The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as an elaborate joke. In 1983, comic artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird drew up some anthropomorphic, nun-chuck-toting, adolescent turtles, named them after Renaissance artists, placed them under the tutelage of a rat sensei, and unleashed them into the New York City sewer in an attempt to poke fun at the absurdity of popular contemporary comics like Daredevil and Ronin. But soon, TMNT grew into a billion-dollar kids entertainment franchise—complete with action figures, morning cartoons, video games, kid-friendly Archie Comics, and a live-action movie trilogy. The turtles lost their parodic context, and the teens evolved into real heroes in a half shell for the children of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Some aspects of this mass-marketed Turtle Power tested the bounds of credulity. (If these ninja turtles all grew up in the same sewer, why did one of them talk like a Southern California surfer dude and another a cab driver from the Bronx?) But for a little girl growing up in the TMNT era, one part felt a little too real: The turtles, all boys, spent their time honing their mental and physical skills to achieve their goal of protecting New York City from criminal threats while strengthening their brotherhood bond along the way. Meanwhile, the only girl allowed in the sewer, hard-nosed human television reporter April O’Neil, was constantly sacrificing her own career in order to serve the turtles’ storyline. Girl, why are you sitting around serving pizza to teenagers when you have just stumbled onto the story of the century—a new race of enormous reptiles possessing human intelligence and superhuman strength?
Take the 1990 live-action film, where April finally managed to escape the nonsensical cleavage-baring yellow jumpsuit she wore throughout the animated television series in favor of a refreshingly practical, slightly frazzled, harried journalist look. Unfortunately, her character arc did not receive a similar makeover: She spends most of the film emitting high-pitched squeals, losing her job, getting kidnapped by villains and recovered by turtles, and falling in love with a hockey-mask-wearing vigilante crime fighter. If Eastman and Laird had ever intended April as a meta commentary of the way women are treated in the comic world, she was now officially just another maternal yet babelicious prop for the bad guys to steal, and the good guys to rescue.
That’s why the Michael Bay-produced live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, released this week, is such a satisfying watch for an all-grown-up girl of the ‘80s. Yes, the new movie is truly awful, but the gender politics, at least, have improved.
When Megan Fox was cast as April, Laird complained that there were “hundreds of better choices for the role.” But Fox—the actress Bay previously hired to play an animated wet dream in his Transformers movies, then fired for being too sassy—is actually perfectly cast as a woman who’s long been dismissed as just a pretty face, and is itching to step into a more challenging role. In this iteration, April still ultimately chooses to team up with the ninja turtles instead of exposing them to make her name as a serious journalist. But this time, the movie actually writes April her own superheroine backstory (as a little girl, April bravely saved the mutant baby turtles that later grew into ninja teens) and gives her a real motivation for compromising her career (she does it, naturally, to avenge her father’s death). Along the way, she’s allowed to push some big buttons, flip some important levers, and drop-kick some evil villains as she fights alongside the turtles to defeat a corporate terrorist hell-bent on chemically attacking New York City in order to secure some government grants. It’s all incredibly stupid. But at least it’s equally stupid for girls and boys.