Can They Make a Decent Transformers Movie?

Transformers: The Last Knight has just been released and I think it's safe to say that very few people have been impressed with it. This is the fifth and final Transformers movie from Micheal Bay, but it's a safe bet to say that it won't be the last one. 

The problem is, when you look past the dazzling effects and explosions there's not that much behind these movies.

In this post, I'll look at the series so far, examine the source material and then consider the future of the series and suggest how a great Transformers movie could be made. As I've been a fan since childhood, I'm going to go full geek on this one and really dive in. Bear with me though, as it should all give you something to think about.

Before we start to look at the series, it's probably best to break down the key ingredients of a Michael Bay Transformers movie. Firstly, you get the classic characters we grew grew up with and although a lot of them look a little different, most of them sound right. 

You then get 'new' and 'funny' Transformers that have been created for the movies and these are generally awful. Throw that in with plenty of stunts, CGI and explosions and you've pretty much got yourself a movie.

Add lots of flags, Michal Bay's connections with the US military and gratuitous shots on young women in various poses and you've also got yourself box office gold. It's almost like the plot is irrelevant. 

In fact, I think the series so far is best summed up in a scene in 30 Rock, where Liz Lemon comes across a poster for an upcoming Transformers movie that's 'written by no one'.

Despite their flaws though, people always seem to be happy to pay out to see these movies but it's a shame they can't deliver more to their fans. There could be some big changes on the way because in addition to the departure of Bay, Hasbro have recently announced their plans for a shared movie universe with some of their key properties.

Before we look at the future of the series though, lets take a close look at what we've been given so far.


The Series So Far


Transformers

The first Transformers movie was easily the best in the series so far. While it had its flaws, it got the job done and when you first heard Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, you knew it was the real thing.

It looked amazing and aside from some cringeworthy 'comedy' scenes, it gave the series a firm foundation to build on.

Pros

  • They got Optimus Prime and Megatron right
  • It all looked real
  • Classic characters appeared

Cons

  • The Transformers looked more like GoBots
  • The 'comedy' scenes weren't funny
  • It changed the classic backstory

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I don't think it would surprise anyone to learn that this movie came off the back of a writers strike. It seemed to take all of the worst aspects of the original and turn then up to eleven.

It delivered more 'comedy', stupid, stereotypical new Transformers and a plot that takes us even further from the classic story.

Pros

  • Ravage and Soundwave appear
  • The Anglo American N.E.S.T. unit is cool
  • There's a great battle between Prime and Megatron
  • The Decepticons take out an aircraft carrier

Cons

  • All the stupid new Transformers
  • They mess up the Constructicons
  • Jetfire needs a walking stick
  • The Decepticon 'Pretender' girl
  • Megatron answers to someone else
  • That wheeled Decepticon at the start

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

This is a much better movie as it really addresses a lot of the previous issues with the series. The Transformers look a lot better, there's a cool plot tied in with the Moon landings and there's plenty of action as the Decepticons attack Chicago.

The problem with this movie is that Micheal Bay seems to think we're more interested in Shia LaBeouf getting a job than watching all of the action unfold in front of us.

Pros

  • The Transformers have guns now
  • Soundwave is a Mercedes
  • Leonard Nimoy appears as Sentinel Prime
  • The Decepticon/human alliance is a great idea
  • The Ark appears

Cons

  • We still have stupid new Transformers
  • Prime is a bit too bloodthirsty for a hero
  • Far too much time is wasted on the human story

Transformers: Age of Extinction

This one was pretty much a reboot as we were given a whole new human cast with Mark Wahlberg taking the lead role. I think it's safe to say that this is an epic adventure and the classic Dinobots finally appeared on the big screen.

It's an improvement, but there are still a lot of stupid and unnecessary elements to the story.

Pros

  • There's less 'comedy' from the human cast
  • Having the Autobots on the run from humans is a good idea
  • The human enemies are interesting
  • The external threat from the 'Creators' works well
  • Cemetary Wind are a cool enemy

Cons

  • The Dinobots are just plain stupid
  • The Chinese scenes just seem to be there to sell the movie
  • The character of Galvaton is wasted
  • 'Transformium' is a ridiculous idea
  • The Samurai Autobot is a real low point for the series

Transformers: The Last Knight

As this is fairly new, I won't reveal any details of the plot. You only need to look at the reviews though to realise that this isn't a renaissance.

I think it's safe to say that it's more of the same and that the series continues on its downward creative spiral.

This leads us back to my original question, can they make a decent Transformers movie? To help find the answer, I think we should look at the original source material. In case you were wondering, I haven't forgot about the original animated movie either.


The Source Material


The Toys

If you're going to make a movie about a toy range, it should probably be the first place you should look. There's a problem though, because it's not really a single toy range.

When you were growing up, you have have noticed that Transformers were different sizes and that some of them had seats for pilots.

This is because Hasbro simply acquired several ranges of Japanese transforming robots and branded them all as Transformers. That's why Autobots like Bumblebee were so small and simple and it's why other characters were huge and transformed into really odd things like space cannons.

Some of them looked pretty weird as well and offered very little articulation.

I can't think of a better demonstration of the power of marketing and I certainly had no idea at the time. These bulky pieces of plastic also looked a lot different when we were presented with their stories.


The Cartoon

The Sunbow cartoon was unmissable for many of us in the '80s. In the UK, it required dedication as it was randomly cut up and screened between scenes of other shows and it was so easy to miss a segment. I really hope kids appreciate their cartoon channels today, as we'd have loved just watching a whole show back then.

The most significant thing was that there was a unique look and sound to this unforgettable show.

It took itself seriously as well, as Megatron was always pretty sinister. This made a change from other cartoon villains at the time, like the bungling Skeletor and Cobra Commander.

More importantly, we saw our beloved toys in action and they created some classic characters. You'll never forget the voices or the sound they made when they transformed either.

Over time, new Transformers were introduced and we saw some pretty exciting storylines.


The Comics

For some reason, the comics told a completely different story to the cartoon. This created a lot of heated debate on the playground and to make it even more confusing, there were separate stories originating from the UK.

There was a lot of variation, with even Spider-Man appearing in the early stories.

I wasn't a huge fan of the US stories, mainly due to the fact that they seemed to let the quality of the artwork slide a little as they went on. The Marvel UK work was pretty awesome though, with amazing visuals from artist like Geoff Senior.

IDW are currently producing some great Transformers titles as well now. I think their 'All Hail Megatron' series alone gives us a glimpse of what a great Transformers movie would look like.


The Games

Although a number of cash-in titles had appeared in the 8-bit era, I think it's safe to say that we got our first proper Transformers game in 2004 on the PS2. It didn't end there though as aside from the forgettable movie games, there have been some pretty impressive original titles since then.

I actually think that High Moon's Fall of Cybertron is the best version of the Transformers I've ever seen on screen.

The big problem with the games is that Hasbro seem to be reluctant to let established characters get killed, so you're usually up against waves of faceless drones throughout these games. This seems really odd though when you look at how characters like Jazz get wiped out in the movies though. Even the comics took out your favourite toys early on, so they can't say we're not used to it.

Aside from this decision that's blighted all the games, War of Cybertron and its sequel, Fall of Cybertron are great games and perfect Transformers stories. While the first game tries to fit in with the movies, the sequel goes it's own way and it's essentially a prequel to the classic series. 

The most important thing for me about these games is the artwork, as I think this is the way Transformers should look on screen and it's not what we see in the movies.

This is actually the most important thing about all of these mediums. The visuals these artists created turned these impractical plastic toys into amazing characters that really captured our imaginations.


The Movie

I've been keeping this one back because despite the question I asked in the opening of this article, there has already been a great Transformers movie. In 1986, Sunbow produced an animated movie based on the successful TV show and it was incredible.

These were the Transformers we knew and loved and it was amazing to see them in the cinema.

Set in the then distant future of 2005, it delivered an epic spectacle that was brought to life by vocal talents that included Leonard Nimoy and Orson Wells.

The planet-sized Unicron was about as big and bad as you can get and Megatron's transformation into Galvatron was pretty spectacular. We were then presented with the death of Optimus Prime after a spectacular battle at the start of the movie.

Throw in the awesome soundtrack featuring Stan Bush and you've got yourself a winner.

I personally would prefer to watch this over any of the Michael Bay movies.

I think the fact that it never got childish, it wasn't afraid to take risks and showed kids the consequences of even a fictional war made it something special. In my opinion, anyone setting out to make a decent Transformers movie needs to take a close look at this.


The Key Ingredients

So now we've looked at the movies and source material, we can probably identify some of the things that would make a Transformers movie pretty special.

For starters, they need to look and sound like the classic characters.

This means they should look more like robots rather than caricatures of actual people and they need to lose all the new, unfunny and stereotypical characters created to 'entertain' us. The Transformers universe is surely big enough as it is to provide characters for an entire series of movies.

There are also some key elements to the Transformers story that you'd expect to see in an on-screen version.

I think the exodus from Cybertron is a great way to introduce Transformers on Earth, as they kind of just appeared in the first Michael Bay movie. The hunt for Energon is also a great way to provide motivation for the Decepticons and this worked well in the cartoon.

The Transformers also need to have personalities, and there are some great characters in this universe.

Rather than using them as stereotypical comic relief or a simple link between explosions, we should get to see who they are. Just having Prime continually doubt himself is a great way to balance out his immense abilities and we've seen a lot of this in the original stories. 

Both sides also need cool secret bases as well in my opinion. They also need to use guns, be big and bulky like the toys and immediately make you feel like you're back in the 1980s.

So what are the chances of us seeing an awesome Transformers movie in the near future?


The Future of the Series


The Hasbro Cinematic Universe

I really don't think the current formula will work without Michael Bay. People seem to tolerate these movies because it's him, as they know there will be plenty of action and the US military will probably give him lots of access. I think studios were also willing to write huge cheques with him on board, but that may change in the future.

Let's face it, a low budget Transformers movie would probably be awful regardless of what was in the script.

The good news is that the new Hasbro movie universe could provide some great opportunities. Before you get too excited though, there are the people who brought you the Battleship movie in 2012.

We can also get an idea of how they may approach these as well, as IDW Comics' Revolution series has already started to combine the Hasbro franchises.

Let's take a look at the series that are likely to appear.


G.I. Joe

There has always been a natural synergy between G.I. Joe, or Action Force in the UK, and the Transformers. This elite special forces team and their enemy, Cobra have frequently crossed over with both the US and the UK Transformers comics and there have been some pretty impressive standalone series over the years.

I actually thought that the N.E.S.T. team in the Transformers movies would be a great way to present G.I. Joe on screen.

Like Transformers, the G.I. Joe franchise has not really delivered in cinemas. While the last movie, G.I.Joe Retaliation was ok, it was brought down by it's attempt so fit in with the dire first instalment, The Rise of Cobra.

This is a great demonstration of how awful it is when filmmakers trample all over your childhood memories.

There are also some pretty gritty G.I. Joe stories presented by IDW now, so it's clearly possible to move away from the overblown sci-fi of the original cartoon. Overall, I think a G.I.Joe crossover would work if it was done right.


M.A.S.K.

M.A.S.K (Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) and their adversaries, V.E.N.O.M (Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem) were a classic '80s toy line and cartoon. Both sides piloted extraordinary, futuristic machines that transformed from ordinary vehicles.

As Hasbro didn't acquire this brand until it purchased Kenner in the '90s, they never crossed over on screen or even in the playground.

The fact that they both transform obviously gives them something in common that could be developed on screen. I actually like the way IDW are positioning it as reverse engineered Cybertronian technology, as this could be a great way to present them and explain their situation.

There was also an extremely brief crossover with G.I.Joe as well, as the character of Matt Tracker appeared as a G.I.Joe figure. His filecard also suggested that M.A.S.K and V.E.N.O.M were specialist units from both G.I. Joe and Cobra.


ROM

Rom is a robotic 'Spaceknight' but as he never reached the UK, I don't know much about him. I haven't really heard this brand referenced anywhere else either, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

A big giant cyborg shouldn't be out of place in the Transformers universe, so I can see how this could work.

I also remember the way that Marvel UK introduced their own unique character, Death's Head into the Transformers stories and it worked really well. In fact, he even went on to battle the Fantastic Four after being shrank from Transformer size by the Doctor.

Oh, and for all you nerds out there, this does mean that that the Transformers, Marvel, G.I. Joe and Doctor Who shared the same universe in the 1980s. 


Micronauts

This is another series that didn't make it to the UK, so I don't know much about this one either. It's based on a Japanese toy line that has links to the original Transformers line and there was an established Marvel series,

In fact, the Marvel Cinematic Universe appears to have already crossed over with Micronauts, as Ant-Man featured the 'Microverse' in the form of the quantum realm.

With its shared heritage and sci-fi possibilities, I think it's clear that this could work. The US Transformers comics also featured plenty of badly drawn, bulky aliens as well.


Visionaries

I always thought that this series was seriously underrated. These Knights of the Magical Light inhabit the far-off world of Prysmos, where an unexplained event has wiped out their technologically advanced culture and reduced it to a medieval world of magic.

It was a great idea and like Masters of the Universe, their story allowed them to create a unique blend of fantasy and sci-fi.

They also had the ability to turn into spectral animals and possessed magic staffs. The thing I don't understand though is that the series and the toys promptly ended in the '80s and unlike M.A.S.K. it was never popular.

I can see how this could cross over with the Transformers though, but it's not in a good way.

They would surely have to tie them into the historical aspects of the Michel Bay movies and for me, they were one of the worst things about them. It would also be a shame if the idea of Prysmos was abandoned to make way for an origin on Earth. IDW have also ignored the Visonaries so far as well.

Personally, I don't think it makes any sense and I while I'd love to see the Visionaries resurrected, I'd rather see it done right.

Technology is also ineffective in their universe, which would create huge problems for all of these series.

So that's the series they have to play around with, but can they make them work on screen? We also need a decent standalone Transformers movie first if any of this is going to make an impact.


So Can They Make a Decent Transformers Movie?

Bumblebee Transformer

After this nostalgic journey through the past, I think its safe to assume that there's a great Transformers story waiting to be told. Like Star Wars, it's an important part of many people's childhoods so it's great when they can share it with their kids.

In the end though, I think the fate of the Transformers will be decided by Hasbro.

I think the previous Transformers, G.I. Joe and Battleship movies alone should give us cause for concern about this new universe. There's also the risk that the temptation to sell toys in the short-term would distract them from creative objectives that would surely please everyone.

With both DC and Universal's failures showing us that Marvel's amazing cinematic universe didn't just happen, they have to be very careful. Marvel got where they are by making great movies that move far beyond the source material to entertain everyone.

It's going to be hard work, but with all the affection for this brand out there, they could create a Star Wars or Avengers type of event. This won't just happen though, as it will take a lot of hard work hard and a razor-sharp focus on the script, rather than toy sales and box office takings.

Let's hope they make the right decisions in future.

Image: Bumblebee Transformer by Andrew Basterfield licensed under CC BY 2.0