The Transformers franchise was once a box office behemoth, but the sequels after the first film started to falter. Here’s what went wrong.
The Transformers movies were once a mighty cultural behemoth, but multiple missteps have brought the robots in disguise back down to earth. The films are, of course, based on the wildly successful toy line which has been going strong in one form or another since 1984, supported by dozens of comics, cartoons, and video games.
The Transformers actually made their initial jump to the silver screen in 1986 with The Transformers: The Movie, an animated spinoff of the TV series that made very little box office noise – though did manage to traumatize a generation with the death of Optimus Prime. After a few false starts, Transformers would return to the big screen in 2007 with the live action Transformers, directed by action movie extraordinaire Michael Bay.
Transformers would find new heights of popularity with the 21st century movie franchise, making characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron into household names. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, with major problems popping up in the Transformers sequels. Ultimately, the Transformers movies went from being highly-anticipated releases to easily forgettable. So what went wrong?
The First Transformers Movie Was A Winner
Bay’s first Transformers movie was not only a box office titan but a crowd pleaser as well, and it even got mildly positive reviews. That first Transformers movie had a heart, best displayed in Shia LeBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, a likable lead human character who had a warm, funny relationship with Bumblebee, the mute Autobot scout. The plot was something akin to a scatterbrained National Treasure movie, but most of it worked nonetheless; the humor was broad, but most if it landed, and the action sequences were thrilling. Plus, the action modernized the Transformers for the 21st century, which is something that hadn’t happened up until that point in the series.
The robots themselves didn’t get a ton of characterization, but what was there worked. Optimus Prime was clearly the same character fans had come to know and love, full of platitudinous speeches and respect for all life, even featuring the voice of Peter Cullen, the actor who’d been voicing Optimus on and off since the original cartoon. The movie wasn’t perfect, featuring a litany of cartoonish human characters like Jon Voight’s Secretary Heller and Anthony Anderson’s broad nerd caricature, but it was a big, fun movie that didn’t ask much of its audience. It felt like a solid opening chapter that would eventually lead to bigger and better things – but that was not to be.
Troubles Begin With Revenge Of The Fallen
The second Transformers movie, Revenge of the Fallen, is a mess. It had a decent excuse – writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were unable to refine the script due to a writers strike. Bay moved forward with production with an incomplete script, leading to a story that barely made any sense, roping in the Egyptian pyramids, the Matrix of Leadership, and the titular Fallen, an ancient Decepticon that had visited Earth thousands of years before the events of the first movie. It’s simply too much plot, and it never coalesces into a story worth telling.
Bay compensated for the film’s lack of a coherent story by amping up the (admittedly still impressive) action sequences, as well as the unfortunate toilet humor. Worst of all, the robots themselves were given broad, aggressive personalities, with Optimus Prime coming off as a more sadistic warrior than previously seen. Horrifically, Autobots Skids and Mudflap were given incredibly offensive stereotypically African American voices, and were illiterate. By the time you get to Devastator’s wrecking ball testicles, the movie had well and truly gone off the rails. Critics savaged the film, but it still made a gargantuan amount of money, assuring the series would continue. Orci and Kurtzman would depart, but Michael Bay was in for the long haul.
Optimus Prime Is Ruined
As mentioned, Revenge of the Fallen saw a more violent, aggressive version of Optimus Prime than in any prior iteration. That trend would continue in the third film, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, where Optimus not only continued to display a sort of deranged glee at taking on the Decepticons, but also saw him hatch a plan that resulted in the deaths of untold thousands of humans. The Autobots are forced off of Earth, with the humans blaming them for the war with the Decepticons. The Autobots fake their own deaths to convince the Decepticons that they have free rein over the planet. But before Optimus and friends make their heroic return, the Decepticons decimate Chicago and other large cities, resulting in massive death and destruction. Optimus essentially let people die to prove a point, which could not possibly be less heroic.
The fourth film, Transformers: Age of Extinction – now with a new lead, Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager – would continue Optimus’ descent into violent psychopathy. By the time Optimus murders the Dick Cheney stand-in played by Kelsey Grammer in the movie’s climax, the character has well and truly lost its way, along with the franchise as a whole.
The Last Knight And Bottoming Out
By the time of the fifth film, Transformers: The Last Knight, it was evident Michael Bay’s heart was no longer in the franchise. A dumb, incoherent mess of a movie, even by the standards of this franchise, The Last Knight was the first of the Transformers films to lose money. Beyond its box office failure, it’s simply an unwatchable mess, contradicting the prior movies at every possible opportunity and featuring actors who are clearly cashing obscene checks as they mug their way through impenetrable plot points.
Perhaps worst of all, Bay’s magic touch with action sequences was nowhere to be found in The Last Knight, which was not only confusing and off-putting, but at over 150 minutes was gruelingly boring. Bay announced he was done with the franchise after directing The Last Knight, and the franchise was on the edge of oblivion for the first time.
Bumblebee and Hope For The Future
Down but not out, the Transformers film franchise would regroup in a big way with 2018’s Bumblebee, a prequel of the first film set in 1987 and revolving almost exclusively around the titular Autobot scout and his relationship with the young human girl Charlie Watson. The film not only captured the magic of Bay’s first outing, it managed to improve upon it, making a heartfelt, emotional story out of the tender friendship between the teenage girl and her naive young robot companion. Director Travis Knight, a huge fan of the franchise going back to the ’80s, peppered the film with references to Generation 1, a nice nod to longtime fans who’d stuck with the franchise through its peaks and valleys.
Bumblebee was a modest box office success – it had to take on the likes of Aquaman and Mary Poppins Returns at the box office, but held its own well enough to warrant talk of a sequel. It’s unclear exactly what form that potential sequel could take, but if it can maintain the spirit and heart of Bumblebee, then Transformers movies may finally be poised for unqualified success.