The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has become a worldwide phenomenon. Who would've ever thought a story about the adventures of four teenaged humanoid turtles named after Renaissance artists who are trained in ninjutsu by a mutated rat and use their skills to protect New York from ninjas and aliens would turn into such a lasting success? TMNT originated in a series of Mirage comic books, but soon spread to two other comics series, multiple animated TV series, five films, video games, toys, pizza ads, and just about every other kind of merchandise you can imagine. At the peak of TMNT's success in the late 80s and early 90s, "Turtlemania" swept the United States and then the world. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Master Splinter, and April O'Neil are now household names.
What makes TMNT so enduringly popular? Is it the appealing strangeness of the story? Their infectious love of pizza? Their memorable catchphrases and humorous quips? Or is it childhood nostalgia from watching the cartoons and humming that famous theme song? Whatever the reasons behind its long-lasting fame, there's no denying that the Turtles have always had their dark side, too. The TMNT franchise itself can get pretty dark and intense sometimes, and the original comics, the different animated TV series, and the movies, all have their secrets lurking in the shadows.
Here are 30 dark, shocking, or obscure facts, that make the universe of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rather disturbing.
30 Dark Origins
When most people think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they think of the wildly popular 1987 cartoon series where they're portrayed as fun-loving goofballs who love pizza and corny one-liners, and only got serious to fight Shredder. But what you might not know is that the Turtles were comic book characters first, and their original comic versions were much darker. These comics had more blood, violence, cursing, and occasionally, drinking.
In these comics, the Turtles all have red masks (though the color-coded ones were used later), they swear (just like real teenagers!), and are more violent and gritty than their campy cartoon counterparts. They also actually kill people. Yes, the beloved Turtles were ninjas after all, and they had no problem taking the lives of Foot Soldier ninjas or enemies like Shredder. While their personalities were mostly the same, there's no doubt the comic book Turtles weren't the light-hearted party dudes we think of.
29 Assassins In A Half-Shell
Most versions of TMNT have Splinter as the wise old sensei who trained his four Turtle sons in ninjutsu as a way for them to hide in the shadows and defend themselves. However, in the original comics published by Mirage Studios, in black-and-white format on cheap newsprint in 1984, Splinter had a much darker motivation for training them: to kill Oroku Saki, known as "The Shredder." Splinter's motivations were purely revenge since Shredder had killed Splinter's owner many years ago when he was still a pet rat.
And this is exactly what they do. The Turtles, as Splinter's trained assassins, call out Shredder and proceed to massacre his (human and not android) Foot Clan ninjas. After defeating Shredder, they offer him the chance to regain his honor by committing Seppuku (!), but instead, he tries to kill them all with a thermite grenade. Donatello uses his bo to knock Shredder off the building to his death. Whew.
28 Creator Criticism
While the original comics were a huge hit and inspired the cartoon, it was really the animated TV series that kicked off the franchise. Between the TV show, the comics, and the endless toys, "Turtlemania" soon swept the nation. While the cartoon series is fondly remembered by many, one of the creators was upset with how much the TV series lightened up the Turtles.
Peter Laird, one of the duo who created the franchise along with Kevin Eastman, has said he wished the first animated series had retained the darker aspects of the TMNT Universe, and not chosen to make the series so kid-friendly. Though ostensibly he oversaw the first animated Turtles projects, Laird had minimal involvement in the first one's development or the Next Mutation series. He did, however, take a more active role as a consultant in the darker 2003 animated series, which follows the original Mirage comics more closely.
27 No One Knows About Our Heroes
Whether fans came to TMNT from the original violent comic books or the light-hearted animated series, we all know the deal: the Turtle brothers use their knowledge of martial arts to stop the evil plans of Shredder and the Foot Clan, as well as any other baddies that might show up to threaten New York City, assisted by the wisdom of Splinter and the help of April O'Neil. Sounds pretty cool, right?
Except when you start to realize that the outside world is completely ignorant of their deeds. During the comic books and animated series, it's made obvious that the Ninja Turtles remain hidden from the public, despite the action-packed events of so many plot arcs. In the cartoon, the world also remains ignorant of the threat of Shredder and Krang, and it's a frequent plot point that the Turtles themselves are blamed for their crimes and any destruction they cause.
26 Krang Wasn't Always Bad
The character of Krang, the violent alien warlord from Dimension X, debuted in the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show that launched the pop culture phenomenon known as "Turtlemania." For fans of the cartoon series, few characters were as iconic as the evil alien brain walking around inside a giant robot body helping Shredder fight the Turtles (and having humorous spats with him along the way).
However, Krang as a character is exclusive to the show. His appearance was based on an alien race from the original comics known as the Utroms, a benevolent race that crashed on Earth 20 years ago. Krang and the Utroms couldn't have less in common: the Utroms peacefully integrated into human society with the use of android bodies, all the while trying to get back to their home planet. During this research, they lost a canister of an experimental substance, which is the same canister that mutated the Ninja Turtles.
25 Splinter's Mutation
The character of Splinter has remained consistent throughout all TMNT adaptations. He is a wise, intelligent, and elderly martial arts master who almost never raises his voice. He cares for the Turtles as his adopted sons and sometimes shows a dry sense of humor. Splinter is always a humanoid rat who wears robes, and it's sometimes shown he enjoys desserts and watching soap operas. However, one thing that has changed is his origin story.
In the original comic and the first movie, he is Hamato Yoshi's pet rat. In one film, he is simply a mutated rat with no connection to Yoshi. But other mediums have a darker version of his backstory where he is Hamato Yoshi himself, who was mutated into a human-sized rat by the same substance that created the Ninja Turtles. A frequent plot point is him trying to find a way to change back, usually to have it snatched away at the last minute.
24 Yoshi The Killer
Even more disturbing than the fact that the Ninja Turtles were trained purely for revenge is the idea that Shredder's motives aren't entirely evil or at least no eviler than Splinter's. In fact, what turned him evil was that his older brother Oroku Nagi was murdered by fellow ninja Hamato Yoshi in a feud over the love of a woman named Tang Shen. Afterwards, Yoshi fled to the United States. This resulted in the young Oroku Saki joining the Foot Clan and rising through the ranks. He was chosen to lead the American branch of the Foot Clan, eventually becoming the deadly warrior known as the Shredder.
Under Saki's leadership, the Foot Clan became a crime syndicate that participated in drug smuggling, arms running, and assassination. Shredder took his revenge by killing both Yoshi and Shen, which led to Yoshi's pet Splinter training the Turtles and getting revenge thirteen years later.
23 Nightmares Recycled
The animated series of TMNT that aired on Fox 4Kids from 2003 to 2009 was quite a bit darker than the classic 1987 series, harkening back to the original comics. In fact, one episode titled "Nightmares Recycled" was scrapped entirely for being too disturbing. It would have shown the origins of the Garbageman, a legless, morbidly obese, unsavory villain. It was going to reveal that he was the conjoined twin of Hun, leader of the Purple Dragons and arch-nemesis of Casey Jones. The two were separated by a back-alley surgeon. The legless baby who would become Garbageman was wrapped in blankets and discarded in the trash, while Hun was kept and raised.
Apparently, the script was approved and some animation was finished before Fox pulled the plug, deeming the episode too violent and disturbing for a children's program. Co-creator Peter Laird also criticized the episode as being too dark on his blog, noting that Garbageman was going to die by falling into a vat of acid.
22 Shredder's Inspiration
Turtle archvillain Shredder is one of the most recognizable villains of all time. His distinctive bright purple outfit and Samurai-esque armor with blade-covered metal plaques on his arms, legs, and shoulders, are all iconic. Raphael once quipped in the cartoon that it's bizarre fighting someone named after "a kitchen utensil." As it turns out, Raph wasn't too far from the truth, since the design for Shredder was inspired by a cheese grater.
One night while Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman was washing his dishes, he ended up putting his forearm through a trapezoidal cheese grater and gripping the handle. "Could you imagine a character with weapons on his arms like this?" He told Peter Laird, envisioning what would become Shredder's armor. His original name was going to be "The Grater," or "Grate Man," but thankfully Laird suggested "The Shredder" instead.
21 Marvel At The Daring Rip-Offs
While the early comics were certainly dark, it would be a mistake to say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was meant to be completely serious. In fact, the story of the Turtles is a pretty open parody of superhero Daredevil. In the Marvel comic, Matt Murdock pushes a blind man out of the way of a speeding truck and is struck by a radioactive canister of toxic waste, which blinds him but makes his other senses more powerful. The Turtles' origin story is identical, except the canister rolls into the sewer and bathes four ordinary turtles in glowing green goo, mutating them into the pizza-loving ninjas we know today.
It doesn't stop there: Splinter's name is a reference to Daredevil's own mentor, Stick, and the Foot Clan's name is a parody of Daredevil's own ninja enemies, The Hand. Daredevil isn't the only comic book to inspire the Turtles either; their name and attitude came from combining X-Men and Teen Titans, leading to the idea of teenage mutants.
20 Not The Turtles' Main Adversary
The character of Shredder has remained fairly consistent across most TMNT-related media. Every adaptation has had him as the villain at one point. Yet, though Shredder is often considered to be the main antagonist in the TMNT franchise, it was never the creator's intention for him to be the main archenemy. In an interview in The Ultimate Collection, Vol. 2, Peter Laird said:
"In truth, though many TMNT fans who became fans via the first animated series see Shredder as a REALLY important part of an ongoing, long-running battle with the Turtles, I don't think Kevin or I ever did. Yes, he was an important part of their history, and they probably would not have come into existence without his involvement in their world (or more accurately Splinter's world)...but that's about it. Other than bringing Shredder back for "Return to New York" (and the few issues preceding that set that arc up), I never missed him in any of the other TMNT books I worked on."
19 Origins In A Joke
So many of grew up with the Ninja Turtles that it's hard to picture a world without them. But when we really break it down, the premise is a little bizarre. Namely the part about a giant rat teaching ninjutsu to four mutant turtles in order to take down an armored Samurai guy. But while the plot may be strange, few know that Ninja Turtles' origins started as a joke.
That's right: the whole concept started as a silly drawing of a turtle dressed as a ninja that Kevin Eastman made as a joke. Peter Laird then did his own sketches of "turtle ninjas" in response. Both of them just found it amusing and never meant it to go anywhere. But later, they explored the concept more and took inspiration from superhero stories, creating their own comic series out of it. It was picked up by Fred Wolf for Murakami-Wolf-Swenson studios and turned into a TV series, and the rest is history.
18 Whitewashing Its Characters
April O'Neil is easily one of the most iconic characters in TMNT, best known as the Turtles' first human friend and their contact with the outside world. She frequently helps out on their missions and has remained fairly consistent in her appearance since the cartoon; a white woman with reddish-brown hair.
But here's the crazy thing; April wasn't drawn as a white woman in the original Mirage comics. Granted, they were black-and-white, so her race wasn't easy to identify, but looking back it's pretty clear from cover images of April that she had much darker skin and black curly hair. In certain issues like the colorized version of Tales of the TMNT #7, she is undeniably drawn as dark-skinned or African-American. So basically, April got whitewashed in the 1987 TV series, which resulted in yellow-jumpsuit-wearing character we all know. This definitively changed all subsequent TMNT media.
17 Tatsu's Temper
The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movie that came out in 1990 was a smash hit. It became the most successful independent film of all time and spawned two sequels. If you saw it, you probably remember the scene where Shredder's second-in-command, Tatsu, flies into a rage and starts brutally beating a teenage Foot soldier. Other Foot Clan members stop him before he goes too far. Originally though, this scene was much darker.
Tatsu was supposed to kill that soldier by beating him to death. In the original comics, Tatsu murdered the young man with his bare hands right then and there. The movie was going to stick with the death, but this was cut and replaced with the dialogue "You'll be alright," due to being seen as too dark for the movie's target demographic.
16 "Giant Android Cow Head Spaceship" Sounds Like A Band
For the first seven issues, the Archie Comics' version of the Ninja Turtles was a perfect copy of the TV series. Then things started to get weird; very weird. Like the time that the gang flew around the galaxy in a giant cow head spaceship. Wait, what? Yes. In "Cudley the Cowlick," we're introduced to Cudley, a gigantic alien cyborg cow head able to carry people through time and space by carrying them in his mouth.
As if that wasn't weird enough, Cudley was capable of traveling to different dimensions. What this meant story-wise was that he was able to visit the colorful Archie Comics' universe and the grittier black-and-white Mirage Comics universe. Not only does this make a giant cow head terrifyingly powerful, but it means that different version of the Turtles exists simultaneously in different dimensions at once, a concept that would be explored further in the cartoon crossover Ninja Turtles Forever.
15 Sympathy For The Devil
Much of the Archie Comics run of TMNT was spent fighting regular bad guys and generic thugs, but one storyline had them fighting a horned being named Mr. Null. While Null was first portrayed as a minor enemy and a typical evil businessman who was destroying the rainforest and dumping toxic waste into the ocean, it was eventually revealed he was far more than that. Null claimed to be the devil himself and sold the Earth to an alien named Maligna. He was charged with eliminating the human race.
This guy also had demonic henchmen modeled on the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As he grew eviler, Null's horns grew and he sprouted bat wings and a demon-like tail. Notably, Null is remembered for committing what's considered the most horrifying act in the history of Archie Comics when he ordered his killer cyborgs to brutally murder the Mighty Mutanimals. Ironically, they were killed off because their toyline wasn't thought to have potential, so a pitched cartoon was also canceled.
14 A Fourth Movie, A Second Mutation?
The 2007 CGI Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie as well as the recent big-budget Michael Bay films released in 2014 and 2016 are both reboots for the series. The original TMNT movie series started in 1990 and spawned two sequels in 1991 and 1993. While the first TMNT movie was praised for keeping a consistent tone with the comics, Secret of the Ooze and the widely-hated third movie were criticized for being too goofy and kid-friendly. However, what most fans don't know is that there was almost another sequel.
Ninja Turtles 4 would have introduced Kirby, a fifth Turtle with claws and a tattered cape, and had the Turtles undergo "secondary" mutations so that Leonardo could coat himself in indestructible chrome, Donatello would have telepathic and telekinetic powers, and Splinter would bulk up like a furry Hulk. Casey Jones would also have cybernetic fists, April would've worn a skintight outfit, and Shredder would look like a general in the KISS army. Early sketches on Laird's blog indicate it would've been...well, extremely strange.
13 Something's Wrong With Leo
In the fourth season of the Fox 4Kids TMNT animated series, there's something not quite right with Leonardo. He's angrier, more paranoid, and begins to lash out at others. Leo is acting so different that his brothers notice and start to get worried about his mental health. He's very short-tempered with them and seems constantly on guard. This takes place in the wake of the Turtles nearly getting killed in battle against Shredder.
While the show doesn't come right out and say it, Leo's symptoms are pretty obviously a case of PTSD. Chances are he was also suffering from nightmares and flashbacks. While most kids who watched the show probably wouldn't catch it, it's still pretty cool that a cartoon marketed for children tackled such a deep subject. After all, after a big battle or dangerous mission, most heroes just seem to shrug off the trauma and be just fine. But Leo shows in real life it sometimes doesn't work out that way, and he has to confront his issues head-on.
12 Donatello Does Machines
Part of Donatello's character development is that he's the tech-savvy genius of the Turtles, able to understand repair the most advanced sci-fi technology, and occasionally even building it himself. Depending on the adaptation, his inventions range from Batman level to incredibly futuristic/ridiculous. But in quite a few versions and mediums, Donnie becomes a cyborg himself.
Almost all TMNT stories have an apocalyptic story arc that functions as a "what if/possible future" scenario. In nearly all of them, Donnie winds up becoming part machine. Image comics shows him fusing with a cyborg that was trying to kill him. The 2012 CGI series on Nickelodeon shows that Donatello's mind is uploaded into a robot body called "Donbot" after his body is destroyed. In the IDW comics, his soul is transferred into a Metalhead robot. The list goes on and on. It's pretty symbolic for Donnie to become the very thing he loves.
11 Raphael Is Cool... And Mad Max
The Nickelodeon TMNT animated series is known for having a good balance of intense drama and action and humor, but there's one storyline that goes into some really disturbing places. In the arc, "Raphael: Mutant Apocalypse," we see a vision of the future where a giant mutagen bomb has wiped out all of humanity and left the Earth a radioactive wasteland. Only mutants have survived and split into tribes and rampaging road gangs.
In case you haven't picked up on it, the entire series is a tribute to Mad Max, and sure enough, we follow an old and weathered Raphael in three stories that closely follow the three original Mad Max films. But the really disturbing part is that there's no indication this is an "alternate" future. In other words, it's very possible that this post-apocalyptic future is actually going to happen.
10 Raphael Punched This Guy
While typically milder than most TMNT media, when Archie Comics' Ninja Turtles stories got weird, they went all the way. One truly awesome moment involved the Turtles of the future, complete with time travel. The memorable story involves Hitler's brain still functioning after World War II, obtaining a robot body, and going back in time to join forces with his past self. The brain's protective glass shatters, and when past Hitler tries to retrieve the brain, he is punched in the face by Raphael, who shouts, "For the millions!"
Though Hitler later recovers and confronts the Turtles, Leonardo convinces him that he is in Hell and they are demons who already possess his soul and are now coming for his brain. This leads to the dictator shooting himself in the head so the Turtles can't steal his mind. Whether this represents a new timeline or whether this is actually why Hitler shot himself is up to the reader.
9 Pizza Feud
If we know one thing about the Ninja Turtles, it's that our heroes in a half-shell love pizza. It's their favorite food throughout the franchise, and since the 1987 cartoon, it's become part of their image. This also carried over to the live-action movies and beyond. So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise there was a massive feud between Pizza Hut and Domino's over who would get to sponsor the Ninja Turtle movies.
It makes sense that two major pizza chains would battle over such a lucrative opportunity. In the end, they sort of both won. Pizza Hut got advertising rights, but Domino's got to be the pizza the Turtles ate in the movie. Pizza Hut, however, got to put a commercial right at the end of the VHS edition. They even put coupons in with the NES cartridge for the TMNT game (not to mention billboards in the actual game).
8 In Memoriam
Most people probably know Japanese-American actor and voice artist Mako Iwamatsu for his voice roles as Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender and Aku from Samurai Jack. But many fans of Mako's work and TMNT both may not know that his last performance as a voice actor was as Master Splinter. He died one day after he was confirmed.
On July 20, 2006, director Kevin Munroe confirmed at the San Diego Comic-con that Mako had finished his recording and would be the voice of Splinter in the 2007 TMNT movie. The next day on July 21, Mako died at the age of 72 from esophageal cancer. A dedication to Mako appears at the end of the finished film's credits.
7 Teenage Mutant... "Hero" Turtles?
TMNT is no stranger to censorship. In fact, at one point it wasn't even known as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but rather Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. The name change happened upon the Turtles' first arrival in the UK and Ireland, which had blacklisted the word "ninja" for children's entertainment. So they replaced "Ninja Turtles" with "Hero Turtles," or TMHT for short. This change carried over to other countries like Spain and Portugal, as well as German-speaking countries.
Consequently, every single piece of Turtle media, including comic books, video games, etc., also had to be censored with the new name. UK censorship also edited out Michelangelo's nunchaku, which were at the time banned from appearing in films. By the time the live-action movie came out in 1990, the "Ninja" was kept in the UK, and by the 2003 series, it seemed everyone stopped caring.
6 April O'Neil Isn't Human
While the Archie Comics' stories could get pretty weird, the Mirage Comics went to some downright Twilight Zone territory. One of them involved a young artist named Kirby King who has a magic crystal that brings anything he draws to life. Donatello goes on an adventure to save a world where his drawings were attacking people, and the arc seemed like a one-off.
Until in a later issue where it's revealed that April O'Neil's father once had the same crystal. It was revealed when he drew a sketch of the daughter he would like to have many years ago. When April finds out she isn't human but an ink drawing come to life, she travels to Alaska to go through an existential crisis. The idea of April not being human was touched on in the Nickelodeon animated series too, with the revelation she is part human and part alien, which gives her psychic powers.
5 Raphael Became Shredder
The Image Comics series of TMNT from 1996 has got to be the cruelest adaptation when it comes to bad and bizarre stuff happening to our heroes. We've already mentioned Donatello got blown up and turned into a cyborg, but Leonardo also lost a hand, Splinter got turned into a mutant vampire bat, and Raphael's face was horribly scarred when he was blasted in the face by a laser. But the most insane thing that happens is that Raph actually becomes Shredder.
While the real Shredder was dead at that point, Raph started wearing a version of his armor and eventually becomes the leader of the Foot Clan. He even fights bat Splinter, who thinks he's the real Shredder. There's a reference to this storyline in the 2003 animated series where the Turtles face their worst fears; Raph's has him fighting Shredder, who turns out to be himself.
4 There Was A Girl Ninja Turtle
Did you know there was a live-action TMNT series called Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation? Yeah, us either. And there's a reason for that: it was pretty bad. The cheesiness of the 1987 cartoon was nothing compared to Fox Kids' 1997-1998 disaster. But the show did have one interesting contribution to the lore of TMNT, and that was the concept of female Ninja Turtles.
Yep, the series added a fifth Turtle to the gang in the form of Venus de Milo. The story goes that she was with the other four Turtle brothers and was mutated along with them. She was somehow missed by Splinter and the others, so she was raised by a man named Chung in the mystic arts. Venus was a controversial and rather stereotypical character (her cyan mask was even tied back in a ponytail). She has so far only appeared in The Next Mutation, which was canceled after one season.
3 Piece By Piece
In the 4Kids TMNT animated series, Dr. Baxter Stockman is a genius villain who works for the Shredder in developing some pretty nasty sci-fi technology. However, there was a seriously dark undertone to his increasingly cybernetic appearance as the series goes on. Basically, every time Stockman failed the Shredder, Shredder would take another part of his body.
Wait, what? Yes, the reason why Stockman replaces more of his body with robotic parts (starting with his left eye) is that the Shredder and Hun were gradually dismembering him. It's a fact that it's easy to miss as a kid. If you watched the 2003 series you probably didn't quite grasp how disturbing it is that Shredder is dismembering the doctor piece by piece. By the end of the series, he's a brain in a jar.
2 Insane In The Membrane
Dr. Stockman was also the source for another disturbing moment in TMNT history. There was an episode that was fully completed but never actually aired in the United States. That episode was "Insane in the Membrane," which stars the not-so-good doctor as a Frankenstein's monster-type creature. The episode follows Stockman as he creates a new human body for himself. He succeeds, but his new body and mind start slowly deteriorating in grotesque ways.
Unfortunately, Fox Broadcast Standards and Practices pulled the episode, saying the content was too graphic and disturbing for their audience. Frankly, they're not wrong: Stockman's body falling apart at the seams like a zombie is pretty gruesome. It was aired in the UK and included on the DVD,. It wouldn't be aired until August 2015 on the Nicktoons channel.
1 Creating A Toy Giant
Well, here we are, the most disturbing aspect of the TMNT Universe, and it's a doozy. In fact, it affects the franchise as a whole. The reason Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took off as well as it did was mostly because of the toys. It's a sad fact of entertainment in capitalism, but the merchandise is where the real money was (and is) made. All your favorite Saturday morning action cartoons were created to sell toylines: Bucky O'Hare, Mighty Max, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Cabbage Patch Kids, Transformers. The list goes on and on.
But TMNT was a trail-blazer. It showed the world (and television executives) the popularity that action superhero teams could enjoy, not to mention that sweet, sweet action figure money. Every kids' cartoon has followed suit. While series do start off because people think they're an interesting story, they quickly turn into moneymaking machines.