In the cold-blooded world of turtles, Yertle, Gamera, Koopa Troopa and Fastback are hot names. But the most famous testudines of all time have to be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Stars of movies, comic books, television and video games, the four anthropomorphic turtle brothers even had action figures and breakfast cereals as part of their reptilian empire.
They were 20th-century pop-culture icons, which ain’t too bad for four hard-shelled crime fighters named after Renaissance artists.
Stephen Amell, who plays hockey-mask wearing hero Casey Jones in this weekend’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows, says he grew up with Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello.
“The live-action films did it for me,” says the actor, who was just nine when the turtles hit the big screen for the first time. “I’ve always ingested superheroes, especially comic book superheroes, via feature films. Like Superman, Batman, Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton, all that stuff. When they did the live-action turtle movie I remember my brain not being able to fully comprehend how they were going to do this. Those were seminal moments from my childhood.”
The story of four pet turtles transformed by radioactive ooze into sewer-dwelling, crime-fighting ninja warriors appealed to kids, but the original 1984 black-and-white comics were dark, gritty and violent, a subversive homage to popular books like Daredevil, Cerebus and Ronin. Sharp-eyed readers of the second issue of TMNT will notice old issues of Cerebus and Ronin discarded on the floor of the Turtles’ sewer home.
They sliced and diced bad guys and even uttered the odd PG-13 word.
Turtlemania really began in 1987 with an animated series aimed at younger viewers. They quickly became something of a sensation, but with popularity came an erosion of the rebellious aspects of the story. In short, they became the thing they once poked fun at.
The turtles went mainstream, and soon there were arcade games, action figures, clothing, movies and more.
Kids were taken with the turtle soup of gags, colourful characters and pizza obsession, but Amell says there is more than that to their appeal.
“At the baseline of this entire experience, we are talking about the relationship of four brothers — the relationship as they struggle through adolescence,” he says. “I feel like whether you have brothers, sisters, close friends, any type of family, everyone can relate to that.
“It’s this unique idea. It’s so unique it tends to be universal. I don’t know what the secret sauce is, otherwise I would create my own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and just sit back and collect the royalties.”
For many, including the crowds that will no doubt flock to Out Of The Shadows this week, the allure of the turtles is at least partly nostalgic, a return to a simpler time.
I get the feeling that for the Toronto-born Amell, the appeal is partly sentimental, partly professional.
“It’s pretty cool,” he says. “It’s a really great franchise to be part of. It’s amazing to play a character like Casey Jones. I was just at Yonge and Dundas Square [in Toronto] and it is overrun with Turtles’ posters. It’s a dream come true.”