What Michael Bay can learn from Transformers: Prime

optimus-prime

It’s not quite fair to compare a set of movies targeting adult males to an animated series made for kids, but the truth is that ‘Transformers: Prime’ is far more satisfying than Bay’s films, even for adult viewers. Here’s why.

 

Instead of simply bashing Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, I’m going to offer some suggestions for the eventual Mark-Wahlberg-headlined Transformers 4. Obviously Bay is not going to hand this cash-cow franchise over to another director, so I can only hope that he’s willing to take a few lessons from The Hub’s far more entertaining version of the robots in disguise — Transformers: Prime.

The Autobots and Decepticons are the stars of Transformers: Prime

Nobody watches Transformers for the humans; the franchise is so popular because we can’t get enough of the mythical struggle between those icons of good and evil, Optimus Prime and Megatron. Bay chose to make these metallic titans not heroes and villains but shiny, devastating forces of nature, much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park — special effects more than actual characters. In contrast, Prime brings the Autobots and Decepticons to life. Each character has a distinct, exquisitely developed personality, from cranky doctor Ratchet to cowardly narcissist Knockout. In Bay’s movies, the only instantly recognizable bots are Optimus and Bumblebee, and even they feel distant and alien. We don’t really understand them, their backgrounds, their feelings. That’s never a problem in Prime — you can feel Arcee’s rage when she’s battling Airachnid because you know their back-story. You can understand Bulkhead’s irritation with young gun Smokescreen, and Ratchet’s sense of guilt and responsibility for Bumblebee’s damaged voicebox. For characters that don’t have flesh, they are certainly fleshed out.

And how do I begin to describe Optimus Prime and Megatron, gloriously voiced by the original G1 series actors, Peter Cullen and Frank Welker? Their epic friendship-turned-rivalry is the heart of the show, and the beloved characters are magnificently realized in Prime. Every scene between them is pure gold because it seethes with history, antagonism, and unspoken respect. You recognize that these two know everything there is to know about each other because they have been battling for eons. Bay has never been able to take us into the hearts of these characters, to showcase the very personal war that rages between them. But this is the stuff that makes Transformers so damned amazing!

Transformers: Prime limits the number of characters (especially human characters).

Let’s set aside the sheer obnoxiousness of Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, because Prime has its own version of a super-annoying human brat in Miko. One of the biggest problems I have with Bay’s movies is the overwhelming number of characters he throws at us, many of them too minor to be worth any screen time. If Bay reduced the total number of characters in his movies, he could actually develop a few good ones. Do you want to see Ken Jeong ham it up as some irrelevant dork, or do you want to see Optimus Prime kicking tailpipe?

Prime features only one government liaison working with the Autobots — Agent Fowler, a character who can be both irritable and heroic. And in addition to idiotic Miko, there are a couple other kids present, who are actually likable: Jack, a quiet teen with a good head on his shoulders, and Raf, a 12-year-old dweeb/hacker. Raf often helps Ratchet out with Earth technology; now there’s an example of how to make a character serve a useful purpose. Yes, the kids are kind of shoehorned into the show, but they are not Mary Sues like Sam Witwicky. Now imagine this, Michael Bay. What if you had written Sam as a hacker? That would make sense. Nerdy teenager, good with computers — fairly believable. More importantly, that would give him a plausible role to play in the movies besides running around screaming and acting like a self-important asshole. And that would eliminate the need to waste screen time on extraneous characters like these. Reduce, reuse, and recycle, Michael.

The villains in Transformers: Prime are awesome.

Where to begin? First of all, only Frank Welker can deliver the swagger that makes Megatron the universe’s biggest badass. (Why distort Hugo Weaving’s voice beyond recognition when you had the real deal, Michael Bay? Because you’re ridiculous, that’s why.) Prime’s Megatron is a perfect foil for the valiant-yet-vulnerable Optimus, as he displays the ruthlessness as well as the charisma and magnanimity that won him so many devoted followers.

Perhaps the second most memorable relationship in Transformers lore is between Megatron and his insubordinate second-in-command, Starscream. Bay never really took advantage of the opportunity to add “humanity” to the Decepticons by emphasizing that they’re not just mindless drones following Megatron; they’re individuals with ambitions and feelings. Starscream’s rebellious nature adds an element of unpredictability to all of the Decepticons’ schemes, making him a wild card that Bay neglected to play.

Since we’re on the subject of Starscream, I would be remiss not to mention how utterly hilarious the villains of Prime are. Starscream is a hoot (“There I am, minding my own business, when my arm just FALLS OFF!”), but all of the Decepticons including Megatron have their moments of levity. This is one of my favorite things about Prime, and I don’t think it would hurt the “realism” of Bay’s movies to add some personality to the villains via a little humor.

Prime has all flavors of awesome when it comes to bad guys. The dark angel, Soundwave, silent and menacing, devastatingly competent. Noble, loyal Dreadwing seeking to avenge the loss of his twin, Skyquake. Nasty, nasty, slippery Airachnid. As I said, each character has a distinct personality, and that’s where Bay generally falls short.

Transformers: Prime appeals to a wide audience.

Though it was originally marketed to boys, I think I can safely say that girls love Transformers; some of the characters have devoted fandoms. Prime certainly invites girls to the party. Arcee is a kick-ass female bot, and Miko and Mrs. Darby are both tough chicks. But more importantly, the show focuses on relationships and character development as much as action (and the action is fantastic). That’s called good storytelling. Good storytelling appeals to everyone, regardless of gender. Michael Bay is too lazy to gives us good storytelling, so he appeals to the lowest common denominator with close-ups of Mikaela/Carly’s ass and long sequences of indistinguishable exploding things — tactics transparently and insultingly aimed at men with low expectations. Instead of ogling a skinny girl’s backside, how about giving us character-building scenes for the Autobots and Decepticons? We all would appreciate that.

I’m going to sum up the lessons of Transformers: Prime for Michael Bay right here: Let the Autobots and Decepticons be the main characters. Keep the human characters to a minimum so that you can focus on developing the Autobots and Decepticons as individuals and in relationship to each other, rather than simply throwing explosions and eye candy at the dudes. If you give these beloved characters the star treatment they deserve, you can make a movie that a wide audience will enjoy.

I want to enjoy Transformers 4 as much as Transformers: Prime. Let’s see if you learned anything, Michael Bay.

Photo Credit: Digitalscape

13 Comments on “What Michael Bay can learn from Transformers: Prime

  1. This was amazing to read. I loved everything about it, it made so so fucking sense it hurts. Let’s just hope Transformers 4 doesn’t turn to crap.
    Which unfortunately to my thoughts it will.

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  2. I don’t like to be a water party but Bay didn’t learn the lesson with the previous movies, why change his explosive/let’s show soldiers but no robots movies now? Sadly they gave him money.
    The article is perfect.Transformers Prime is the best thing that happened to TF .The show helped the franchives (and the fans) to recover from the horrible Bay movies, my faith is the giant alien robots was restored by TFP.

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  3. Great article….. but it’s Welker, Frank Welker.

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    • You’re right, Brian – stupid mistake on my part. In my defense, I wrote this between 3 and 4 a.m., going on two days with no sleep. I’ll get it fixed.

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  4. Yeah, that’s what we need. Two and a half hour of pointless McGuffin-hunting that ultimately leads to nowhere, robots endlessly shooting lasers at each other with little effect, Optimus Prime being a distant boring flawless leader type who will turn even the most trivial observation into an Epic Heroic Speech Of Qutability, baffoonish villains who do a better job at tearing each other apart than the Autobots ever will, and an annoying girl getting herself in trouble because she will never learn a lesson ever.

    Don’t get me wrong. The movies have a lot of flaws, but so does Transformers: Prime. Both also have elements that could be combined into something better. For example, if there’s anything the movies do RIGHT, it’s the interaction between the human military and the Autobots. Lennox and Epps are the human characters who are the least out of place in any of the three movies. Do I like how easy the human military can kill Decepticons in ROTF and DOTM after having so much trouble with just one of them in TF’07? No. Do I like how Lennox and Epps treat the Autobots as fellow soldiers? You betcha. The two also happen to be the most realistic, non-cartoony human characters in the Bay movies. (Also, while I agree that Glenn was annoying, I actually liked Maggie and think she should have been the female lead instead of Megan Fox or Rosie Whatsherface.)

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    • Hi, Nevermore. I actually agree with the second half of your comment, and I wish Lennox and Epps had been the main human characters instead of Sam and friends. As for the first half of your comment, I don’t think I mentioned any of those things (Macguffin-hunting, etc.) as strengths of Transformers: Prime. Obviously the show has its flaws, some of which are due to the fact that it’s made for children. I never said Bay should copy everything that Transformers: Prime does; I was pretty specific about the particular ways he could improve.

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  5. Simplemente, ERES UN GENIO. Te felicito y ojala Michael Bay, por respeto a los fans de transformers, te haga caso.

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  6. Very good analysis and thoughtfully put!

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  7. Agreed. I was excited about the first Transformers movie, even though Michael Bay was directing it and the then-inevitable sequels and the fact that it starred of all people Shia LaBeouf. And I liked the first Transformers movie, so much so that I actually have it on DVD. My problem with Michael Bay Transformers is largely with RoTF and DoTM, but your points do apply to the first as well and do agree, regardless.

    Now, if there’s one thing I like about Transformers Prime it’s that unlike G1 Transformers where they freely, if with some difficulty and inconvenience, travel between Earth and Cybertron and pretty much everybody knows about them, it’s that in Prime they’re pretty much stuck on Earth and they’re still largely under the radar. While all of what you suggest would make Transformers 4 much better than the previous 3, if nothing else, since everybody knows about them in Bay-verse Transformers, in my opinion they should at least continue to leave Cybertron out of it.

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  8. Great article because it makes the point that good writing is the engine that drives the movie,the animated movie,play etc and is the fuel that allows the actors to bring to life memorable characters while telling their story with energy and passion in well rounded performances! Good writing combined with good acting should leave you wanting to know more long after the screen credits have finished!

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  9. You forgot the most important thing. In Transformers Prime you can actually understand what is going on in the action scenes, and the robots are not twice the size of the Empire State Building. If you like Michael Bay’s incoherent, extreme close up, blurry action scenes, have at it. You might as well watch rocks in a blender with one eye pressed against the glass.

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    • I agree – I hate fight scenes where I can’t tell what’s going on. The only time that is okay is when the whole point is not knowing what happened (as in Batman Begins, where I guess you’re supposed to feel the bad guys’ disorientation when Batman attacks). But even when it’s intentional, it’s not fun to watch.

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