Justifying the Discussion
Michael Bay’s Transformers series has never truly been a set of films worthy of a complex analysis. Every time I do mention the name, I’m met with groans, rolling eyes and a palpable reduction of people’s respect for me. Admittedly, sitting and watching the movies actively deteriorates my self worth and sense of academic and critical self respect. I am often supremely inebriated while I watch these films, and that is often because I am wallowing in seasonal depression. As such, there is a chill in the air, I miss my ex girlfriend, I’m $200 over my monthly budget, and there’s still a full week left before November. Thus I have begun my annual rewatch of the American masterpiece: Transformers.
I mention the lack of discussion around the films, and while people have tried, there hasn’t been much content out there. Lindsay Ellis has done an excellent nine-part deep dive into the films. She talks about auteur theory, feminism, Marxism and queer studies in the context of these films. The videos are excellent, and you should not miss them.
However, there’s more to be said for the films, and more specifically, the Shia LaBeouf trilogy. After his departure, the series shifts in its direction, reflected in the leads for the movie, and there is a notable dropoff in terms of the Americanization of the movie. Let’s begin.
The All American Heroes
Look at the below image of one of our protagonists, Optimus Prime and note what you notice.
He sports the colors red, blue, and white highlights. What other icon can you think of that sports the same color scheme?
Do you know which ideals this guy represents? American ideals. Optimus Prime, like Superman, is an American icon, embodying the values of the US of A.
Now, you may think to yourself, “Wait a minute. Optimus never really fights for democracy or anything. Doesn’t he get thrown off planet by the government in the third movie? He’s not an American icon!” And you’d be right! But Michael Bay’s genius is deeper than this. In a fantasy sci-fi action film like this one, it’s important to have complexity in your characters, in your protagonists, in the crafting of your film. While Optimus is the longest-lasting protagonist of the main series, even beyond Lebeouf’s trilogy, there is another.
An American soldier, first introduced to us as a brave warrior in the desert, with a classic blonde wife, a perfect, gorgeous baby, and a black sidekick. America, bitches.
William Lennox appears in all three of Lebeouf’s films, and only skips out on two of the later films. What could be more American than an honest to god badass veteran, who rides motorcycles into warzones and shoots helicopter robots right in the dick, immediately killing them? America, bitches.
Lennox is the third protagonist in the pecking order, but he completes the trifecta of values. Like Optimus, he’s heroic, brave and a leader. He remains with the proto-military organizations after his tenure in Iranistanirabia, echoing the sharp, effective images of the US military. Hell, have you seen some of the new GO Army ads? They look like they could be ads for a new Transformers movie. Art imitates life, and life imitates art, thus churns the wheel of creativity. And yes, I am aware that Ellis acknowledges the connection between these two entities.
This brings me to our final protagonist, Sam Witwicky, played by none other than Shia Lebeouf. Sam, across his three films, portrays a young man in three important, American, stages of his life. As a high schooler in Transformers, as a college student, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and then a young man entering the workforce, in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Each time, he’s shown grappling with a true coming-0f-age dilemma relevant to the situation. Genius. Mwah.
In the first film, he accepts his identity and heritage as a Witwicky, and in finding himself, becomes a viable partner for his high school sweetheart, Mikaela, played by all goth girls’ sweetheart, Megan Fox. In the second film, he has the girl, but is now faced with the onslaught of hot, horny coeds, dumb nerdy college roommates, and the ensuing hijinks. The final film drops Megan Fox and her character entirely for behind-the-scenes drama, however I believe that this arc is completed by humanoid alien supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. In this film, Sam struggles to find his footing in the workforce, and feelings of emasculation by more successful men, but ultimately overcomes these issues and marries the girl. This completion doesn’t bear fruit as we don’t specifically care about this new girlfriend, Carly Spencer.
You’ve been good, I think we all deserve this. Yay objectification!
Now, the character of Sam is an interesting protagonist in how he embodies American ideals. While Lennox and Prime are overtly the red, white and blue, gun toting action heroes we’ve come to expect from our white male adonis protectors, Sam is actually the truest reflection of what an American male is, and is the crux of Michael Bay’s big fuck you to America and the American male.
The American Cis Male
Close your eyes and tell me what you think of when you recall Lebeouf’s portrayal of Sam in the Transformers movies. Sam yells a lot. He sweats a lot. He’s scared a lot. When he’s safe, he acts like a chode. When he’s with girls, he says dumb things. His mom is an alcoholic. His dad is cheap. He’s very red. He’s very insecure. He is the average American boy.
If Michael Bay has put in effort to carefully construct each protagonist’s persona to embody a set of American ideals, then it’s clear to see what Bay intended to show us in Sam. He’s a reflection of the boy who watches this movie and enjoys the content without critical thought or a reflection on why he’s enjoying it. He’s the characterization of an angry, insecure, impulsive American, just as Lennox is the American veteran, as much as Prime is of American heroism and valor.
Michael Bay has deliberately framed the main protagonist, Sam, to be a subtle insult to America, those who enjoy the mind numbing, sexist, racist, pedophilic, senselessly violent, military glorifying hatred that spews from the frothing, angry mouths of each of the characters across the films.
Thus we begin to realize the genius behind Bay’s Transformers trilogy featuring Shia Lebeouf. As we begin to mount the criticisms against Bay for being homophobic, sexist, racist, and generally all around shitty in his construction of the films and their mythos, I can’t help but think… this has to have been a prank. Why would someone create something so callous, so tone deaf, something so intent on being a senseless, tasteless attack on as many minorities as possible? Is it possible that all of this utter nonsense, carefully designed to market to a very specific demographic, is actually also a director’s realization of his contributions towards late stage capitalism, consumerism and materialism?
How else can you justify Bay going so far out of his way to direct such a hateful, frothing, angry set of films? Why are our trifecta of protagonists designed to perfectly symbolize the paragon of an American man, while also reflecting on the true nature of the type of person who actually glorifies these values?
Either Michael Bay is a genius who has realized the creative corner he’s branded himself into, and the Transformers films are his attempts to apologize to the intellectuals of the world for his role and his part in slowing mankind’s growth by giving this much credence and effort to toxic masculinity, and the glorification of an oppressive, imperialistic nation, or he is a fool and I am a fool and now you are a fool for having given my thoughts on his thoughts any thoughts.
I wanted to feature this clip, but didn’t find a natural place for it.
A Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag
In summary, Michael Bay may have made the Transformers films as callous as he could, and designed the protagonist to embody the truest and worst characteristics of the toxic American male, by lining Sam up next to more overt American heroes in Lennox and Prime. Or… I have wasted my time and yours, and this is simply a delirious, delusional attempt to justify the fact that I have watched these movies a number of times that far outnumbers the number of times I’ve watched films of more artistic and entertainment value. 10/10. I love you, Shia, you’re my hero.