When Comic Book Movies Aren’t Really Comic Book Movies

By  · Published on June 1st, 2016

The built-in fanbase wants an adaptation of an adaptation.

You could call Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows a comic book movie, but that’s barely true. It’s more like a cartoon adaptation, since many of its characters originated from the animated series that ran from 1987 through 1996. And the cartoon was actually based on action figures that were based on the initial comics created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, so it’s also more of a toy adaptation than a comic book movie. Its source material is as much the Mirage Studios publications as the Transformers movies are based on the Japanese Diaclone toy line. That is, not really at all.

It makes sense that Paramount Pictures is focused on the cartoons. That’s the format through which most of us became introduced to the Ninja Turtles and Transformers, alongside the respective Playmates and Hasbro toys that the shows got us to buy. Following the success of the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie reboot and quick announcement of a sequel, many of us made it known we wanted the villains Krang, Bebop, and Rocksteady to be added. Did any of them originate in the comics? No, they’re from the toys and cartoon and somewhat simultaneously the Archie Comics series based on that incarnation. And yes, they indeed appear in the new movie.

Paramount isn’t alone in looking to cartoon nostalgia. When Bryan Singer began the X-Men movie franchise 16 years ago, he “really was focused on the X-Men people knew mostly from the animated series.” He revealed this to movie blogs (including /Film) on the set of the new movie X-Men: Apocalypse, continuing: “I kind of used that as my template to be honest. I took the characters that were most popular from that series and I used those as my main primary characters.” Ironically, a lot of fans who only know the 1990s cartoon and not the Marvel Comics versions of these characters complain the films aren’t influenced enough by X-Men: The Animated Series.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe and most DC Comics adaptations, meanwhile, are able to look to the page more than screen. They’re not trying to incorporate Firestar or the Wonder Twins into their movie franchises because the built-in audiences for both properties are larger than anything specifically stemming from a single old cartoon series. If anything, the DC Extended Universe does have to deal with nostalgia for the Christopher Reeve incarnation of Superman and consider the intertextual imprint of the various TV and movie versions of Batman (and Robin). It’s also going to be hard for many fans of the current Flash TV series to get over the upcoming DCEU Flash movie not being spun from or based on it.

Interestingly enough, one of the most popular movie characters in the DCEU, even before her official cinematic debut hits theaters, is Harley Quinn. She also originated from a 1990s cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series, before being integrated into the comics. Now she’s a huge draw for the upcoming Suicide Squad movie and already has spinoffs in development. Of course, her appeal in the movie has mostly arisen through Margot Robbie’s portrayal in the trailers, and she doesn’t even wear the costume she’s known for in the old cartoon. Still, you can bet there’s a big part of the audience for Suicide Squad hoping for at least a nod to her original look in the animated series.

Hollywood’s interest in adapting cartoons based on other properties will probably be limited to those originating with comic books. Anyone looking forward to another Beetlejuice movie shouldn’t expect to see the very different animated series and relative comic book version being an influence. We’ll probably never get an ALF movie set on Melmac instead of one set in the American suburbs. Or a family friendly Rambo movie. The inevitable Punky Brewster movie adaptation probably won’t involve Glomer. And no new Ghostbusters movie is going to feature Slimer as a sidekick rather than an adversary. But who knows? People are calling for a live-action TalesSpin movie to follow Disney’s new Jungle Book remake.

Eventually, though, we’ll get to a place where ’80s and ’90s nostalgia isn’t fueling the movie industry. Instead, Hollywood will be looking to early 21st century properties to mine from, and when that time comes Paramount can reboot Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles again with an eye towards the 2003 animated series that tried to be more faithful to the Mirage comics. Or, by then the brand will be so much more familiar as a goofy kid-friendly franchise that it can never successfully return to its grittier roots.

Related Topics: , ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.