This batch of episodes from the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon produced by 4Kids is pretty bipolar; either they’re really good or some of the season’s worst. Or, at least, that’s how I remember them. But even the bad ones won’t be entirely without purpose, as they introduce characters or concepts that will continue through the series until just about the end.
And I suppose there’s something to be said about the serialization of the 4Kids show: EVERYTHING has some sort of long-term payoff. Villains and allies rarely only appear once and you can usually look forward to a repeat performance.
But what if those characters suck and you hate them? Well, too bad.
“The Way of Invisibility” (written by Marty Isenberg)
Angry over losing the Sword of Tengu, the Shredder orders Hun and Baxter Stockman to work together to destroy the Turtles. Hun and the Purple Dragons draw them out while Baxter Stockman sics his latest creations on them: The Foot Tech Ninja.
This is the second half of a two-parter that began with “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. But where that one had a lot of important story points going for it, it was marred by some bad toy-shilling (the Extreme Sports TMNT variants). Writer Marty Isenberg redeems himself with “The Way of Invisibility”, which also features some blatant toy-shilling (the Foot Tech Ninja) but handles it with much more grace.
Stockman returns and he’s now missing an eye. “The price of failure”, as Shredder puts it. He fails again in this episode and when we see him next he’s going to be in even worse shape. It’s a pretty gruesome theme that will run through these first two seasons, but it proves that this Shredder isn’t all talk. Compare the 4Kids Shredder with the one from the recent Nickelodeon cartoon. He talks about “the price of failure” all the time, but outside of transforming henchmen into mutants, he never follows through on his threats. And even then, he never punishes them beyond the initial mutation no matter how many additional times they fail. THIS Shredder, though? He means business.
The robot body salvaged from the East River last episode is used as the source for the Foot Tech Ninja enhancements that Stockman creates. We still don’t know the origin of the robot body, or who the Shredder’s “old enemies” are (they’re referenced repeatedly). This is going to prove to be some of the longer form storytelling from this season; it won’t be resolved until season 2. Likewise, who are those weirdos in the high tech conference room at the very end? Season 2. We’ll get there.
This episode shows a lot of intelligence on the part of characters who are going to decay in the intellect departments as the series progresses. First is Casey, who is the perfect balance of annoying lunkhead and street-savvy vigilante. He overstays his welcome in the lair and constantly breaks everything when he loses his temper, but when it comes time to fight he shows a lot of brains. He neutralizes the Foot Tech Ninja’s invisibility advantage with spray paint, then plays dead so they leave him behind, then steals a piece of their discarded tech for Donatello to look over. Compare THIS Casey to the bumbling stooge we’re going to be seeing in seasons 2 and 3.
Then there’s Hun, who shows a lot of cunning in his strategy with Baxter Stockman. Hun uses the Purple Dragons to make taunting graffiti tags around the city which draws the Turtles out. When Raphael is ambushed and taken captive, Hun violently interrogates him, but ultimately allows him to escape so the Foot Tech Ninja can follow him and get the other three Turtles. Keep in mind that this was our first full-episode look at Hun and he shows a lot of promise: Strong, scary and smart. Don’t get used to it.
I think the phrase people like to use for this sort of thing is “Flanderizing”. When a character is introduced, they’re well-rounded and have a lot of dimensions to them, but over time the writers begin to emphasize a single trait to the point where it drowns out all their other aspects. It’s funny that Hun and Casey are the characters who will undergo the “Flanderizing” process as the series proceeds, considering they’re supposed to be arch-enemies.
The Foot Tech Ninja ultimately don’t put up a very good fight and they’re beaten the way you’d expect invisible enemies to be beaten. First the Turtles cover them in paint or mud, then they use heat-vision goggles to completely undo their advantage. So in the end, it really IS Stockman’s fault that Hun’s plan fails. Invisibility isn’t as much of an advantage as you’d think, at least against any opponent with half a brain.
“Fallen Angel” (written by Marty Isenberg)
While trying to keep a neighborhood girl named Angel from falling in with the Purple Dragons, Casey is kidnapped by Hun. The Turtles and Angel will have to find a way to save him before he’s executed at the end of a fighting tournament.
So this is one of those episodes that isn’t very good, but has plot points and characters that will pop in and out throughout the rest of the series. Angel is one of those characters; they make a big hubbub about introducing her but I don’t think she makes more than 3 or 4 appearances after this, and never in any meaningful capacity. Heck, we aren’t going to be seeing her again until the third season.
As a character, Angel won’t find her place in the TMNT roster until the IDW comic reinvented her in 2012. And in those comics, she’s great; I’d really recommend them. So I am glad that Isenberg and the 4Kids staff created her, but here, she’s just the hollow impetus for a trite “don’t join a gang, kids” afterschool PSA. And man, nothing guts an action cartoon quite like a labored morality play.
We get to see Hun interact with Casey for the first time, confirming that he burned down Casey’s family store and implying that he killed Casey’s father (the implication will be more or less confirmed in the fourth season). They’re supposed to be arch-enemies, as I mentioned an episode ago, so it’s about time they went face-to-face. So far as physical threats go, Hun’s going to decay quickly, but he’s a fairly unstoppable juggernaut in this episode. The Turtles have to drop a lot of I-beams on him to put him down for the count.
The rest of the episode is a snooze; there’s barely enough plot to fill 22 minutes. Casey gets captured partway through the first act and then it is nothing but fighting fighting fighting for two acts. I mean, I like action as much as anyone, but all the punches and kicks and flips start to blur together after 15 consecutive minutes of it.
Director Chuck Patton has some fun with the lighting in this episode, so I will say that it looks very dark and dingy and gritty. There’s heavy use of light and shadow and it gives the situation a more dramatic feel than it probably deserves. So keep in mind that even when we hit a “bad” episode of the series, there’s almost always something good about it somewhere.
Oh, and I guess if I don’t point it out, someone in the comments section will. The abandoned warehouse that the Turtles use as their surface garage for the Battle Shell is located on the corner of “Eastman and Laird”. Subtle.
“Garbageman” (written by Eric Luke)
Someone is kidnapping the homeless people of New York City. The Turtles investigate and find that the kidnapped are being used as slave labor in an offshore landfill operation run by the insidious Garbageman.
Remember in the last review when I said that just because an episode isn’t part of a major story arc, that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad? And it’s true! I stand by that statement. But then there’s THIS shit.
And the episode doesn’t start off bad at all. There’s a great horror movie vibe as a giant black garbage truck with blood-red headlights chases down homeless people and snatches them up with hydrolic pinchers. The Turtles hear spooky stories from other homeless and it’s all very ominous. There’s a cool montage as they investigate (set to some nice jazz music), a showdown with the garbage truck that puts the Battle Shell through its paces, and a neat setting for the third act on the landfill island.
Everything is going GREAT until fucking Garbageman shows up. The buildup falls flat as the so-far-unseen antagonist turns out to be a fat guy with tank treads for feet. He’s so damn goofy and is the one villain of the 4Kids series that most feels like he stepped out of the Fred Wolf cartoon. He gives these dumb speeches about the power of garbage and how he’ll use trash to rule the world, and no matter how much I love Mike “Dr. Robotnik” Pollock as a voice actor, it all just sounds so very, very stupid.
Garbageman will make one more return appearance as a villain and I really wish he didn’t. If any villain deserved to be a one-timer, it’s him. Hell, he was even slated to make a third appearance in season 5, in an episode that would have tied him into the bigger picture of the series (if only a little bit), but the episode was cut. But I’ll give a rundown on that when I make it to season 5.
To say something nice about this episode beyond the buildup, the animation is some of the best of the season so far. Director Chuck Patton has a lot of fun with angles and lighting and it feels very cinematic. Garbageman’s a lousy villain, but the fight against him was very different than the usual Purple Dragon or Foot Soldier brawls we’d been getting, so I’ll give him that.
But even with those better elements, this one’s still got my vote for worst of the season.
“The Shredder Strikes, Part 1” (written by Michael Ryan)
Leonardo receives an invitation from Oroku Saki to negotiate not only a truce, but an alliance to fight against their “true” enemy. Leonardo isn’t sure what to think, at least until Master Splinter tells the Turtles the true story of Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Saki… the Shredder.
Ten episodes to get to the Shredder. If this series does anything, it’s take its sweet time.
This is another one of those episodes that doesn’t feel like it has quite enough story to fill 22 minutes, but the pacing works much better than what we saw in “Fallen Angel”. Rather than grind at any point, it actually breezes through its story very quickly and is over as soon as it starts to ramp up. This is a front-loaded two-parter, with a lot of talking and subterfuge in this installment whereas the payoff is stretched out over the second half. Despite that, I did enjoy the Shredder making a calculated attempt to corrupt Leonardo.
Although we, the audience, have been seeing a lot of Oroku Saki and his sinister machinations, it’s easy to forget that this is the first time the Turtles have ever met him. And even though we’re ten episodes in, the Turtles have only fought the Foot Clan directly on three occasions (unaware that the Mousers and the Purple Dragons were Foot Clan proxys). So with that in mind, it’s almost believable that Leonardo could buy Saki’s claim that it was all a misunderstanding.
Scottie Ray’s Shredder is wonderful, by the way. I talked all about the cast in my last review, but I left him out because I felt I should wait until the Shredder makes his legitimate debut. It is a very evil voice, but it’s at times extremely subdued, sounding mostly like a growling whisper. Then, of course, he gets mad and it sounds like a furious snarl (I especially love the demonic reverb effect they apply when Shredder is wearing his helmet).
Admittedly, the 4Kids Shredder is going to lack any dimension beyond being evil for evil’s sake, forgoing the humor of the Fred Wolf Shredder or the sympathetic angles of the Nickelodeon Shredder, but that’s honestly a strength to this incarnation. He fuckin’ OWNS being evil and remorselessly killing and rampaging for no other purpose than satisfaction alone. In a world filled with so many sympathetic villains with tragic back stories, I think we need a villain like this once and a while. You can call it shallow all you like, but when EVERY villain is “a victim of circumstance”, it winds up being less cliché to have a bad guy that’s bad for the sake of being bad.
This episode adapts the origin elements from TMNT (Vol. 1) #1 that weren’t covered in “Attack of the Mousers”. Mainly, we get to see how the Shredder murdered Hamato Yoshi and Splinter was left abandoned on the streets in this continuity. It plays different from the comics, eliminating characters like Oroku Nagi and Tang Shen, but they weave it into the larger mythology of the 4Kids series (with implications that Yoshi was a Guardian and secretly working for Shredder’s extraterrestrial enemies). They’ll explore Yoshi more in-depth in a season 4 episode and bring in Tang Shen and an Oroku Nagi cypher, so they won’t be omitted completely.
Despite changes, the flashback spared little of the violence from the comic book and even ladles on some extra pain. Yoshi is first tortured with tasers by Hun before Shredder kills him with a slash from his gauntlet. They even manage to work in an idea from the first live-action TMNT movie, with Splinter attacking Hun and leaving a scar on his face (albeit in the movie, Splinter scarred Shredder).
Speaking of Hun, he’s the end boss of this first half of the two-parter. The Turtles have to work really hard to take him down, and though I sound like a broken record, its great revisiting this first season and seeing Hun portrayed as a demanding opponent. I mostly only remembered him from his lesser years later on in the show; I’d forgotten how difficult he was to defeat in his earliest altercations.
Then there are the Guardians, those weird Matrix-looking guys who have been following the cast around since “The Way of Invisibility”. Their participation will get progressively more intrusive as the season goes on, but again, their deal won’t be fully spelled out for us until season two. So enjoy watching them observe and report everything to that Council of monotone unison-talkers. Such mystery.
“The Shredder Strikes, Part 2” (written by Michael Ryan)
The Turtles are on the run as the Shredder and the Foot Clan pursue them throughout the city. Eventually, with the help of Master Splinter, they lure the Shredder into a final showdown.
You’ve read how I disliked “Fallen Angel” because it was nearly 22 minutes of nothing but fighting, so you’re probably wondering how I could give this episode a pass. Well, it all comes down to the execution and the context. In “Fallen Angel”, there was never any tension because the Turtles were just fighting Purple Dragons, the lowest level enemies in the show and never a threat no matter how many you throw at them. “The Shredder Strikes, Part 2” is a different case.
The first act consists of the Turtles fighting the Foot Soldiers, which is easy enough for them, but throughout the whole battle the Shredder keeps jumping in and tagging them and they can’t get one fuckin hit in. Eventually, they just straight up bail because they’re in over their heads.
The second act sees the injured Turtles trying to find a hiding place somewhere in the city, but the alleys and rooftops are swarming with Foot Soldiers and the Shredder is never far behind. There’s a lot of suspense in the second act as the Turtles are on the ropes and they can’t even RUN AWAY because their enemy is so tenacious.
And the third act is the big showdown and it’s a repeat of what we saw in the first act. The Turtles fight an army of Foot Soldiers and the Shredder keeps weaving in and out, smacking them around. What’s great is that the Turtles CAN’T BEAT HIM. Raphael is the only one who gets a shot in against the Shredder and even then it doesn’t even knock him down. He beats all four of them up; they LOSE.
Splinter shows up and even he is physically outmatched by the Shredder. He uses the Shredder’s strength against him and the villain winds up cutting down the support beams of a water tower and getting crushed by it. The point, though, and what separates this “all fighting” episode apart from the other one, is that the Turtles are up against a bad guy that not only can’t they beat, but they can’t escape from. There’s so much tension because the odds are so stacked. Yes, it took 11 episodes to get a fight between the Turtles and the Shredder, but this one absolutely does not disappoint. And even though the Turtles and Splinter win, all they really “win” is the opportunity to run away and hide.
The rooftop battle is adapted from TMNT (Vol. 1) #1, and like the origin sequence adapted for the previous episode, it all turns out differently. As you probably know, the Turtles beat the Shredder fair and square in that story and the bad guy sorta kills himself by blowing himself up with a grenade. They play around with that last part by having the Shredder drop a water tower on himself, but that’s really all they take from the source material beyond the rooftop setting. The Turtles losing and Splinter being the one to swoop in and save them seems more a throwback to the climax of the first live-action movie than a direct adaptation of the comic.
I’ve talked a lot about “decay” in these articles; how Hun will erode into an easy foe or how the Foot Soldiers are already there (when they were strong enemies in their first appearance). The Shredder will be immune to that. The Turtles will fight him repeatedly throughout the series and it will never be an easy win. In fact, most of the time they only manage to get away, not flat-out defeat him. This Shredder will be the primary antagonist for three seasons (a slew of replacement Shredders will follow) and the Turtles might actually end up with a losing record against him. Perhaps I should keep score?
Also, you know what little moment I really love? That noise Scottie Ray makes when the Shredder looks up from the floor of the alley and sees the water tower about to hit him. It’s not a scream of terror, but a growl of annoyance. Like, “Awwwwww, shit.” It’s perfect, because this is a Shredder that can’t be killed by something like that, and he knows it, so he’s just mildly irritated that a ton of lumber and metal is about to clobber him. Again, it’s a brilliant way to keep the Shredder from decaying, even in his first battle. He’s not scared of anything.
Anyhow, for viewers anxiously awaiting the showdown with the Shredder, we get it bigtime with this episode and it remains one of my favorites in the series. And what’s better, the following TMNT/Shredder battles will be even cooler than this one. But as their first encounter, it holds a certain sort of dramatic weight to it that can’t be repeated.
“The Unconvincing Turtle Titan” (written by Marty Isenberg)
High on the recent defeat of the Shredder, Michelangelo decides to take on his own superhero identity as the Turtle Titan. His first night on patrol proves to be memorable, as he finds himself caught between superhero the Silver Sentry and supervillain Dr. Malignus.
Oh boy, it’s THIS episode. Much like “Nano”, I hated “The Unconvincing Turtle Titan” when it first aired, but looking back on it over a decade later, it isn’t as bad as I remembered it. But unlike “Nano”, it doesn’t quite cross that threshold into “good” territory, either.
The idea of the Turtles living in a world pre-populated by superheroes is actually a Mirage precedent. Peter Laird had introduced the idea in TMNT (Vol. 1) #15, with the Justice Force (who will show up in this cartoon eventually), and Kevin Eastman followed up on the idea a few months later in his short “Complete Carnage ‘n Radical”, with the titular hero and villain characters (who never show up in this cartoon). So the Turtles living alongside superheroes is totally a Mirage thing and not some dumb invention on the part of 4Kids.
But it’s also a Mirage thing I never liked. The Turtles as outcasts and freaks of nature who have to live in the shadows because the world would never accept or understand them takes a pretty big hit when they coexist with flying weirdos that are celebrated by humanity. Isenberg tries to make some sense of it, as Michelangelo’s freakish appearance sets him apart from the human Silver Sentry, and his origin as a ninja and his responsibilities to his “clan” require him to maintain his secrecy even if he *could* walk in the daylight.
It’s a nice effort, but I feel it could have been saved if the whole “world of superheroes” thing had just been left out of the 4Kids series entirely. You’ll rarely see Silver Sentry after this, and though a few more superhero characters will pop up now and again (particularly when the show gets around to adapting the Justice Force and Nobody), they’ll hardly play a major role in the series. Heck, when big events happen, such as during season 3, the writers will be obligated to take time to show the superhero characters failing just to keep audiences from asking “Well, why don’t the superheroes do something?” So pointless.
On the subject of Turtle Titan, Silver Sentry and Dr. Malignus, they were part of the Playmates toyline so ultimately this episode amounts to another action figure spotlight. I suppose that’s the real reason this episode exists. So far as the toyline tie-in scripts go, this one’s actually pretty good, with the new toys being central to the plot and not a tacked on piece of merchandising synergy. Isenberg seems to have gotten a hang of shilling the toys since “Darkness on the Edge of Town”.
Silver Sentry has a Superman thing going and it’s a good design so far as Superman homages go. Terrence Archie plays him, again, like Superman and it’s a bland but heroic voice. It fits the bill, I suppose. His enemy, Dr. Malignus, is much more interesting. He has a really cool design, with those demonic claw-feet, cables running all over him and glowing yellow eyes. His voice-over from David Brimmer is also really cool, sounding diabolical without going overboard with it. All the effort seems wasted on a throwaway parody antagonist.
Since I won’t have a better time to talk about it, Mirage fans will probably note the conspicuous absence of Radical and Complete Carnage. They were the go-to superhero and supervillain characters in the Mirage series and made quite a number of appearances there. Their issues are some of the few installments in the TMNT Volume 1, Microseries and Tales of the TMNT Volume 1 comics not to be adapted into episodes of the show (going by “canon” issues and not “guest” issues, for the record). It almost seems like they were excluded deliberately.
Why, I don’t exactly know. Heck, they could almost have worked as stand-ins for Silver Sentry and Dr. Malignus (or perhaps Sentry and Malignus were stand-ins for Radical and Carnage?). Regardless, while nearly every other Mirage-original superhero character will get an appearance in this show, even crappy ones like Raptarr, the two most frequent superhero/villain characters will not. Weird.
And if I have anything else to say about this episode, I suppose it is this:
Pull up your pants, April.
Well, that’s it for this round as we make it just short of midseason. Like I said, even when an episode in the first season is bad, there’s usually a redeeming aspect to it here and there. While I didn’t like some of these, it was never to the point where I just wanted to shut off the TV and scream. There are either important story elements or some very good visuals to keep you engaged for 22 minutes.
But the good episodes are REALLY good and that “Shredder Strikes” two-parter remains one of the most exciting moments in any TMNT cartoon.
Join me next time for another mixed bag of episodes: An agonizingly decompressed three-parter, a love letter to Jack Kirby, and damn good rematch with the Shredder.
Want to go back and brush up on the first half of Season 1 episodes? Read my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003) Season 1, Part 1 Review.