Multidimensional Monster: The Shredder Essay (Spoilers)
19 May 2012 4 Comments
One of the great challenges Lloyd Goldfine, Peter Laird, and the staff at 4Kids faced in developing their take on the Ninja Turtles was in turning the Shredder into a proper Big Bad. They had to take a character who, until then, had either had a limited shelf-life (the Mirage comics), was played as an utterly unserious, ineffectual villain (the original cartoon) or had been set aside in favor of other villains (the Archie comics) and turn him into somebody who could appear regularly while being consistently menacing. And for the most part, they succeeded: one part Cobra Commander and two parts Geese Howard, 4Kids’ Shredder managed to create a character who worked as the big bad the series needed, and became the most threatening version of the character yet.
One of the things they didn’t do, however, was create a villain with lots of layers or shades of gray, or one the audience could identify with or feel sympathy for. He doesn’t have Bishop’s genuinely noble aims, Karai’s inner moral conflict, or even Hun’s ambition and desire to better his station in life–in short, nothing viewers can hold on to. He combines elements of both David Xanatos and Demona, but has none of their humanity. He’s just an evil guy who wants to take over the galaxy–a generic big bad.
And yet…he works, in a way that other generic big bads like Mumm-Ra, Ganon, or even Fire Lord Ozai (who was upstaged by everyone else in his family and is easily the least developed major character in the series) don’t, for me. Whether by design or by accident, he manages to overcome his generic aspects to become someone who is singular, multi-dimensional, and well…interesting.
Becoming the mask.
As explained throughout the series, “The Shredder” was an identity that the Utrom Ch’rell adopted upon arriving on Earth. Eventually we learn that this is not the first time he has done so, and that he in fact has a habit of adopting different identities on different planets. We don’t know for how long he’s being doing this or for how long he assumed them, but the fact that Utroms considered a millenium-long stay on Earth to be no big deal suggest that he’s been doing this for quite a while. Has he held any identity longer than he has stuck with The Shredder? Impossible to say, but it doesn’t seem implausible.
Now, what makes this particular detail interesting is just how integral the Shredder identity has become to his whole being. When talking about himself, he almost never refers to himself as Ch’rell (and even then, he only does so when highlighting his various different personas) and almost exclusively as, well, “The Shredder”. If the second season of Fast Forward had come to be, we would have found that Ch’rell would have kept the Shredder identity, even after he’d joined the Triceraton Republic as one of their own.
Now, it’s pretty clear from a Doylist perspective why this is the case: The Shredder is much more recognizable than Ch’rell, and viewers have a lot more invested in the former. Still, I really appreciate the Watsonian implications of this approach. They suggest a person who for some reason or other wasn’t entirely satisfied with himself until he found his perfect self in another identity–what’s more, in an identity that originally belonged to somebody else. And that, to me, is goshdarned fascinating.
The Lonely Child
While the Shredder is close to being a complete monster, there will always be a part of him that prevents him from being one, and that is the fact that at one point in his life, he adopted an orphan girl and raised her as his own. While this isn’t a terribly uncommon tactic among villains–soldiers brought up from childhood tend to be extremely loyal–it is usually done with people who will eventually provide them with some sort of advantage–say, the son of Superman, or a guy with a rightful claim to the throne, etc. The Shredder’s similar adoption of Hun makes sense within that context, as the man-mountain had presumably already established his potential as a gang leader. Karai, on the other hand, had none of those things. She provided no great political advantage. There was no way to know if she’d be a great fighter. In short, there were a million ways in which Karai could have turned out to be something other from what he wanted her to be, and a million other ways that he could have obtained loyal soldiers (again, see Hun)–and yet, he took that chance. And that suggests some interesting things about Ch’rell who, after all, is not known for his altruism. If we assume that Karai’s account is accurate and that Shred-head wouldn’t just have killed his daughter if she grew up to become a disappointment (which is very, very arguable), we’re left with a Big Bad who also likes taking in strays, even at no apparent benefit to himself. My personal hypothesis: He does it because he himself was a child abandoned by the system; this could also serve to give context to his contempt for his people.
Motives and priorities
I’ve spoken before about Generator Rex, a recent animated show with lots and lots of potential, most of it squandered. It’s big bad, Van Kleiss, was similar: although conceptually sound, he grew ineffective at his role as the series went on. Throughout the series, Van Kleiss appeared in episodes in which he would do things which didn’t always connect to his long-term goals in ways that were apparent. What’s more, since these plots would inevitably end with his defeat, they only hastened the onset of villain decay. Part of the reason why this happened, I believe, is because the writers themselves weren’t clear about what Van Kleiss’ motivations were. They knew that he wanted to take over the world, and that he wanted some sort of control over the nanites that were found in every organism as part of that. However, they didn’t know how he planned to go about either, and therefore Van Kleiss didn’t either, and therefore we have episodes where he would do idiotic stuff like publicly holding the United Nations hostage.
Having a defined motivation is an important thing when writing big bads. It allows one to determine where they need to go, how to get there, and which side roads they can and can’t afford to take on the way there. What’s more, it feeds back into the character and tells us about them. All those episodes where Van Kleiss did tactically indefensible things all had the effect of making him seem incompetent, which undermined the stories attempts to make him seen dangerous.
If you look at season 1, you’ll notice that Oroku Saki has a reason for almost everything he does, and that all of it relates to his two main goals: finding the Utroms or dealing with the turtles. He steals the Sword of Tengu to determine if the Utroms are in New York. He mutates people into underground mutants in order to do the same. He has Raphael captured so he can know what the turtles are and if they’re related to his old enemies. Once he figures out that they aren’t, he tries to recruit the turtles, and once that fails, he places them in his “enemies” list and makes eliminating them a priority. Every action naturally leads into every other action, and one always understands how his plans further his goals.
What’s more, it’s clear how his hierarchy of goals is set up, and it’s done so in a way that makes him feel effective. Yes, he is concerned about the turtles, first because they’re an unknown factor that somehow keeps interfering and then because they establish themselves as his enemies; however, they are not his only concern, and he is aware of when his hatred for them affected his long term goals and was able to set his emnity aside in order to focus on the more important goals–note that in season 3, he either outsources killing the turtles or alters his plans to take them into account. He also displays enough self-knowledge to recognize that taking them on physically is a bad idea, which ironically makes him more dangerous. And when his priorities do change, it’s significant.
As the series wore on, The Shredder proved to be a double-edged sword. He was effective for as long as he was a factor, but he could not stay in play indefinitely and remain a threat. While the writers knew this and eventually attempted to move beyond him by writing the utrom out, it eventually became clear that his absence left a gap that could not be so easily filled. While the writers tried to come up with replacement big bads–including two alternate variations on the Shredder–none of these managed to bring everything Ch’rell did. Eventually, when the time came for the show’s send off, there was nothing to do but bring the original back. And it was glorious.
A large part of the reason Turtles Forever works is because the Shredder’s role in it feels like a natural culmination of everything that came before. Gone is the guy who’d decided the turtles weren’t worth dealing with; his time on ice has caused him to shift his priorities, to the point where he’s all turtles all the time. What’s more, he decides to aim bigger than he’s ever aimed before,to the point where gains the ability to punch above his weight class and threaten an entire multiverse.
Despite the drastic change in character, The Shredder is still the Shredder, and displays some of the same quirks. First, he has absolutely no sense of self-preservation. He’s one of those characters who would rather die before letting his enemies win*, which is taken to its extreme here as he attempts to wipe out existence, himself included. Second, there’s the fact that the turtles never actually beat him; come crunch time, he has three sets of turtles dead to rights until a superlaser and chance–in the form of Bebop and Rocksteady–finally kill him off. It’s worth noting that this is the second time something like this had happened; in the storyline that had originally written him out,the turtles had to resort to a suicide maneuver in order to stop him; only the timely use of stasis technology by a third party prevented them from actually dying.
In any case, the Shredder ends up gaining two distinctions: not only is he one of only a handful of big bads to end up dead at the end of the story in a Western animated series, the heroes never actually defeat him. Not bad for a Cobra Commander/Geese Howard mix.
* At least it seems that way–season 7 suggests that he had a way to bring himself back to life if necessary.