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Gritty Casey Jones fan film: Taking the TMNT mythos too dark?

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New TMNT fan film is skilfully made, but does it turn Casey Jones too far to the dark side?

Gritty TMNT fan film 'Casey Jones: The Movie' (2011)

A new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan film has surfaced online, and it's a fairly impressive piece of work telling the origin story of Casey Jones, with some iconic comic book shots and homages to the franchise, and featuring good cinematography on what’s probably a relatively low budget.

Those involved, such as director Polaris Banks and star Hilarion Banks, have talent, though the specific storyline chosen, while well-told, holds the film back. Specifically, Casey Jones’ moral flaws undermine it.

Basically, despite the film’s merits, it’s too dark (thematically speaking), and not heroic enough. That is to say, not heroic enough in the true sense of the word. Casey Jones becomes a formidable and iconic figure over the course of the film, but although he fights evil, his methods mean he barely qualifies as a good guy.

There’s arguably an element of satire of a brutal vigilante, who’s arguably just about an anti-hero (as opposed to a villain) towards the end, thanks to Michaelangelo. But as a protagonist, it’s difficult to root for Casey, and considering that the whole film centres around his journey, that fact makes it somewhat less enjoyable.

Trailer:

It’s very difficult to pull off the balance between satirising characters incisively and also making them well-rounded people who the audience can love and root for. Aside from perhaps one or two moments, this fan film doesn’t, though I suppose it’s admirable that it tried. However, something less dark and a bit more straightforwardly heroic, or at least squarely anti-heroic rather than verging on villainous, would have worked much better. Sons of Anarchy is one of the few things that pulls this off, and does so with aplomb. Despite its bleakness, the show is nevertheless epic, Shakespearean tragedy. Also Dollhouse, and maybe BSG and The Wire, fall into this category as well.

And TV series have the advantage, because they have more screentime to show the characters’ various foibles and nuances and sympathetic traits, as well as giving them meaningful arcs. This fan film does those things to an extent, though TV is by far the best medium for character development. (That is, in terms of potential; it still needs to be executed well. For instance, standalone shows, however diverting the individual episodes may be, and however great the characters, inherently limit themselves by providing little room for meaningful and lasting character arcs.)

If one can’t pull this off, it’s best to err on the side of loveable, heroic characters. Like the Turtles themselves. However, if the filmmakers err on the other side, then the question is, how dark is too dark?

Does having humour make up for the darkness? Well, it helps, but if the main storyline involves the protagonist doing terrible things, then it doesn’t make up for it enough.

If it’s gratuitous, either in terms of the specifics of what happens, or what it represents in terms of characters, then it's too dark.

While examining characters’ flaws can be fascinating and provide pathos, people love to see a hero, and with good reason. They inspire us, they provide hope of good triumphing over evil. But if the main character is too compromised, then the film doesn’t achieve that.

If there’s violence, it should be necessary to the story, without revelling in it (as Casey unfortunately does at many points during the film).

As it is, it seems like the film’s trying to be both a celebration and a critique or subversion of Casey Jones, but doesn’t quite succeed. It’s nevertheless quite interesting, though.

For instance, the turning point in the film is a scene where Casey's mother tells him: “That’s what you always say: ‘Fix this’, ‘Fix that’, and all you ever do is break everything…”, and he responds: “Ma, I promise: I’ll fix everything.”

In one sense, he does fix some things (at least to a certain extent) by taking on the thugs who terrorise the neighbourhood, but morally speaking, this doesn’t fix Casey; in fact, it indulges his violent tendencies. Michaelangelo’s friendship is the only thing that tempers this, but only to an extent. (Nonetheless, it shows one of the most important things about friendship: to make the other person better. (But not in a Serenity kind of way. That way lies badness.))

Ultimately, though, even if Casey were to set aside his penchant for violence and become a proper hero, like the Turtles for instance, it still wouldn’t fix the guilt of his previous actions. Only Jesus can do that, through his death on the cross and resurrection. This calls for repentance and trust in Jesus, rather than Casey’s favourite pastime of self-justification.

It’s great that the Turtles fandom is still alive. It may be underground (awaiting the new TV series in 2012 and the live-action movie reboot in 2014), but still surfaces every now and again.

According to MTV Geek, the film's director/writer/editor/Donatello, Polaris Banks, “felt obligated to make the movie simply because he felt that no-one else would.”

Fan filmmaking, and fan creativity in general, is a wonderful thing, and should be encouraged.

it’s just a shame that the enjoyment of the story is compromised by the moral compromises (or rather, shortcomings, since many of them are arguably not even pragmatic) of the main character.

Casey isn’t just morally grey; doing bad things for good reasons; he also actually enjoys inflicting violence on his enemies, and even callously jokes about it.

Is this inherent to a serious, faithful treatment of the character? Maybe he doesn’t lend himself to being a main character for that reason. A morally dubious side character is one thing; having such a character ostensibly as a hero or anti-hero is another matter, and ultimately much more disheartening.

Casey Jones was voiced by Chris Evans in the animated TMNT (2007), which featured a much goofier, more likeable, though still flawed, version of the character. Incidentally, Chris Evans plays the noble Steve Rogers/Captain America in this summer’s old-fashioned, heroic Captain America: The First Avenger, as well as writer-director Joss Whedon’s upcoming The Avengers.

If there’s one thing Joss Whedon’s really good at, it’s handling nuanced characters. And musicals. And snappy dialogue. And melding genres. And dramatic twists. And character arcs. And bringing the funny. And casting brilliant actors. And assembling amazing writers. And self-deprecating wit. And making stories that work on many levels. And making you love the characters. And then killing them off in a heart-breakingly awesome way. And tangible world-building. And not being cancelled…okay, that one not so much. But Tim Minear’s even worse at the not being cancelled, though…

(Oh, and found family, which is something that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise at its best does so well.)

For my money, the epitome of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, bar perhaps the first cartoon's awesome theme song, is writer-director Kevin Munroe’s entertaining, stylish, underrated TMNT (2007). It's a shame he won't be involved in the planned 2014 movie reboot, let alone a sequel to TMNT, though with the awesome Michael Bay (Transformers) producing, hopefully it'll still be something cool and worthy of the franchise.

Click through to watch the full, 35 minute fan film:

The Movie Pool

See also:

Awesome low-budget The Avengers trailer spoof

Portal: No Escape, a stunning live action short

Stylish trailer for Bryan Singer’s dystopian sci-fi H+ The Digital Series

Joss Whedon will follow The Avengers with Wastelanders, "a dark piece" with no singing

Tucker & Dale, The Tunnel lead Telluride Horror Show selections

Doctor Who parody makes Ke$ha’s Tik Tok actually tolerable


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