Last Call

You need to watch the most underrated superhero franchise before it leaves Netflix this month

“major-league butt-kicking is back in town.”

Before comic book movies were the norm, they were an anomaly. Movies like Dick Tracy and Batman brought all the shlock and cheesiness of the medium to life, but one movie in particular marks the beginning of the transition from the era of goofy comic book movies to the dominance of blockbuster action movies about superheroes. Here’s why you need to catch up on the adventures of a certain group of half-shell heroes before it’s too late.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a 1990 film directed by Steve Barron, best known for his work in music videos (Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and A-Ha’s “Take On Me” videos are on his filmography). This influence ripples throughout the film, which brings the radical foursome from the Mirage Comics and successful cartoon series into live action, decades before animal characters like Rocket Raccoon graced the MCU.

The turtles operate as ninja vigilantes in New York City, where they rescue journalist April O’Neil and wage war against the evil Shredder and his band of runaway thieves known as the Foot Clan. The Clan kidnaps the Turtles’ master, Splinter, and the clash gets very personal.

Had this film been made by any other creative team it may have fallen into the dustbin of history, but this one has an ace up its sleeve: Jim Henson. The Muppet maestro created the many creatures involved, including the complicated articulating turtle costumes worn by the main characters. When another Turtles movie was made in 2014, they were blandly computer animated. Not here. Everything is practical, and the movie is better off for it.

One of the biggest reasons for that is the stunts. The “ninja” part of this movie is surprisingly well done, with lots of different fighting styles amid discussions of spirituality. What other movie would bring you pizza parties and meditation? With the completely practical effects, the stage choreography feels more like a stage play than a movie, with long shots and blows that look painful.

Teenage Mindful Ninja Turtles.New Line Cinema

The Turtle legacy goes well beyond just this film — there have been countless remakes and reboots, including an upcoming Netflix Original animated movie premiering on August 5th. But if you want to study up in preparation for that release, it’s best to start sooner rather than later: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, its two sequels, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, and 2007’s animated TMNT are all leaving the streaming service on May 31.

But the sequels, like so many before them, fail to recapture the lightning in a bottle that made the first movie such a cultural phenomenon. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a movie that marks many transitions: Between practical and animated visual effects, between ‘80s maximalism and ‘90s coolness, and ultimately between the comic book movies of the past and those of the present. Yes, it’s a movie about talking turtles with weapons, but it’s also an essential part of comic book movie history.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is streaming on Netflix until May 31.

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