader of the team (in the opening theme song, no less), and he now wore a blue bandana. He was the epitome of the word “hero,” right down to the straight-laced style with which he approached life, and especially battle. Also intact was his greatest shortcoming: A lack of confidence. Several episodes dealt with it as his fear and nightmare, and even forced him to leave his family to do some soul searching. In all incarnations, Leonardo had a special fondness for a human kunoichi, usually named Karai, and the 1987 series was no different (though her name was Lotus Blossom).
When the first animated series ended, the short-lived live action show began. TMNT: The Next Mutation tried to play on the success of the feature films, and incorporated many of the turtles’ characteristics from that part of the franchise. Leonardo retained his leadership role and qualities, including his propensity for strategy, but also maintained his less desirable characteristics, like the constant bickering with Raphael. These personality aspects continued into the 2003 animated series. Leo was the leader from the outset (which really has more to do with being established as a fact over 16 years of material, and less with any sort of grand stylistic choice on the part of this incarnation’s creators), and acted like a hero in everything that he did, to the point of sometimes being a little too self-righteous. One interesting addition to his personality was the effect that a lack of confidence and constant war can have on a soldier, and the turtle developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Also developed were parts of his training and that were barely touched on before, including the spiritual aspects of ninjutsu. His focus and determination helped him master the legendary Sword of Tengu, and become a ki dragon while training with the Ninja Tribunal, among other showcases.
The 2012 incarnation showed Leonardo as his typical self, retaining many of his developed character traits. His leadership qualities are ever-present (though several times already in the show’s short life, they’ve been the cause of much strife for the turtle), he maintains a strong dedication to his training, and he’s always fighting to protect his brothers’ lives. However, this time his achievements and struggles make sense, because the “teenage” part of the turtles is actually worked into the story. He has proven several times already that he will make a rash decision, including his choice to spend time with Karai instead of help his brothers. He also faces constant challenge from his own insecurity, barely managing to face his confidence issues to fight off mutant fungi threatening the entire city. He still finds a special bond with Karai, though knowing that she is Master Splinter’s lost daughter gives him more reason to fight to save her from Shredder’s control.
In the first four feature films, Leonardo is given his strict leader role, with little else emerging in his personality. He fought for his brothers, and tried to protect them from danger during the first three movies, but he did little else (or had opportunity to showcase more, due in large part to the films’ nature as vehicles for the action above all else, including character development). In the fourth film, though, his no-nonsense leadership and strict training come through when he returns to NYC, helping him to be a more focused and dedicated ninja. The 2014 TMNT film will likely encourage his leadership aspects yet again, though what else will be a part of him remains to be seen.
When pop culture looks for protypical heroes, there are many names that come to mind. Leonardo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is certainly one of them. He constantly strives to be morally upstanding, obedient, and righteous, which certainly gets on his brothers’ nerves from time to time (especially Raphael). His comic version will always be the source of his personality, but fortunately it is not the only part of him anymore. Like the other turtles, Leo had a propensity for common ninja violence in the comic, which included killing an enemy if needed. Something like that certainly isn’t part of his personality now, and that stems from the fact that he has seen other incarnations that added to who he is as a character, developing the strong leader that exists 30 years later.
Though it propelled the turtles to pop culture fame, the 1987 series did a lot of damage to the characters themselves. First, they weren’t allowed to show much individuality. All four sort of just existed, and they were very much the same turtle, with maybe one little unique aspect (like Leo’s leadership). They were also portrayed as very dopey caricatures most of the time, which only worked because the show was meant for a Saturday morning audience that consisted of little kids. The hard-hitting turtles of the comics wouldn’t have played well. (Though it was still fun to see them side-by-side in Turtles Forever.) Leonardo suffered even more because Raphael and Michelangelo were the most popular characters, and were thus given the most individual episodes/action.
The 2003 series, however, was a marked departure from its predecessors. Even though the show took some 1987 wacky turns in its later years, there was a heavy focus on character development from beginning to end. All the turtles were better off for it, especially Leonardo. Some aspects of his personality were untapped, including his propensity for the spiritual side of ninjutsu and what the labors of his constant training could actually produce in a leader and ninja. Even the bad was included, which always makes characters stronger and more relatable. If a rigid hero like Leonardo is seen to suffer from a condition like PTSD, he immediately becomes more likeable and sympathetic, increasing his popularity among viewers. He even had his own students by the end of the show, helping his ninja training come full circle, and preparing him for his next step in life. Really, this incarnation gave Leo the most usable aspects of personality that could be adapted and incorporated into his future selves.
Part of the 2012 series’ strength is in the way it uses and develops all aspects that the turtles should have. That includes the “teenage” part of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Leonardo shows why that part is so important in his own development, because the struggles he has with leadership and control (as well as his fighting with Raphael) make more sense when they happen to a teenager. Through two seasons, though, he’s showing remarkable growth as a hero, with his struggle as a leader constantly on display in new and interesting ways, and each development helps him to become more of the ninja master he hopes to be. The constant attention to what it means to be in charge is proof of that, and Leo’s continued attention to his own shortcomings make him an even more likeable character.
While every incarnation is going to pick and choose what it wants to use for these characters, certain aspects will always hold true. Even with the constant development, there are parts of Leonardo that will be ever-present. He is a leader among leaders, a strong ninja, and an exceptional comrade on the battlefield. He is the archetype of the hero, and will stand the test of time as one of the greats.