Over the next few weeks I will be counting down my favorite (and least favorite) superhero films. For the purpose of this list, the only “rules” for what constitutes a superhero film will be that it reasonably seems like a superhero film. I won’t be applying any ridiculous standards that end up making Batman not a superhero because he has no super powers, or anything like that.
For those of you thinking, “Wait, 23? Isn’t that kind of a lot?” Keep in mind, the past few years alone have seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and the unprecedented Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoy reading!
#17: Transformers (2007)
First of all, let’s get this out of the way: yes, this film’s status as a “superhero film” is subject to considerable debate. There are a lot of reasonably good arguments on both sides, but (in my opinion) no true “home run” arguments one way or the other. I decided to include the Transformers as superheroes because they have a lot of attributes in common with most superheroes. I have no problem if anyone strongly disagrees with this assessment, but it’s what I’m going with.
I’m really wondering where all of these people I’ve met recently who “always hated” Transformers were in 2007. I can’t help but be reminded of all the people who suddenly were “always” against the Iraq War, which is perhaps a bit overly on-the-nose given this film’s opening setting in the Middle East and penchant for glorifying militarism. The point is, I didn’t know anyone in 2007 who hated this film. I wasn’t especially excited to go see it until everyone I knew wouldn’t shut up about how good it was. A good friend whose taste I can always rely on referred to it as “Nerd Porn.” (I would later agree, with the slightly modified term of “nerdgasm.”) Everyone from hardcore fans of the Transformers franchise to people like me who had almost no experience with the franchise came away from this film with a nearly universal message: it rocked.
Transformers took the nerd world by storm. In retrospect, we might observe that a large part of this might have more to do with the film’s marketability than anything deeper, but at the time it was just a fantastically fun film with a great deal of promise for sequels (oh, those were the days…)
Usually the fact that the first film of a series has to spend a great deal of time introducing characters, concepts, and the world at large is seen as an obstacle, sometimes even a source of great frustration that prevents the filmmaker from really doing what she or he wants to do with the film. In the case of Transformers, however, I actually think it helped hide many of its flaws, which would become glaringly obvious in the sequels.
We all know the biggest problem with Bay’s Transformers series. These are films that look at women the same way pre-Danica Patrick NASCAR did: they look great in tight or revealing clothing splayed across a fast car, but they shouldn’t talk too much. It wasn’t as pronounced in the first film as it would be in the other two films. Why? Because Bay needed to introduce his main characters, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), and their budding romance. From that point on, the two were on screen together almost constantly, they both had an almost equal amount “to do”: almost nothing. They ran around from plot point to plot point being protected by giant robots. (Incidentally, if you have to have human characters have a central role in a Transformers film, that’s probably what they should spend all their time doing.) It wasn’t until the sequels needed to give both characters something to do that Bay’s sensibilities became obvious. That, and when you’re doing “first movie” world-building, you don’t have time for Sam to go to a “party” that looks like a combination between a strip club and a supermarket. (“Yeah, I’ll take that one. No, the blonde to her left, with the leather skirt.”)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll talk about that (trust me: we will) when we get to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on (spoiler alert) the other list.
Although this film’s status as the opening act of a (poorly-conceived) trilogy helped conceal larger problems that would become endemic to the franchise, there was one pretty clear warning sign: the character of Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor.) I honestly had to look that up. To be fair, she was actually in the film for multiple reasons: 1) To explain how the Decepticons hacked our files (which didn’t actually need to be explained, but that’s okay), 2) Michael Bay didn’t think Megan Fox’s boobs were quite big enough, 3) Bay wanted a blonde around (diversity!), 4) … okay, I guess that’s about it.
Yeah, the problem is this character makes no sense. She’s introduced when the Secretary of Defense introduces a huge group of high school (high school) computer science wizzes who have apparently been recruited because we don’t have better computer experts at the National Security Agency??? (Or, you know, any with a college degree?) Oh, yeah, she’s also Australian. This character was my biggest (and, for the most part, only) problem with the first film, but I should’ve taken her as the flashing “Trouble Ahead!” neon sign she was. But (silly me), I was under the impression that Bay’s audiences would point this out and it would be largely corrected in the sequel. Instead, basically everything about the sequel was this dumb. But, again, more on that later.
To see how this film’s “firstquel” status actually benefitted it, consider the sources of its appeal. The Autobots’ arrival on earth was awe-inspiring, and easily one of the best scenes of the series. This is where having a “human-eye” view of the Transformers really spectacularly paid off. Having the first film be about two puny humans and how they’re protected by giant robots while running from other giant robots and how surprisingly sexy (No? Just me?) that is? I’m find with that. It’s easiest to show Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) as a father-figure when he has not just the other Autobots, but a human we can relate to to reassure and offer his wisdom to. The entire structure of this film seems to function to show us how big and impressive the Transformers are, and it does an excellent job of that.
Although Bay will inexplicably abandon this in future installments, Sam is actually a pretty sympathetic character in the first film. You get the “geek” vibe from him pretty solidly, and things really don’t always go his way. (In fact, they usually don’t.) Mikaela initially gave me a pretty strongly negative vibe, but once Sam drags her into the larger plot of the film she effectively disappears (while giving the illusion of still being involved to negate what could’ve been another “Trouble Ahead!” sign.)
Josh Duhamel as William Lennox actually largely justified this film’s military fetish due to his character’s bravery and how believably Duhamel played it. His performance was one of the few strengths that would actually carry from this film into the sequels. Jablonsky’s score, which as already mentioned was consistently great, really reached its heights with the Autobots’ arrival on earth and the moments when the film showed dramatic acts of heroism.
Sector 7, the covert government organization tasked with investigating extraterrestrial activity, was one of the best things about the film (so, naturally, was swiftly jettisoned for the sequels.) They serve as both a plot device and one of the most genuinely interesting things about the film. John Turturro was excellent in the role of the half-comedic/half-serious Agent Simmons. And the conflict between Lennox and Simmons when they meet is one of the best little moments in the film.
The casting for supporting characters in this film was shockingly awesome. Jon Voight plays the Secretary of Defense, while The West Wing veteran Michael O’Neill is absolutely perfect for the role of Sector 7′s director. (I hope you’re sensing a theme by now when I say that neither returned for the sequels.)
This film’s simplicity is its great ally. My takeaway lesson from the Transformers franchise is that Michael Bay can absolutely do simple. Transformers basically has three beats: action, wry humor, and (very seldomly) solemn sentiment (usually from Optimus Prime, but Lennox had one moment with Sam in the film’s final act.) All of these beats are dramatically enhanced by Steve Jablonsky’s impressive score. “Oh wow, that was awesome” moments are strewn throughout this film (many of these are performed by Lennox, like his trick with the motorcycle in the film’s final battle.) Yeah, okay: this film really hit its stride when it was, essentially, robot action porn. But that’s what it was supposed to be! And that’s what the sequels should’ve been.