If Michael Bay isn't the most hated man in cinema he's right up there. His movies regularly make billions of dollars, but they also regularly top worst-of-the-year lists. The same way that Bob Marley has become the only reggae musician even non-reggae fans know, Michael Bay has become the ur-shitty filmmaker - his name has become a shorthand way to indict every incoherent mayhem-fest of the last twenty years. When it was announced that he was going to produce the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, the internet had a fit – and he wasn’t even directing it.
Here's the thing: this movie would probably have been better off if he had directed it. There's a reason why he's infamous for directing the Transformers movies while the guy who directed the G.I. Joe movie is (more or less) anonymous - it's because Bay's movies are epically shitty, while most other unwatchable blockbusters are just unpleasant. If Bay had made this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, it would have been worse - but it would be worse in a way that was less forgettable.
The flaws that mark Bay's work are visible everywhere you look in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It doesn't seem to really care about the plot, which concerns a half-assed "mad scientist plans to poison the city and then charge a billion dollars for the antidote" scheme. (It cares about the plot so little that it doesn't actually start getting the mad scientist bit of the story until the first hour is over.)
This movie doesn't care about its characters - the Turtles barely have any personality, and what they do have is obnoxious. (We know that Donatello is the smart turtle because he's wearing glasses.)
The politics of this film are abhorrent. (Michelangelo keeps hitting on April, the reporter that's helping the turtles stop the mad scientist, and even though she never once indicates that she's remotely into the idea of having sex with a grossly steroidal turtle he keeps hitting on her. Every come on is played for laughs even though they are all intensely creepy, and it doesn’t seem like any of the people who made the movie realized that women don’t like getting sexually hassled every time they are in ear shot of someone who is horny. This movie definitely continues Bay’s streak of misogynistic filmmaking.)
But while it has all of Bay’s minuses, it doesn't have any of his "plusses". The robots in his Transformers movies are all so over-designed that they are visually incomprehensible. Here, Shredder (who is supposed to be the main villain, but who has basically no lines and whose connection to the mad scientist plot is kind of vague) has a giant metal suit that has way too many knives on it - they kind of spread out below his arms like feathers. It's enough to make him look shitty, but it isn't enough to be memorably shitty. You’d think that just being ugly would be an improvement over being an absolute eye-sore – but it isn’t, really; at the end of the day, he looks generic more than anything else, and generic might be the worst trait a movie like this can have.
There’s also some egregious product placement in this movie – including a scene where the turtle’s mentor Splinter tries to bribe them with a specific type of pizza, describing it in great detail – but then again, it also seemed like a normal amount of product placement for a modern blockbuster. When Bay goes in for product placement, he does so with a verve that makes you wonder: am I being trolled right now? (The supercut of product placement in the most recent Transformers lasts 12 minutes.)
That gets at the heart of why Bay is, for better or worse, a master of his form. (His shitty, unpleasant form. But his form nonetheless.) The art of trolling people is a bit more complex than merely being offensive; it’s easy to tune out people that try to get your goat in predictable ways, but a true troll will get under your skin even though you know better. Sure, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is tone deaf – again, it has a turtle hitting on a human female – but that’s mere background noise in a macho movie like this; it has nothing on the scene in the most recent Transformers movie where a character reveals that he carries a card in his wallet that proves that he’s not guilty of statutory rape even though he’s sleeping with a 17 year old. Sure, this movie’s attempts at hipness are lame - a dancing to Hollaback Girl scene in 2014? Really? – but they aren’t petty or mean-spirited in the way that Michael Bay’s attempts are, so they are much, much easier to ignore.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot is hard to like - but it’s also hard to have a heart full of hate for it. It’s stuck in a no man’s land where the only sensible response is a depressed shrug. Say what you will about Bay, but his movies don’t really garner depressed shrugs. I doubt this movie would have been any more fun if Bay had done it - but I'm also sure I would have been a lot more memorable, given that I saw it yesterday and I can't even remember the name of the director, but I know all about the most recent Transformers movie which I didn't even bother to see. When it comes to shitty movies, Michael Bay is the king - and if you have to lose to someone, you might as well lose to the king.
Winner: The Cat