The unrealised potential of the Transformers movies

Feature Ryan Lambie 7 Jul 2014 - 06:28

Age Of Extinction leaves Ryan pondering the Transformers franchise, and asking why the 80s Marvel comics aren’t a source of inspiration...

NB: This article contains mild spoilers for Transformers: Age Of Extinction

This summer’s Transformers: Age Of Extinction brings Michael Bay’s franchise to its latest, wildly intricate zenith. It contains a bewildering cast of characters, a plot which spans different continents (including a large chunk set in China) and several epochs. It introduces a new evil robot called Lockdown, a substance called Transformium, and a deadly device called the Seed. It is, in short, completely bonkers.

Age Of Extinction has elicited the kind of irked critical response (not least on this very site) Michael Bay’s probably inured to by now, and we won’t rehash our opinions on its punishing duration or plot specifics again here. But as we sat in the darkness of an IMAX cinema during Bay’s latest action banquet, we couldn’t help returning to the precise same thoughts we had when we laid eyes on his first Transformers film back in 2007. Why can’t it be a bit more like the comics and animated TV shows of the past?

Now, we’re not necessarily saying that the original Transformers G1 TV series and comic books were perfect, even if we do look back on them with a great amount of nostalgia and affection. But hasn’t Bay and his filmmaking team, in the quest to bring the Transformers to a new generation of kids, sacrificed a bit too much of what made those Autobots and Decepticons the characters they were? 

Age Of Extinction suffers from a similar problem to the earlier Transformers films: it’s massively cluttered, almost to the point where the robots in disguise are reduced to bit-players in their own movie. Even Optimus Prime, brilliantly voiced by Peter Cullen though he may be, is barely recognisable from the inspiring, faintly Shatner-esque leader he was in the comics, TV show and 1986 movie.

This version of Prime is terse and ornery. He solves leadership problems by punching his usurpers in the face. He threatens to abandon Earth in the face of alien invasion - something he promised never to do in Dark Of The Moon, to the best of our recollection - and even goes off on a murder mission in space at one point.

The other Transformers barely register; Bumblebee’s now a clumsy and practically mute sidekick, while Hound is a pot-bellied, bearded gun nut who smokes a cigar (actually a bullet case or something) and shoots caged, harmless aliens in the face because they look a bit odd. Megatron’s now Galvatron, and only appears in the film for about 15 minutes.

The writers of the Transformers films seem to have a certain lack of confidence in the robots’ ability to carry a film on their own. How else do we explain the constant urge to crowd every movie with human characters? Like its predecessors, Age Of Extinction is led by an extended cast of particularly fine character actors. Nominal leading man Mark Wahlberg is joined by Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Sophia Myles and Li Bingbing.

While human characters have appeared in Transformers stories since the 1980s, they never barged their way into the frame in quite the same way as they do in the current run of films. When you start to compare Transformers to other recent adaptations of comics or television series, its treatment starts to look a bit odd. Can you imagine an adaptation of the Avengers where most of the story was told from the perspective of ordinary members of the public?

If Michael Bay directed an Avengers movie, the Avengers would only be a small strand in a much bigger (and difficult to fathom) plot that vaguely resembles an Irwin Allen disaster flick. And even then, the heroes would only bear a scant resemblance to the ones from the comics. The Hulk would have a beard for some reason. Black Widow would constantly pose in tiny shorts. Captain America would be an antique pistol collector, Thor would, mystifyingly, have two heads, and Iron Man would turn up the final 20 minutes, break a few windows and then vanish again without uttering a word. 

It might seem strange to be so irked by a movie franchise based on a few toys from the 1980s, but readers of the comics - particularly the great Marvel UK ones, published weekly until 1992 - will probably tell you that some of the characters and stories in those books were well thought-out and thoroughly entertaining. Yes, the media stuff surrounding the Transformers was essentially an extended commercial for the toys, but that didn’t stop the artists and writers from creating some terrific plotlines for them - especially Simon Furman, who was largely responsible for some of the comics' most memorable moments.

Yet the writers of the Transformers movies have long since lost interest in the classic character interactions so many of us remember from our childhoods - Optimus Prime’s fatherly leadership of his bickering Autobots, or Starscream’s constant and absurd competition for Megatron’s leadership of the Decepticons.

What’s most frustrating is that the comics provide a goldmine of story ideas that could work perfectly in a movie. The Insecticons would make for unusual and potentially quite scary villains. What about Death’s Head, the humanoid 'freelance peace-keeping agent' who was so well-received by readers that he got his own comic book? Or, if you need a human antagonist, why not introduce Circuit Breaker, the unspeakably tough villainess capable of taking on the Transformers in hand-to-hand combat? Admittedly, getting the rights to some of these characters might take a bit of legal bargaining with Marvel, but the inherent potential they offer would surely make such a deal worthwhile. 

When it was revealed that the Dinobots would be a part of the fourth Transformers film, we were hopeful that Age Of Extinction would be a departure from the first three franchise entries. But despite the prominent display of Grimlock on the poster (with Prime riding on his back - something the Grimlock we know and love would never allow), the transforming dinosaurs were in frustratingly short supply. Once again, Bay decided to make a movie about invaders laying waste to cities while the Dinobots were reduced to little more than a walk-on appearance.

The treatment of the Dinobots is the latest symptom of a franchise that seems utterly uninterested in treating the Transformers as relatable characters; even their fussy, chaotic design conspires to make them look emotionless and - at times - unidentifiable.

None of this will matter too much to the makers of the Tranformers franchise, of course, since the latest film is likely to be just as lucrative as the earlier ones. But with Age Of Extinction once again focusing on mass destruction, we're quietly hoping that, at some point in the future, someone will have the bright idea of taking the series back to its 1980s roots.

As a look back at the comic books proves, there was so much more to the Transformers than explosions and collapsing buildings.

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