The Indefinable Ugliness of Transformers Movies

I don’t like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. I have made no secret of this. I have been trying to rewatch the second movie for almost two years, just so I can rag about what an absolute disaster it is. It’s so bad that I literally have trouble paying attention.

But his movies also have the distinction of being bad movies that I don’t enjoy riffing on. I actually enjoy quite a few bad movies – Van Helsing, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Battlefield Earth, Battleship, Hellboy 2019 – specifically because I enjoy riffing on them and mocking how lousy they are, or occasionally because I want to turn my brain off and watch splosions. Even Twilight has some small amount of enjoyment for me, in that I love pointing at it and yelling, “See? See? This is garbage!”

But I don’t derive any enjoyment from the Transformers movies, and I’m not sure why. They are undeniably bad – almost every aspect of them is at best deeply flawed, and I could write a book on everything wrong with them. There’s plenty wrong. But I had to think about why they are somehow worse than, say, the highly derivative Battleship, which has a similar level of ineptitude, but somehow doesn’t feel quite as bad.

And honestly, it’s kind of hard to put a finger on, but I think it’s just that they feel… ugly. Not visually ugly, although personally I do find them unpleasant visually (why is everyone in the first movie so sweaty?). No, there’s an ugliness in the soul of these movies. An ugliness in the heart. It’s a universe where it feels like nobody is actually good or admirable – we have antagonists who are motivelessly evil, and we have heroes who… don’t feel like good people.

Do you remember the climax of the movie The Two Towers, when Samwise Gamgee made a stirring speech about how there was good in the world, that it was worth fighting for, and that things would get better eventually? It felt like an extension of the worldview in those films, that there was light and goodness in the world, and that there were noble people who would defend it….

… and the Transformers movies kind of have the opposite effect. There is nothing stirring about these movies, because every character feels like the product of a mean-spirited mind. This is seen in most of the characters – so many of them are either presented in a mean-spirited light (most African-Americans) or they are jerks themselves.

But it’s most displayed in the way that Optimus Prime is depicted. Across the Transformers Optimus is an inherently heroic character – he’s noble, protective, and cares about all life. But the Optimus of the movies is brutal, once ripping a Decepticon’s face right off without a single qualm. He threatened a Dinobot with death if it didn’t serve him and let him ride around on its back. And of course, he gets brainwashed into doing evil stuff, because who wants to see him being heroic?

I’m not saying that Optimus has to be perfect, nor am I saying that there is no room to explore darker themes with heroic characters. But Bay’s handling of Optimus feels like… he’s scoffing at the idea that someone can be good, noble and heroic. Which is probably the case, because in my experience, people who are loathsome tend to really despise people who are good, and believe it’s all fake and those particular people are really corrupt underneath. And, well, Michael Bay is pretty awful as a human being.

So anyway, those are my thoughts about how mean-spirited the Michael Bay Transformers movies feel, and how they differ from other terrible movies.

Tony Stark and Asshole Heroes

I was watching a review of Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, and it really reminded me of what a contemptible piece of crap Cade Yeager was. Sam Witwicky was arrogant and annoying, but Cade is both those things, plus… just horrible and selfish to everyone he comes across, especially the employee he leeches money from and the neighbors he steals from. Plus, he violently attacks some innocent people with a baseball bat, just because he’s failed to pay his mortgage because he’s a terrible inventor who refuses to get a real job. And somehow, we are supposed to be rooting for this selfish maniac.

And I kind of wonder… if that is because of Tony Stark.

Because I can think of another movie with a similar protagonist from a few years later, in 2017: Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton from The Mummy. This guy is also a character with zero redeeming characteristics; by the end of the movie, he has done ONE good thing, grand total. The rest of the time, he’s a selfish ass who hits-and-quits women he’s stealing stuff from, sells artifacts on the black market, and… really doesn’t do anything to make us like him. Like, at all. The movie acts as though we care whether he lives or dies, but I for one couldn’t have cared less, because he never said or did anything to make me care.

Back to Cade Yeager for a second, the way he’s shot and his “inventor” persona makes it pretty clear that they wanted us to get a Tony Stark vibe from the movie. As for Nick Morton, the entire Mummy movie was a blatant attempt to copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s formula…

So, were these characters DELIBERATELY made into assholes because Tony Stark is an asshole? And Hollywood, being Hollywood, missed the point and thought that the public was just dying to see more assholes?

Because yes, Tony Stark is kind of an asshole. He is arrogant, and a pretty awful person at the beginning of the MCU. Just remember that: at the beginning. Now, Tony is a good asshole protagonist for four reasons:

  1. He changes. His character evolves even over the course of the first movie…
  2. … but even then, he was never an asshole as much as these guys were. Tony has good qualities and a good heart underneath it all, so he’s not just an asshole.
  3. He’s an entertaining asshole. He’s witty and clever and wildly intelligent, and this causes us to like him despite his bad behavior.
  4. Robert Downey Jr. A lot of the character’s charm is due to Downey, and it can’t just be copy-pasted with any actor.

So let’s examine these other two protagonist assholes.

First, neither of these characters change. The closest we have is that Nick does a sorta-unselfish thing at the movie’s end, but it’s for a woman he wants to bang, so it isn’t very impressive. Oh, and Cade decides it’s okay for a creepy guy to bang his underage daughter. That was apparently his arc. Very impressive.

Do either of them grow and develop from their hardships? Do we see them becoming less selfish, more caring, moving away from the bad behavior we saw at the movies’ beginnings, recognizing that they were assholes? Nope. Never.

Second, Tony is depicted as a selfish womanizer who sells weapons at the movie’s beginning. But he’s not shown being actively cruel to anyone, violent towards the innocent, and he sells weapons to the US military because he incorrectly believes that they’re the only recipients, and that he’s doing a good thing by selling those weapons. When he discovers otherwise, he immediately shuts down the weapon development, and works to help others.

Despite his external assholery, Tony Stark is shown from the very beginning to be someone who does want to help others and do the right thing. He doesn’t always succeed in knowing what that is, but a consistent behavior through all his MCU movies is that he wants to help and protect others.

Cade Yeager… doesn’t show any signs of that; he’s a violent thug who leeches off everyone around him. Nick Morton is just a literal soldier of fortune who wants to steal stuff for purely selfish reasons.

Third, neither of these characters are as impressively witty as Tony Stark. Not witty at all, really. Therefore, they do not entertain us.

Neither one is very smart, either — we’re told constantly that Cade Yeager is an inventor, but he’s not a very good one. He just makes wobbly robots that don’t do anything very well, as evidenced by the hilariously bad “painting” robot. There’s nothing to dazzle us and make us go “wow, he’s so smart.”

Nick Morton? Not smart at all, really.

Finally, Robert Downey Jr. Downey is a genuinely great actor with immense charisma and personal charm, and the Tony Stark character — as a lovable asshole — really only works because he is so charming.

Mark Wahlberg? Not a great actor, not charming. Tom Cruise? Well, people tell me he has charisma, but his giant toothy grin and staring eyes creep me out. And he certainly doesn’t have the talent or charisma to make anybody like Nick, since absolutely nobody was impressed by his performance.

So, just my rambly thoughts about how these asshole protagonists absolutely failed at trying desperately to be Tony Stark. All I can assume is that some Hollywood nitwit saw Iron Man and concluded, “Audiences love Tony Stark! He’s an asshole! That means people love assholes! And the bigger an asshole a hero is, the more people love him!”

Thanks, Hollywood. How about you un-learn that little lesson?

Review: Transformers (2007)

There are certain things that are just objectively true. Water is wet. The sky is blue. The Pope is Catholic. Gingers have no souls. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are incredibly bad.

And while the first live-action Transformers movie is not the mind-blowing trainwreck that many of its sequels would become, it’s still a terrible movie. It’s a bloated, sluggish mass of sexism, racism, ‘splosions and horrible comic relief, overflowing with characters that annoy me to the point of frothing madness. It’s a movie that seems to stretch forever until my patience is on the verge of snapping… but not quite dull enough to actually be called boring.

A teenage boy named Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf) finally gets his first car – a used yellow-and-black car that somehow blasts out the windows of every other car on the lot. No, it’s not possessed – it’s just an alien robot in disguise. Which is better, I guess.

At the same time, mysterious shapeshifting robots are attacking a U.S. military base on Qatar, downloading classified information and attacking various noble, two-dimensional soldiers. These hostile alien robots, known as Decepticons, are actually trying to locate and attack Sam because they want the old family heirlooms that he’s trying to sell on eBay. Specifically, they want a pair of old broken glasses that belonged to his ancestor. Yes, he thinks he can get a lot of money for broken antique glasses. Sam is not very smart, you may quickly see.

Fortunately, the details of this are explained to him by the leader of the good alien robots-disguised-as-motor-vehicles, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), who are on Earth to find a MacGuffin that is vitally important to both sides of their civil war. And the glasses are the key to finding it for… stupid reasons. However, Sam and his maybe-girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) soon run afoul of a secret government agency that has known about the Transformers for a very long time. And, well, things get messy plotwise.

Michael Bay’s Transformers is one of those movies where almost everything seems to be wrong with it. The actual plot of the film is a bloated, lumbering, stumbling mass of incoherent conflicts that all eventually crash together, and it seems to last forever. It’s only about two and a quarter hours long, but it feels like being dragged facedown behind a slow-moving car on a ten-mile-long gravel driveway.

And it’s dripping with racism (the only non-buffoonish black person is a soldier), sexism (the camera does everything but lick Mikaela) and an uncomfortable level of military fetishization. The entire subplot about the soldiers in the desert could have been written out of the story, and we would have gotten a much leaner film. But Michael Bay has to crowbar soldiers in there somehow!

But the worst part of the movie is, I think, the characters. Michael Bay seems to write three kinds of characters:

  1. Noble and perfect soldiers.
  2. Hot girls who are really smart so objectifying them (“Criminals are HOT!”) isn’t creepy.
  3. Violently annoying idiots who do stupid stuff in order to be funny.

Those are the only kinds of characters in these movies. And that last category accounts for 95% of the characters, including almost all of the giant alien robots. Optimus Prime is presented as a wise and noble leader here, for instance, but he consistently bumbles through just about every situation – when visiting Sam’s house, he and the other Autobots stumble around causing as much damage and being as noticeable as possible. Because funny.

But the human characters are the worst perpetrators – entirely for the LOLZ, many of them run around jabbering and screaming, stuffing their faces with food and making annoying sex jokes. Shia Labeouf’s Sam is perhaps the most obvious example, since his yammering and shouting is front and center, but his parents are the most obnoxious examples. These are characters specifically made to be funny in their stupidity, but instead they feel like a cheese grater on my nerves. John Turturro’s character isn’t much better; he exists to be peed on by Bumblebee and lech on underage girls.

The best thing I can say about Transformers is that if you switch your brain off… all the way off… you might enjoy the explosions and sexy women. Might. A very big might. But if that isn’t enough to justify over two hours of movie, then this film will be Chinese water torture.

A rant about Transformers (Michael Bay edition)

I am presently watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the second of Michael Bay’s unspeakably bad Transformers movies. It has taken me a week and a half to drag myself through even part of its two and a half hours, and I haven’t even gotten to the wrecking balls scene. Yes, the infamous scene that is considered one of the worst scenes in the history of mainstream film.

And honestly, one thing that these movies should never be is boring. They have giant robot fights, explosions, constant talking and action… but it feels like it drags on forever. I have watched all the Peter Jackson Middle-Earth movies, and every single one of them felt shorter than both of the Transformers movies I have watched, even though I’m pretty sure they’re all substantially longer.

And I think the reason for this is simple: I hate all the characters.

Michael Bay seems to write three kinds of characters:

  1. Soldiers.
  2. Hot girls who are really smart so objectifying them isn’t creepy.
  3. Violently annoying idiots who do stupid stuff in order to be funny.

Those are the only kinds of characters in these movies, I swear. And that last category accounts for 95% of the characters, including almost all of the giant alien robots.

I think I realized this when the Autobots first revealed themselves to Sam Witwicky, and they started saying stupid things for the LOLZ. For instance, Ratchet just randomly announces that Sam wants to have sex with Mikaela. He has no reason to do this. It’s incredibly cringy and stupid. He simply says this stupid statement because… it’s meant to be funny.

And unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Once Sam goes home to find his glasses, Optimus Prime and all the Autobots come over to his house while his parents are sleeping. Now, Optimus could have ordered the Autobots to remain in the street outside in their vehicle forms, waiting for Sam to uncover the glasses and bring them out to them. That would be the kind of intelligent decision that you would expect from the wise, calm leader of the Autobots.

But that wouldn’t have provided several minutes of irritating comic relief! So instead the Autobots remain in their giant-robot forms, bumbling around causing property damage, making noise, and Optimus jams his enormous face up against the windows just so he can nag Sam a little more effectively. This does not make Sam find the glasses any faster, by the way – it actually slows him down considerably, because he has to stop to tell Optimus to stop doing what he’s doing. Because it’s funny when Optimus acts like a doofus!

And of course, almost all the human characters are annoying comic relief – the biggest perpetrators, of course, being Sam’s parents. I wanted to shrivel up in the second movie when Sam’s mother eats pot brownies and, like all stoned people, becomes hyperactive and loud, and starts yammering about him losing his virginity to total strangers. Because haha funny.

And I swear, it feels like every character is like this.

I’d be okay with the characters doing funny things if it were like the comic relief in the Marvel movies. At least nine times out of ten – excluding the Fat Thor gags in Endgame – the jokes are in-character and do not involve the characters doing stupid things in order to produce the joke. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was absolutely hilarious, and he didn’t need to constantly do stupid things that make no sense in order to entertain us.

But in Transformers, it isn’t like those. Most of the jokes require people to be stupid and act like morons. And if it doesn’t amuse you to watch people running around screaming…

… or stuffing their faces with doughnuts…

… or jabbering at each other…

… or making juvenile sex jokes…

… or farting…

… or humping…

… or leching on underage girls…

… you’re going to sit there like a stone, getting progressively more irritable as this seemingly endless parade of annoying idiots are flung in your face. Some of these characters literally have no personality aside from their stupidity – I can identify exactly one thing that Ratchet did in Transformers aside from make that stupid sex joke. And that’s not just because I have trouble identifying anybody aside from Bumblebee and Optimus Prime.

And apparently this type of writing is contagious if you want to copy Michael Bay. It is an integral part of his storytelling, it seems. Years ago, I saw the movie Battleship (and have been regretting it ever since), which followed the Michael Bay formula so closely that many people thought it should have been a Transformers movie. What stuck out at me was that except for the Japanese commander and the veterans (only two of whom speak), I loathed every person in the movie. They weren’t constantly doing idiotic things for comic relief, but they were so obnoxious. The main character could not have been less endearing if he had worn a necklace of baby heads and a dead puppy for a hat.

Anyway, the too-long-didn’t-read edition of this rant is simple: the Transformers characters are as likable as scabies, and as funny as a wildfire. If, as I do, you find them to not be amusing, then these movies will be absolute torture.