It’s OK That ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Made a Lot of Money
“You sit in New York and say, ‘That’s a piece of junk. Why do they make movies like that?’ Then you come out here, and you can begin to understand how they can make movies like that. The fact is, people pay money to see them.” I was reminded of this Brian De Palma quote from ‘The Devil’s Candy’ -- Julie Salamon’s 1991 expose on the making of the box office bomb, ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities' – while reading some of the vitriol spewed toward ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ after it, kind of surprisingly, grossed $65 million this past weekend.
This wasn’t just the normal angst-ridden sighs of perplexity that usually happen when what is generally agreed upon as a bad movie (‘TMNT’ currently holds a 19 percent Rotten Tomatoes score) makes a lot of money – this was downright contempt. My Twitter feed was filled with people who seemed legitimately angry that other people had spent their money to purchase a ticket to ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ Yes, a lot of these people are critics and, cynically, it would be easy to dismiss this as some sort of “critics realize no one listens to them” reaction, but that happens all the time and everyone already knows that this is the case for big movies. This seemed different. Not even the ‘Transformers’ movies received this much hate. I find this fascinating.
I’ve seen the concept of nostalgia thrown around quite a bit as the culprit that led to the success of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ I really don’t think this is the case. I was 15 when the original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ hit theaters – which is kind of prime time for incubating future nostalgia – and it also happens to be the movie that serves as the backdrop for my first ever date. We tried to see ‘Pretty Woman,’ but were denied entry because ‘Pretty Woman’ is rated R and I am terrible at defying authority figures, so the thought of sneaking into ‘Pretty Woman’ on a first date was out of the question. Plus, I wasn’t entirely upset about seeing ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,’ because I was 15. Having said all of that, I have no nostalgic feelings toward the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and I would have never seen the new movie if it didn’t happen to be my job. (For the record: We did eventually see ‘Pretty Woman,’ only after another failed attempt that resulted in having to sit through ‘Ernest Goes to Jail.’ I also, perhaps callously, have no nostalgic feelings for the Ernest series of movies.)
On Friday night, I was at a local bar near my apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A group of us were sitting near a window that faces East 78th street and I saw a male, perhaps 20 years old, walk by wearing a turtle shell on his back. He was walking in the general direction of the neighborhood movie theater. The last time I had seen anyone in this somewhat stuffy neighborhood dress up for a movie was the last Harry Potter. It was at this point that I realized that ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ was going to be a huge success.
I’m often reminded of S.T. VanAirsdale’s last post at Defamer, “It’s OK to Like Things.” When I find myself stunned by some sort of (usually meaningless in the grand spectrum of things) happening in the world of our current popular culture – like the box office results of a movie – I find myself rereading that post. It’s been my go-to reading material that I suspect has saved me from a life of hypertension. The thing is: It is OK to like things. And the truth is: People love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a way that is almost shocking. I mean, sure, we all know they have their fans, but it’s almost a secret just how many fans they have. I suspect people my age just think back to the original movies and the original cartoon (I am guilty of this) and kind of ignore the current iterations of the Turtles that have been proactively building a larger than suspected fanbase over the last two decades.
And, yes, the movie is bad and it’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t make a movie that’s better for the fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but blaming the audience for going to see a movie featuring characters that they enjoy isn’t fair. It’s not like I skipped ‘Attack of the Clones’ because ‘The Phantom Menace’ was disappointing. Though, I loved ‘The Phantom Menace’ the first time I saw it in a theater. And I loved it (the first time) because it featured characters that I liked in front of me on a movie screen. It’s sometimes nice to feel that way.
I suspect Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans didn’t love this new movie. Its CinemaScore rating is a B, which isn’t really that great. That’s basically someone saying, “Um, yeah, it was OK,” right after they walk out of the theater. If CinemaScore polled people 24 hours after a movie, these ratings would be dramatically different. (No one wants to admit they had a bad time on their weekend night out while he or she is still actively participating in that night out.)
It’s entirely acceptable to blame the filmmakers here for making a bad movie. But it’s not fair to blame an audience for showing up to watch a property that they like. With everything going on in the world right now – and, yeesh, things are fairly bleak right now – yeah … it’s really OK to like things.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.