When Raphael gets angry, you don’t want to be nearby. Whether one of his brothers or a Foot Clan warrior, the hot-headed turtle with turn his temper on anyone around. But, that doesn’t mean his skills as a ninja should be underestimated, nor should his heart. He constantly fights to protect those he cares about, especially his brothers. Even though he teases Michelangelo and Donatello, and constantly fights with Leonardo, there’s nothing that Raph wouldn’t do for any of them at a moment’s notice. Though he’s had ample opportunity to prove it (and hasn’t really), Raphael still maintains that he would make a more effectively leader than his older brother. The only things stopping him are his hot head and the fact that he really does work better as an individual (even though he can be a team player when the situation calls for it).
Since the comic first came out, Raphael has been the most aggressive turtle. He always does exactly what’s needed to get the job done, and like the other turtles had no fear of killing Foot Clan ninjas if needed. Unlike later versions, though, the comics saw such a bad temper in Raphael that he would actually black out in fits of rage. Also, one of his strongest relationships was with his littlest brother, Michelangelo. Though often seen teasing him, Raph would vehemently protect Mikey from anyone who tried to hurt him.
During the 1987 series, Raphael went through the most noticeable character overhaul. His anger was significantly reduced, and his edge disappeared entirely. In its place was a dry, sarcastic wit that played better with children. The rivalry with Leonardo all but disappeared as well, leaving what was really a pale imitation of the character that had been created in the original incarnation. The only thing that did stick around was his position as the first to charge into battle. Unfortunately, the others were never far behind, so Raph had no real defining characteristics.
TMNT: The Next Mutationwas trying to develop the turtles along the same lines as their feature film selves, which meant Raphael got some of his edge back. Unfortunately, that edge was treated as more “rebellious” than “angry”, so his feud with Leonardo, his desire to be leader, and his play for Venus de Milo’s affections were tinged with a sort of James Dean vibe, rather than his killer instinct from the comics. Fortunately, the 2003 animated series changed much of that. His temper was back in spades (though he didn’t kill anyone this time), his rivalry with Leonardo drove much of the first two seasons, and he was back to showing his odd mixture of picking on but still caring about Michelangelo and Donatello. He was loyal to his brothers, but still wanted to be his own turtle, even if that meant disobeying his Master to do what he thought was best.
In the 2012 series, Raphael is the turtle that fans have come to expect over the last 30 years. His anger, his rivalry, and his wit are all intact, and it makes him not only the first to enter combat, but also the most angst-ridden teenager on the team. His personality puts him at odds with Leonardo constantly, and the two learning to accept each other and work together has helped both to grow as individuals. His softer side is present, too, though, as evidenced through his care of his pet turtle, Spike. He’s had his chance to be team leader when Leonardo has gone through an identity crisis (and he learned just how difficult it is to make the tough calls in the midst of danger), and he’s even discovered how much trouble his anger can cause (seeing Slash latch onto it and hurt his brothers, and seeing Casey beat a guy to within an inch of his life).
The extent of Raphael’s temper in the movies was focused on disobeying Splinter’s orders. Even though that was often directed at Leonardo, it sprang from his problem with the rat master’s orders. He would often go rogue, but it would always end in him being hurt, and forcing his brothers to come to his rescue.
Raphael’s anger is always open to debate. Whether it springs from actual rage, a disinterest in authority, or some sort of self-consciousness, it is ever-present and the focus of many disputes among the family. If it does stem from self-consciousness, then that makes Raph something of a stereotype: He’s the short, stocky brother with a bad attitude. It’s almost as if he walked out of a dance club in a movie, and someone made fun of him for being short. While there was probably no intention to make him like that, there’s something about his appearance and personality that just seem to work well together (which we can probably thank Hollywood for).
Of all the turtles, Raphael is perhaps the most static. The 2012 series has added a lot to his character, and there have been flashes of other traits over the years, but he’s always associated with his anger, and it’s always played up as his most important (or at least driving) characteristic. Fortunately, recent episodes have shown more growth in overcoming his anger, or at least understanding how problematic it can be. But sometimes all it takes to comprehend an issue is to see it present in another (like Slash or Casey). Still missing from any version, though, is a showcase of Raph using his anger to be a better ninja. He never once focuses it or uses it to better accomplish a mission. When he can, he will truly have embraced and worked through his fatal flaw.
Despite being one dimensional in a lot of respects, Raphael shows a lot of potential. His ninja skills are only surpassed by Leonardo, and while that causes a lot of friction, it also provides the most respect. Leo and Raph both understand their skill, and look at each other as sort of the “A-Team” when it comes to entering battle and kicking butt. Raphael will often uses his skills when he’s on his own, though, especially in situations where he’s on patrol to cool off, or as in the fourth movie when he brings vigilante justice to NYC. Really the only thing perceived as keeping him down in terms of success is the shadow cast by his older brother. If he could overcome that feeling, odds are that he’d be able to truly flourish as a ninja and individual. But the fault isn’t only on Raph. Leonardo believes that strict training is the only way to be a ninjutsu master, and he won’t accept that each individual (and turtle) has his own way of finding and measuring success. Their idiosyncrasies may be completely out of tune, but they still have that respect for ability. If they can simply find that acceptance of what each has to offer ninja training, then they will finally overcome their differences and able to work toward a stronger ninja team.
The greatest detriment to Raphael’s character has come from lack of opportunity to showcase any real emotion other than anger. While the 2003 and 2012 series have helped in that regard, Raph is still little more than his temper. Unfortunately, when stories have to be told in 20 minutes, and each of 5-10 characters has to see some action and do something useful, there’s not a whole lot of time for individualization. (It also doesn’t help when one of the incarnations is nothing but a 10-season toy commercial, and there was no care given to character or plot development.) However, it looks like Raphael will get more opportunity to shine as an individual, and he’ll always be a better character for it.