Something's been bugging me about that new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trailer, and it's not the redesign of the titular Heroes in a Half Shell.
When the trailer dropped last Thursday, it was immediately met with complaints about the look of the Turtles. Many longtime fans lamented that these weren't the Turtles of old, the Turtles of their respective youths, and while I can certainly understand those complaints (I made more than one joke about Leonardo's unnecessary bamboo chest armor), something else hit me harder.
My concern was in the brooding musical tones that hit before a single second of footage rolled, in the moody lighting, apocalyptic imagery and foreboding voiceover about a city overrun with crime. As I watched the trailer, then watched it again (and again), I worried not because the Turtles looked a bit different, but because this seemed to be another reboot of a beloved franchise that leaned heavily on a dark and gritty feel, despite the fun the Turtles themselves seemed to have.
With that in mind, it was very heartening to hear new Turtles screenwriter Andre Nemec weigh in the day after the trailer was released, assuring us all that his writing hadn't gone for a tone and style similar to that touchstone of dark and gritty genre cinema, The Dark Knight, and that the film he helped make is indeed something "fun" that isn't going to leave us "fearful." It was great to hear that from Nemec, rather than a defense of a dark, moody, more "realistic" reboot of the Turtles story. He seems genuinely enthusiastic about generating something entertaining that won't just matter to adults who've loved the franchise for decades, and that makes me happy.
Then I watched the trailer again, and I realized that, even if Nemec didn't intend it with the screenplay he co-wrote, the tone set by that footage is very much on the gritty, gloomy, we-need-heroes-to-save-us-from-a-world-of-ultimate-evil side. I realized that, even if the filmmakers didn't set out to make it that way, the marketing engine for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is, so far, leaning very much on The Dark Knight-inspired, dark and gritty end of genre reboots. And that, in itself, is cause for concern.
And yes, I know I'm overusing words like "dark" and "gritty" here, but they're the agreed-upon buzzwords for so many movies like this, and I'm trying to hammer a point home:
I'm sick and tired of reboots that rely on grim, gritty darkness to sell their premises to me when grim, gritty darkness simply isn't called for.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about four turtles mutated into giant ninjutsu masters by green ooze. Their teacher is a talking rat. Their worst enemy is basically a walking razor blade. They love pizza and say things like "Cowabunga!" They're named after Renaissance artists. I don't care how great your suspension of disbelief is, that's all very, very weird, and yet the franchise keeps making money nearly 30 years after its creation because people simply love the fun of it.
But those ominous tones that kicked off the TMNT trailer are just one symptom of a larger problem (yes, I said problem) enveloping much of this reboot-happy age. I've seen it in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot when producer Matthew Vaughn specifically promised his film was "not stretchy guy and a guy running around in rock," in the proposed Zorro reboot that will bring "gritty realism" and an "emotional core" to the screen just like The Dark Knight (yes, that comparison was actually made), in Man of Steel's efforts to wash any trace of bright color or Midwestern optimism from Superman, and give us instead a scowling, screaming Man of Angst, and in Andy Serkis's assertion that his remake of The Jungle Book won't "shy away from darkness." All of these films seem to be part of a pack of cinema that's utterly devoted to tone-setting words like "gritty," "relatable," "realistic" and "depressing" (OK, I added the last one). They seem glued to the idea that, in order for us to care about these decidedly unrealistic things, we have to be convinced that they're straight-up, relentlessly, capital S SERIOUS, because it's not like any of these characters have maintained a degree of popularity across multiple decades and multiple generations, or anything.
And yes, I know that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film we all see in August could offer much more fun than the trailer suggests, and I'm hoping that's the case. I also know that some of these films will work very well with a heavy layer of darkness applied (the trailers for the upcoming Godzilla reboot set a great apocalyptic tone), and that, if I don't want darkness, I can go have fun with the more balanced, fun films Marvel Studios keeps churning out. Here's the thing, though: I'm greedy. I don't want to settle for the level of fun we have now. I want more optimism in these movies, as much for myself as for young fans whose parents shouldn't have to worry that a Superman movie will scare them.
I don't love this stuff because I like contemplating the existential dilemma that comes with being a sword-swinging talking turtle. I love this stuff because talking turtles and thunder gods and aliens from Krypton are fun, and I'd like the ratio of grit to grinning to shift a little back in the direction of that fun, if only because nothing feels better than watching the hero save the day and then leaving the theater with a smile while kids run around the lobby spouting their favorite lines and basking in the glow of their new fandom.
I don't know how to stop this movement. I just know that I'm tired of it, and while I certainly love a good dark genre ride now and then, I'm sick of feeling like just about every flick coming down the pike is leading me in that direction. Call me naive if you want, but don't try to tell me a genre blockbuster movie can't deliver an epic battle for the ages and make you smile. If you still think that, Robert Downey Jr.'s got a pile of money he could swim in that begs to differ.
Cheer up, Hollywood. Turtle Power is fun.