It’s decision time for the future of the Transformers on the big screen: a few thoughts as to where the movies could go next as they leave the Michael Bay era behind.
It’s probably fair to say that the modern live action Transformers film series has enjoyed mixed fortunes. On the one hand, the films have been a phenomenal financial success, raking in nearly $5 billion so far. On the other hand, since the mostly-warm reception afforded Michael Bay’s original Transformers in 2007, the movies have been widely criticised for incomprehensible plots, frenetic editing, and objectifying female characters.
Countering that, 2019’s Bumblebee was a soft reboot for the franchise, bringing in Kubo & The Two Strings director Travis Knight; it reviewed well but was a comparative disappointment at the box office.
Since that time though, parent company Hasbro, its production arm Allspark Entertainment, and movie studio Paramount have been building a brain trust to decide what to do next.
After a few false starts, now it looks like a variety of Transformers films are in early development, with projects apparently underway from writers Joby Harold (John Wick: Chapter 3), James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), and Josh Cooley (Inside Out). Recently there’s been some real movement, with Creed 2 director Steven Caple Jr. set to sign on to shoot Harold’s script, which is set “in the same universe” as Bumblebee.
All well and good, but is a fifth sequel really the best bet, especially if the box office is declining? Will audiences want more of the same, when even Bumblebee was criticised for practically remaking the first film in the franchise?
I’ve been a fan of the Transformers since the first toys, cartoons, and comics began rolling out in the mid-80s (the first film I ever saw at the cinema was Transformers: The Movie in 1986).
There have been many stories told across various media that could lend themselves to a movie or two; stories that, if I may, offer a little bit more than daft jokes, colossal destruction, and trying to guess how much Oscar-winning actors were paid to pop up in baffling supporting roles.
As such, assuming Hasbro and co. are reading (I understand John Hasbro, CEO of Hasbro, is indeed an avid Film Stories subscriber), may I present some suggestions for the future direction of the franchise.
One seemingly obvious idea is to go back to the start, and show the war on the Transformers’ home planet, Cybertron.
Although sci-fi prequels often end badly, there is at least precedent in Transformers; IDW Publishing recently rebooted the Transformers comic in an ongoing series that chronicles the dawn of the war.
It’s also been the setting for a series of videogames and even a Netflix animated series this year, and, indeed, is the mooted subject of Cooley’s project.
But for my money, a Cybertron-set storyline couldn’t be better than the one told in IDW’s older comics continuity, which was revealed piecemeal over the course of a decade, by a writers such as John Barber and James Roberts.
Here, a corrupt Senate follows the religion of ‘Functionism’, where a robot’s alternate mode dictates their status. Megatron – one day leader of the ‘evil Decepticons’ – begins the story as a miner, a poet, and an intellectual, who writes screeds calling for equality.
Optimus Prime, at this point a small-time cop, is inspired by Megatron, and to cut a long story very short, the two join forces then fall out, but the notion of good guy Optimus looking up to bad guy Megatron is inspired.
The two here have a dynamic similar to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the X-Men films; ideological opposites with a deep respect for each other.
This version of Cybertron is also delightfully sci-fi, full of pseudo-technology and concepts that only make sense if your protagonists are robots that can change shape; there are assassination attempts, Mission: Impossible-style heists, high-speed chases through futuristic cities, and – of course – ultimately betrayal and war. And the whole idea behind it is filled with historical parallels, with the rise of the Decepticons mirroring the Soviet Revolution, and Megatron almost a Lenin-esque figure before his descent into murder and madness.
Hey, if Star Wars can get three films out of a hero turning into a villain, Transformers can get at least one.
If adapting a long-running arc is too much hassle, then the comics also offer a variety of done-in-one stories that can be turned into simpler solo films.
There are many such tales to choose from, including zombie Transformers, swarms of metal-eating cyber-insects, and aliens that feed on charisma.
But one storyline that stands out is the comic Last Stand Of The Wreckers by Nick Roche and James Roberts.
This follows a crack team of Autobot commandos attempting to rescue prisoners from a particularly nasty Decepticon called Overlord (you’ve got to love how on-the-nose these Transformers names are).
With influences ranging from The Dirty Dozen to Inglourious Basterds, this is a gritty and supremely violent tale, full of betrayal and tragedy, and morally compromised characters ultimately doing the right thing. And not only does the ultra-violence get a pass because the characters are robots, but this story also gives us 12A-friendly Cybertronian swearwords: “spawn of a glitch,” anyone?
But perhaps the powers-that-be would rather come back down to Earth.
If they wanted to do a full-on ground-up reboot, then looking at the first batch of comics IDW published over ten years ago would be a good place to start: written by franchise veteran Simon Furman (he wrote the comic 30 years ago too), they feature teams of Transformers in deep cover on Earth. If Paramount is after saving a bit of money, here the Autobots use ‘holomatter’ to create human avatars, so they can interact with the main human cast; no need for expensive CG in every scene!
This would also allow Paramount to cast recognisable stars to show up as the Autobots’ ‘human’ faces; who wouldn’t want to see, say, Mark Ruffalo as grumpy-doc-with-a-heart-of-gold Ratchet, or maybe Kurt Russe;l as grizzly no-nonsense superior officer Prowl? Sure, the story does ultimately end with super-powered Decepticons, humans that turn into Transformers’ heads, and a fight between a scorpion and a T-rex, but it starts small at least.
Away from the comics, there are also many animated stories that could be adapted, and this might offer a way to broaden the movies’ audience. Transformers Animated offered a rather unique take, following another small team of Autobots (lead by a young, inexperienced Optimus) who become, effectively, a team of superheroes on Earth.
It has a nice slow-burning plot and great stylised visuals, but with the Autobots operating as crime-fighters amongst an otherwise human cast, it has a distinctly different vibe to the militarism of the movies. Likewise Rescue Bots, which skews even younger; here the Autobots are all rescue vehicles working as emergency services in a quirky New England town, once again closely tied to a human family.
Rescue Bots is brilliant, with a sense of humour and some great voice work, and the idea of a Transformers spin-off not just aimed squarely at kids but without any trappings of the wider war is an intriguing hook.
So whether they’re venturing into deep space or staying on Earth, rebooting the franchise wholesale or keeping what works, maintaining the gritty violence or lightening things up for a new audience, there’s plenty of gas left in the Transformers tank for future stories.
Note too just how tonally different they are from the Michael Bay films.
And speaking of stories, how about this one: imagine our hero, bereaved and depressed, retreating into an internalised fantasy life.
Except they have strange powers that allow these fantasies to be manifest and become real. They don’t even realise, but suddenly they’re trapped in a world they made; and to make it even weirder, the world is built up entirely of sitcom tropes and characters.
Whilst this sounds eerily like the plot of Disney’s WandaVision, it’s actually an issue of Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye from 2015. If you’ve ever wanted to see Transformers singing the Cheers theme tune, meeting Father Ted, or hanging out in Rachel and Monica’s apartment, this is the issue to buy.
It does look like the brain trust at Paramount and Hasbro are aware of what Bumblebee did right, and of the need to try something new. One of the three films rumoured to be in development is an adaptation of Beast Wars, a groundbreaking animated series from the late 90s (an early example of CG animation on TV), in which the rival Transformer factions must disguise themselves as animals on a prehistoric Earth. It’s a very influential series with Transformer fans and creatives, and even if what emerges is the loosest of adaptations, it’s at least indicative of a desire to experiment and find new stories to tell.
And after three decades of robots disguising themselves, there are certainly a lot of stories to tell.
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