It was the summer of 2007. It was hot and arid, like so many Saskatchewan summers. The lack of wind made everything feel stagnant as if the air itself was drying out in the sun. I was a young critter of 13 years old, too young to work, but too old for children’s summer programming. I had spent much of my time watching TV in the basement with my sister, growing evermore bored and restless. That is, until, my father decided to take my sister and me to a movie. We’d all seen the many, many commercials, though both my sister and I were surprised that Dad would want to watch a science fiction movie, even one that promised to be a big dumb action movie full of explosions but empty of plot. Still, we hopped in our minivan and went to the theatre, excited if only for something to do. I had no way of knowing what would follow that fateful July day. That movie was the first live-action Transformers movie, and I am not joking when I tell you that it changed my life.
For those unfamiliar, the first live-action Transformers movie was the inaugural entry in what has been dubbed the “Bayformers” canon of Transformers (TF) continuity by the fans of the franchise. The “Bay” in this fun turn of phrase refers to Michael Bay, the director of the film series and most likely the man keeping the entire pyrotechnics industry afloat. It began in 2007 and, for better or worse, is still going strong. This canon goes beyond the movies and also includes comic books, novels and video games. The Bayformers verse has made a metric crap-ton of money, bringing the 1980’s toy-selling machine that is TF to the modern audience. However, the place of this continuity is hotly debated and often maligned by the fandom as a whole. The director is just so easy to mock. We all love to poke fun at Michael Bay. The man is either an auteur or an idiot, nothing in between. In particular, we like to poke fun at his movies for being bombastic celebrations of explosions, America and boobs. However, are the movies really as bad as we jokingly say they are? In this Deep Dive, I will be reviewing this franchise, its place in the TF canon, its place in the fandom, and its place in my heart. Transform and roll out with me and take a deep dive with me as we revisit Michael Bay’s Transformers films.
Transformers was created to do one thing: sell toys. Transforming toys were big in Japan and Western toy makers had the bright idea to form a partnership with Japanese companies and bring them over to North America. Since this was the 1980’s, toy companies were making shows left and right, He Man being one of the most famous examples (other than Transformers, or TF). This was due to the gang-buster success of Star Wars toys. It became apparent that children liked to buy toys of shows and movies they liked. I know that even without toys from the movie, my sister and I would act out movies we liked, subbing in our many, many Barbies instead, so this isn’t a surprise. I’d argue that it’s a very early form of fan-fiction. Regardless, a cross-cultural production was created. The Transformers toys and cartoon were made in Japan, and the script and voice work was done in America. The show itself is a disaster. In modern times it has been hard for companies to make DVDs of the seasons because they have no idea how to order the episodes to make sense story-wise. There isn’t much of an over-arching story. If you listen to the theme song, you have about all you need to know to make sense of the show. The cartoon that emerged was extremely rushed, full of errors, completely over the top, had little to no continuity, and it was GLORIOUS.
For those who don’t know, Transformers has always been about battles between good and evil. You’d think this would lend itself to moral lessons but Generation 1 (G1) wasn’t trying to teach anything except for decedent capitalism. G1 focuses on skirmishes between the unironically and overtly righteous Autobots and their foes, the evil for the lulz Decepticons. In all fairness, the story did eventually get better in the later seasons, but it stayed a beautiful mess of 80’s cheese throughout. Fans fondly look back on the voice acting, theme song and symbol flip as a fun reminder of a bygone era.
Transformers didn’t stop there. There were toys to sell stories to tell! New generations of children need their transforming robots, after all. The next show, called “Beast Wars”, used two things children like, namely robots and animals, combined them, and set the whole thing on prehistoric Earth. Beast Wars was technically part of the G1 canon due to time travel tomfoolery, and was a VAST improvement on animation and storytelling. The animation didn’t age well, as it used computer animation, but a good story never grows old.
The next three series, dubbed the Unicron Triology, were a return to form for Transformers. And by that I mean that it was full of animation errors, bad translations, and designed to sell toys. And boy howdy, did it ever sell toys. It was known as “pokeformers” for the series focus on mini-bots, adorable little robots that befriend badly written human children and team up with the big robots to power them up. I’ll admit to only having seen Armada, and while there were great moments in the show it’s not nostalgic for me. Armada was done in an anime style, but the other series returned to Beast Wars computer animation and aged about as well. Too bad the story wasn’t up to par.
The series I grew up with was Transformers Animated. This show was released six months after the movies. As the internet was in more popular usage at this time, the initial angry reception and reaction spread like wildfire through the fandom. However, due to the story (are you sensing a pattern here?) fans eventually grew on it. The show’s design was childish and bubbly, but it was also engaging to older viewers and had a heart to the stories. It’s now considered one of the best shows in the canon, and elements from it have been incorporated into the rest of the canon.
Transformers Prime, however, is my favourite. It was widely acclaimed, though there were some issues with budgeting and they had to reduce the cast of robots from a wide sprawling universe of factions and forms to one team of Autobots and one team of Decepticons. This allowed room to develop the characters, so fans didn’t complain too much. The first season was amazing. The second was good. The third was….eh. The tone gradually shifted from a darker story with zombies, dealing with PTSD, and battles with massive stakes into, once again, pokeformers, with the robots looking for both relics and Cybertronian fossils. TFP was the first show in the aligned continuity, an attempt by the franchise to make a shared universe to set their properties in. Since there are continuity errors in this attempt, I don’t know how well they succeeded. There are other shows made since TFP, but I haven’t watched any. I’ve been busy with school, and I’m working on a fan-fiction set in TFP verse and I don’t want to be too influenced by the new stories.
I would be remiss not to talk about the comics. I’ve spoken about them before, but there have been three studios who made the comics: Marvel, which published TF comics from 1984-1991, Dreamwave from 2002-2005, and IDW from 2005 into the present. There have also been many games based on Transformers, but as I haven’t played them I don’t feel comfortable discussing it. What should be clear is that Transformers has not been just a cartoon or a toy line for a very long time.
However, only one movie was made about the Cybertronian robots before 2007. This movie was made in the 80’s and introduced the world to Unicron, voiced by Orson Wells, who has haunted the TF verse ever since. At the time that Bayformers began, Transformers Cybertron and the Unicron triology had just ended, and fans were lukewarm towards it. The fandom seemed to be stuck in the shadow of G1, and announcement of a major motion picture was met with both excitement and anger. The fandom was moving forward, and TF was soon going to become mainstream, whether the nerds liked it or not.
Firstly, a brief synopsis of the Bayformers….look, I’m going to be honest, after the first movie, the plot is extremely difficult to summarize in any meaningful way. It’s much like trying to recap a couple of 9-year-olds playing with action figures. Things happen that make little to no sense for no other reason than that it would look really cool.
Basically, a war between Autobots and Decepticons has destroyed Cybertron and the war comes to Earth after Megatron, leader of the Decepticons and abusive douchebag, crashes there like an idiot looking for a cube. It turns out that the Transformers have been on Earth for a while, and the movies detail the way the war affects the human race and the many battles the Cybertronians have on Earth. That’s about as much sense as this is going to make.
The development of the movie could almost be a film in and of itself. Way back in the Halcyon days of the early 2000’s, Hasbro wanted to develop some of their most popular properties into movies. They originally planned to make a GI Joe movie. However, the Bush administration decided to go search for WMDs in Iraq and the executives didn’t think that adapting that property was particularly…..timely. They decided to go with Transformers–which, given the source material about a very powerful foreign army landing in a less developed place to look for weapons and power sources that may or may not be there, might actually have been a worse idea. ANYWAY.
The film took two and a half years of planning, a process spearheaded by Tom de Santo, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. That is a little longer than the development process for many big Hollywood films, and this occurred for two primary reasons. First, Hasbro was unsure if the technology existed to bring the Transformers to life. Secondly, the old guard of executives at the movie studios Hasbro shopped the idea around to were unsure about the viability of the product and just “didn’t get it”. However, younger executives who had watched Transformers on television thought the idea could make mad bank. The 80’s nostalgia renaissance was just beginning, and if they played their cards right, Transformers would hit just as the wave was building steam. Eventually, the film rights were picked up by Paramount. An indie director by the name of Steven Spielberg (it’s okay if you haven’t heard of him) signed on as an executive producer due to his excitement about the project.
However, certain sacrifices had to be made to adapt the property in a cost-effective manner. They could only afford to make so many robots, and thus more focus on human characters was written into the script.
Steven Spielberg was the key figure behind what would prove to be the defining feature of the Transformers movies. He asked Michael Bay if he would join the project as a director. Initially, in what we will soon see to be typical Bay fashion, Michael thought the idea was dumb. However, and I didn’t know this before, Michael Bay is a huge fan of anime, and Transformers’ similarities to anime got him to give the project a second look. He says that he was drawn in by the “human hook” of the story, and agreed to direct the picture. With G1 set as the biggest influence, the ball was set rolling.
And roll it sure did.
One could say it
I’m not apologizing.
“ Listen, I make my own movie, I don’t have someone tell me what to do”–Michael Bay
Whether or not Michael Bay is an autour is up for debate, but one thing became clear in the making of the Bayformer films: they were BAYformers films before Transformers films. He reported getting threats from fans during the making of the film, but that they didn’t phase him. And fans had a lot to be unhappy about. I mean, seriously, have you seen Starscream in these movies? The objectively hottest Decepticon, and they made him look like a bug? REALLY?!
The movie was truly Bay’s film, from start to finish. A lot of the movie wouldn’t have happened without his directorial style or his connections. He chose to film the movie in the United States with an American crew rather than film with crews in other countries, and picked his team from people he’d worked with before, including Bates, who’d been working with Bay since 1989. Bates’s familiarity with stunt people and actors allowed him to work with Scott Farrar, the effects supervisor, to create dynamic action scenes that took the actors into account. Bay has been described as “an actor’s director” and took pride in how far he was able to push the humans acting in his movie. They had to interact with poles for most of filming, and the movie wouldn’t have worked if they didn’t convince the audience that this pole was a real being they were having a real conversation with.
Bay describes his directing style as follows:
“My secret is, I shoot very, very fast. An average director will shoot 20 set ups a day, I do about 75, and they’re real set ups, it’s not like “ we work 12 hour days, I don’t go overtime, but we work very hard, I work with my same crew, I gave 30% of my fee because they were going to ship me to Canada or Australia, and I said, “No, I want to shoot with my guys.” It’s a team that I’ve worked with for close to 16 years, and it’s just “ I like to keep the movies in Los Angeles if I could, and especially keep them in the States, and the money “ we just saved so much money, because I have really good people. I don’t know, we just make an efficient day. I think music videos give me a sense of “ I’m able to shoot fast and when the sh*t hits the fan, which it always does on a movie, you’ve got to figure out your plan A and B, and I do this system called leapfrog. Like I said, the whole A.D. thing that gets out there, Michael Bay yells, Michael Bay’s being the assistant director, okay, three shots, we’re doing this, I want you to prep that, so we’re leapfrogging, we’re almost ready for the next shot. It’s almost hard, actors don’t even go back to their trailers, if you’ve probably already heard. “Tyrese, put your clothes back on.” He would always take his clothes off. And that’s a lot of stuff to put back on.”
Does Tyrese HAVE to put his clothes back on, though?
The reality of making the film was that the budget just wasn’t there for all the fan favourites to appear. The human characters that fans love to rant about were written into the script as both a way to induct the casuals (like tiny Elka) and as a cost-saving measure because animating giant robots costs lots of money. Kurztman stated that they wanted to save some of the characters for the sequels for this reason, so that they could focus on bringing the most accurate and best versions of the essential characters to the screen. Bay and team elected to use a combination of CGI and practical effects, ala Jurassic Park, to make the story happen.
Because the movie is very dependent on special effects, let’s take a quick look at those effects. Bay’s crew worked with Industrial Light and Magic, who both made models for the movie and worked on the special effects. One model, of Optimus Prime, is 28 feet tall and contains over ten thousand parts. Holy shit.
They also utilized motion capture from martial artists to help with animating the fight scenes, which are also massive parts of the movie. To animate the transformations, the animator basically connected the dots between the model of the transformer in robot form and the car form. To do this, they had to keep molecular nano engineering and the law of conservation of mass in mind the whole time. Without law of conservation of mass, the Transformers would have been hideous, and you know some nerd in the audience (probably me, let’s be real) would have pointed out how the physics of it all were wrong. That’s a lot to keep in mind, but the artists reportedly enjoyed the challenge. All told, it took ILM a year to do the effects for the film.
It’s easy to make fun of Michael Bay. Trust me, it was very, very difficult not to clown on the man constantly in this post. It’s also easy to make fun of big dumb action movies, because they’re…well, big and dumb. But I want to reiterate that Transformers really did things in VFX that had never been done before, and there were a lot more people than Bay involved in the project. The effects, in my opinion, still hold up, and I think time will show that this movie is closer to Jurassic Park than Clash of the Titans due to the mix of the practical effects and the CGI. Bay knew what he was doing, and it paid off.
One of the jokes in the Transformers fandom is that the community is full of infighting. We have the “gee-wun” people who think everything after the first cartoon is utter garbage, we have the Unicron triology angst lords, we have the people who grew up on the movies, and we all fight each other about everything EXCEPT Kiss Players, which we all agree was a low point in the franchise and we only speak of it in hushed tones when no outsiders are around. Except me, just there. Oops.
Another joke is that the fandom hates every new thing TF that’s released until it comes out and then we rapidly change our tune. It’s like the Sonic hype except in reverse. Point is, the TF fandom is full of a bunch of pedantic nerds who border on Simpson’s Comic Book Guy levels of snottiness and skepticism of anything or anyone new.
I would not wish us on anyone, and Michael Bay had to deal with a lot of bullshit.
Michael Bay was a divisive figure. He didn’t have a lot of attachment to the property, and he was approaching it in what I saw is a good way; like a movie director. While fans put pressure on for him to deliver a nostalgia fest, Bay didn’t listen. He wanted to make a movie that had never been done before, and even death threats from fans didn’t phase him. Props to him, because I think death threats would phase most people. Death threats are never appropriate, no matter who they’re towards. In the grande scheme of things, some guy making a movie about a show you like isn’t worth getting that angry over. The show still exists, just watch that.
It wasn’t just fans that had problems with Bay, either. Bay had a lot of clashes with the writers of the film over the tone. Michael Bay movies have a certain style to them, and it’s not a realistic depiction of reality. I’m not sure what I’d call his style, except maybe bombastic masculinity, but the writers wanted a more realistic tone for the movie. This clash is still present in the final product. The robots themselves are generally serious, and their story has high stakes and very little levity. However, specific human characters come across as really out of place and goofy. I think this is funny, given that they’re flesh and blood and the Transformers are pixels and models, but it still leaves a final product with tonal whiplash. The military characters feel in line with everything else, as the American army actually consulted on the film and helped the writers with convincing dialogue.
And, coming full circle, Michael Bay used clips from Pearl Harbor in the film.
Surprising no one, Transformers the movie sold massive amounts of toys, and has for all it’s sequels despite declining sales of both movie tickets and action figures.
Alas, it is true; you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. As Transformers made a butt-tonne of money, a sequel was soon announced. However, the writing of said sequel was impacted by the famous writer’s strike of 2007-2008, and it was all downhill from there. Some writers returned for the sequel, but many did not return for the third film in the series. That movie, Dark of the Moon, was written by just three writers. There were massive tone shifts in the sequels as a result, becoming goofier and goofier but with darker moments that hit you in the face but didn’t feel earned. There have been attempts to start a cinematic Transformers universe, but no sequels are currently in development hell and indeed there have been talks about rebooting the whole thing. Paramount is currently looking at making sequels similar to Bumblebee, one of the most well received films in the franchise.
The Bayformers movies are rife with problems. Some of them are just stupid, like robot testicles. Michael Bay was not prepared to address the questions raised by Transformers having sex organs, and it was a cheap joke. There have been more egregious problems, such as a suggested idea of involving the Tranformers in World War Two. This is a very, very bad idea, and I shouldn’t have to explain why this is stupid. The movies are also racist and sexist. Fight me. You can’t argue with the clips.
The later Bayformers movies tried really hard to suck up to China, but managed to be hella racist towards Chinese people, giving all the Chinese characters mad kung fu skills. The movies are full of objectification, and I think all of them fail the Bechedel test miserably. The product placement is also extremely distracting, because holy shit there is a lot of it. While I don’t want to shit on the three people (yeah, just three) who wrote the later movies, they didn’t do a very good job of the story, either. The movies after the first make little to no sense. Which, again, is full circle, as G1 also made little to no sense. While the cartoon will be remembered as a charming relic, the movies risk being remembered as a groundbreaking achievement in special effects but being reflective of the worst parts of North America.
I want to briefly touch on the impact of the film on the fandom. Fans were unhappy with the absence of legendary voice actor Frank Welker from the film, and the Gee Wuns are never happy about anything ever. Fans were also unhappy about the characterizations of the characters, including making Optimus Prime a war-crazy bloodlusting violence machine, and making the dinobots mindless. Fans are still pissed about the designs of the characters too, which like, fair. I’m still salty about fugly Starscream. The never ending retcons in each movie for the last made the whole series an incomprehensible mess towards the end. I’m not joking when I said that trying to summarize the plots of the other movies was a big pain. However, it helped launch TF:A, a show considered one of the best in the series, as well as Transformers Prime, another great show in the series. The fandom’s rep has taken a bit of a hit, but we’re still trucking along. There’s more and more TF stuff every year, and I don’t know if there would be the interest without Bayformers.
I want to conclude this section with a brief note on fandom. TF fans are very, very passionate, and it’s what’s kept the franchise going for all these years. Most are passionate about hating the Bayformers movies, but I find that interesting. Most geeks now are used to movies and TV shows that pander to them, that are full of Easter eggs and fun little surprises, that consult with and take inspiration from the fans. I blame the MCU, mostly, but this was around way before Iron Man in 2008. It makes sense, because geek media before the MCU was very niche. Yeah, everyone loved the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, but that was because he appealed to a broader audience and tried to make serious artistic movies. Geek media, like comics and cartoons, weren’t in vogue like they are now and so if the core audience of hardcore fans weren’t catered to, a project wouldn’t be successful. Michael Bay, in my opinion, got so much hate because he didn’t give a single shit what the fans thought, and wanted to make his own “artistic” vision. As an “artist” myself, I respect that.
The reality is that fans may love something, but we don’t own it. I think we need to remember this when talking about the media we love. No matter what, death threats are not appropriate, because no one is taking or interfering with things that are yours. We all share these things together, but we’re at the mercy of the creative teams who create them. Bayformers is worth looking back on because these movies represent a clash between creatives, fans and big studios and highlight the tensions inherent to such a clash. It doesn’t matter if I like the movies or not, not for this section. What matters is looking back on one of the most controversial things in the fandom, and it probably didn’t need to be. It was a guy making a movie, and it wasn’t all that bad. The original things are still there, and a lot of the stuff that came after was the best that the Transformers franchise has ever seen.
Of course, a caveat: the racism absolutely wasn’t good. That was very, very bad.
I confess that I was largely ignorant about Transformers before Bayformers. I knew it existed, of course, but I wasn’t aware of much more. I’m Canadian and the children’s channel on my parent’s cable package didn’t show Transformers Armada, which was the show that was airing when I was a kid. Additionally, my parents were very involved in my media consumption until I was about 13, so I watched a LOT of educational TV and not much else. Bayformers came out at an optimal time for little Elkie. I was just being allowed to make my own decisions about what I watched and read, and I was in a “no girly movies” phase in between tomboy-hood and developing into a young female – jokes on the world, I was not a female, and I think my “no girly stuff” phase was me figuring out what gender roles I wanted to conform to and which ones I could do without as I grew into myself as a genderqueer person. Transformers wasn’t seen as girly, it was full of action, and it was violent enough to be edgy to a 13-year-old without being violent enough to be scary. I went into the theatre with vague interest and left with an obsession. Transformers joined Garfield, X-men, animals and superheroes in the hallowed pantheon of things my parents would soon be sick of.]
Transformers Animated came out right after the movie and I watched the show RELIGIOUSLY. I spent hours on TF Wiki, reading about the old cartoons I didn’t have the opportunity to see as a kid and about all the old toys that I probably couldn’t afford now. My parents then decided to get a different cable package because my father wanted more home and garden shows, and we got Teletoon Retro. I finally had the opportunity to watch the original cartoon, and it was batshit. I loved it. I spent my entire allowance on Transformers merchandise. I don’t have an allowance anymore, because I’m a grown-ass adult, but I still spend a good chunk of my money on Transformers stuff.
What I credit the Bayformers films with, beyond giving Hasbro a lot of my hard-earned cash, was introducing me to a franchise that has really helped me. I’ve covered my feelings on my favourite Cybertronian, Starscream, before so I won’t go into too much detail, but Starscream’s plight has given me something to show people to explain concepts related to PTSD and surviving abuse. The franchise as a whole has also helped with my recovery journey. TFA was out while the abuse was occurring, and it gave me something to look forward to at a time when I didn’t have much else to be happy about. As I went through PTSD, I would try to name as many Transformers as I could to bring myself out of a dissociation episode.
I don’t know if this would have happened without the Bay movies. Or rather, the first Bay movie, because the second one taught me disappointment. Honestly. How do they have that many writers and still create something that terrible? Still, though. While I can acknowledge that these movies had problems, I can also acknowledge that the first one means a lot to me. Transformers means a lot to me. It’s become more than a stupid cartoon meant to sell toys to many fans. To me, it’s become a message of hope, that even when things look bad and it seems like the bad guys are going to win, things can still get better. It’s become a message about values, and that if you have lofty ideals you should be prepared to defend them, even when things are really hard. It’s become a reminder to myself as an abuse survivor of what not to become, to make sure that I don’t become the very thing I despise. It’s escapism, a fantastical world where good always wins.
I recently took a sociology of superheroes course at my local university, and something the professor said really stuck out to me. He said that there is nothing wrong with escapism and power fantasies. He said there are lots of people in the world who are weak, who have been beaten down by the world around them. People can’t become strong unless they can imagine themselves that way. Superheroes, and perhaps a lot of media, give people the opportunity to do that. Transformers helped me when I needed that, and I’ll always be thankful to Michael Bay for that.
And I can’t believe I just typed that. Ugh. I’m getting more sentimental the longer I spend on this planet. Let’s wrap this crap up.
So, all in all, are the movies awful? Yes and no. Some are, some aren’t, but that’s true of most series. If something runs long enough, you’re going to get both gold and duds. It’s the way it is. It was easy to hate them as the series progressed, but the first one stands out as a landmark achievement in special effects. Everyone involved in that movie gave it their all, and you can tell. It’s a shame that heart and spirit couldn’t last for the whole series, but I’m happy that it started off the way it did. It meant a lot to me as a kid, and it means a lot to me now. I’m looking forward to the next things that the franchise creates, and I’m looking forward to seeing if Michael Bay will ever make a movie where something doesn’t explode.
Transform and rise up.
Till All Are One,