Though they’re really glorified toy commercials when you strip away the glitz and glamour, the original Transformers cartoon and its 1986 movie continuation were undoubtedly idealistic and mostly light-hearted. Orson Welles, who voiced the planet-devouring robot Unicron in the animated movie, might have described the franchise as “a big toy” attacking “a bunch of smaller toys,” but the Autobots attempted to be peaceful in action, with their leader Optimus Prime trying to avoid conflict and destruction. Conventionally speaking, that’s what good guys do, right?
The same can’t be said for the Transformers of Michael Bay’s four summer blockbuster films. Since 2007, the world’s biggest action director has repeatedly argued that the only beings capable of saving the human race from destruction by an alien force are a different but equally destructive alien force. And that’s just the tip of the metal, multifaceted iceberg, as the Transformers movies might be some of the most morally questionable films in recent memory.
4. Collateral Damage Is Acceptable
This isn’t a problem specific to the Transformers franchise, it should be said. With advancements in CGI, almost every blockbuster features heroes and villains carrying out expansive and destructive battles in heavily populated areas. The final act of The Avengers saw the eponymous team of superheroes taking on a swarm of alien baddies in, around and above Manhattan with millions of civilians trying to find any form of shelter. Last year’s Man of Steel was maybe the most egregious sinner in this regard, with Superman doing seemingly little to prevent Zod’s swath of damage—even causing it, in some cases. But make no mistake: the Transformers movies are rife with collateral damage.
In the first Transformers movie, the Autobots engage the Decepticons in what appears to be downtown Los Angeles. There’s no indication as to why the skirmish should take place here—at least The Avengers used Stark Tower as justification—and the Autobots make no attempt to get the Decepticons out of the densely populated downtown area. As a result, innocent people are terrorized by stomping, smashing (and ostensibly good) robots and transforming Mountain Dew vending machines alike. One of Revenge of the Fallen’s opening scenes shows the Autobots pursuing some rogue Decepticons through Shanghai while caring little for the—presumably occupied—cars they’re making no attempt to avoid crushing. Lastly, pretty much the latter half of Dark of the Moon sees Chicago and its denizens torn to pieces between Autobots, Decepticons, and giant robo-worms alike.
It’s actually not surprising that an anti-Transformer organization exists in the most recent movie, Age of Extinction, though of course they’re the bad guys. God forbid someone might have some qualms with the giant, city-destroying behemoths.
3. Women Are Replaceable Decorations
Transformers launched Megan Fox to stardom both on the silver screen and on various posters displayed proudly in college dorm rooms across the land. While supposedly a skilled mechanic, her character Mikaela was known primarily for stretching across cars and motorcycles in a suggestive fashion. Why she ended up with Shia LaBeouf’s character, no one will really understand. But for what it’s worth the two characters were an item… until Transformers: Dark of the Moon, where it’s revealed Mikaela dumped him between movies. Really it was due to comments Fox made about Michael Bay, leading to executive producer Steven Spielberg canning her, according to GQ.
In any case, LaBeouf’s character Sam had a new girlfriend in time for the third movie, gracefully introduced from behind, at butt level, with hardly anything on. Her role in the plot was primarily to bring her boss, secondary antagonist Patrick Dempsey, into the picture, as well as to scream and gawk at giant robots. To top it off, the recently released Transformers: Age of Extinction has not one but two decorative girlfriends for Stanley Tucci’s comic relief character. An article on Cracked points out that one woman is essentially swapped out for the other partway through the movie, possibly so the new one, portrayed by Li Bingbing, could appeal more to Chinese audiences (the film’s a major hit overseas).
Again, this isn’t something that Transformers is solely at fault for. Female characters have been treated like decorations and even trophies since the dawn of storytelling—which unfortunately mirrors real life in some ways. But Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are almost comically culpable of this, with his female leads pretty much draped over some of the Autobots. If it’s the symptom of a larger problem, it’s a pretty big symptom.
2. Good Guys Don’t Kill, They Execute
Remember when Luke Skywalker shoved his lightsaber through Emperor Palpatine’s chest as the old tyrant begged for his life? Oh, apparently that didn’t happen. Well at least Elsa from Frozen had Prince Hans painfully tortured and killed for his crimes, right? Never mind, she shipped him off to his home country for a proper, fair trial (or at least hazing at the hands of his older brothers). Arguments can definitely be made for killing in self-defence, or to protect somebody else, but for the most part heroes try not to kill. And when they do, like Batman shoving Two-Face to his death at the end of The Dark Knight, there’s nothing excessive or pornographic about it.
Maybe Michael Bay’s Autobots were never taught that convention. Maybe they just got tired of enforcing it. Regardless of their reasons, the opening scene of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen sees Optimus Prime and company chasing down and killing fleeing Decepticons. Optimus even asks one if he has “any last words” before blowing his head off with a laser blast. The film climaxes with the Autobot leader triumphantly ripping the face off the Fallen, actually shouting “You picked the wrong planet. Give me your FACE!” in the process. And the third film, Dark of the Moon, peaks when Optimus executes Megatron and the traitorous Sentinel Prime within seconds of each other, with the latter pleading for his life in his final moments. All in a day’s work for Michael Bay’s big metallic hero, currently emblazoned on the shirts, hats and backpacks of children everywhere.
1. Bullying Is A Character Asset, Not A Flaw
This last issue is a strange one, and has manifested most noticeably in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Simply put, behaviour that would be seen as bullying in school, in the locker room or even on the job is shown by characters that are supposed to be the heroes. Cracked contributor J.F. Sargent has cited a scene in which Mark Wahlberg’s character “…crashes a spaceship into the highway, destroying a bunch of cars, and when one driver gets mad at him (justifiably [sic], since his [expletive deleted] car was just destroyed) Wahlberg shoves him and chugs a beer in his face, like a [expletive deleted] fratboy picking on a nerd.”
Along with Bay’s penchant to use female characters as decorations, this is perhaps the most troublesome issue in the Transformers movies. While the executions and playing down of collateral damage are understandably very messed up, you’re not likely to see that influencing kids (though each has their own dehumanizing effects). But the elevation of jerkish behaviour and the superficial treatment of women can have a genuinely insidious effect on people. It’s something that seeps its way onto the playground, or into the dating scene. It would be silly to call the Transformers movie the root cause of it, but the movies certainly do reinforce these troubling dynamics.