Baying for Blood: why Transformers deserves better than Michael

So Michael Bay has signed on to direct Transformers 4. For the love of God, this has to stop.

Michael Bay
Michael Bay illustrating the size of his last paycheck

Those of you familiar with my older blog stuff will know that I was, and still am, quite a big fan of The Transformers. It was the all-consuming passion of my childhood: I bought the toys, watched the cartoons, collected the Marvel comics. For fans, the prospect of a live-action movie adaptation was an outlandish pipe dream, doomed never to see the light of day after the 1980s craze for the Robots in Disguise inevitably burnt itself out.

Then a funny thing happened: Hollywood went and made one. With the big studios increasingly turning to established properties and brand names in their search for bankable hits, and with special effects technology having matured to the point where it was both technically and economically viable, it was only a matter of time before Optimus Prime and company conquered the multiplex, having already succeeded on so many other media platforms. Even better, Steven Spielberg himself signed on to executive produce. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in two words: Michael Bay. Actually, to be fair, I did enjoy the first movie. No, it wasn’t the epic experience I had been dreaming about for twenty years, but it captured something of the spirit of the early comics and cartoons, and certainly had plenty of action and spectacle to dazzle the eyeballs. Crucially, it also had a human dimension on which to hang the tale of warring robots – a necessary entry point for newcomers as well as old timers like myself. As Spielberg himself pitched it, it was the story of a boy and his car. You could quibble about the casting, the changes to established Transformers mythology, or the flimsy plot, but to me it was a satisfying experience; and there was plenty of scope for future installments to build upon its foundations whilst delving deeper in to the franchise’s rich history.

That’s the frustrating thing about being a TF fan. Too often they are dismissed as a cheap toy series for kids whose convoluted backstory is childish nonsense and whose carcass has provided rich pickings for Hollywood. Sorry, but this just isn’t true. It was the UK Marvel comics (populated by a talented and enthusiastic bunch of artists and writers, led by the brilliant Simon Furman) that treated these characters with real respect and developed a series of gripping, intriguing, and thought-provoking stories told on an epic scale which fired the imagination.

Grimlock
Grimlock - Michael Heseltine in disguise?

Bringing together a variety of different genres – not just adventure and science fiction, but also fantasy, horror, comedy, even noir – the best of these tales were real page-turners for boys (and maybe girls too) of a certain age. There was even politics on offer. One long-running storyline concerned the prolonged absence of an elected Autobot leader following the death of Optimus Prime and the potential candidates in the running to take over. I like to think this was a political commentary on the state of the Conservative Party at the time (the aggressive Grimlock/Michael Heseltine (delete as appropriate) vies for the post as soon as it is vacant, without a great deal of internal support).

Incredible as it may sound, these robotic characters were vividly brought to life with distinctive personalities and relationships. Of course there were a few duds, as with any comic (usually they were the imported American strips…), but there was a genuine consistency in its quality of output. So good was his standard of storytelling that Furman was put in charge of the US Marvel TF comic, and he’s been writing TF comic scripts on and off ever since.

I know that these characters are interesting and I’ve seen great stories told with them. So it was sad to see what Michael Bay did with his first sequel, Revenge of the Fallen. The plot had tantalising possibilities as it indeed reached back in to its own version of Transformers lore, but the least satisfying parts of the first film were this time promoted to the front line: the tedious humour was made longer and even less funny, the characters became sillier, the action noisier and more confusing. It became clear that Bay had no real interest in the Transformers themselves beyond grabbing them like a five-year old and smashing them together for the sake of instant gratification. All he saw was cool action scenes involving giant robots. Hey, we all want cool action scenes with giant robots; of course we do. But we also want strong characters and a good story – things that seem to elude him, or he is content to ignore.

The third film, Dark of the Moon, promised to fix the problems in the second and return the series to the tone of the first, with even more impressive action. We got the impressive action, but everything else about the threequel was a dismal failure. The worst entry in the series yet, it was a loud, obnoxious bore, content to deafen us with ever larger scenes of mass destruction, intermittently broken up with ogling shots of the new female lead. It left a nasty taste in the mouth, and the closing scenes confirmed that Bay now appeared to view the Transformers with utter contempt. Unfortunately, it was also staggeringly successful at the box office.

Now comes news that the director has signed on for part four. This means two things: that enough truckloads of cash were dumped on Bay’s front porch to make him sign on the dotted line, and we’ll be getting more of Bay’s own “interpretation” of The Transformers. Which is nothing short of a disaster. PR guff about how the next film will deliver “a whole new re-imagining of Transformers” do little to assuage one’s fears, despite the fact that he has apparently been developing an idea with Spielberg in recent months.

Spielberg’s diminishing influence on the series is all too apparent; a shame, as it is probably only he who could take the series away from Bay and place it in the hands of someone with a greater understanding of the franchise’s potential. The best thing they could do is start from scratch: hire a director who appreciates the material, leaf through some of the classic comics and adapt one of the great stories (like Target: 2006 for example, or Wanted: Galvatron – Dead or Alive). My dearest wish is to see Death’s Head on the big screen – but not if Michael Bay is calling the shots.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – except in Hollywood

This summer has been a bizarrely regressive experience for me so far. It began in a small way, seeing Spidey take on Venom in Spider-Man 3 at the start of the blockbuster season, bringing back memories of reading comics in the 80s. Then along came Die Hard 4.0 which, whilst in no way resembling its predecessors, recalled some more fond memories. But then nostalgia overload really took off when Transformers arrived at the multiplex.

This was a film that I had only ever dreamt about in the dim and distant past, but never imagined in a million years would actually happen. Growing up, I lived Transformers. Bought the toys, collected the comics, annuals and books, watched the cartoons, stuck the stickers, pinned up the posters… you name it. When dear old mum gave away my toy collection to a charity shop after I had outgrown them, without my knowledge,  I was mortified (only on the inside of course).

When I was at university in the mid-90s, and the internet began to take off in a big way, my first few surfings uncovered rumours of a live-action spectacle. Back then of course, there were rumours of anything and everything. Movie gossip sites like Ain’t It Cool and (the now defunct) Corona’s Coming Attractions regularly reported utter nonsense, and had nothing like the credibility they do today. “Transformers?” I thought, “That would be amazing, but are they even still going? Who would pay to see a movie based on an 80s fad that no-one remembers anymore, apart from me?”

It turns out – quite a few. Flash forward a few years, and Hollywood is snapping up any reasonably well-established franchise they can lay their grubby little hands on. Their calculation was: well known brand name = ready-made market. Having churned out comic book adaptations for the last few years, with varying degrees of success, it was inevitable the toy market would also benefit from this frenzy for guaranteed money-earning properties. And Transformers had everything: a rich history of money-making via a variety of media, not to mention a fanbase of several years standing (numerous versions came and went after the initial craze died away; Beast Wars for example). I can just see their line of thinking: “Suckers like me who remember the original toys and stories would surely pay to see this film, plus they might even bring along their kids who can get hooked on all the new marketing gimmicks – sorry, tie-ins – we put out. Eeeeeasy money.”

Sorry if this all sounds quite cynical; I was over the moon when they officially announced it. Even the hiring of Michael ‘Armageddon’ Bay couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm that much. I can’t say I prefer the new look Transformers to the old ones, but I guess some changes were inevitable. When I finally saw the movie, I really liked it. My jaw dropped on several occasions – no mean feat in these days of CGI. But the main thrill was finally to see the Transformers come to life on the big screen. And it really did feel like a Transformers story: maybe it was Steven Speilberg’s influence as executive producer, but the story had a very 80s vibe to it, being told from a kid’s perspective. I had niggles of course, like any fanboy: the action was occasionally confusing, we saw far too little of Cybertron, and Optimus Prime had a touch too much humour for my liking (why is “My bad” so prevalent in scripts at the moment?). But it got far more right that it got wrong, and as an introduction to a new universe, it worked great. And with over $300m in the bank in the U.S. alone, it worked financially too.

Now, when I walk down the high street, I see Transformers merchandise everywhere. It’s suddenly cool to like them again. I can’t explain why it is both weird and fantastic to see little ‘uns pointing up at toys of Optimus Prime, desperate for their mum to buy it. Maybe I feel vindicated in some perculiar way. Is this the way all hardcore geeks feel when their beloved property of choice gets the Hollywood treatment?

Anyway, who cares? Thanks to Hollywood’s creatively bankrupt commercial sensibilities, which often come under fire for producing brain-dead entertainment (and rightly so of course), I actually got to see my dream up on the big screen. Let’s hope a sequel is on the way. Thank you Hollywood!