All action, some plot, negligible character development, and no stakes: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Michael Bay sits in the lotus position, his face obscured by shadow. A masculine, virile, yet clearly somewhat lesser human specimen kneels at his feet. “You summoned me, my master?”
“My apprentice, sources have uncovered one last 20th century franchise to be resurrected. It is beneath my considerable gifts, but perhaps your time has come, young Liebesman.”
“I am unworthy of this honour, my sensei, but I will not let you down.”
“Only the first-week international box office receipts can determine that. Next!”
A supple brunette sashays nervously into view, the camera panning across her posterior. “Michael Bay-san, I beg you to take me back. I should never have called you Hitler…”
What's more improbable, that Michael Bay's produced a watchable 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, or that the original 1990 film's aged shockingly well? The original's a stellar, if lightweight, example of old-school Hollywood screenplay construction, where motivations, development and conflict exist for even trivial characters. It's entirely a product of the times, but that's why it works. At the tail end of New York's notorious, crime-rampant 1980s, what other logical solution is left but four heroic, wisecracking mutant turtles? Its deeply moral emotional core - where absent fathers create wayward teens, and a devoted rat raises a family of real outcasts with unconditional love - gives the film genuine stakes. It instantly validates the absurdity of its premise.
But what place do the Ninja Turtles have in 2014? Remove the gritty New York setting, and they're nothing more than a grab bag of traits and catchphrases: irrevocably 80s, Domino's-sponsored signifiers of “cool” from more innocent times. TMNT began as satire, but those earnest Saturday morning cartoons that made it famous - alongside He-Man, Transformers etc. - could never quite transcend its origins in merchandise. They were always some adult's non-threatening idea of cool. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a little more than any another passing kids' fad, but there's a reason its cultural phenomenon peaked in 1990, on the cusp of The Simpsons and gen-X alternative.
Michael Bay, though, isn't having any of that. Is childhood nostalgia his burden, or your problem? Despite their faults – and honestly, because of them – his Transformers films are undeniably now. Age of Extinction depicts American masculinity in crisis, funded by Chinese investors; it's a screed against tech, military and government erosions of privacy, no doubt rendered on state-of-the-art Apple computers. TMNT, though, embodies nothing about 2014 except the endless cycle of nostalgia. It's a bizarre catch-22: to be anything more than a family-friendly diversion, you need something realer than cartoon villains, but if they're truly threatening, it blows up the marketability. Here, they're shadowy ninja terrorists, but can you imagine this film taking itself seriously enough to attempt, even unintentionally, a fucking 9/11 allegory? On the other hand, go full brain in a jar gonzo, and it might as well be Alvin and the Chipmunks.
And so, TMNT 2014's all action, some plot, negligible character development, and no stakes whatsoever. It's sincerely invested in the series' mythology, not so self-aware that it's annoying, and sometimes even genuinely fun! Michael Bay's films are all kinetic energy, joy through movement; all those typically obnoxious video game 360-degree spins are, for once, welcome.
Did Megan Fox get interesting, or did I get boring? April O'Neil is the definitive Megan Fox role, in that it's utterly thankless, and – put this on her tombstone – everyone takes her character less seriously for not obsessing over her own attractiveness. She's the top-billed cast member, and the plot revolves around her, but she's still the straight woman surrounded by a bunch of overgrown sidekicks. Her comic timing's pretty good against dudes in ridiculous motion capture suits; her romantic chemistry with, of all people, Will Arnett, is non-existent – which is the point! She's hardly giving a movie star performance, but it's no star role either. Fuck GQ and Esquire; Megan Fox's place is in every mega-budget B-movie more prestigious actresses won't take. She'll cop shit from men and women alike, roll her eyes at love interests, maybe even call the director Hitler…
These days, studios are so hungry they'll revive franchises absolutely no one is asking for, then hire directors to do reboots less gritty than the original (see also: RoboCop). Financially, a known property's as close to a guaranteed win as you can get. But culturally, it reeks of desperation. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn't exactly soulless, per se; it's just that there's no plane of existence on which it could possibly have a soul. It's pleasant, it exists; it makes no argument whatsoever for its own relevance. For all of Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman's best efforts, you just can't polish a turtle.