Iraq: “City at War” Part Two
30 November 2015 7 Comments
“My name is Karai, and I am here to restore order to The Foot.”
Written by: Marty Isenberg
Original Air Date: March 20, 2004
Recap Narrator: Michelangelo
Characters and Concepts Introduced: N/A
Gargoyles episodes I could make comparisons to: “Avalon”, “Turf”
- The turtles survive the collapse of the Foot Headquarters thanks to a fortuitously placed beam, which they use to prevent the roof from falling on them while they escape. Also not dead: the robot that had been causing so much trouble last episode, which is still raring to kill everyone on sight.
- Meanwhile, at the Purple Dragons’ fighting ring, Dragonface is giving a speech to his men about how they’re going to own this city under his leadership. He’s interrupted by Hun, just now returning after a long absence, who tells them that with the Shredder gone, it’s up to the Dragons, under his leadership, to carry on his legacy.
- As Karai flies to New York, she is approached by one of her retainers with some interesting information: footage of one teenage mutant ninja turtle.
- The battle with the robot (and eventually, robots) continues on the streets, causing innocent people to get caught in the crossfire. A bus is shot down by the robot, and Leo rescues the one passenger who isn’t able to escape on their own.
- Michelangelo makes his way to April’s apartment, where April and Casey are in the process of moving her in. Mikey explains that he is being followed by Foot Ninja and asks for the keys to April’s van, but April only hears “followed by Foot Ninja”, which historically has not worked out well for her. She demands he leave, to which Mikey agrees to, as long as he gets use of the van. Casey joins him.
- An NYPD SWAT Team arrives at the scene to try and restore order, but they’re quickly taken down by the also arriving Purple Dragons, who take the police’s weapons and proceed to attack the Foot Ninja and Mob Robots from the rooftops.
- Casey and Michelangelo arrive in April’s VW Bus and take the turtles to safety. Similarly, Boss and Baxter, who had been overseeing the battle from their own van, attempt to make a stealthy escape, but an errant rocket causes their vehicle to careen out of control and roll over.
- The turtles have retreated to a makeshift hideout inside an empty water tower. The break in the physical fighting just allows the verbal fighting to resume, as Leonardo and Raphael continue arguing about whether they should try to do something or just call it a day. They’re interrupted when Karai and her retainers blow up the floor from underneath the water tower in order to get their attention. She introduces herself and asks for a moment of their time so they may discuss things, but Raphael is having none of it and attacks.
- Karai and her retainers make short work of the turtles and Casey. As Karai herself holds Leonardo at sword-point, she repeats her demands for a discussion, one that can occur with or without the turtles’ leader.
Continuity and Mythology Notes:
- This episode is based on “City at War”, a thirteen-part story which ran from issues 50 – 62 of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic. It specifically covers the events of issues #52 – 56
- Hun was last seen in “Secret Origins” Part Three. Dragonface and the other Purple Dragons were last seen in “Fallen Angel”.
- April drives a Volkswagen Bus, a detail taken from issue #4 of the original comic book.
- The turtles’ water tower hideout is based on the turtles’ lair from the original “City at War” arc. There, however, it served as their permanent and only home during their latest stay in New York.
While the TMNT cartoon’s version of “City at War” by no means represents the series at its best, it does still have a number of solid elements to it. As mentioned in my last post, this will be the post where I talk about some of those.
One of the things about the original “City at War” arc is that the actual part with the actual city being at actual war is actually its weakest arc. A sprawling affair involving several factions within the now-fractured New York Foot, it often has us follow brand new, largely unnamed characters whose full context is uncertain and whose lives we know nothing about, and who are therefore impossible to care about. Similarly, the world-building in general is lax enough that it’s hard to care for the fate of the city. Who lives there, that we know? The turtles do, because they needed to move back there in order for the arc to happen, but most of the comic’s existing cast lives elsewhere, and has no stake in the city’s survival, or in the success or failure of any of its characters other than the turtles. When Karai loses her daughter, the moment lacks any sort of punch; we had previously known her only as an extra, and we learn nothing about her afterwards. Her death is a moment akin to the deathbed origin stories in the Metal Gear games–a Hail Mary attempt to make us care before the end.
The cartoon, in contrast, deals with a largely established elements. New York has been the setting for the great majority of the series, and it is where most of its characters live. Although it’s not really capitalized upon, this detail gives the adaptation of “City at War” a sense of greater stakes than the original: failure to act doesn’t just affect random New Yorkers but also means worsened circumstances for characters like Angel, the Professor, Tyler, Casey and April. Similarly, the combatants in the war aren’t a bunch of hastily-introduced randoms, but characters we’ve already gotten to know to at least some extent. If one happened to like the mob, then one has reason to care that this is the last appearance before their demise (more on this later).
Then there’s the emotional conflict…
In the original TMNT comic book, the turtles’ enmity with the Foot stemmed from their commitment to honor their Master’s wishes—in this case, Splinter’s blood feud with the Foot Clan. The turtles personally had no emotional stake in the Shredder’s death—they didn’t know thing one about him until that very day—and still went out to kill him, because Splinter is their master and father, and the only person in their lives aside from each other, so what other choice did they have? Because of that action, the brothers bought themselves a lifetime membership in the Foot’s shit list, which forced them to fight for their lives far more often than they ever wanted to. “City at War”, then, is the arc where they consider whether they’ve had enough, and whether loyalty to their master is worth a lifetime of watching their backs. In the end, they decide that the answer to the latter is “no”, and reach an agreement with the Japan Branch of the Foot: in exchange for the turtles’ assistance killing the last of the New York Foot still rebelling against their superiors—the Foot Elite, consisting entirely of Oroku Saki loyalists (*1)— the now-stable Foot Clan, under Karai’s leadership, will cease hostilities against them.
There’s a lot of potential to this idea. Despite the importance of TMNT #1 to what came afterward, the story itself is not one the creators had much enthusiasm in exploring, so was ripe for exploration and elaboration. Of particular potential was the fact that, well, Splinter is kind of terrible in it.
Because he is.
While subsequent incarnations of the turtles more or less uniformly portrayed Splinter as the turtles’ concerned father, this is something that is not in evidence in his original appearance, where from the moment they mutate, he begins training them without disclosing why, and places them in a position where not complying with his whims is more or less impossible. Their relationship is, in short, more or less exactly the same as the Shredder and Karai’s in this incarnation, except that the Shredder didn’t have a specific target and presumably doesn’t want Karai to die, whereas Splinter sends the turtles to kill Saki without even the slightest bit of usable intel other than “this guy used to be a badass thirteen years ago.” “City at War”, then, is the perfect place to question Splinter’s motives, and whether or not he was ever worth their past or present loyalty. In another universe, we’d have seen the turtles question everything they ever knew, and alter their relationship with their father forever.
Unfortunately, by the time the arc came along, Splinter’s terribleness had been mostly smoothed over with sandpaper—which makes sense, as his original persona, while fine for a one-shot story that’s more focused on style than anything else, is less fine when dealing with an actual character—and revisiting his original persona wasn’t really in the cards. It leaves us with a story that is far less than it could have been, and becomes even less so when the turtles make their deal and…nothing happens. Splinter, it turns out, has absolutely nothing to say about the turtles’ alliance with the Foot, meaning that the central crisis of the story wasn’t a multifaceted dilemma with no perfect answers, but a problem with one simple, perfect solution that requires no additional discussion.
While woefully mishandled, the moral dilemma in the cartoon “City at War” is far more interesting, and with a more compelling resolution. It’s the one time the cartoon flirts with relevance, and at times seems even prescient.
So Leonardo “kills” the Shredder in “Return to New York” as a response to Saki’s attack in “The Shredder Strikes Back”, which is itself a response to the event of “The Shredder Strikes”, where among other things, the turtles openly (and against Splinter’s express wishes) declared themselves enemies of the Foot Clan. Whatever the reasons for doing so—revenge, safety, or both—they believed they were doing the right thing, and that they were making things better. Except it turns out that there are consequences for killing the person who ruled over the New York criminal world with an iron fist, and the turtles had no plan on how to deal with those—no exit strategy, if you will. And so, after everything goes to hell, they have a decision to make:
- Become involved in the gang war indefinitely, even though the chances of them doing anything substantive to help is minimal.
- Realize that their involvement hinders as much as it helps, and abandon the city to its fate, even when they were in large part responsible for it.
- Train the Iraqi army in the hope that they may be able to take over “peacekeeping” and allow them to leave.
As “City at War” will tell you over and over again, Leo favors approach a), while Raph and Splinter favor approach b), although each for different reasons. The arc’s ending goes on to suggest that Leo is in the right, with Raph (with Splinter in tow) eventually deciding to rescue Leo after initially abandoning him.
However, what is never actually stated is that the approach the turtles take isn’t, in fact, a)—it’s actually c): help the Foot Clan reorganize and then bail, which is a very United States thing to do. It’s not immediately apparent because of the way it’s framed, but it’s important to note that the battle in “City at War” Part Three, unlike its comic book counterpart, is not conclusive. It’s decisive in that it turns the tide of the conflict, but in the end, the Purple Dragons and the Mob are still very much in play. We don’t get to see it, but we’re left to assume that there’s a period of further fighting after these episodes, where the Purple Dragons are brought back under Foot control (sans Dragonface, who is never seen again after next episode, for reasons that are not hard to imagine), the mob is disposed of (we never see them again, either) and Stockman recaptured, events which in no way involve the turtles.
Making things more interesting still is the fact that, as it turns out Karai was acting in bad faith all along—i.e.: the deal she made was not a deal she could enforce, no matter how much she may have wanted to—and that the turtles did not personally get to enjoy any benefits from helping the Foot regain its footing (sorry) in New York. The turtles’ victory in Part Three is, then, an incomplete one at best—arguably good for the city, but that’s it. The larger battle between the turtles and the Foot continues, and won’t really be resolved for the duration of the series.
And I like that. I like that a story as big as this—both in the sense that it’s the culmination of things that have been set up since the series began and in the sense that it features a situation that dwarfs the turtles and their ability to effect change—resists simple endings. It’s one of the key things that made the first five seasons of the show feel like one big story, and gave the series a sense of realism that it often lacked in other areas. And while I understand why some may feel the changes fundamentally undermine the original story—undoubtedly true, if the purpose of the original story was to eliminate the Shredder and the Foot Clan as the story’s main source of conflict—I feel the changes turned out for the better. While 4Kids would eventually go on to over-rely on the Shredder, that won’t be for a while yet, and before it got to that point, it also used the Shredder to tell some of the series’ best stories. “City at War”—this particular version, which is not the comic book version—made that possible.
Now, if only it were actually good…
(*1) One relevant detail here is that the Shredder, at the time of his death, was essentially a rogue operative, with enough power to be able to ignore the Japanese Foot’s directives. Loyalty to Saki, then, was not necessarily loyalty to the Foot, and this is where the Elite Foot are coming from.
- I’ve mentioned in other occasions the way TMNT excels when its action scenes are up close and personal but falters when it comes to depicting more impersonal larger-scale skirmishes, and this episode presents a good example of that. The turtles and the Foot’s battle against Baxter’s robots, while a rather faithful adaptation of events from the comic books, lacks almost all of its punch (not that the original had much of that, but still). The turtles’ fight with Karai, on the other hand, is easily the best part in the entire arc, as we see characters interact and fight in ways consistent with their personalities.
- The turtles’ temporary water tower lair infuriates me, because it makes no fucking sense to include it other than to have the nod to the comic books, where it’s the turtles’ only lair and therefore actually has a reason to be there. There’s no fucking reason for the turtles not to retreat to their actual lair, except that the story requires Karai to actually find the turtles, but can’t have her actually find their lair.
- One of the few characters who manages to get some development in this arc is Hun, whose loyalties, it turns out, are interesting. It turns out he’s loyal to the Shredder, but not to the Foot Clan, which makes him the cartoon’s version of of the comic book’s Foot Elite. Take away the Shredder, and he’ll always turn to the Purple Dragons, and what we see here will serve as a preview of his arc for season four.