We’re on our way to another string of multi-parters in the 4Kids-produced TMNT cartoon, but before we can get there, we’ve got a couple more one-shot episodes to deal with. But don’t worry! Both are mired in established continuity.
What? You thought you’d find an entry-level episode in the second season? Not in THIS Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. You either start from the beginning or don’t watch at all, Johnny-Come-Lately!
“What a Croc!” (written by Ben Townsend)
Freed from servitude to the Shredder, Baxter Stockman has returned for vengeance against the Turtles. This time he has two aces up his sleeve: The mutant crocodile Leatherhead and the android Turtlebot.Leatherhead! AND Metalhead! (Kinda.) Now that’s one hell of a crowd-pleaser.
This episode brings fan-favorite sometimes-villain/sometimes-ally Leatherhead into the series and he’s going to wind up being a recurring character in the long run. While I do prefer my Leatherhead to be a villain, I know that his classic interpretation is as a friend to the Turtles (albeit with mood swings), so it doesn’t bother me too much. He plays a bad guy throughout most of this episode (having been manipulated by Stockman, of course), so I got my enemy-Leatherhead fix.
“What a Croc” mines its story from Leatherhead’s first two appearances in the Mirage comics. His encountering the Turtles, relating his origin and taking up residence in their old sewer lair is taken from Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #6 by Ryan Brown and Jim Lawson, but the majority of this episode’s plot is actually taken from the follow-up, TMNT (Vol. 1) #45 by Dan Berger. All the stuff about Leatherhead trying to build a transmat to get back to the Utroms, going nuts and turning on the Turtles, getting caught in the destruction of the transmat… That’s all taken from his second appearance. The plot from Tales #6 will wind up being used next season in the episode “Hunted.”As mentioned, the 4Kids Leatherhead is an adaptation of the Mirage Leatherhead, so rather than be a Cajun swamp-trapper that won’t shut up about gumbo, he’s an intelligent friend of the Utroms who got left behind when they had to flee the TCRI Building in a hurry. It’s certainly not as … colorful as the Fred Wolf/Archie interpretation, but I suppose it leads to less predictable character dynamics (his mood swings often making him as much a menace as a resource). He’s voiced by F.B. Owens for his appearances in this and next season. It’s a deep, growly voice that transitions well between rage and thoughtfulness, though I never found it very memorable.
Baxter Stockman returns yet again, now with his head crammed in the belly-cavity of an Utrom exo-suit. That guy never looks the same way twice in this show. Stockman actually fills in for four characters in this adaptation; in the comic, his role was taken by a quartet of Foot Soldiers whom Leatherhead shanghais to help him build his transmat. It was an intuitive way to work him into the story and this episode is something of a bridge between the “Secret Origins” arcÂ (which teased Leatherhead) and the “City at War” arc (in which Stockman will play a major roll).And the third villain in this episode is Turtlebot, an evil robot ninja turtle. You’re probably wondering why he isn’t called “Metalhead” and that’s because there was already a character named “Metalhead” in the Mirage comics and he isn’t a robot ninja turtle (thought he is a robot). He’ll be showing up later this season, so this evil robot ninja turtle needed a new name. “Turtlebot” is just generic-enough to work!
Honestly, I’m hesitant to even cite the Fred Wolf/Playmates Metalhead as an inspiration for Turtlebot (who, FYI, went by the much worse name “Turtlenator” in the Dreamwave TMNT comics). The idea of an evil robot ninja turtle is so obvious that anybody could think of it independently. The first Konami NES game had a boss named “Mechaturtle,” too, so it’s a pretty generic concept.The fight between the TMNT and Turtlebot is short but very, very nicely animated. The way Turtlebot generates his weapons is a fast and slick effect and the manner in which he beats his enemies down has a ton of impact (Donatello takes a pretty brutal kick to the face). He’s destroyed fairly quickly, as the Turtles realize they can screw with him by switching weapons (a clever strategy, actually). He got a toy in the Playmates toyline and appeared as a boss in at least one of the Konami PS2 games based on the 4Kids cartoon, but he’ll never make a return appearance. A good done-in-one villain, though.
For something that has to juggle three villains while tying into multiple story arcs, Ben Townsend’s script is paced pretty well. Leatherhead gets his due in battle but just enough time to make peace with the TMNT, Stockman gets a few good lines in, and the fight with Turtlebot is short but sweet. I suppose my only grievance is the ending, where Leatherhead is thought to be killed when the old lair collapses on him. The Turtles mourn his death and then in nearly the same breath start making goofy jokes just in time for the credits to roll. It’s like the episode wasn’t confident enough to end on a somber note, so at the very last second they had to work in some goofy shtick. A lot of American cartoons do this and it gets on my nerves. It’s ok to end an episode quietly. It’s not a law that you have to transition into the credits with a pun and a pratfall.
“Return to the Underground” (written by Marty Isenburg)
The Turtles return to the Forbidden Zone deep underground to follow through on their promise to help their mutated friends become permanently human again. But when they get there, they find the rejuvenating crystal moon missing and their friends not only mutated, but now completely out of their minds.We actually get our first completely resolved plot thread in the series with this episode. The subterranean mutants from “Notes from the Underground”Â were left hanging last season, with Donnie promising to cure them … someday. Someday! And apparently he was on the freakin’ ball, because he got right down to it only a season later (compare him to the current Nickelodeon Donatello, who keeps promising to cure people and hardly ever seems to follow through).
The 4Kids TMNT cartoon was actually really good about tying up its loose ends, at least within the first five seasons (seasons 6 and 7 are another story), so this shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. But yes, Donnie synthesizes a cure using the crystals, the Turtles travel to the Forbidden Zone, they cure Quarry (real name Sidney), she helps them get more crystals and they cure the rest of the mutants. It’s a cut and dried sort of plot, but it’s nice to get closure on a narrative this early in the series.Also, there are a lot of toys and not-quite-toys in this episode. Before I get too ahead of myself, I forgot to mention in my review for “What a Croc!” that the episode included a tie-in with the Deep Divin’ Turtles variants (Mikey in the diving outfit). It was so subtle, though, that you wouldn’t even know it was a toy promo. This episode isn’t so graceful with the merchandising. The Turtles return to the Forbidden Zone via the Turtle Tunneler! It’s a drill-tank that Donatello built … completely behind the scenes without any build-up. And they’re hardly ever going to use it again.
Then there are the Tech Packs. Donnie gives each of his brothers a backpack with special abilities (Raph’s shoots lasers, Mikey’s shoots nets, Leo’s shoots grappling lines) and for all the world it looks like it’s a toy promo. But naw, the Tech Pack Turtles never got toys. It’s a bit like that flying skateboard from “Return of Nano”Â that reeked of toy tie-in but never actually got a toy. The Tech Pack concept would evolve, however, and eventually become the Monster Trapper Gear Turtles who will get their promotional due in season 4.If there’s anything else to say about this episode, I suppose it’s that they tie up the storyline about the underground mutants, but tease some intrigue involving the Entity (still trapped in crystal) and his supposedly extinct race (whom the Turtles find more of trapped in crystal). That teaser will also get resolved, but not for another season.
Also, this episode really overdoes it on the recapping. The cold open is Donatello summarizing the events of “Notes from the Underground,” but then when the episode gets going, he summarizes the events of that arc AGAIN. We heard you the first time, Don.
“City at War, Part 1” (written by Eric Luke)
With the Shredder missing and presumed dead, a power vacuum has opened up in New York, plummeting the city into a gang war. The Foot Clan, Purple Dragons and the Mob are all battling it out for control, causing collateral damage in their wake. Leonardo feels responsible for all the destruction, while Raphael thinks they should stay out of it. Meanwhile, a new player, Karai, enters the scene.Okay, before I can even mention anything else regarding this episode, I want to talk about the first 30 seconds after the intro is finished. It’s Leonardo and Raphael running across the rooftops set to this shitty made-up rock song called “Running Free in NYC”Â and mother of God is it embarrassing to listen to. What the fuck were they THINKING? It’s awful. Hell, even the Japanese dub of the show skipped the song lyrics and just included an instrumental version because it was so bad. It’s a minor improvement at best.
I just felt compelled to point it out. And what a horrible way to start this 3-part story arc off, too. The beat and the lyrics of the song don’t fit the atmosphere or narrative of “City at War” whatsoever. It’s this random, unwelcome musical track that sounds like the sort of stupid chase music they’d play in an episode of Scooby-Doo. Baffling.Anyway, the “City at War” storyline was hinted near the end of season 1, in the episode “Lone Raph and Cub.” The Mob was introduced and the power vacuum in place with the Shredder being “dead” was mentioned. Since then, season 2 has been ramping up the arc with nearly every episode since “Secret Origins” featuring a moment where the characters watch a TV news broadcast that discusses the increase in gang violence. So this 3-parter was thought out pretty well in advance by the series writers.
But for all the forethought that was put into it, the 4Kids “City at War” isn’t one of my favorite arcs. Now, I know it’s not fair to compare this show with its Mirage comics inspiration too seriously, but the Mirage “City at War” was a massive 13-issue epic which acted as the culmination of nine years of storytelling and concluded the first volume of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic. The 4Kids “City at War” arrives smack-dab in the middle of season 2, truncates 13 issues into 3 half-hour episodes, and sanitizes a LOT of it. It’s also peppered with distractingly dumb moments like Donatello doing a dated parody of “The Matrix Reloaded,” the humiliating and out-of-character treatment of Casey Jones, some VERY bad acting on the “additional voices” front, and the aforementioned “Running Free in NYC” insert song that will have you cringing as soon as the storyline starts.All that whining aside, the 4Kids “City at War” does an adequate job of taking the existing Mirage story and reworking it into the tapestry of their unique universe. It follows up on the narrative of the Foot Clan and their many defeats and adds in new elements exclusive to the 4Kids side of things that were absent from the Mirage version. But it also chops out a metric ton of content, eliminating all of the dueling narratives from the source material and distilling the adaptation down to exclusively what the Turtles and the Foot were up to.
Regarding the new ideas, the factions that are at war, as the title suggests, are totally different from what was in the comic. In the original Mirage version, it was a battle between two factions of the Foot Clan: The Shredder Loyalists and the Japanese Loyalists. 4Kids peps it up using what they’ve already established, pitting the remnants of the New York branch of Foot Clan (led by the Elite Guard) against the Purple Dragons and the Mob (Karai and the Japanese Foot are briefly introduced in this episode but won’t come into play until later). The players are different and the context is different, but it’s reworked in a way that fits what 4Kids has been building.
An interesting change is what they did with the Mob. They’re a bunch of stereotypical Mafia goons who are the first to go at it with the Foot Clan. They fight with laser guns and at first blush that looks like a bunch of stupid censorship bullcrap, but midway through the episode we learn that the Mob has hired Baxter Stockman to upgrade their tech. It was a neat way to get Baxter involved but to also bypass anti-gun censorship, creating an in-universe reason for the laser guns to exist.As for stuff mined from the comic, this episode has to squish a lot of issues together (again, a 13-part comic in 3 episodes). The Foot Clan blowing up a building is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #50, though 4Kids plays the scene very differently. The argument between Leo and Raph about whether they should get involved is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #51. Incidentally, the roles are reversed for the cartoon; in the comic, Leo wanted to do nothing while Raph insisted they get involved. The cryptic introduction of Karai in Japan is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #52. And lastly, the battle with the robot is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #53.
The robot actually makes a bit more sense in the cartoon version, being a creation of Baxter Stockman sold to the Mob and unleashed on the Foot Clan (with the Turtles getting caught in the middle). In the comic, it was just this weird robot that one side of the Foot Clan had in their armory, which they unleashed on the other side. From a Mirage POV, if they had a bunch of killer robots in storage, maybe they should’ve used them when the Turtles invaded Foot Clan HQ back during “Return to New York.” Then the Shredder might not have gotten his head chopped off. Just sayin’.Be that as it may, you can see that the episode had to cram a lot of source material into 22 minutes. I’m impressed with the way writer Eric Luke reworked the context of those scenes (even the sequence where the Foot blow up the building was reworked into an assassination attempt on the Mob which Leo has to thwart), but even if you didn’t know that the episode was trying to adapt a source material, you can FEEL it in the pacing. And in the episode’s haste to fit in all the key moments from the comic version, it loses much of the nuance. I understand ditching the storylines about Casey, April, Splinter and the old man and focusing strictly on the Turtles and the Foot, but even that gets shortchanged in favor of time.
Why couldn’t “Turtles in Space” have been a three-parter and “City at War” a five-parter? Cuz life ain’t fair, that’s why.
“City at War, Part 2” (written by Marty Isenberg)
Caught between the Mob’s killer robots, Hun’s Purple Dragons, the Foot Clan AND the police, the Turtles decide they’re in way over their heads and bail. However, before they can formulate a new strategy, they’re attacked by Karai.This episode takes most of its story from TMNT (Vol. 1) #53, stretching out the fight with the robots as far as it can. Again, the pacing is off, as the last episode had to rush to cram four issues worth of story into one episode, while this episode takes its time padding out of mostly one issue of content. The fight with the robots gets tired after a while and you’ll be happy when Hun and the Purple Dragons show up to detonate everything with rocket launchers.
I suppose I should mention the water tower base. It’s introduced in this episode and destroyed minutes after its introduction, making me wonder why they even included it. The water tower served as the Turtles’ substitute lair throughout much of the comic version of “City at War,” but here it amounts to nothing since everything is so truncated. The Turtles could’ve just gone and stood on a rooftop before being attacked; it would’ve made no difference.The scene where Karai watches surveillance footage of the TMNT is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #54, while her arrival in New York is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #55. Meanwhile, her attack on the water tower and taking Leo hostage is adapted from TMNT (Vol. 1) #56.
Speaking of which, her fight with the Turtles is some amazingly fluid animation. Karai and her two henchmen leave a strong impression, as the frame rate ramps up for their battle and the Turtles and Casey are unable to keep up. In fact, it might be the best animation the show has seen so far, and it’s had its fair share of lavishly animated fight scenes.
Casey enters the narrative and he wasn’t in this part of “City at War” in the comics (he had his own storyline, but it was separate from the Turtles and the Foot). We REALLY get to see Casey’s decay in the 4Kids cartoon beginning in this episode, as he constantly makes a fool of himself in battle. And it’ll only get worse next episode. Why they elected to transition him into the worthless comic relief, I’ll never know, but it’s a role he’s going to play through next season.As for Karai, the 4Kids version is considerably different from her Mirage counterpart, but we haven’t gotten to those fundamental changes yet. As a matter of fact, going just by her introduction, she seems like a dead ringer for her Mirage version (albeit many years young since Mirage Karai had an adult daughter). But we’ll see the real differences next episode.
All in all, this section of “City at War” had the pacing all wrong, but in a different way than the first section. The first installment tried to adapt too much, this one doesn’t adapt enough and has to resort to padding. But at least there aren’t any groan-worthy references to “The Matrix” or cheesy fake rock music.
“City at War, Part 3” (written by Ben Townsend)
All out of options, the Turtles are forced into an alliance with Karai and the Japanese Foot Clan. Together, they’ll formulate a plan to eliminate the warring gang factions in New York, although the result will give the Foot complete criminal dominance over the city.This episode, again, combines several issues of the comic. Karai’s alliance with the Turtles and explanation of the warring Foot factions is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #57. The Turtles discussing the alliance is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #58. Karai impersonating the Shredder to draw the Elite Guard out is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #59. And the final battle with the Elite Guard is taken from TMNT (Vol. 1) #60Â and TMNT (Vol. 1) #61. I know it sounds like the comic version is the one with the padding, but again, bear in mind that Mirage’s “City at War” had numerous dueling narratives and some installments would favor one over the others (so it’s not like an entire issue was devoted to the Turtles standing around, discussing the alliance).
Karai’s plan is much the same as it was in the comic: Disguising herself as the Shredder, she lures the warring factions to the remains of the Foot Clan HQ (in the comic it was the Second Time Around shop, but in the cartoon April has already rebuilt the shop and moved back in). Once there, the Turtles get involved in an ambush and everybody starts attacking each other until only one group is left standing. The strategy worked a lot better in a comic where the Turtles were allowed to chop peoples’ faces off…As the cartoon renders it, the battle amounts to a bunch of guys with rocket launchers and laser guns blasting each other but never hitting anybody. The censorship is G.I. Joe-tier through most of it, but then the battle ends with Hun getting kicked by Karai off the top of a 50-story building. He smashes into the hood of a police car and… groans? Like, he’s okay? Who the fuck is he? Wile E. Coyote?
The inclusion of Casey in the final battle is also disappointing, as he’s again reduced to comic relief. Rather than fight, he gets taken out by a net at the start of the battle and doesn’t come to until it’s over (with a HILARIOUS “What did I miss?” line, of course). I really wish they hadn’t included him in this version of “City at War” at all.
I know I’ve been comparing the cartoon version to the comic version a lot in this review, and that isn’t fair, but this is one of those cases where perhaps they tried TOO HARD to follow the source material. Just look at how 4Kids handled “Return to New York” in season 1. They kept the same basic idea of the storyline and kept in a handful of the most famous moments, but at least 75% of the adaptation was original content specifically tailored to the unique mythology of the cartoon.The 4Kids “City at War” tries to boil the comic version down to its bare essence and hurries to get it all into 3 episodes rather than just take the ideas and themes and rework them for a more original sequence. The best concepts in the 4Kids “City at War” are the ideas they formatted to fit in with their universe (like the different warring factions or working in Baxter Stockman). I would have preferred to see more of that, personally. 4Kids is sometimes accused of being “Mirage Lite,” and while I’ll mostly argue that label, their “City at War” is genuinely a case of the show being “Mirage Lite.”
Moving on, let’s talk about the 4Kids version of Karai. If this cartoon has had one lasting impact on the TMNT franchise above all others, it would be the show’s portrayal of Karai. Prior to this, Karai was NEVER the daughter of the Shredder. As a matter of fact, she was kind of the Shredder’s BOSS in the Mirage comics (Karai led the Japanese Foot, which was supposed to be higher up the ladder than the New York branch, but Shredder went rogue and broke ties with them). She wasn’t young (again, she had an adult daughter) and was a character unto herself, not an accessory to the Shredder. Now, the Shredder DID have a daughter, but it was in the Image TMNT comic (which was originally the canon continuation of the Mirage series, but was later retconned from continuity). Introduced in TMNT (Vol. 3) #1, Pimiko was the estranged daughter of Oroku Saki who wanted revenge for her father’s death. The 4Kids Karai is sort of a fusion of Mirage Karai and Image Pimiko, you could say.But Karai as the Shredder’s adopted daughter (or sometimes distant descendant) has become her most popular portrayal, with both the IDW TMNT comic and the Nickelodeon TMNT cartoon taking it as a cue. Other media have dropped the daughter thing and reduced her to a subordinate of the Shredder’s (the Michael Bay movies) or just someone holding the torch until he comes back (the Imagi CGI flick). Either way, she has uniformly been portrayed as being beneath the Shredder in some way, which is a far cry from her original Mirage version (again, higher ranking than the Shredder).
But you can’t really blame 4Kids for what everybody decided to knock off in the future. Their version of Karai and her unique (at the time) relationship with the Shredder ultimately offered a lot of story potential. She’ll wind up being conflicted over who she should side with and we’ll see her go down a pretty dark road in a season or two. Her arc’s going to be very interesting. I just wish her voice actress, Karen Neil, didn’t give her such a painfully artificial “Me so horny” Japanese accent.
Also, the last moments of the episode reveal that the Shredder is alive and being stitched back together by the biocite worms just as in the Mirage comic. But c’mon, who didn’t see that one coming?Alright, that’s it. Next time we’ve got another Foot-centric multi-parter as well as a slew of one-shot episodes. And some of those one-shot episodes are pret-ty bad. I hope you’re excited for the return of the Garbageman, because nobody else is.