Turtle acceptance and suspension of disbelief

Have modern movies increased our ability to accept outlandish heroes like the Ninja Turtles? Yes, and it's a good thing, James writes...

There’s a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie out. It’s a franchise reboot, bringing the iconic brand back to the big-screen in a fresh live-action feature. You’re probably familiar with TMNT having consumed the Turtletastic mythos in some format – comics, cartoons, older movies, videogames, action figures, Lego and/or Vanilla Ice music videos.

Don’t worry if you’re not clued up on this cowabunga business, though, because I’m going to break it down and run over the basics on which this mighty multimedia property is built. Here’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a nutshell – or rather, in a turtle shell – as conceived by comics creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird way back in 1984.

The basic story – or at least, the high concept – goes like this: once upon a time in New York City there were four baby turtles and through a quirk of fate they ended up coming into contact with some radioactive ‘ooze’ (or Mutagen, if you like). This transformed the little guys into anthropomorphised bigger guys – turtles with human characteristics like advanced intellect, ability to walk as bipedals, speech capability and an insatiable appetite for pizza.

A rat called Splinter was also on the scene and he, likewise, was mutated by the Ooze (accounts differ depending on the version and medium but ultimately, he’s a great sage mutant rat). He took the foursome under his wing (erm, tail) and raised them as his sons in the sewers of NYC. What’s more, he took on the role and responsibility of being their martial arts master because he’s an enlightened and adept rodent with ninjitsu knowledge. As the pet rat of a Japanese ninja, Splinter mimicked his own Master’s moves and became proficient but, tragically, his lord was murdered. 

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Thus, skipping several steps on a journey that crosses from Japan to New York and involves villains Shredder and the Foot Clan (you’ll get to all that later), we have a sewer lair with an oversized ninja master rat and four shellbacked reptile students. Splinter names the turtles Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo after great Renaissance artists. They all wear different colour bandana masks and wield a signature weapon: Leonardo the leader in blue with a Japanese sword; Donny the purple science whizz handles a bō staff; red Raphael rages with twin sai; and Mikey is the ‘party dude’ who rocks a pair of nunchaku.

After fifteen years of tuition under Splinter’s mentorship, the adolescent turtles take to the streets to tackle crime, battle the big bad guys linked in with their elaborate backstory, do good deeds, befriend local good-deed-doing human beings, party a bit and eat pizza. All these things are things that heroes do, and they are heroes who happen to be teenagers, mutants, ninjas and turtles. They are, thus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

This whole premise is brilliant (so brilliant that the new movie presents a different backstory but, hey, that’s an issue for another article, another time). Even accepting that we’re not getting into the nitty-gritty – the nuanced complexities, the variations across diverse media and all the other characters and features that flesh out the Turtles multiverse – the fact that we are facing a fantastic concept here can’t be disputed.

It is also patently ludicrous. I repeat again – from a cold, objective perspective like an emotionless anthropologist with something of Spock about him – that we are dealing with sewer-dwelling reptiles that have been turned into humanoid martial artists thanks to a combination of exposure to radioactive materials and the teachings of a ninja master rat. They have a fondness for pizza, catchy catchphrases (“cowabunga!”) and they spend their nights street-fighting in New York City. Sometimes they are fighting alien invaders and other mutant anthropomorphic animals. Sometimes they are kicking it with Vanilla Ice. 

Is this silly? Yes it is, but no it isn’t and this paradox is perfectly fine and needn’t hurt anyone, whether they be reptile, rodent, human being, Krang or some mutating hybrid of a different kind. The quintessence of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an imaginative, highly creative and very fun idea and it works and appeals to many people – in spite of its far-fetched nature and its inherent absurdity – because of a magical thing called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

Exactly as it says on the tin – yes, there’s a tin. Picture a tin that says ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ – this term refers to the process whereby viewers abandon their real-world scepticism so they can fully immerse themselves in a work of fiction. If they can’t suspend disbelief and put doubt and the rigid confines of rational knowledge aside when it comes to, say, a film or a book, chances are the experience will be problematic. They won’t enjoy the artwork on its own terms, they won’t be able to go along with its narrative and fabricated world and they probably won’t be able to enjoy themselves.

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Instead, they’ll constantly be interrupting the flow with thoughts of “that’s impossible!”, “that’s unbelievable!” “that’s unacceptably unrealistic!” or – the worst one, because sarcasm stings – “yeah, right!” I personally don’t want to be one of those people, so the challenge is both for me as an individual to retain a sense of open-minded imaginative wonder and for filmmakers to make the experience credible and immersive, no matter how far out their film concept is.

I’ll leave the latter to the professionals and the inspired artists and storytellers who are more than capable when it comes to crafting compelling fictions to amaze and absorb the masses. As for the former, I don’t think I’m in danger of fatally disabling my internal ‘suspension of disbelief’ device any time soon. 

Suspension of Disbelief, I realise, is something that I have no trouble and which I now see surely as my standard, default setting. I came to this beautiful realisation as I thought about the Turtles in anticipation of the reboot movie. Taking a conscious moment to reduce it all down to the raw ‘what is this actually about?’ state I find that I accept it in matter-of-fact fashion.

The only things knocking me out of that state when I actually saw the movie were the nonsensical villain plot and some comments from Whoopi Goldberg’s and Will Arnett’s characters (because ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ sounded just plain stoopid to them, the myopic, unimaginative fools). Aside from those distracting moments, I completely buy into this craziness and surrender to it without any reservations, and I’m not even a hugely knowledgeable Turtles super-fan. (Here I kneel before the mighty Matt Edwards, Den of Geek’s resident Ninja Turtles expert and enthusiast.)

The Turtleverse isn’t the only fictional world I appreciate this way, and it’s probably worth flipping over a few other comic book-based franchises to get a further grip on the issue. (Because the ‘funny books’ are where you’re most likely to find preposterous plots and protagonists.)

Take Spider-Man’s infamous origins story, for example: meek schoolkid Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive arachnid and develops spidey-sense and superpowers. So empowered and dressed up in spandex, Peter swings around the skyline and does battle with cartoonish criminals both for enjoyment and for the benefit of the Big Apple’s citizens, because he’s your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. 

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Somehow, subconsciously, this scenario has solidified itself as something plausible, and the same goes for all the groovy mutations and extra-extraordinary (X-traordinary?) heroes and villains of the X-Men multiverse. Move to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – because it’s my personal favourite and it’s the most significant and successful of all superhero screen series – and I don’t even have to bother dialling my brain down to believe that radiation has turned a mild scientist into the Incredible Hulk or that Tony Stark’s Extremis technology is feasible (or, at least, not too advanced for off-screen actuality). 

Captain America’s backstory – good-hearted young guy of the 1940s gets turned into a supersoldier to fight the Nazis, ends up cryogenically preserved and thawed out to survive and thrive for a hi-tech secret espionage outfit in a very changed 21st century – doesn’t even make me bat an eyelid. Ditto Guardians Of The Galaxy, because I can get my head around and completely trust in a wisecracking space raccoon and his sentient tree sidekick.

The same goes for other films of diverse genres, styles and narrative focus – most often flirting around horror, sci-fi, fantasy or what might be termed ‘magical realism’. Regular folk metamorphosing into monsters; giant monsters levelling cities; zombie outbreaks; portals to other dimensions; alien invasions; aliens actually existing. They are all ‘realistic’ and reasonable, even if there’s a subtle awareness that these people and circumstances are ‘only a movie’.

In spite of that, they are close, feel real and are thought as being ‘just like real’. The line between the way we think about fiction and the way we think about real life is, I feel, increasingly ambiguous and I’m pretty sure that’s not just my own subjective experience. It’s also not just because I and fellow likeminds are soft-brained or overly affected by childish desires for wish-fulfilment, desperately deluding ourselves that a world of superheroes, secret agents, magic and fantastical wonder is possible. Pop culture – particularly the cinematic enchantment of film – has pushed these changes and brought about what I perceive as a significant paradigm shift. 

Aside from our own enthused inner geek-streaks, I identify two outside factors that have strengthened the audience’s suspension of disbelief in the postmillennial age. Firstly, ongoing developments in filmmaking and advancing technology have smoothed over the process of belief. Gone are the days of stagey sets, unconvincing miniatures and men in rubber suits. Gone are the days when hokey studio-shot action sequences were filmed in front of obvious superimposed backdrops.

All semblances of artifice are absent in the final product and modern production design is so outstanding that the historical or fantastical settings realised on screen are absolutely immersive, like ‘real life’. Furthermore, improving special effects make the action all the more convincing and the rise of CGI and motion-capture performance have taken things to another level.

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Compare the original Planet Of The Apes films with the recent reboots or the vintage Turtles flicks with the new movie and you’ll see what I mean. There’s no disconnect in those contemporary examples when you look into the eyes of their leading creatures. You don’t find yourself thinking “it’s an actor” or “it’s a special effect”. It simply is, and our minds are focusing on the story or the emotional performance and personality of the protagonist rather than labouring hard to get over critical cognitive obstacles. 

The second thing driving this phenomenon is what we might call ‘normalisation’ where the abnormal and unusual become normal and usual by virtue of greater frequency. Having been bombarded with blockbusters full of bizarre and incredible ideas our minds and consciousnesses have become attuned to accept the far-out as a worthy, relatable, almost-realistic thing.

The way I see it is this: the past few generations we’ve experienced a massive pop cultural boom which has been aided by the forces of globalisation and growing communications technology. Where once ‘the extraordinary’ was only an imminent concern to a minority of artistic types, geek enthusiasts and children (before adulthood beat their imagination out of them) now ‘the extraordinary’ is mainstream and exists as a background aspect that adds colour and meaning to our modern world.

Our culture – the films, TV shows, books and videogames we consume – informs our reality and is interweaved into our daily lives. Our minds are constantly in amazing fictional spaces, and they bleed into our off-screen identity and outlook. What’s more, we’ve consumed so much of it that if, say, a giant bandana-wearing turtle or a cape-wearing Norse god stepped onto your train home you’d probably just say “Oh, cool” and not some shocked and sweary expression of incredulity.

Most of us have been raised on Spielbergian wonder and have grown up on cinematic fantasy and superhero stories, now presented in more visceral fashion on film thanks to the superhero blockbuster boom. Once upon a time a major movie poster boasted “you’ll believe a man can fly” but modern audiences don’t need such assurances. We believe and are willing to believe, and that’s our default position. 

Some may say that this is a perilous state of affairs and that there’s a risk in a mass of mindless and irrational consumers absorbing everything thrown at them without circumspection or any scrutiny. There’s definitely a problem if audiences are blindly swallowing sci-fi films built on bogus science or period-set pics that take heinous liberties with historical truth. Still, erring on the positive, I’d rather suspension of disbelief be the norm than live with rigid scepticism as the standard setting. The magic of cinema – or any work of entertainment fiction – can’t happen if audiences can’t leave their hang-ups behind and surrender themselves to the story.

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I also reckon that it’s essential for human beings to do that and that tall tales and far-fetched fantasies perform vital functions, psychologically. Our minds crave the special stimulation offered by storytelling and the envisioning of things that exist on or beyond the cusp of impossibility (or familiar Earthly possibility). It’s healthy to connect with those psychic urges and sate the desire to engage with supernatural and superhuman idealisations that are more exhilarating than the mere mundane.

Perhaps it’s reasonable to suggest that, in a more secularised society, pop culture is providing what ancient mythology and religion used to give people’s imaginations in aeons past. Just as Ancient Greeks had Olympian Gods and just as medieval folk had dragons and demons (of course, we still have those and they’re all real), we have a whole diverse spectrum of superhumans, monsters, awesome magical entities, extra-terrestrials and so on. They’re all on our screens and exerting a presence across different mediums, a part of the cultural landscape and our individual and social lives.

In effect, it’s hard not to believe in, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because cinema has visualised them and made them so tangibly real. And why would you not want to entertain the notion that such things are possible? I’ll happily suspend my disbelief (as I’ve said before, it comes naturally) and carry on being a willing believer. If you have a problem with that, I’ll fight you. I’ve been hanging with some pretty rad reptiles and their rodent sensei has been showing me some nifty ninjitsu moves…

James Clayton is real, as absurd as that may seem. Believe in him. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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