Crossovers are fun because they can never really be consequential. Popular characters are the tent poles of multi-billion dollar corporations with strategies, product streams, all kinds of nonsense that has nothing to do with creativity. No one’s going to have anything important happen in a crossover, so the mixing of worlds cannot be anything but cotton candy. That can make it an opportunity for creative teams, who have no real stakes because nothing matters, try and find the essence of the creative property.
Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a crossover that might seem like madness at first blush, but is in its own ways not only appropriate, but inevitable. One of the great Batman writers of the ’80s was Frank Miller, whose seminal Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One comics were touchstones that reinvigorated a character who had gone through a number of incarnations and was in danger of becoming dull. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created as a direct homage to the other major superhero work of Frank Miller in the ’80s, his run on Daredevil, arguably Miller’s best work in a long running superhero series. Intended originally as a one-off by comic-book enthusiasts Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the origin of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coincided directly with Daredevil’s – that toxic waste canister that blinded him ended up in the sewer and emptied out on some poor pet turtles who’d misadventured down there.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have gone through a number of incarnations, themselves. In line with the gritty street-level vigilante stories of Miller’s Daredevil, TMNT’s original series for Mirage comics (Eastman and Laird’s own print label) was as gritty, violent, and dark as a comic book that starred mutant turtles could be. A lot of what has become turtle canon, including the different colored headbands and the pizza scarfing, comes from the cartoon show that debuted in 1987, which shaved off all of the rough edges.
Batman, of course, was pretty rough himself when he was introduced. Basically a Shadow knock-off, there wasn’t a hint of the “guns are for bad guys, I’ll never kill” attitude in early Batman. He was shootings .45s and breaking necks with the best of them. So, albeit on very different timelines, the two comic worlds have a lot in common, and their intertwining isn’t that odd a prospect.
One of the tedious aspects of most crossover series is that practical one: how does one set of characters get into the other’s world? Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles handles it by completely ignoring it. The turtles are from New York, Batman’s in Gotham, same world, no worries. The Foot, the Turtles’ eternal ninja enemies, are stealing power supplies throughout Gotham in order to power some monster-making machine for their master Shredder, who is in league with one of Batman’s own major villains in order to engage in nefarity in Gotham.
There’s a plot structure to these sort of things: the heroes don’t know each other, so of course when they first meet, they both assume the other is the villain and they fight. The fight scenes are where, for the most part, Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles excels. They’re the most cinematic aspects of the film, and clearly where the animation budget went…though that’s not saying much.
The DC Animated Universe is streets ahead of the poor DC Cinematic Universe, which has mostly collapsed under its own mediocrity. However, this is not feature-film-level animation – it’s choppy, clearly on a limited budget, where some scenes have had attention lavished on them, and others look like still drawings being shoved across the screen.
One of the things I enjoyed about this film, which is adapted loosely from a comic-book crossover of a similar name, is that it feels like a comic book mini-series – there’s the issue where they have their first fight, the issue where they go to Arkham Asylum, the crisis issue where the team might break up, then the finale where everyone puts aside their difference and fights the bad guys. While it’s a relatively violent cartoon movie (good guy extras get killed, there’s blood in the fights), the action is pitched right at the goofball comic-book level.
The Batman and TMNT main characters have fun interacting with their counterparts. Somber serious Batman hits it off with Leonardo via sparring matches. Raphael and moody Robin trade barbs, while nerdier Batgirl and Donatello have fun synthesizing chemicals together. There isn’t any goofy Batman friendly to match with Michelangelo, so he’s given Alfred as a straight man, and actually gets off a chuckle-worthy line here or there.
The voice cast is a definite mixed bag. The turtles are all right, voiced by guys who haven’t done them before (barring, according to IMDB, a short in 2016), but the Batman characters are mostly less successful. Troy Baker does double duty as Batman and The Joker. Both of his voices are basically imitations of the Batman: The Animated Series performances of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively. His Conroy is passable, his Hamill is execrable, but nowhere near the depths of Tara Strong’s ear-shreddingly terrible performance as Harley Quinn. It is, too, a B:TAS rip-off from Arleen Sorkin’s incomparable character originating and defining voice work, but it is a broad interpretation and nails on a chalkboard annoying.
Equally annoying is the apparent requirement that any Batman story has to have all of these characters. Part of Shredder’s plan involves the mutagen that turned the turtles into humanoids, and which apparently can mutate anybody into an animal hybrid – so roughly a third of the movie involves Batman’s rogue’s gallery being turned into animal forms in Arkham Asylum, and punching it out with the Bat and company. It’s seemingly the thing to do with a Batman miniseries: shoe-horn in as many of his bad guys as you can, even if there’s nothing specific or interesting to do with them. More time spent on Shredder and his partner might have led to the development of something like a story, but apparently you can’t have Batman without the friggin’ Joker shoved into it at some point. And once the overall plot becomes apparent, it’s unfortunately the exact same plot that countless other comic-book stories run through – bad guys are going to dose the population with some sort of drug and the good guys have to stop them. It’s tired, it’s rote, and it’s a failure to use all the collected elements of the world creatively.
That said, as a Turtles fan I ultimately found the characters and overall film enjoyable. As a Batman fan, I’m glad I’m a Turtles fan. Michelangelo was occasionally funny, not just obnoxious. Raphael’s hotheadedness is coupled with sincerity, and Leonardo shares a quiet bond with Batman that is completely in character. It’s a fun little crossover, which maybe could have been more, but that’s not the point of a movie like this. It’s asking the age old question: who would win in a fight, Batman or the Shredder? Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a pretty entertaining answer.
Batman vs. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been released on 4K , Blu-ray, DVD and digital by Warner Brothers. Extras on the disc include a pair of decent, light featurettes, “Cowabunga, Batman! When Comic Book Worlds Collide” (13 mins), “Fight Night in Gotham” (18 mins) and a preview of the soon to be released Batman: Hush.