Why Are the Michael Bay Transformers Movies Still the Most Popular?

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts saw a muted opening this weekend. Is there a reason the Michael Bay era has become the franchise’s “glory days?”

Optimus Prime in Transformers 2007
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In the penultimate episode of HBO and creator Jesse Armstrong’s Succession, the character of Ewan Roy (James Cromwell) stands before a cathedral filled with mourners and attendants, and he speaks some difficult, but true, things about his brother. “He was a man who has, here and there, drawn in the edges of the world… [but he] fed that dark flame in men. The hard, mean, hard-relenting flame that keeps their hearths warm while another grows cold.”

It’s a great line, and one I strangely thought about while watching Paramount’s new Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and again when witnessing the film’s box office performance over the past weekend. As directed by Stephen Caple Jr., Rise of the Beasts plays like a textbook committee film for a studio, one whose plot structure was hatched out over a series of compromises in a boardroom. Yet it also is an unmistakable peace offering to the diehard Transformers fanbase. After listening to online petitioners decry the lusty and cynical approach that director Michael Bay favored over five Transformers films, which were released across a span of 10 years, Paramount is at last making the Transformers movie online fans say they want.

As with 2018’s Bumblebee (arguably the only good film related to the Transformers IP), Optimus Prime is once again depicted in his classic red, blue, and silver design; there are no leering and lascivious shots of women stretched atop one type of motor vehicle or another; and the big robots are definitely the main characters (instead of the humans) as they fight in clean, wide, and easy to follow action shots. Incomprehensible “Bayhem” is nowhere to be seen, even as Rise of the Beasts returns to Bay’s formula of giant robots throwing down near ancient sites, which in this case means Machu Picchu. (Bay is still an executive producer in the series.)

And yet, in spite of all these fan friendly concessions, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts has failed to recapture the popularity of Bay’s movies at their height, at least in the U.S. This past weekend the movie opened to $60.5 million, a serviceable number (especially when it’s able to squeak past Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse in its second weekend). The figure is also up from Bumblebee’s disastrous $21.7 million opening five years ago. Nonetheless, one has to have a selective memory to not notice it remains considerably down from the series at its most popular in the U.S., which was when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opened at $109 million in 2009 (or about $154 million when adjusted for inflation). It’s even below the debut of the original Transformers movie, which opened at $70 million in 2007 without inflation, IMAX screens, or 3D surcharges.

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For the second Bay-less Transformers movie in a row, it would seem the giant robot franchise is struggling to stay relevant. And while Rise of the Beasts is better positioned to turn a profit than Bumblebee, especially because of how it’s performing internationally (China is not giving it the cold shoulder suffered by The Little Mermaid), its release between the rock and a hard place of superhero movies Across the Spider-Verse and The Flash almost guarantees it will be totally forgotten by the time Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny rolls around at the end of the month. This reality raises its own cold truth to consider: These movies were event films back when Michael Bay directed them, and to many moviegoers they’re far more skippable now that he is not. Why is that?

Despite the (mostly earned) scorn Bay has engendered from critics and journalists over the years, the filmmaker is as much an auteur as any who made the Faustian bargain of directing big, commercial, four-quadrant, blockbuster flicks. His aesthetics are unmistakable: the slick, glossy sheen of his actors being caught at the edge of perspiration in the magic glow of sunset; the fluid but disorienting spinning camera that glides around objectified stars and hapless extras; and an intentionally frenzied editing style that cultivates a relentless pace. Indeed, the average shot length of his summer blockbusters ranges between three and 3.4 seconds (when it comes to Transformers action sequences that tightens to between 0.2 and 1.1 seconds).

Bay’s most expensive films—the Transformers movies, Armageddon (1998), Bad Boys II (2003), and even Pearl Harbor (2001)—could be cynically described as the most operatic mash-up ever of Miller Lite and Victoria’s Secret TV commercials (Bay has a history of making both). Yet even if you wish to dismiss that mise en scène as trashy and vapid, there is an undeniable singularity to the style that very much lives up to the infamous term Bay coined to describe the editing of his action scenes. He’s “fucking the frame.”

As it turns out, there are many moviegoers who like watching the frame get fucked. And this hard truth, along with all the other sensibilities Bay is a master of exploiting, appealed to the veritable “dark flame in man” in a way that having a cartoon-accurate Optimus Prime punch a robo-gorilla simply cannot recreate.

In the case of Bay’s five Transformers films, their patented blend of rah-rah patriotism (some might say jingoism), mean-spirited humor (often at the expense of racial, ethnic, and physical stereotypes), and an overeagerness to stare at Megan Fox in short-shorts as she leans over a motorcycle, played like gangbusters during the tail-end of the Bush Years. Indeed, well into Obama’s first term as well, the initial three Transformers films were made in cooperation with the U.S. military, acting as the best Hollywood recruitment tools since Top Gun (1986). To be sure, the sordid image of troops running from giant robots in a Middle-Eastern desert played differently in 2007; as did when that was changed out for a North African one at the end of Revenge of the Fallen, and those same soldiers teamed up with the Autobots to obliterate the enemies in torrents of raining fire.

When Mark Wahlberg took over for Shia LaBeouf as the lead of the franchise in 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, the U.S. military was notably no longer a partner on the film’s production—in fact during the second Obama administration, the American government became far more sinister and antagonistic within the Transformers flicks. But Wahlberg’s impossibly named Cade Yeager? He’s a good ol’ boy farmer from Texas who gives speeches about Texans needing to stand up to “the government” while a giant flag hangs from the top of his barn, framing his head in low close-ups like a halo. He also teams up with a rhapsodized Chinese government (who did partner with Bay and Paramount on Age of Extinction) to fight the bad bots.

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Beyond the politics, the humor of Bay’s films was often crass and cruel—the “mean, hard joke” as Ewan Roy might say. Whether it’s of Black-coded Autobots speaking like Minstrel show characters in Revenge of the Fallen or the Black and overweight Anthony Anderson being depicted as a loud, cowardly buffoon who eats a whole plate of donuts while being interrogated, there is a disquieting reliance on racial stereotypes throughout Bay’s Transformers flicks—and most of his filmography at large.

Yet for at least his first four entries, they were unmissable summer events to millions of moviegoers; spectacles unlike anything else playing on the big screen, even after Marvel Studios got into the game in a big way in the early 2010s. It’s fair to say that Bay serviced audiences in a manner no other filmmaker would. He indulged in the baser instincts that would ogle Isabel Lucas in a sundress in Revenge of the Fallen and then knowingly chuckle as her face and hair is drenched in motor fluid. He gave viewers permission to laugh at jokes that movies directed by his executive producer Steven Spielberg—or other 2000s contemporaries in blockbuster cinema like Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau, and J.J. Abrams—would never consider.

But audiences dug it, just as they marveled at Bay’s visually spectacular set pieces. I could not tell you the plot that is supposed to be occurring in any action sequence within Revenge of the Fallen or Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). However, the images of LaBeouf and Fox running in a vast wide shot as desert sand (and CG chaos) explodes behind them, or of a serpentine robot wrapping itself around a skyscraper, haven’t left my mind’s eye in the past decade. As a stylist, Bay is unmatched.

Audiences eventually did tire of that style, though. While Age of Extinction grossed $1.1 billion worldwide in 2014, much of that was earned outside the U.S. (although it still opened north of $100 million stateside). By contrast, 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight made barely more than half that, grossing $605.4 million worldwide and beginning an anemic U.S. run with $44.7 million in its opening weekend. When your confections are all frosting, eventually customers will get a headache from the sugar.

Still, after The Last Knight’s failure, Paramount has struggled to reinvent the Transformers into something mainstream audiences honestly care about. Bumblebee is the lone, legitimately good movie in the franchise with an emotional heartbeat around its E.T. inspired relationship between a car and its teenage owner (Hailee Steinfeld). It was also the biggest flop in the series. Now Rise of the Beasts gives moviegoers everything fans of the old Transformers cartoons and toy lines swear is what we’ve always needed. And it’s a bit of a shrug. A lucrative shrug (maybe), but still a movie that will likely not even have the third highest debut of June 2023. Perhaps that’s because even in its benign, harmless manner, Beasts feels like a soulless product. Bay’s movies were products, too, but there was nothing soulless about them; the spirit was just bleak and misanthropic.

Ironically, Bay also just made the best movie of his career via last year’s Ambulance, a genuinely gripping and visually dazzling action-thriller… and audiences didn’t show up to that either. It lacked the CGI pyrotechnics of his Transformers movies, it featured no ‘80s intellectual property, and it even lacked much of the cynicism that colored the Bayformers. Ambulance treated its characters, including an EMT played by Eiza González, as human beings instead of punchlines and pin-ups.

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Maybe, in the end, the scariest thing about the dark flame is that it offers the strongest illumination of ourselves.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is in theaters now.