The Penthouse: “City at War” Part Three

“The turtles team up with the Foot? It sounds crazy!”Donatello

“Weasel! The Shredder’s back! Seems the guy doesn’t know when to stay in the morgue.”Boss


Written by: Ben Townsend

Original Air Date: March 27, 2004

Recap Narrator: Raphael

Characters and Concepts Introduced: N/A

Gargoyles episodes I could make comparisons to: “Avalon”, “Turf”

The Beats:

  • Karai, holding Leonardo at swordpoint, demands the turtles drop their weapons.  The other turtles comply, but Raph really doesn’t want to. Eventually, though, he agrees.
  • The turtle’s attention gotten, Karai releases Leo. As soon as she does, Raph retrieves his sai and attacks the Foot Ninja, but is stopped by Leo, who reminds Raph that they just agreed to hear her out.
  • Karai reintroduces herself as the leader of the Japan Foot Clan, and tells them why she’s in New York. Long story short: she needs their help. The Japan Foot had hoped the firestorm unleashed by the Shredder’s death would consume only the criminal underworld and leave a clean slate behind without the need for outside intervention. Instead, the conflict spiraled out of everyone’s control. Karai has a plan to stop it, one which requires the turtles to act as backup. If they help, not only will they save the city and get rid of the Purple Dragons and mob, the Foot will also cease their vendetta against the turtles.
  • Leonardo, looking for absolution, is all for agreeing to help Karai. Donatello and Michelangelo are dubious, but it is Raph who wants nothing to do with Karai. He decides to leave his brothers to their fate, and tries to get Casey to leave with him, but Casey refuses: he wants to help fix the turtles’ mistake, as he was taught to do. Those who remain agree to join forces with the Foot.
  • Night falls. The remnant of the New York Foot is approached by the Shredder, who tells them all to follow him. Elsewhere, Baxter and Boss just now exit their overturned van, only to run into the Purple Dragons, who were apparently waiting all day for them. Before a fight can break out, both groups see the Shredder, who tells Hun that he has work for him to do. The Purple Dragons leave, leaving Baxter and Boss alone and safe, for now. Boss calls his goons and tells them its time to kill the Shredder, again.
  • At the top floor of the still-wrecked Foot Tower, “The Shredder”—actually Karai—meets up with the turtles. While they all wait for everyone to get there, she tells them of her connection to Oroku Saki, and how he had found her as a child living homeless in Japan and decided to adopt her, teaching her everything she knows. With all the warring factions arriving (it’s worth noting that Baxter is not among the mob’s number)  Karai asks the turtles and Casey to conceal themselves.
  • Once everyone is in place, The Shredder orders the Foot and the Purple Dragons to once again submit to him and get rid of the Mob. The Foot Elite and Hun are ready to comply, but Dragonface is not into that biz: he was all set to take the city for the Dragons and the Dragons alone, not for a return to the status quo. Meanwhile, the mob, not just about to lay down and die, opens fire.
  • So it’s the New York Foot and Karai’s people against the Purple Dragons, who are just attacking indiscriminately at anyone who isn’t one of their own (which may or may not include Hun); and the mob, who is largely doing the same. Just as it looks that Karai’s plan is going to work, Boss throws a fire bomb to cover the mob’s retreat, which knocks Karai out and unmasks her, revealing her true identity.
  • With the jig up, it is now the New York Foot against Karai and her retainers. The turtles choose this moment to reveal themselves and defend their new ally, but they are eventually overwhelmed by superior numbers. Just as Hun is about to blow them up, his RPG launcher is struck by throwing stars from off-screen, causing it to explode and creating a whole lot of chaos. It’s Batman Raph and Splinter!
  • Their numbers bolstered, the Turtles and the Japan Foot make short work of everyone else. Once everyone is down, Karai demands the fealty of the defeated Foot and Hun, as is her right.  When the Foot Elite refuse, she strikes at one of the four with her sword, stopping just millimeters from splitting his head; when Hun refuses and attacks her, she kicks him off the building, causing him to fall all the way down to street level and killing him mildly inconveniencing him. The New York Foot falls in line.
  • The turtles and Karai go their separate ways, allies and perhaps something more. With the turtles now alone, Leonardo apologizes to Splinter, and his father tells him that he need not apologize for following his heart.
  • Some time later, at Foot Clan stronghold, Karai enters a secret chamber where, inside a capsule, floats the Utrom known as Oroku Saki, recuperating. Karai informs him that all proceeds as planned. She then listens, pained, as the Shredder tells her that once he is once again ready for action, they shall proceed and eliminate the turtles once and for all.

Continuity and Mythology Notes:

  • This arc is based on “City at War”, a thirteen-part story which ran from issues #50 – 62 of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic. This episode specifically covers the events of issues #57 – 61.
  • The Shredder was last seen being blown up real good in “Secret Origins” Part Three.
  • The climactic battle takes place at the top floor of the Foot’s tower headquarters, which was also destroyed real good in “Return to New York” Part Three.
  • The worms used by the Shredder are a nod to the comic book version of “Return to New York”, where  worms are used to clone a new Shredder from the remains of the original after he is killed in issue #1.


So “City at War” ends, thank god.

Back when these episodes first aired, I hadn’t actually read the story they were based on. I knew enough about its reputation to get excited about the adaptation, and I had a general idea of what the story involved, but it’d be years before I’d be able to read it for myself, and even more years before I determined that the story—or at least the part of it that made it to the cartoon—was overrated something fierce.

Still, the debatable quality of the source material is not a mitigating factor when it comes to judging the adaptation. As disappointing as the turtles’ segments of the original “City at War” may be, the adaptation is several magnitudes worse: the odd well-executed scene aside, it is ultimately only worthwhile for the way it sets up future stories. It’s a lot like the conclusion to “Avalon” in that regard.

And it’s really not that hard to see why it fails. Death is a major theme in the original “City at War”, and the turtles’ segment explores that theme using violence as its main garnish, with numerous scenes of the Foot Elite killing their former clan-mates and committing seppuku, and just a lot of people getting stabbed, impaled, or shot. While it isn’t Berserk, it’s still plenty grim, and not the sort of thing that is easily adaptable to Saturday morning cartoons. Indeed, while the creators make a game attempt at adapting the original story’s beats as faithfully as possible—the big battle royale in part two is straight from the books— it’s all dead. There’s not an ounce of feeling in these scenes, and no reason to care except for the fact that it’s “City at War”, and that’s supposed to be important, right?  In a story we’re repeatedly told is about the threat the warring gangs present to life and limb, all the characters are given plot armor, making the story self-contradictory.  You can’t have a story about the huge loss of life in which nobody dies.

In the end, a good 65% percent of this arc is filler. Things go “pew pew pew” and “augh!” and “raarrrr”, but none of it means anything. Nothing that happens in those scenes changes the situation for anyone involved, which means that nothing in those scenes needed to be there, and unlike (arguably) the comic book, they are not stylistically interesting enough (this arc represents season 2’s stylistic nadir) to be worthwhile for their own sake. All these flaws come to a head in the final climactic scene, where all the different factions meet  for what is ostensibly the final battle. And then they fight, and it’s all terrible, largely because we have lots of men with guns shooting at each other in an enclosed space, and none of them are actually hitting one another. Then, eventually, the mob just decides to leave and the Purple Dragons stop being a factor, rendering their role in this scene pointless.

Still, even if the writers couldn’t be as explicit as the comic books were, there were still ways to get “gang war” across that show how destructive they can be without highlighting the compromises the creators have to make. And that way is, largely, to focus on the people—not the ones in the actual combat, but the ones caught in the crossfire.

The original “City at War” regularly had us check in on Nathaniel Buscheyev, an immigrant who is severely injured during a bomb attack by one of the warring factions, and it was an effective way to give all the violence a human dimension. While the same story can’t be used here, the general idea—using characters at the periphery of the story as a way to explore how the conflict affects regular folk—is a solid one, and one the cartoon’s version of the arc could have used more of.

Imagine if, instead of spending a huge amounts of time on the turtles fighting Foot Ninja and mob robots on otherwise-empty buildings or streets, the show had set that battle inside an occupied apartment building or shopping mall, forcing the turtles to divide their time between protecting themselves and protecting other people. Suddenly, the focus isn’t solely on the combatants but on the victims, and we don’t have to watch as as Foot Ninja, Purple Dragons, and mobsters display markmanship Imperial Stormtroopers joke about in order to feel better about themselves. Suddenly, we’re dealing with people whose plot armor is a heck of a lot more justified. Suddenly, we’re dealing with people who have a personal stake in the battle, and who don’t have to die in order for events to have an impact. Suddenly, the scope has the opportunity to become intimate and personal instead of detached and sterile.

What it would not become, however, is a more faithful adaptation of the original story and frankly I’d have been fine with that: faithfulness has not been this arc’s friend; again, it’s worth noting that the moments where this arc most adheres to the source material—the fight with the robots—are among its worst.  If being faithful to the spirit of the source means being unfaithful to its letter, then so be it.

(There is, however, an exception: I feel the final battle would have gone over a lot better had it attempted to adhere more closely to the source. While there was no way 4Kids would have been able to show the book’s climactic battle in all of its violent glory, a more elaborate fight between the turtles / Karai and the Foot Elite would have played much more to the shows’ strengths—think “The Shredder Strikes Back”—than the shootout did. What’s more, since the fight with the Elite is the only one that actually matters—the other factions are ultimately dealt with offscreen—it’s very easy to justify within the story by having Karai specifically enlist the turtles to help her get control of the Foot, with the understanding that she’d take care of everyone else later.)

But in the end, though, what we got is what we got. If there’s a silver lining to all of this, it is, again, that this arc sets up a lot of fantastic stuff down the line, largely involving Karai, who, not coincidentally, is the best thing about “City at War”.  Her introduction heralds more complicated character dynamics and shades of gray, which will end up making the series much more interesting than it has been.  But we’ll have to wait to explore those ideas in their entirety.

Random Thoughts:

  • Part of what makes the execution of this arc so maddening is the fact that, if the writers had waited another season, they just might have been able to put together a more solid adaptation of “City at War.” By the time season 3 came along, a lot of the restrictions the creators were operating under were loosened, and as a result, they were free to take things up a notch or ten when it came to the brutality of their fight scenes. The big battle in “Same as it Never Was” is everything the battle in “City at War” should have been.
  • Another thing I dislike about this arc is that it, and this episode in particular, is just sloppy.  Things like Baxter waiting an entire day to escape a car, the Dragons waiting for him all that time, Raphael and Splinter somehow knowing where the other turtles were, the writers forgetting that the final battle took place on the top floor of a —ing skyscraper, and some atrocious dialogue in general all help further mar what is already an iffy experience.  “City at War” should have seen the creators bring their A-game, and with the exception of the fight with Karai, it is everything but.
  • There’s a lot of talk this episode between Leonardo and Karai about the role of fate, which one would think would be somehow significant but isn’t really.  Still, I’m actually sort of okay with that; as someone who’s bothered when ostensibly casual conversation nevertheless happens to be thematically relevant to a situation at hand, I like it when that sort of thing is occasionally subverted.  It’s a small lil’ window into Karai’s mindset, and it works just fine like that.
  • Casey’s inclusion in this arc is interesting, because if he isn’t off in Colorado getting married and having children, then there’s no reason for him not to be involved in a gang war.  Sure wish he hadn’t been used exclusively for comic relief, though.
  • There’s a subset of fans which believes that this version of Karai is somehow made worse by being the Shredder’s daughter and subordinate. These people are wrong.  Yes, all incarnations could use more awesome lady crime bosses.  Yes, it sucks that Karai as the Shredder’s subordinate has become the default for the character, and in this sense it might have been best for this series not to have let that genie out of that particular bottle.  This version of Karai is still far better than the original.

4 Responses to The Penthouse: “City at War” Part Three

  1. Pingback: Metal Gear Solid 2 in a Ship: “Rogue in the House” Part One | Monsters of New York

  2. Caleb Boulware says:

    I came across your posts by accident as I was searching for TMNT 2003 reviews. The show for me is the best animated incarnation of the turtles so far and it’s a shame it seems to have been largely forgotten via the passage of time. The 2012 version is entertaining but has disappointed me overall. It’s because of it that I started marathoning the 4kids series. I hadn’t seen it since it’s initial broadcast and I was pleasantly by how well it has aged. The Shredder in 2012 is such a letdown when compared to the menacing 2003 counterpart. Bishop and Karai are also favorites of mine. The only thing I wished would have been to see Ch’rell’s debut in Fast Forward. I liked your shout out to Berserk in this review as it is one of my favorite anime/mangas. You are one of the few people who discuss and review the 2003 Turtles incarnation which I thank you greatly for. I hope to hear more from you soon.

  3. Ian says:

    Welcome, Caleb Boulware. I’m glad you found the blog and felt like commenting!

  4. Pingback: “Rogue in the House” Part Two | Monsters of New York

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