Warning: This article contains plot spoilers.
Diehard fans of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise, be forewarned: the new movie reboot isn’t the beloved story with which you are familiar. Instead of focusing on the adventures, brotherhood, and quirky bond between Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, the movie is completely centered around Megan Fox as April O’Neil, the turtles’ sidekick. The starlet gets more screen time than any of the turtles.
Plot changes are to be expected in any movie adaptation. In fact, the launch of April O’Neil from sidekick to main attraction has been lauded as a win for women, who seldom play lead characters in comics and video games. But that “win” is undercut by the fact that Michael Bay’s reboot showcases O’Neil as an inept reporter whose main purpose is to leered at.
In Bay’s TMNT, O’Neil is a young reporter hoping to do more with her four-year journalism degree than cover fluff stories and fitness fads. It starts out promising, as O’Neil takes the initiative to solve a series of robberies (the villainous Foot Clan has been stealing chemicals from the loading docks). O’Neil is desperate to be taken seriously, but rather than proving herself, she quickly becomes hapless.
O’Neil is dismissed as young and naive by virtually every other character. She is seen as a wide-eyed, pretty face by every major character — a girl who couldn’t possibly have more to offer the world of broadcast journalism. Michelangelo has a teen crush on her. Arnett, her cameraman, wants to date her and only helps O’Neil with the Foot Clan story because he thinks it’s a ruse for them to spend more time together.
If O’Neil proved everyone wrong by doing excellent, smart reporting, that could all be fine. The problem is, O’Neil is terrible at her job.
She wants to become a “real reporter,” but she breaks the most basic journalism rules: verify everything, and never give anyone your scoop. Instead, O’Neil blabs about meeting the Ninja Turtles to anyone who will listen to her — her roommate, her editor, played by Whoopi Goldberg, security tycoon and villain William Fichtner — before she has any actual proof. All O’Neil has are two grainy pictures, one of a shadowy figure and one of a Chinese symbol that she took with her phone. Yet she pitches the story to her editor before doing any sort of research.
O’Neil is shown only taking one interview. She’s never at a computer researching. When she is at the computer, she’s watching old videos of her younger self pretending to be a reporter in her father’s lab. She discovers that the vigilante turtles were her pets; her father’s old science experiments whom she rescued after the lab was burned down, by looking through her dad’s notes (which somehow survived the fire). As a result, she ultimately gets fired for incompetence and lack of hard proof.
In the original TMNT cartoon, O’Neil was a secondary character, but still a rather savvy sidekick, despite repeatedly having to be damsel in distress. Yes, she wore a suggestive yellow jumpsuit that showed her cleavage, and she shrieked a lot. But she was confident and could think on her feet when she was kidnapped, or when she was helping her turtle pals foil a villain’s plot. That confidence is lost in Bay’s TMNT.
Fox’s O’Neil is unnecessarily dumbed down in comparison to the April O’Neil from the cartoon and even from the first live-action movie in 1990. Previous Aprils were hard-hitting reporters who took on police chiefs and were dedicated to uprooting political corruption. In this TMNT, Fox spends most of the movie talking in a breathy baby voice instead of actually reporting.
Additionally, Bay does have a history of objectifying female characters in his movies, with a heavy focus on body parts, various states of undress, and scenes that make the woman seem helpless. Fox’s casting as O’Neil automatically garnered criticism from hardcore fans, long before the movie was even released, and her O’Neil is no exception to the Michael Bay rule. While she manages to stay clothed, O’Neil’s character is heavily sexualized — as O’Neil was in the series — with innuendo peppered throughout.
Michelangelo makes multiple comments on how “hot” O’Neil is during their first meeting; he said that “his shell was tightening,” as in, he had an erection. In one of the final action scenes, Arnett blatantly looks at O’Neil’s butt.
O’Neil does gets to kick some villain butt by, as Slate’s Amanda Hess put it, being “allowed to push some big buttons, flip some important levers, and drop-kick some evil villains,” to help save the day. But none of that really makes up for her ineptitude and how objectified she is for the vast majority of the movie.
O’Neil’s weakened characterization continues a trend found in many comic books and video games: That when women are semi-prominent characters, which is rare, their role is mainly to be a sexpot at the mercy of surrounding male characters. The comic and gaming worlds are catching flak for feeding into the stereotype that teenage boys are their core audience and for failing to promote racial and gender inclusion. Research shows women make up about half of the community; over 40 percent of people who showed up at this year’s New York Comic-Con were women, a 62 percent jump from 2011.
But even as women continually show up in droves, the industry itself is heavily male-dominated. Without a fairly more diverse representation in the drawing rooms, comics and video game industries could suffer tremendously by alienating themselves from some of their biggest fans. That homogeneity led women at this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego to start a petition to implement a sexual harassment policy, which isn’t adequately covered in the event’s behavior policies.
Marvel Comics has already begun diversifying their characters to better match audience’s expectations. The comic creator announced in July that it cast black actor Sam Wilson to play Captain America in the upcoming franchise. Also, the next Thor — god of thunder — will be portrayed as a woman in Marvel’s latest revival of the comic book series. But when it comes to TMNT, fans will have to wait until the next series reboot to get an April O’Neil that’s relatable.