While it’s never been the critical belle of the ball, Paramount’s Transformers franchise has packed theater seats for nearly a decade. At four films and $3.7 billion total gross, this 80s cartoon has become the cinematic equivalent of a money press — a bedazzled blend of CGI robots, zippy one-liners, and kinetic action. For many, it’s the perfect summer blockbuster experience.
As for those who like a little more substance with their shiny glamour, Transformers is a working thesis on what’s wrong with modern movies. A lack of coherent storytelling, thinly sketched characters, and of course, the (literally) explosive direction of Michael Bay. The man has created an unstoppable commercial force, but with his imminent departure after Transformers: The Last Knight in 2017, it begs the question: how can these movies reach their true potential? That’s what we’re here to figure out.
Here are 15 Ways The Transformers Franchise Can Become Awesome Again.
15. New Direction
To be fair, Michael Bay is nothing if not a stylish auteur. The man has a gift for creating an addictive circus of muscle cars, stunts, and strikingly cool poses. Where things tend to come apart, and come apart quickly, is whenever storytelling gets thrown into the mix. Bay is a music video director at heart, and crafting coherent, or even engaging narratives from front to back has never been his strong suit. As such, the plots have been the leak in the Transformers boat. The critics love to pile on Bay and pin him for every supposed cinematic crime these movies commit.
While The Last Knight is rumored to be Bay’s swan song, he told a similar story after Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon (2011), so any such reports come with a suggested grain of salt. Either way, this uniformed schtick may have worn thin with moviegoers, and Paramount would be wise in seeking less style-over-substance filmmakers moving forward. The same can be said for the screenwriters, but we will get to them later.
14. Stronger Female Characters
A big draw for Transformers over the years has been the eye candy aiding the male protagonist. While there are benefits to this tradition, a total lack of relevance or character arc make these roles a tough pill to swallow. Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), who dated Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) in the first two films, is defined almost solely by the fact she’s able to fix cars — a skill that really just leads to some titillating shots over a car hood. Outside of this element, her bickering relationship with Sam was a big reason Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) is considered the worst film in the franchise.
Upon Fox’s departure, Michael Bay saw fit to recapture the “magic,” so to speak, by casting actresses Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Nicola Peltz in similarly irrelevant parts. It’s a trait the director has long received flack for, but in the wake of breakthrough female characters like Rey in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens or Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s high time these Transformers ladies do a little more than just look good.
13. Less Obnoxious Autobots
There’s two different ways to categorize this particular concern; Autobots who are simply obnoxious, and Autobots who brazenly appropriate cultural stereotypes. Neither is fun to endure. Drift, a sword wielding mainstay, quickly became a clichéd sketch of what Michael Bay thinks a ninja should be in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). Needless to say, fans were not pleased – Drift went from awesome to discomforting in record time.
The crowning achievement of Autobot obnoxiousness, however, are The Twins from Revenge of the Fallen. Not only are they without precedent in Transformers lore (Bay invented them for the movie), but their shameless urban posturing is without any reasonable defense. The director reportedly took the heat for these pointless creations, responding to questions of their return with a straightforward “The Twins are not back in T3,” (a statement he would retract with this proposition). Still, the damage has been done to the Autobot brand, and the sooner the studio can present them as legitimate, fleshed out characters, the better.
12. Go Beyond Earth
Say what you will about the Transformers, they are equal opportunists when it comes to human destruction. Michael Bay and friends have laid waste to a number of iconic cities over the years, including Cairo, Hong Kong, and Chicago– twice. Leveled buildings, screaming citizens, and the awe of explosions dancing across a city block have been peddled to the point of desensitization. Which is precisely why the franchise should look at battlegrounds other than Earth; and possibly set its sights on the vast potential of outer space.
Given the number of planets and intergalactic detours, Transformers could easily conjure up a second life among the stars. Rumors of an animated prequel have been buzzing about since 2015, but frankly, that’s the kind of content that could help spark interest with the live action fans. Whether tapping into the origins of Cybertron or taking on a world-devouring Transformer like Unicron (which looks like a good possibility), these prospects could create excitement for a franchise intending to stick around until 2025.
11. More Dinobots
Even the most jaded Transformers fan got excited when Dinobots debuted in Age of Extinction. Seeing Optimus Prime ride one of these metallic beasts into battle was the closest the film came to delivering– and it came at the two hour and fifteen minute mark. That is simply not right. After the fervent anticipation and buildup behind Grimlock springing to action, Bay barely gave the viewers any Dinobot time before returning us to the land of father-daughter bonding and an angry Kelsey Grammer.
Why the film felt compelled to release them into the wilderness is beyond baffling; least of all because of the potential havoc these monsters can wreak without Optimus holding the reins. All lapses in logic aside, the Dinobot battle scenes provided something new, and should be returned to in future installments. Now that Optimus has effectively established his dominance, maybe he can just call them back into action for whatever scrap The Last Knight gets them into. Here’s hoping.
10. Take Inspiration from Other Media
There’s no shortage of quality Transformers material. From the original animated series to more contemporary iterations like Transformers: Prime (2010-13) or Robots in Disguise (2015), the struggle between Autobots and Decepticons lends itself incredibly well to a long form narrative. And yet, the movie series manages to follow none of it. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the first two films, instead saw fit to lift elements from G1 mythology and the 80s TV show for a final product that fails to live up to either one.
Even when looking at comics books, particularly those created by Marvel, IDW, and Dreamwave, the breadth of content is almost laughable in comparison to its cinematic counterpart. Stories like The War Within, All Hail Megatron, and Target: 2006 would be riveting to see on the big screen, and would only require a few minor changes to fit within the (loosely) established timeline. It would certainly provide more narrative meat than what we’ve gotten so far.
9. Develop the Decepticons
Decepticons, a threatening powerhouse in the cartoon series, also fall victim to a flavorless tag. Barring Megatron, Starscream, and Soundwave, the rest of the crew feel like CGI henchmen– all anger and no personality. In Revenge of the Fallen, there’s a massive amount of Decepticons running around the desert, and yet, they remain faceless heaps of mass. This might be passed off as making room for the more important things, but when that includes more face time with a pointless military, we’d be better off with big bad robots.
If they series sizes down the number, much like the first film did, then the chance to provide Decepticons with developed personalities becomes a whole lot easier. The rationale is the same with the Autobots: a Transformers movie should be about Transformers and not the humans who run around with them. Under the right script, fans could someday see a Megatron that’s truly evil — as opposed to some juvenile hatred that plays out through poorly made plans. Faceless bots are boring; give us the real deal already.
As X-Men and Terminator have shown, timelines can get pretty messy. But where those franchises at least had the excuse of time travel to smooth things over, Transformers is a prime example of plain old laziness. Oftentimes, story elements are completely altered, leaving it impossible for a fan of the series to keep a running, semi-logical account of what’s going on. Megatron crash lands on Earth by chance, yet it’s revealed in films two and three that it was intentional all along. Optimus Prime is suddenly able to fly in Age of Extinction, despite showing no signs of this ability in the trilogy that preceded it.
When tallied up in total, the number of plot holes and lapses in logic is stunning. It’s unclear whether these changes were intentional or not, but in either case, it doesn’t bode well for a franchise itching to get into the cinematic universe game. Studios like Marvel are going to great lengths to align their stories, which means Transformers is seriously going to need to step it up over the next few years. Proofreading the script would be a good starting point.
7. Don’t get distracted by ‘Cinematic Universe’ Mantle
For a series of films who’ve clearly had their struggles, announcing plans for a shared cinematic universe can be both a gift and a curse. On one hand, the new approach has resulted in a legion of new writers; including Christina Hodson, Zak Penn, Lindsey Beer, Gabriel Ferrari and many more. Upon being asked about this transformative look at Transformers, head writer Akiva Goldsman went right ahead and pumped up the hype bubble to Collider:
“We’ve got a work space that is beautifully production designed to be immersive with a strong sense of the franchise history…We will look at the toys, the TV shows, the merchandise, everything that has been generated Hasbro, from popular to forgotten iterations, and establish a mythological time line. After that super saturation, the writers will figure out not one, but numerous films that will extend the universe.”
And while this all sounds amazing, the franchise will have to make sure it doesn’t get ahead of itself in rolling out a newly minted master plan. After pretending to reboot things with yet another sequel, countless continuity gaffs, and the recent complaints of content cramming over at DC, Goldsman and his wordsmith army are going to have to prove they can focus on one quality product at a time.
6. Less Focus on Humans
Why a movie about Transformers would focus upon humans is beyond us. Each film thus far has sidelined the titular robots for characters who are either underdeveloped, uninteresting, or unnecessary. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has a dorky charm to him at first, but it quickly slipped into a series of spastic screams and arguments with whomever he happened to be dating at the time. By the time we get to Dark of the Moon, the character is not only generic as a lead, he’s actually unnecessary to the overall story.
Extinction’s Cade Yeager, which sounds like something you order in a Boston bar, does nothing to benefit Mark Wahlberg as an actor– especially since he’s also rendered pointless come the final act. As a struggling single father, there’s a little more empathy to build upon, yet even then, Yeager is stunningly forgettable. That’s not even getting into the great actors (more on that later) who’ve been mercilessly made moronic under Bay’s direction. Less humans for sure.
5. More Focus on Transformers
Seems like an obvious point, but it’s been skillfully avoided on the big screen. The screenwriters seem to harp on the fact that Transformers are big robots, and due to this, they’re incapable of being compelling as actual human. This is the same kind of thinking that subjected viewers to Sam’s parents (Kevin Dunn & Julie White) and college buddy Leo Spitz (Ramón Rodríguez) in Revenge of the Fallen. Just because they are human does not mean they’re interesting, and Kurtzman & Orci prove this without a doubt.
In fact, not only are poorly sketched humans given the spotlight, but potentially engaging characters like the female Autobots barely have a line of dialogue between them. Once they’re killed in Fallen, the deaths feel both unimportant and frustratingly wasteful given the dramatic potential. In comparison to the death of Optimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie (1985), the emotional relevance Autobots currently hold with the audience in nonexistent. Giving these peacekeepers the spotlight and tangible personalities will do wonders for the franchise.
4. No More Cheap Humor
Yes, the idea of robots transforming into cars is silly and can be open to some pretty solid humor. That is not what the Transformers movies have done. In its place, viewers been subjected to dog-humping, energizing pot brownies, and military personnel whose sole purpose seems to be tossing off one-liners for the trailer (*cough* Tyrese Gibson). It was fine initially, but Bay and his writers completely mistook what people liked about the first movie and hunkered down with some staggering comical clunkers. Humor has never been one of the director’s strong suits.
This attempt at comic relief has gotten so desperate that acclaimed actors are repeatedly reduced to babbling lunatics. The revolving door of John Turturro, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Stanley Tucci are certainly laughable, though not in the cringeworthy manner that Bay intended. Even Ken Jeong, who makes his living as a comedic performer, comes off like an irritating amateur. If we are to take Transformers more seriously, it would help to have filmmakers who did likewise. Or at least tell better jokes along the way.
3. Less Pointless Subplots
Less is more, especially when dealing with movies that have no business being nearly three hours long. Dark of the Moon has a 154 minutes runtime, yet the first hour mainly consists of military personnel explaining the plot, and then explaining it again… and again. Sam Witwicky searches for a job, flirts with his girlfriend, and has problems with her boss. Transformers wait around in the meantime, doing diddly squat until called upon to level a city in the final act. In short, which is a practice these movies are unable to comprehend, the pointless subplots need to go.
Kurtzman, Orci, and Ehren Kruger, who deserves equal scorn for penning Moon and Age of Extinction, even manage to bleed subplots into the Autobots vs. Decepticons struggle. The viewer is supposed to make sense of the fact that the Fallen, a Transformer who was on Earth millions of years ago, had a hand in creating Decepticons with Sentinel Prime, who took part in a massive con job that included the conspiracy behind the moon landings. Why? All we want is Transformers fighting, and we don’t need two plus hours of nonsense to set things up. It’s not a crime to get right to the good stuff.
2. Slow Motion Must Stop
This one is especially aimed at Michael Bay, who has a penchant for taking dramatic moments in his films and slathering them in slow motion. Don’t get us wrong, it’s a tool that can work wonders for John Woo or The Matrix (1999), but it’s 2016; and two decades have done plenty to stifle the excitement. But at this point, Bay is either too proud or stuck in his methods to change with the times. The man has only gotten worse over the course of the franchise, to the point where any opportunity to use slow motion is pushed to cartoony extremes.
Skimming through any of the Transformers films will provide ample proof this needs to stop. From smoldering close-ups of Megan Fox to anytime an Autobot, Decepticon, or some large structure tumbles, Bay is there with his high speed cameras and his borderline fetishized approach. That the franchise has become synonymous with this style is understandable, but given it’s overuse, it would be a big step forward if the studio opted for a no-go on the slow-mo. Hell, that alone would chop thirty minutes off the runtime.
1. Fix Optimus Prime
Optimus Prime should be the coolest character in the entire Transformers franchise. And yet, he’s been on a downward spiral with each appearance. Whether a result of his underwritten persona or his lack of combat competence in comparison to his animated counterpart, the Optimus that fans know and love is nowhere to be found. Barring the immaculate voice acting of Peter Cullen, the commanding Autobot spends most of his time as either a murderous hypocrite or a whining condemner of mankind. Neither are in the character’s upstanding nature, and serve as possibly the greatest mistake that the writers continuously make.
On the bright (or dark) side, there’s rumor that The Last Knight will change Optimus into the evil Nemesis Prime. Perhaps doing some legitimately bad things against his will can snap him out of his whiny inhibitions and make him the Optimus fans want to see. In terms of fixing the franchise, this big guy would be ground zero.