In the gloaming of the 21st Century’s second decade, the pop-cultural narrative has been dominated by superhero mash-ups and the idea of shared universes.
From the MCU to the DCEU, from Ready Player One to Wreck-It Ralph, audiences have favoured combination over innovation. Whether you deride it as the end of culture, or forgive it as a collective grasp for familiarity in a world too mad to comprehend, it’s hard to deny that it is, for better or worse, what people want.
So it is that we find ourselves watching Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Fears of a cultural nadir aside, there’s tons to enjoy in this surprisingly apposite meeting. Batman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are all, at their core, city-based crimefighters with an animal theme and a plenty of martial arts moves. Although it could be goofy to put them alongside one another – the Turtles were, after all, created as a parody of characters like Batman – there’s more than enough shared space in both narrative and thematic terms to prevent it feeling that way.
In this instance, the Turtles head from New York to Gotham on the trail of Shredder and the Foot Clan, only to find them allied with characters from Batman’s own expansive rogues’ gallery. Pummelling ensues. You won’t need a degree to understand the plot – but if the child in you doesn’t find it cool, what are you even doing here?
Based, albeit loosely, on the comic book series of the same concept, this feature-length animated movie absolutely delivers on both action and character. The turtle family – Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael – are so well-defined in their own right that it’s easy to watch them bounce off a hyper-serious Batman, a resourceful Batgirl, a bratty Robin, and an uptight Alfred. Batman sees a little of himself in each of the Turtles – Leonardo’s determination, Donatello’s intelligence, Raphael’s self-sufficiency, and Michaelangelo’s empathy. Likewise, those characters’ traits reflect off him.
Admittedly, the plot – fuelled by mutagen, as so many TMNT adventures are – isn’t exactly gripping. But watching Batman fight the Shredder to a standstill is worth the price of admission alone – a proper thrill in a movie that doesn’t quite reach far enough or move fast enough to be anything more than diverting. Given how audacious this idea could have been, the movie is a little too traditional.
It would be easier to explain the dull story away as an attempt to stay comprehensible for kids, were it not for a level of violence that absolutely rules that out. Likewise, it lacks the inventive visuals and accelerated narrative of Batman Ninja, which remains the high bar for visuals in animated Batman features (Mask of the Phantasm be damned).
Luckily the dialogue mitigates the fairly workmanlike choices behind the story and animation – it’s hard not to smirk as the Turtles pass judgement on just how crazy a place Gotham is (and how weirdly similar to New York it seems – aside from the blimps). Commentary that’s self-aware without being disrespectful.
Despite all this, the biggest shame is that the film doesn’t try to do more. Appearances by villains that could have carried the whole story are made little more than cameos, while the Turtles’ supporting cast doesn’t get a chance to make an appearance. Perhaps they’ll make up for it in a reciprocal entry, and if so this one was good enough to make that worth seeing. For now, this is one of the better entries into DC’s animated canon and while it isn’t the best Batman movie or the best TMNT movie, it’s more than worth the time you spend watching it.
Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download now.