The trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem was released recently and despite the mostly positive responses, it has been slightly divisive. The direction of this new film has sparked several ongoing conversations and brought the heroes in a half-shell back into the wider pop culture conversation. This is definitely a new take on the familiar property and, judging by what we’ve seen, the creators are coming at it with a fresh approach. The cast of characters and the individuals providing the voices are solid talking points on their own, but what has struck several fans as odd about this laundry list of heroes and villains is the lack of the Turtles’ main antagonist — Oroku Saki, better known as the Shredder.
Blame the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon for making Shredder such a huge deal and connecting him so intricately to the title characters in the public eye. In the original comic, the real Saki is killed in the first issue and later resurrected (by worms of all things). Then there is the stuff with the mystics and the shark body, but that’s a whole other story. The important part is that the source material version of this villain was nothing like what viewers saw in the original cartoon, and the version of Shredder that most people know was barely around in the books.
The ’87 cartoon had a solid presentation for Shredder in those first five episodes, but as the series continued on, he became much more of a joke and a non-threatening foe. Shredder was usually the punchline, which is why the metal-clad baddie was replaced for the last couple of seasons as part of an attempt to revitalize the series. Later iterations of TMNT would do their own great versions of the character, making him more menacing and keeping the character from being defeated personally in each episode, but he can be a challenging figure to work with.
As much as I love the character — and especially James Avery and Scottie Rayow’s voice work — there was an odd comfort in not seeing him pop up in that new trailer. I didn’t see his name on the list of characters and kept expecting a tease at some point, but as it settled in that we might not be seeing ol’ Tin Grin, I realized this may be the best approach. Of the original three TMNT movies, only two of them featured Shredder. At the end of the second, fans were given his super mutated form where he was played by wrestler Kevin Nash. The ending to that one was a bit silly though, and taking a break from the character was probably for the best. What may work for this movie is to ease Saki back in subtly or even to not have him at all.
What we’ll most likely see in Mutant Mayhem is Baxter Stockman and his mutated henchmen taking on the TMNT. I think Giancarlo Esposito is going to kill it in the role and he deserves a chance to shine, but there’s a strong chance it’ll turn out that he was working for someone, or that there is a mysterious figure manipulating events from the shadows — enter the Shredder. That was the name of the second episode in the original cartoon run, and I point that out to show that, in a TMNT property, his arrival is inevitable. If this film is successful and this iteration of these characters continues on, they will eventually encounter their own incarnation of the Shredhead.
What might be best, in this case, is to hold off, however, and establish a couple of lower villains and build up to someone like Saki. What if the first movie sees Baxter Stockman as the main threat, but a sequel focuses on The Rat King, The Triceratons, or even Krang and the Neutrinos? Each movie can drop hints to Shredder, but not bring him in until the third film. This doesn’t mean we couldn’t still see the Foot Clan (human or robot versions) and some of his advanced technology, adding to how scary a true ninja master is with all of that at his disposal.
It’s a way to establish smaller heroic and evil characters so that when Shredder and his goons overpower the Turtles, they can be called upon to help. This also builds Shredder up as a bigger looming enemy instead of the entry-level threat that they have to try and keep relevant. I completely understand why we usually see it the other way around — Saki is so tied into Splinter and even the Turtle’s origins that his involvement from the beginning seems to make the most sense — but a solid escalation could do wonders for this new leg of the franchise.
Having Splinter tell the story of Saki while building him and his legacy up could result in a better encounter in a full film dedicated to Shredder. It would show him finally revealing himself to the Turtles, beating them easily, and forcing the brothers to call upon allies or learn to work together just to throw him off a bit (like an expanded version of the 1990 film).
One of the greatest things about the 2003 TMNT cartoon was how it portrayed Splinter and Shredder as martial arts masters. These two rivals were still several levels above the Turtles — even after the boys’ years of training. If a stronger representation of the character can be translated into the new movies, it could make for a much grander set of films that let the character grow with the teenagers until they’re ready to face what should be their ultimate challenge. The first step, however, is for him to bow out of this fight.
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