There is something to be said for any major franchise that passes the two-film mark. Any potential franchise can manage one film. Most can pop out a second if the box office is kind enough during the first go round. But three films? That represents an audience that has sided with the series. Whatever it is about these films, an audience bigger than a niche has latched onto it and wants more of it.
Which brings us to Michael Bay’s Transformers series.
Transformers is one of those enduring film properties that audiences come back to see time and time again. Whenever a new Transformers film hits cinemas, you can expect lines from the box office, and filled, cramped theaters. Among critics and cinema enthusiasts, the series overall quality is questionable at best. So what keeps audiences coming back? The answer is fairly simple, and probably not one most cinephiles would like to hear.
The answer is: Michael Bay.
Michael Bay, as egregious as it may seem, is truly the magic ingredient when it comes to Transformers. With this franchise he took a niche, time-period specific toy and TV franchise, and made it accessible to virtually anybody. The Transformers name gave it street cred, Michael Bay gave it it’s audience.
The Transformers films are particularly interesting pieces in Michael Bay’s long career, in that each film represents a facet of Michael Bay as a filmmaker. Each movie is undeniably a “Bay” film, yet each are sharply different from one another. All separate pieces that, when unified, paint a picture of who Michael Bay is as a storyteller, both in style and actual quality.
To give some evidence to this claim, I turn to the original (yes, yes, I know it’s not “the original”) 2007 Transformers. Transformers may actually be the perfect film. On most levels, I find that statement to be absurd. But in a few, critical areas, I think it very well be true. I try to judge films not by what I would want them to be, but by how well they succeed at being what they set out to be. In the latter regard, Transformers is probably a perfect film. It is the most perfectly calculated, crowd pleasing, money-hoarding summer blockbuster that has ever existed. It’s ridiculous, violent, sexy, aggressive, mind-numbing insanity, but there is an art within it. And the artist is Michael Bay.
Audiences want to be catered to. People love big robots blowing stuff up. People love large boobs and scantily clad women. People love white, male, underdog everymen. People (though most won’t admit it) love stereotyped, ethnic comic relief. Most films cannot deliver on all four of those elements and be embraced by the public. It’s all just too much. It’s hard not to watch a film that hawks robots, boobs, losers and goofy black people and not feel like an idiot for watching it.
Enter Michael Bay.
The magic of Mr. Bay is that he can make the most obtuse, shameless, exploitative garbage somehow feel entirely acceptable to an audience. There is something unique about his presentation (and I mean entirely unique, no other filmmaker does this), that gives him grace to do all of these things ad nauseam and be embraced where other directors would not be. Which brings it all back to the explanation of my “Michael Bay Magic Ingredient” theory. Michael Bay is the dumbest legitimate artist that there is. He sits perfectly atop the threshold between garbage filmmaking (e.g. Paul W.S. Anderson) and legitimate art (e.g. Steven Spielberg). This allows him to make films dumb enough to accommodate shameless exploitation of women, but also smart enough to make an audience feel like they’re not watching an actually stupid film (at least for as long as the runtime lasts). Michael Bay is the worst, best artist that there is, and Transformers is his masterpiece.
It’s incredibly hard to judge Transformers on a creative level, as every “creative” decision made seemingly has at least one foot in marketing decisions every step of the way. The film is less of a creative vision and more of a finely tuned series of commercials presented one after another. Cars, soda, even the U.S. military gets it’s own spotlight feature. However, I want to make it clear that my cynical outlook on the creative element of Transformers is not linked to any sort of distaste I have for the film. On the contrary, I very much love Transformers and have seen it multiple times. The reason being that, as with the shameless exploitation, Michael Bay makes the product placement an easy pill to swallow as well. Other films feel the need to trick their audience into viewing product placement (half of I, Robot is awkward, off putting advertisement), but there’s something almost endearingly shameless about the way that Mr. Bay films said product placement that it feels as organic and natural as any of the film’s story mechanics. Bay’s direction beautifully blurs the line between cinema and commercial to the point that this film works competently as either one. Out of all the film’s in his career, Transformers is easily the most excellent example of this.
On the flip side to this, we have Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2009 sequel. A film which, ironically enough, aggressively showcases every negative facet of Bay’s filmmaking. The script (written during the 2008 writer’s strike), is nonsensical and messy, which accounts for a lot of the film’s problems. Even so, Bay’s turn in the director’s chair didn’t help anything either. Something subtle changed in the tone of the film, and threw off the entire balancing act that the first film managed so deftly. Characters that were silly but endearing in the first go-round suddenly became like nails against a chalkboard. The battle sequences which worked as fun spectacle in the first film felt empty and tired in Revenge of the Fallen. Every element that worked for Michael Bay in the first film suddenly turned sour all at once and sucked the life out of the film.
This phenomena isn’t unique to Revenge of the Fallen. These statements could, and have, been made for plenty of Bay’s previous films. There’s a bold, thick line between when a Michael Bay movie works and when it doesn’t, and it’s always for the exact same reasons. It’s an issue of spirit, which ties into the aforementioned issue of balance. The problem with Bay’s particular brand of filmmaking is that when his game is off he completely loses his charm. When the high- wire balancing act is not achieved, he falls flat on his face. It’s as if his bad films are uniformly stale and rotten, bad to the smell, taste and touch. In many ways, his films are like a cheeseburger. Throw a little ketchup and mustard on a burger and it’ll taste delicious, but soak the burger in condiments and you have an inedible mess. The components to the Transformers films, and Bay’s films in general, are like condiments. They exist for no particular artistic reason, but they are flavoring to keep an audience satisfied.
Just the right amount, and the audience enjoys the product they pay for, too much and you have a nasty cheeseburger. And “nasty” is most definitely the most accurate descriptor for Revenge of the Fallen that I can think of. The comic relief stereotypes become blatantly racist caricatures, the exploitative portrayal of women is aggravatingly mysoginistic, the white, male underdog lead is as whiny and obnoxious as ever before. The lack of coherent story caused Bay to compensate in the only way he knows how: excess. And the results are insufferable.
The third (and evidently not final) film in the trilogy, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, represents a facet of Michael Bay’s filmmaking that has only come to light in recent years: his ambition. Michael Bay is a director who has always been fairly content making dramatically lightweight films. All similar in tone and style, satisfied to hit the same dramatic (I use that term lightly) beats on repeat. They consistently pushed technical limitations with their spectacle, but never did he really attempt to push his own boundaries as far as storytelling goes. Dark of the Moon, along with Bay’s follow-up film; Pain and Gain seem to be the director’s attempt to turn over a new leaf as a filmmaker and an artist.
Dark of the Moon is a hit-and-miss film. It’s an onscreen struggle between Bay’s seemingly Spielbergian aspirations and his go-to crutches (weird character humor, exploitation of women). The best moments of the film are easily those in which Bay allows himself the freedom to try a scene with potential for emotional impact. The results vary in quality, but it’s hard not to see this film and feel as of Bay is really trying for something he’s never done before. When those moments work, they soar above anything Bay has attempted before. Of course, the sharp dichotomy between moments of genuine emotion and obnoxious comic relief makes the latter all the more aggravating, so I can’t honestly say that Dark of the Moon is really a “good” film. BUT it is an example of a filmmaker trying, and partially succeeding, to break out of his bubble and push his boundaries. To tell a story that people can engage with and care about, even in the midst of all the explosion onscreen. It’s still very much a “Michael Bay film”, just with a little more dimension than usual.
So far as I am aware, no film franchise in history has so thoroughly covered every component of a single filmmaker. If a person were to ask which film series best encapsulates Michael Bay as a filmmaker, the Transformers trilogy is a neatly wrapped three-part crash course in Bay-ness. What exactly will the upcoming fourth installment, Transformers: Age of Extinction, end up being is anybody’s guess. Perhaps we’ll see a repeat of the past, or maybe we’ll see a previously concealed element of Michael Bay. The world will know come July, in glorious IMAX 3D.