As a Transformers fan, I was excited to see the trailer for the new live-action Transformers movie which aired last night during the Super Bowl. This might sound strange since I’ve been quite critical of the live-action films since they started.
As a Transformers fan, it can sometimes be hard to balance our love of the franchise with the decisions they sometimes make. I’m not a big fan of Michael Bay in general, but I am familiar with his work and I don’t consider the Transformers movies to be among his best. One of my two chief complaints about the movies is that the designs of the robots are needlessly complex and visually busy, as well as unbelievable when considering the vehicles they came from (the mecha designers insist that no ‘spacial expansion’ takes place, which doesn’t jive with a ten-foot car becoming a twenty-foot robot). I also take issue with the poor dialogue (you can count on one hand the number of times there’s any exchange between a robot and a human that isn’t Optimus or Bumblebee) as well as the occasional bouts of juvenile humor (such as Bumblebee peeing on Agent Simmons, or Devastator’s testicles).
However, the films do get a great deal right, something that is often overlooked by their detractors. You can find a solid breakdown of the first film in the franchise given by Jim ‘Jimquistion’ Sterling, but a few points even he misses include the first film being an astounding gamble, and remains up there with Iron Man, the Dark Knight, and the Avengers as a genre film that even a few years prior would have been laughed out of the room as something ‘you just can’t do’. It really isn’t a stretch to say that we wouldn’t have Pacific Rim and similar movies that sit on the horizon had it not been for the astounding commercial success of the first live-action Transformers movies, much less the rest of the franchise.
The movies also assembled an exceptionally talented cast. Shia LaBeouf, recent craziness not withstanding, has been a promising actor for a long time and delivers some stellar performances, despite having grown to loathe the process due to (in his words) ‘studio meddling’. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson likewise have great chemistry and add a real spark to the franchise.
But most fans don’t see this. Most fans actively denounce and dismiss the movies, often to the chorus of how different they are from the established Transformers canon, especially the original 1984 cartoon, also called ‘Gen-1’. This is a shame for two reasons.
The first, and more tragic, is that Gen-1 exists and is fine on its own. Generation One exists in assorted DVD collections, almost too numerous to count. The entire show is available on streaming services, and is generally easily accessible. But the franchise needs to move on. The series cannot continue to live in the shadow of Gen-1, however good it may have been. New writers, new artists, new designers, NEW FANS, will want to see a new take on the series itself. And it is through that which will breathe new life into the series.
As fans, we cannot be afraid of new versions, even ones that will deviate radically from what we know and love. It’s from such artistic experimentation that the series – that ANY series – can grow and develop. Much of our concepts of Batman aren’t terribly original, but the result of the 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Prior to that, Batman wasn’t the dark and brooding figure he has become. Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend/sidekick and fan favorite, was an original creation of the Batman the Animated Series, while the Joker, the Riddler, the Penquin, and so many of Batman’s rogue gallery exist today more for the 1960s TV show than the popularity of the characters originally appearing in the comics.
The franchises must grow and adapt and evolve, and that will require trying new things, sometimes astoundingly new things. And when you try new things, you have to be prepared for steep differences, swings-and-misses, and so on. Don’t denounce the attempt (though you’re free to dislike the result). But dislike it for valid reasons; not for existing.
The second reason the fan response to the movies is tragic, and the more egregious reason, is that most fans don’t compare the live-action movies to Gen-1; they compare the movies to some fuzzy-yet-idealized recollection of Gen-1. Gen-1 wasn’t flawless; quite the opposite. It had plenty of flaws, sometimes very silly flaws. It’s a cartoon that’s stood the test of time and for good reason, but it was far from beyond reproach. And fans who cling to it as though it were some holy relic whose perfection cannot be questioned do a disservice not only to the rest of the fandom and the rest of the franchise, but also to Gen-1 itself for being what it was, not what they imagine it to be.
You don’t have to like the live-action movies. You don’t have to think they were good. But dislike them for what they are: attempts to grow a franchise. Don’t fabricate elaborate fantasies about how Michael Bay set out upon a quest to ruin YOUR SPECIFIC childhood, as though he could even do so.
In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to Age of Extinction…with some trepidation. And watching Gen-1 on DVD.