Michael Bay’s Transformers movies have been dominating the global box office for a decade now. The big, loud films have evolved from a silly but fun action adventure story into thunderous destruction, otherworldly pretty people, and a teenage boy’s sense of toilet humor. It may sound like an insult, but there are few movie franchises that make better trailers: Bay’s sense of outrageous scale can be absolutely thrilling when cut into three minute teasers. It’s when that pesky stuff like plot coherence and character development come into play that these movies tend to get murkier.
You can make a decent argument that, at this point, if you’re looking for compelling stories and characters from the Transformers movies, you’re simply missing the point. These movies are technical spectacles, where Bay flexes his considerable muscle creating destructive set pieces that are second to none. The character work and plotting are just vehicles that drive us toward the explosions.
That’s fair enough, but it doesn’t mean these movies should get a pass on the more traditional aspects of filmmaking. Indeed, the franchise has found itself provoking people’s outrage on multiple occasions largely because it neglects those fundamentals. These are the 15 Most Controversial Transformers Movie Moments, Ranked.
When news broke in 2006 that Michael Bay would be directing a live action Transformers movie, fans were understandably elated. That elation evolved into something approaching dread when the initial designs for the cinematic robots in disguise began to surface. Gone were the smooth, sleek, brightly-colored designs that had defined the franchise since Generation 1. Bay implemented a busy, overly complicated look for the Autobots and Decepticons, somehow simultaneously washing them in gaudy detail and robbing them of any character.
A few individual examples stung deeper than others. Morphing the sleek, regal Starscream into some sort of hulking ape-like creature was galling. Bumblebee went from a cute, lovable VW Beetle to a mouthless, alien-looking muscle car. A treatise could be written on the controversy of Optimus Prime’s flame heavy redesign. This might ultimately feel like a minor offense (certainly some level of redesign was required to bring the robots into the real world), but it set the tone for the franchise.
Hugo Weaving is no stranger to genre filmmaking. The Australian actor is a veteran of franchise moviemaking, having starred as Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger, Elrond in The Lord of the Rings, and Hobbit movies, V in V For Vendetta, and, most iconically, as Agent Smith in The Matrix series.
Weaving is also known for his candor. While he has spoken glowingly of working on the Lord of the Rings films and V For Vendetta, he voiced frustration with his Captain America experience, feeling his Red Skull was written as a two-dimensional villain, and has expressed reluctance about potentially returning to the role.
Most shockingly of all, Weaving has voiced Decepticon leader Megatron in three films… and claims to have never seen them. Indeed, he claimed for many years to had never met Michael Bay, as he recorded his lines remotely. He didn’t voice criticism or frustration with his Transformers role, but expressed something worse: utter ambivalence.
A minor plot point in the first (and best) of the Transformers films is that Bumblebee’s voice was damaged in battle. As he’s the first Autobot human protagonist Sam Witwicky encounters, this leads to some fun scenes where the two try to communicate through unconventional methods and begin to form a warm, unique bond.
In a moving moment following the movie’s climactic CGI slugfest, Bumblebee manages to regain his voice and informs Optimus Prime he wishes to stay with Sam. It’s a nice, sweet emotional victory following the Autobot’s triumph in battle that ties the whole thing together.
And then by the second movie, for no apparent reason, Bumblebee’s voice is gone again, never to return. Revenge Of The Fallen is not exactly short on plot holes, but that one feels as if the producers decided they could orchestrate more silly gags if Bumblebee still talked in samples from TV shows and songs.
It’s difficult to remember now, but the original Michael Bay Transformers movie was, for the most part, warmly received. Critics were never particularly wowed by it, but they didn’t savage it either. It was a fun, silly movie where the plot wasn’t exactly bulletproof, but it featured strong performances (particularly from Shia LaBeouf and John Turturro) and felt like a solid first chapter.
All that tentative goodwill was flushed down the toilet by Revenge Of The Fallen. A formless, joyless slog of a movie, it feels like it has no idea what kind of story it’s trying to tell. That’s because, for the most part, it didn’t. Due to the 2007 Writers Guild of America Strike, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had to turn in a plot treatment in lieu of a finished script.
Michael Bay padded that treatment with more action and humor in an attempt to hide the fact the story didn’t really make much sense. It didn’t work, and the resulting film ended up calcifying the series’ reputation as movies that rely on visceral thrills and nostalgia.
The first Transformers movie made overnight stars of several people, but arguably the biggest and brightest was Megan Fox. The young actress served as Mikaela Barnes, the love interest to lead Sam Witwicky. Fox did admirable work as a slightly retooled version of the classic “unobtainable beautiful girl next door” movie trope, showcasing a deceptively sharp sense of humor and great chemistry with Shia LaBeouf. Fox’s role in Revenge Of The Fallen felt much less thoughtful, but as has been covered, that movie was a mess from beginning to end.
Following Revenge Of The Fallen, Fox had some surprisingly sharp words for Michael Bay, alleging he’s deeply unpleasant to work with, going so far as to compare him to Hitler. Bay surprisingly took the comments in stride publicly, but Fox was not asked back for the third movie, Dark Of The Moon. The two apparently reconciled at some point, as Fox would go on to star as April O’Neil in the Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot.
One of the primary criticisms from Transformers fans of the Bay films is that the titular robots are essentially background characters, serving as shiny set pieces for the relatively mundane shenanigans of the human protagonists. While that’s true for both factions, the Decepticons get the short end of the stick. While Autobots like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee do get some perfunctory character work, the Decepticons are essentially personality-free monsters almost without exception.
The worst example of this is Starscream. Arguably the best character in Transformers lore, Starscream is traditionally a vain, arrogant schemer, always looking for an opening to grab control of the Decepticons from Megatron. In the Bay movies, Starscream is just another charmless, hissing bad guy, exhibiting none of the character’s much celebrated smarm. When he’s unceremoniously killed off in Dark Of The Moon, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who cared, which is a crime in and of itself.
When it was announced that Peter Cullen would be reprising his role as Optimus Prime for the live-action movies, fans were overjoyed. It was impossible to, for example, read a line from Optimus Prime in a Transformers comic book and not hear it in Cullen’s voice. The opposite side of that same coin was Frank Welker’s Megatron. Even more so than Cullen, Welker is a legendary voice actor, having voiced everyone from Fred on Scooby Doo to Dr. Claw on Inspector Gadget. His Megatron wielded a raspy, bombastic growl, somehow sounding like he really was made of metal.
It was a genuine sorrow for fans when it was announced Welker would not be voicing the role in the initial film. Hugo Weaving did good work in the role, but he lacked the vocal panache Welker always brought to the table. It was a small consolation prize that Welker would join later films to voice old fan favorites like Soundwave and Galvatron, but he should have been there from the start.
Revenge Of The Fallen set up all sorts of unfortunate precedents for the Transformers films: incoherent plotting, grueling run times, and deeply unlikable characters, just to name a few. It was also the moment when Bay mastered the ability to simultaneously thrill and revolt longtime fans of the franchise by introducing long beloved characters with, well, let’s call them “unique” characteristics.
Revenge Of The Fallen pulled this off a few times. Reimagining Jetfire as a crusty old Decepticon who’s inexplicably been hanging around Earth for centuries only to kill himself to revive Optimus Prime was… certainly a choice. But the one that fans are still shaking their heads over is Devastator.
The Constructicon combiner is generally one of the most fearsome forces in Transformers lore, and while he does dish out plenty of destruction in Revenge Of The Fallen, all anyone really remembers is the fact that he had two wrecking balls dangling between his legs, simulating a certain portion of male anatomy. The movie awkwardly leans into the joke, and it’s hard to take Devastator seriously as a threat much past that point.
Michael Bay is not a subtle filmmaker. He likes big explosions and big jokes. You’d be hard pressed to argue his skill with the former; nobody makes destruction look quite as balletic. He destroys skyscrapers like a symphony conductor. It’s the latter where it becomes tough to defend him. While it’s mostly kept in check in the first film, the Transformers sequels are absolutely stewing in sex and poop jokes. There’s admittedly something to be said for Bay’s ability to channel the sense of humor of the teenage boys he seemingly makes these movies for, but he long ago surpassed the saturation point for this kind of thing.
Sam Witwicky’s parents are the embodiment of this problem in the first three movies. Characters who seemingly exist for no other reason than to make Sam uncomfortable, they are constantly peppering the teenager with questions about masturbation and his bathroom habits. It goes far beyond “silly” and lurches well into the realm of “gross” by the second film.
There’s plenty of precedent for mainstream action and science fiction films utilizing World War II and the Nazis as plot points. It’s difficult to imagine films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Captain America: The First Avenger being remotely the same without the horrifying crimes of the Nazis permeating everything. The upcoming Transformers: The Last Knight seems to be weaving the Autobots and Decepticons into the entirety of human history, and they seem to have played some role in World War II, which in itself is not that controversial.
What has some people a bit uneasy has been the promotional materials for the movie, including a poster where Bumblebee is standing with his back to a group of soldiers as two Nazi flags burn on either side of him. While some are unsure Michael Bay is capable of handling such issues with the kind of sensitivity required, others are simply outraged to see swastikas used as promotional tools for an action movie in 2017, no matter the intent.
Over 30 years of Transformers fiction, you’d be hard pressed to find a group of characters more beloved than the Dinobots. Simple minded but incredibly powerful Autobots, the G1 cartoon versions of the characters were essentially the Autobots’ incredibly cool pets. They spoke in a sort of caveman cadence (“Me Grimlock kick butt!”) and were the show’s most reliable source of humor. After seeming reluctant about the characters for years, Michael Bay finally confirmed they would appear in the fourth film, Age Of Extinction, to much fanfare.
That the Dinobots turned out to be arguably the movies’ greatest disappointment should be a genuine embarrassment. The Dinobots did indeed appear late in Age Of Extinction, but they were monstrous ciphers. There was no caveman dialogue or humor; they never even spoke a word. They were yet another big, loud, visually busy set piece, robbed of the inherent charm that has made them fan favorites for three decades.
Optimus Prime is a superhero. Created in the mold of such morally pure characters as Superman and Captain America, he’s summed up nicely by his longtime motto: “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.” He traditionally serves not only as a military leader to his Autobots, but as a wise, compassionate father figure, always ensuring his troops never embrace the hatred that defines the Decepticons, fighting only to defend those who cannot defend themselves.
It has been utterly bizarre to see the movie version of Optimus slowly devolve into a cold, ruthless killer. His methods seem overly sadistic, his sense of mercy and compassion nowhere to be found. He’s not above letting people die to make a point, and unbelievably, even killed a human in Age of Extinction (it wasn’t exactly a good human, but that’s a line no one could have imagined Optimus crossing). There’s a disturbing layer of cynicism and bloodlust to this version of the character that betrays the basic tenets that have always defined him.
Age Of Extinction is something of a soft reboot of the Transformers films. Sam Witwicky and most of his supporting cast are not only missing, but not even mentioned. The new cast is anchored by Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager, a down on his luck inventor trying to make ends meet for his family. Wahlberg’s relatively down-to-earth Yeager is an immediate improvement over LaBeouf’s Witwicky, who had become deeply unlikable by the end of his tenure. Yeager’s supporting cast is mostly passable, with one glaring, baffling exception.
Yeager’s teenage daughter Tessa is secretly dating an older man, Shane Dyson. When confronted by Cade about the age disparity, Shane pulls out a laminated card containing the text of the “Romeo and Juliet” law that means he’s legally in the clear dating the 17 year old. It’s utterly surreal to contemplate how much time a Transformers movie took dancing around statutory rape for laughs. Why would anyone involved think that was a good idea?
Dark Of The Moon is far from a great movie, but it is objectively the best of the Transformers sequels. The plot is not exactly straightforward, but more or less makes sense. The toilet humor is still around, but it’s dialed down a bit. Most notably, it features a triumphant, pivotal vocal performance by the late, great Leonard Nimoy as Sentinel Prime (Nimoy had actually worked on the franchise before, voicing Galvatron in the 1986 animated Transformers movie).
Yet the film has a fatal flaw that’s impossible to get past. As humanity laments the affects of the Autobot/Decepticon war on Earth as being as much the Autobots’ fault as the Decepticons’, Optimus Prime stages a shuttle explosion that makes it appear as if the Autobots have perished. The Decepticons overrun major cities, killing countless people, before Optimus reveals the ruse and returns to save the Earth.
It’s a cold, cruel notion for a hero to simply take themselves off the board and let innocent people die to prove how much they’re actually needed, and it makes the Autobots seem like even bigger jerks than humanity accused them of being.
The Transformers movies have stepped right up to the line of racism on more than one occasion. Many perceived Age of Extinction’s samurai Autobot Drift as being an offensive Japanese caricature, and Ken Jeong’s Jerry Wang in Dark Of The Moon seemed to be a lazy grab bag of Asian stereotypes played for cheap laughs. But the most egregious example, where the franchise unquestionably stepped well over the line, was the case of Skids and Mudflap. The sibling Autobots from Revenge Of The Fallen were almost immediately decried as racist African American stereotypes. The pair spoke in blatantly racist dialect, featured gold teeth and, perhaps most offensive of all, claimed to be illiterate.
There aren’t many things on this list that Michael Bay would even contemplate apologizing for; the Transformers movies are wildly successful and have made Bay a rich, powerful Hollywood player. Yet even he admits Skids and Mudflap were poorly considered, and the pair have tellingly been absent from the following sequels. In a franchise riddled with controversy, Skids and Mudflap are the one indefensible blunder.
What else about Transformers makes no sense? Let us know in the comments!