Less Than Meets The Eye
So I have a group text chat that started as a support group for people tricked into watching all of Gotham by a sinister trickster figure known as Munsi, and evolved into a general geek entertainment thread named for comic TV’s best character from last season.
The world is in lockdown, and everything is terrible, most of our lives have been put on indefinite hold, and joy is cancelled until a) there’s a vaccine; b) infection rates drop to a controllable level and we decide we don’t need a vaccine; c) we give up on mitigating damage and resign ourselves to a The Stand situation where most of the world dies and we split into good and evil factions and war for the fate of humanity, and so in the wake of that, our group thread entered into a sort of pop culture suicide pact which is not as dark as it sounds. Given the general situation and, looking back, the rest of this paragraph, I want to stress that.
We agreed to each watch a different quintet of movies that featured no guarantee of quality. One took on the cinematic adaptations of right-wing loony tune Frank Miller (probable highlight: Sin City; probable lowlight: the other Sin City); one has been assigned the first three X-Mens and the non-Logan Wolverines (that starts out better than most of our choices but hoo doggy it falls apart fast); one took on five of the loopier Nicolas Cage movies, causing me to realize that while I have absolutely seen The Sorceror’s Apprentice, I do not remember a single thing about it, and that is perhaps more damning than anything I’m about to say about my assignment.
I got every single Michael Bay Transformers movie.
(And then I watched the prequel-turned-reboot Bumblebee for funsies.)
I won’t go into deep detail, I did that on Twitter while they were happening to me, but here’s some capsule reviews.
Transformers: I remember liking this one in the theatres. I remember thinking I liked it a lot. I guess the way they used just enough things from the toy-commercial cartoon I loved in the 80s to trigger just enough nostalgia for me to ignore its flaws… the main one being there are too many wacky human characters running around the place. Sure, that a movie called Transformers had too many human characters isn’t a fresh hot take, neither is pointing out that only Shia LeBeouf’s Sam Witwicky and Megan Fox’s Michaela Banes have any sort of depth to them. (I don’t have time here to explain why Megan Fox’s Michaela is the most well-rounded and worthwhile character until the reboot, so watch Lindsay Ellis do it, she’s clever, that’s why she keeps coming up today.) But there is just so much glib banter. It is almost numbing. Frankly, the only characters taken remotely seriously are the Good Soldiers played by Josh Duhamel and Tyrone Gibson, there for Bay’s typical glorification of the US military. Everyone else is a joke. And it’s not just Sam’s embarrassing parents, or John Turturro’s dignity-free Agent Simmons, or even Anthony Anderson’s entirely superfluous hacker character, it’s that every walk-on part has to have zany banter. Every bit part over five seconds seems to be polishing their tight ten or practising a character from their improv class. It is too much and it undercuts everything Bay wants to be taken seriously. It’s trying to be a big, epic, action spectacle but it’s written like a low-rent Judd Apatow knock-off comedy, where even the guy trying to connect a long-distance call for a soldier in the middle of a firefight thinks he’s the Jonah Hill character.
Revenge of the Fallen: Two years into their relationship, Sam can’t tell Michaela, a better woman than he could possibly deserve, that he loves her? Not endearing. The Decepticons can turn into people now? How does that not come up more often, or ever again? The tiny ex-Decepticon that bonds with Michaela? Did not love him, though he was better than the ridiculous minstrel show twin Autobots. The female Autobot has one line then dies? Not a great look. And the embarrassing parent routine is even worse this time. We also begin the franchise’s most over-used plot point: some government stiff has decided that no alien robot can be trusted, forcing whatever Autobots are still alive/have just been introduced to go on the run with whoever their human allies are, with support from Josh Duhamel if he’s available. Also starting this instalment: the belief that Megatron and the Decepticons just aren’t enough of a nemesis and there needs to be a bigger, badder Transformer over top of Megatron. Revenge of the Fallen is a big mess with little to recommend it, and it is shocking how fast I’d miss it as the day went on.
Dark of the Moon: The absolute low point for Sam Witwicky, now a miserable man-baby incapable of landing a job because he feels too good for entry-level work (defeating Megatron twice just doesn’t open career doors) and acting incredibly possessive of his new girlfriend and resenting her handsome, successful, wealthy boss… but don’t worry, he works for the Decepticons, so Sam gets to murder his rival. And when that starts going badly, I respect his take of “Well, switching sides just gets me in prison, so might as well commit to this side.” Then the government decides maybe they should trust the Decepticons, which gets Chicago occupied by evil giant robots. Nobody learns the right lesson from this. But the main problem? Due to tensions between Megan Fox and Michael Bay, Michaela is gone, and just replaced with some new improbably hot girlfriend played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and that doesn’t work. Sam’s journey is supposedly about growing as a person and becoming a better romantic partner, and you can’t just swap out female leads in the third act and pick up like that didn’t happen. Jesus but this shows how disposable these movies think women are.
Other Dark of the Moon notes… along with the Witwickies, this is Tyrese Gibson’s final appearance in the franchise, and it was the same year that he became the Funny One in Fast Five, and it seemed really clear to me that he much preferred playing Roman in the Fast/Furiouses to being “Nice Soldier Number Two” in the Transformerses. Sam’s parents are less aggravating this time, but maybe I was just numb by then. A Transformer voiced by Leonard Nimoy says “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” but in an evil context and that is not okay. And given that it ends with the biggest action set piece yet, in which Megatron and Starscream both die, and Sam wraps up his run as the human protagonist, this would have worked as the end of a trilogy… if Sam’s journey had had any sort of throughline, and they hadn’t swapped out his co-lead for some random Brit.
Age of Extinction: This is the absolute grimmest movie in the whole goddamn franchise, and it’s also the longest, and wow but those two things are a terrible, terrible combination. It’s this long because there are too many villains. There’s Cemetery Wind (1), a CIA black ops group controlled by Kelsey Grammer and led in the field by Titus Welliver, and they are assholes, who have decided that after the sacking of Chicago last time there are no good Transformers so are hunting them all down… with the help of an evil Transformer bounty hunter (2), and nobody explains to them that working with evil Transformers and selling out the Autobots is how Chicago happened in the first place. They sell the corpses of the Transformers they kill to tech billionaire Joshua Joyce (3), played by Stanley Tucci, who uses their metal to build his own Transformers, but they aren’t under his control like he thinks, because Megatron’s consciousness is still very alive and is now in control of his prototype, Galvatron (4), and through him, the whole fleet of what is now nouveau-Decepticons. That’s too many villains, and the only one that even slightly works is Joyce, because once he is Changed and realizes he’s on the wrong side, Tucci becomes the best part of the whole movie. Anyway it’s a big, bleak mess, and replacing Shia’s manchild afraid of losing his various supermodel girlfriends with Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager, an older manchild afraid his daughter might Date a Boy, is a lateral move at best. But after watching how they treated Sam in Dark of the Moon I cannot blame Shia for not wanting to come back ever. That said… maybe Cade’s right to be overprotective, because there is nothing positive about a character who keeps a laminated card of the state’s age of consent laws with him at all times so he can prove his relationship with a teen girl is legal, and that 100% happens.
There’s also a subplot about the creator of the Transformers being after Optimus Prime, and other elder Transformers who turn out to be the Dinobots (too little too late), but it’s all clearly there to be paid off in future movies and adds nothing to this one but extra time. And Dinobots.
It’s the worst one, I hate it.
The Last Knight: The glib banter is back, not only because after taking a film off, John Turturro’s back as Wacky Former Agent Simmons. A lot of it goes to Sir Anthony Hopkins of all goddamn people, and his robot butler, but damned if somehow Sir Tony doesn’t sell it better than anyone had in the previous four movies. Anyhoo, they manage to both pick up the story about the creator of the Transformers and also throw out everything they’d established, and instead decide that Earth has been the planet-sized Transformer Unicron this whole time. I wanted Unicron to show up, but not like this. Cade and series-MVP Bumblebee are recruited to save the world by Sir Tony, who is the last member of the ancient society the Witwiccans. Yes, turns out nobody told Sam or his father that their family dates back to King Arthur and have been guarding the secret that Earth history is lousy with Transformers. Excalibur was a Transformer! Bumblebee fought in World War II! None of it makes sense in context to any other movie! Is the world a post-Apocalyptic hellscape of random Autobot/Decepticon fights or not? Rural America seems to have been worked over by robot-on-robot violence, but England seems untouched. Who cares! Let’s watch Mark Wahlberg and the snooty British scholar he’s clearly meant to hook up with help the good robots to fight the evil robots and save Earth from the latest Bigger Bad Than Megatron! It would actually be okay if they’d cut the lastest batch of sinister government agents hunting all Transformers, good or bad, except maybe they’ll work with the Decepticons and pretend to still have the high ground. Cutting them would have gotten the movie under two hours and cost them nothing, because after hunting Cade across two continents, Cade gives them a quick speech about how he never lost faith in Optimus Prime, and that they did made them the jerks, and upon hearing this they are Changed and that’s the last we speak of it.
Bumblebee: the first movie not directed by Michael Bay is basically a hard reboot of the whole franchise, in that it actively contradicts most of the movies and especially throws out literally everything about Last Knight, as Bumblebee arrives on Earth for the first time in 1987, not World War II, and Earth isn’t already infested with various Transformers. The prevailing sentiment was “Why didn’t they make this movie in the first place?” And that’s a good take, because it actually works. Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie is the franchise’s best lead, being likeable and three-dimensional and having relatable issues, even if I wondered how “Gave up competitive high-diving after her father died, now she can’t dive at all” was going to be a Thing in the climax. (It was a bit of a walk, but they got there.) There aren’t a ridiculous surplus of wacky side characters. The cast stays small, meaning that they only need two Decepticons for villains, because there’s only one Autobot to fight them and it isn’t Optimus, so fighting both of them takes some doing. John Cena plays a soldier who distrusts Bumblebee, but in fairness, Bumblebee crash-landed on his unit, so he’s not wrong to be a little suspicious. And, yes, he’s Changed in the end, but it’s earned. The action scenes benefit from a director who understands framing. A moment where Charlie runs to the Big Setpiece while Bumblebee and Decepticon Number Two fight in the background keeps Charlie locked in center frame instead of waving the camera around like they’re trying to swat a moth with it, and that makes it one of the best action shots in the whole franchise. Instead of complicated messes of spiky metal bits, the Transformers mostly look like they did in the cartoon, and that looks better.
Bumblebee is a legit fun movie with a lot of heart and it’s a pity that it’s the least successful.
Some quickie rankings, worst to best:
6. Cemetery Wind and their Evil Robot Buddy, Age of Extinction
5. The Fallen, Revenge of the Fallen.
4. Sentinel, who is like The Fallen but with a storyline and character, Dark of the Moon
3. Quintessa, the creator of the Transformers, in Last Knight. I guess? She had potential?
2. Just such as a couple of Decepticons, Bumblebee
1. Megatron, just Megatron, what’s wrong with just Megatron, Transformers
Big Name Actors in Unnecessary Small Wacky Roles:
6. TJ Miller as Cade’s loser pal, Age of Extinction
5. Rainn Wilson as the world’s smuggest Astronomy 101 teacher, Revenge of the Fallen
4. John Malkovich as Sam’s new boss, Dark of the Moon
3. Bernie Mac as the used car salesman, Transformers
2. Not having one, Bumblebee
1. Stanley Tucci not reprising Josh Joyce but instead playing drunk Merlin why not, Last Knight
Government Stiffs Who Decide They Don’t Trust the Autobots
6. Kelsey Grammer, Age of Extinction, you don’t get to betray your allies because “all Transformers are bad” and work with a Transformer, you absolute knobgoblin
5. The random suit who shows up in Revenge of the Fallen
4. John Turturro’s dignity-free Agent Simmons, Transformers (and nearly every sequel)
3. Frances McDormand, Dark of the Moon
2. Tony Hale as the guy who thinks science might be more useful than Arthurian lore and magic staffs, Last Knight (sure he’s wrong, but I see where his head is at)
1. John Cena, who at least had the sense to ask “They call themselves DECEPTicons, is that not a red flag for anyone else?” Bumblebee
6. Age of Extinction
5. Dark of the Moon
4. Revenge of the Fallen
2. Last Knight
Next page: Batman adjacent!