By 1990, there hadn’t been all that many comic-to-film adaptations. With the exception of BATMAN (1989) and the SUPERMAN franchise (then-starring Christopher Reeve), films in the genre were not the box office tentpoles that they often are now. Compared to current trends, there was far more of an emphasis in the 1980s on adapting lesser known comic characters and properties to film, with the likes of THE PUNISHER (1989), HOWARD THE DUCK (1986), RED SONJA (1985), SWAMP THING (1982), and HEAVY METAL (1981) having as much in common with the counter culture as popular culture. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES would release in 1990 to nearly unheard of success, following a wildly successful animated series and a highly revered – though decidedly darker – comic book (pulled from the pages of HEAVY METAL, as it were). Turtlesmania would finally make its way to the big screen and it would be totally radical.
In the move from comic to film, TMNT would challenge – if not flat out alter – audience expectations. By 1990, the likely adult comic nerds that had embraced the heroes in a halfshell on the page throughout the 1980s, had been seemingly abandoned in favor of a much younger – and much more profitable – demographic via TV and merchandising. However, the comic would continue being published alongside the series – and subsequently the films – providing not only multiple arcs for fans to follow, but different tones for different tastes and/or age groups. What most don’t realize, is that the turtles were violent on page. Really, really violent. Heads would be severed, thugs would be brutally beaten and, most of all, everything had consequences. This was as far from the realm of Saturday morning cartoons that you could get yet, somehow, the cross over worked.
There had been a tendency to turn violent properties into kids’ material in the 1980s, either as toys or cartoons. Franchises like RAMBO, THE TOXIC AVENGER, ROBOCOP, HIGHLANDER and CONAN all made it to the small screen and all in iterations consumable by children who should not have been familiar with the characters in the first place. Strangely enough, TMNT follows this paradigm yet most would never know. The comic that ran concurrently with the kid friendly TV show, got progressively darker through the 1990s, until Image Comics – famous for creating SPAWN – bought the property in 1996 and toned down the grime and upped the action.
Despite following on the heels of a very tamed TV series, the 1990 film would surprisingly retain some of the grit associated with TMNT comics. The film is (naturally) set in New York City and takes place predominantly at night – when the turtles can come out – allowing for all sorts of dread and filth associated with the city to work its way into the aesthetics of the film as well as the story. The story itself deviates from both the comic and TV series, allowing for yet another TMNT arc to develop. Arguably the most prestigious element of the film adaptation is the presence of Jim Henson Studios, who developed all of the animatronics used for the turtles and other characters, and was a pretty high stamp of approval for an independently produced – no studio wanted this! – film about crime fighting turtles.
Perhaps the biggest legacy of TMNT 1990 isn’t the two sequels spawned – which aren’t very good, save for The Ninja Rap – but the amount of lesser known comics properties that followed in the turtles’ footsteps to the big screen throughout the 1990s. Films like THE CROW, JUDGE DREDD, TANK GIRL, SPAWN and, um, STEEL all owe a big debt to TMNT’s first foray to the big screen. It made $200 million on a $13 million budget, making it one of the highest grossing independent films of all time; it was released well prior to films like PULP FICTION, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. And, unlike those films, it’s not even a ‘prestige’ picture. It’s a movie about talking, pizza eating, karate kicking TURTLES. And it was created by two guys from a small town in NH, making comics because they wanted to. Not a studio or corporation. TMNT may have changed its target audience from decade to decade and medium to medium, but it’s still going strong and its DIY ethos has somehow always permeated each iteration. Cowabunga.