This article started out in my head as an attack on Michael Bay, but I’m not going to do that. While I don’t like his Transformers movies, it is an undeniable fact that many people do. Many kids today were introduced to the Robots in Disguise due to the Bay films and while I wish their entry point wasn’t miserable dreck, I am glad to see so many young kids get into this great franchise I’ve loved ever since I was their age.
I’d love to call Bay a hack, but I know that isn’t true. Given the right material, as the Bad Boys movies and Pain And Gain have demonstrated, Bay has proven to be a talented and effective director. What I am going to do here is defend the reputation of this franchise I enjoy. People now seem to believe that Bay’s crappy contributions reflect the entirety of the franchise and that simply will not stand.
Now I’m not going to pretend that Transformers isn’t a franchise about selling toys, but so what? Just because it has a commercial angle doesn’t make it impossible to tell a good story. The LEGO Movie should be all the proof you need of that. Also, don’t try and tell me Transformers is stupid. Oh, it’s silly as hell, but most science fiction when you get down to it is rather silly. Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, and Doctor Who just to name a few are silly as shit, but it is the smart and entertaining stories creators can tell in those silly worlds that make these franchises so popular. Yes, it is about robots punching each other, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be about more. Again, silly, not stupid. Transformers has had some really talented people make some really great stuff over the years and that’s what I’m here to celebrate, so sit back and let me share with you five of my favorite entries in all of Transformers.
These games follow events in the Cybertroian War from the rise of Optimus to Prime to the Autobots’ exodus in the Arc. What is really interesting is how you play both sides of the conflict, you can find yourself getting carried away in a moment as you fight your way towards your objective and forget that you are actually playing as the bad guy. These games drop you into a war you already know nobody wins and your victories along the way for either side only hasten the destruction of the very planet you are fighting for.
The second game especially has a somber and bittersweet tone to it, but developer High Moon doesn’t use this as soapbox to make some grand statement. Instead, it shows the tragedy play out and leaves the player to figure out what they should feel about it. You do need a passing knowledge of the Transformers to truly appreciate these games as they don’t spend a lot of time explaining things that the fanbase for the games would already be familiar with. A third entry into the series, not developed by High Moon and serving as the tie-in for the newest Bay flick was just released and by most accounts isn’t any good (big surprise). Roll with the original two and leave the third one out.
4. Transformers Prime
Prime owns its existence directly to the Bay films and carries over some of trappings. It was even developed and produced by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci who “wrote” some of the Transformers movies. Thankfully, it was written, directed, animated, and acted by people who seemed to care about the project and didn’t want to just phone it in for a huge payday. The show integrated popular elements from previous incarnations and had a darker edge to it, which brought in fans new and old. Transformers Prime was nominated for and won multiple Daytime Emmys.
The show was gorgeous and the voice cast was beyond excellent. Peter Cullen, Jeffery Combs, Ernie Hudson, Michael Ironside, Nolan North, and Clancy Brown are but a few of the big names on this project. Despite such a great cast, when I think of this show only two names come to my mind. First, once again going toe-to-toe with Peter Cullen, we had the return of Frank Welker as Megatron. Second, the revelation that was Steven Blum as Starscream. Everybody up to that point would simply ape Chris Latta’s original take on the character in an uninspired manner. Conversely, Blum was allowed to go a different direction. Blum’s Starscream manages to stay true to everything we know and love about Decepticon schemer, but in a fresh and exciting new way. The third season and the series ending TV movie were somewhat disappointing, but as a total product Transformers Prime is well worth your time.
3. Beast Wars
Beast Wars can be seen as the great experiment in the Transformers franchise. Gen 2 hadn’t taken off like Hasbro had hoped and they were out to find something to keep the brand name going. Beast Wars got to break most of the rules and tropes simply because those things weren’t set in stone yet like they were for later incarnations. One of the most interesting features of this series was its continuity. Slowly it was revealed as the show went on that this series was in the same timeline as the original Generation 1 cartoon from the 80’s. I won’t spoil all the whens and hows for anybody who hasn’t seen it and wants to, but it really becomes one of the high points of the show. The series used its own franchise’s history to provide a sense of scope. As this series had a much smaller cast than the original, more time could be spent fleshing out the characters. From Megatron’s need to hear himself talk, the conflicted nature of Dinobot, or the somehow loveable douchery and pessimism of Rattrap, you got a sense of what made these creatures tick.
Another thing with the show was all the unceremonious death. Few characters made it all the way through the series and the majority of the dead went out in rather pointless ways. It gave the show an edge and provided tension as you could never be 100% sure that everyone would come out the other end safe. The show isn’t without flaws, the CG hasn’t aged very well (especially with the first season, ugh!) and the slapstick feels forced and out of place most of the time. The following series Beast Machines left a sour taste in many fans mouths as many of the big reveals and character twists were insulting to all that had come before it. Beast Wars has a satisfactory ending of its own, so I wouldn’t recommend continuing after it unless you really want to see what happened next.
2. All Hail Megatron
In 2008 IDW sought to jump-start their Transformers comic line with a soft reboot courtesy of Shane McCarthy. McCarthy took the ball and went on to tell one of the best stories starring the Transformers ever told. With the Autobots beaten and scattered across space and the Matrix in Megatron’s clutches, the Decepticons decide to quit playing nice and outright conquer the world in their customary violent fashion.
While McCarthy and Co. couldn’t really show full on human death, this book is full so much implied human death that it is a little staggering. One scene that still makes me squirm involves releasing Frenzy on a bunch of soldiers while some Decepticons talk about just what is going to happen to these poor troops. It leaves the mind’s eye to fill in the blanks of what happened to the people, which is part of what makes this book so effective. With Earth conquered and the Autobots missing, the question then becomes what are the Decepticons with no one to fight? Megatron finds that there is little to nothing for him on the other side of battle. Thankfully for old Megs, the Autobots finally have the means to make a counterattack and take back the planet before the Decepticons fully turn on each other. A great storyline that no mere synopsis could cover and that shaped Transformers comics for years All Hail Megatron is worth every penny.
1. Transformers 1986
Full disclosure here, this movie is a a mess… but it is also awesome. This cult classic proved that the Transformers was more than just a toy commercial, even if it did so unintentionally. Part of the point of this movie was get rid of all the characters whose toys were being discontinued and to introduce the new characters and toys so that the kids would be excited to pick them up when they came out of the movie. That isn’t quite what happened. Because they were dealing with robots and not people, the writers and artists were really set loose to create some spectacular and horrific death scenes and indeed the movie boasts a pretty heavy body count.
Hasbro and the creators didn’t fully understand what they had achieved with the cartoon and toys. Kids had not only bought into the toys, but they had also bought into and were emotionally connected to the characters and world. Many kids did come out pumped for the new toys, but many also left saddened and mourning the loss of characters they considered friends. Prime’s death is especially tragic and even as an adult it hurts a little every time I see it.
The film is uneven in tone and pacing as it jumps from serious to silly from one moment to the next and many scenes outright stop without providing any natural sense of completion. The soundtrack is full on cheesy 80’s metal and it is glorious. I don’t own many soundtracks, but I proudly own the OST for this flick and will rock out to Stan Bush’s The Touch any day of the week. The voice cast is impressive as well with names like Leonard Nimoy, Orson Wells, and Robert Stack as well as many others. Of course the big winners for me will always be Peter Cullen and Frank Welker as both really seemed to go for it in this movie. What we have here is a movie that is fascinating on every level and continues to be discussed and dissected even to this day.
Wheelie say, instead of Bay, try these today!
Sound off in the comments below with your thoughts on my picks as well as some you own! As for me, I’m going to go read the newly released second trade paperback of the Dark Cybertron storyline!