Ricky Church looks forward to the Transformers reboot…
Transformers is one of the oldest pop culture franchises and a beloved one for an entire generation. Michael Bay’s films based off the 80s cartoon is much less revered, however. Some of the films have their moments, but they never rise above either an entertaining turn-you-brain-off flick or a massive of pile unwatchable crap such as Revenge of the Fallen. After five films, Bay’s Transformers films have gotten more than tiresome. Now a recent rumour suggests Paramount and Hasbro are ready to reboot the franchise after the Bumblebee spin-off.
Please let this be true because it is about time.
While it can be argued that the original Transformers series from the 80s was just an excuse to sell toys, especially in the later seasons when new characters were randomly introduced as having always been there or the animated Transformers: The Movie killed off half the original cast, there was always a wealth of stories to be told. Bay’s films have barely ever had any story beyond Autobots and humans going after the MacGuffin the Decepticons want and then huge action ensues. There has been little to no character development and beyond the names, there’s not much to resemble the characters to their counterparts in the original series.
This also isn’t to say the original Transformers was a ground breaking piece of television. As I said, the cartoon was almost an excuse to sell toys and the show was full of cheesy jokes, moments and stories. However, many other iterations of Transformers since have treated the material in a much more serious manner, such as the Marvel and IDW comics and the countless rebooted cartoon series. There can be much more to a Transformers film than robots punching each other and high-speed chases.
The current IDW comics, for example, have examined what a four million year war does to a society and race like theirs. Its even touched upon the irony that a race capable of so much physical change has such a difficult time changing their ways, being unable to overcome their differences and rise above factions. Their war has even been over for several years now, yet conflict and animosity remain between them as they attempt to rebuild Cybertron. There’s also been the introduction of Cybertronians they’ve named NAILs – Non-Aligned Indigenous Life-forms – who did not participate in the war and hate both Autobots and Decepticons for effectively destroying Cybertron.
That is one of the great things about the comics and what Transformers can be: examining the role of war in society and how it relates to our own destructive tendencies. Bay’s very first Transformers film touched on this, but only briefly and not with much depth either. After all, Bay’s been more concerned with delivering fast-paced action than looking at any deeper meaning or characterization of the Transformers mythos. The most he’s ever done since the first film was in Transformers: Age of Extinction where he actually gave Optimus Prime a fairly solid arc as he not only regained his faith in humanity, but in his capabilities as the Autobot leader.
The best balance between the cheesy Generation One era and the more serious tone the comics have accomplished (and the films have failed to deliver) is the animated series Transformers Prime, one of the most recent iterations of the franchise. Transformers Prime had a wealth of character development for its small cast of Autobots, Decepticons and humans. It dealt with some fairly significant themes, such as their makeshift family, how their war destroyed Cybertron and their inability to change, yet still retained Optimus’ hopefulness that one day they could, a vision that was beautifully fulfilled in the series finale.
Similarly, another piece of Transformers media that blended together the franchise’s cheesiness and potential for serious storytelling was the semi-sequel to G1, Beast Wars. Taking place generations after The Great War, the descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons, the Maximals and Predacons, lived in an uneasy peacetime while a new Megatron sought to reclaim their place in the galaxy by changing the past on a prehistoric Earth. What started out as a fairly kid-friendly show turned into something much more as it really changed its core characters over the course of its run and delivered some great stories. Beast Wars examined destiny vs. free will, legacy and sacrifice. One of the series’ best episodes (and one of the best Transformers story from any medium) was ‘Code of Hero’, where Dinobot willingly sacrifices himself as he takes on the entire Predacon force by himself in order to save the early humans. After this, Beast Wars was unafraid to dive into some deep themes and take bold risks.
If Michael Bay is indeed stepping aside from the franchise at long last, there needs to be a dramatic change in how Paramount and Hasbro approach these films. I’d love it if they actually took them more seriously instead of just action-packed blockbusters with little to no characterization and a whole lot of unnecessary Bay humour (Sam’s mother getting high, Bumblebee ‘peeing’ on an agent, gratuitous sexualisation or awkward and creepy discussions of underage dating). Much like Beast Wars and Transformers Prime, the films can actually deliver some serious and thought-provoking stories that actually takes risks.
For example, one of the biggest risks in the IDW comics has been to actually reform Megatron into an Autobot, a plot thread the current Transformers Machinima web series have somewhat incorporated. After fully realizing how his actions have destroyed Cybertron and wrecked their civilization, Megatron actually becomes an Autobot and stands trial for his crimes, hoping he can make up for his mistakes by helping Cybertron towards a better future. In fact, one of the other best Transformers stories ever made took place a couple years before this as Optimus and Megatron actually sat down and had a conversation about the war and where Megatron thought it would lead. The Decepticon leader was unrepentant at the time, but the fascinating aspect writer James Roberts tapped into was how Optimus and Megatron conversed almost as friends, reminiscing on some of their most pivotal moments that highlighted how Optimus and Megatron know and understand each other better than anyone else does.
It’s easy to think of Transformers as just a summer blockbuster piece and while many of the interpretations have delivered plenty of action-packed moments, there is still a lot of serious material worth mining. If Paramount and Hasbro do move forward with a reboot of the franchise, I really hope they can deliver something that is both fun and serious because Transformers can be and deserves so much more than what Bay has delivered.