“Does my franchise really have to be at the mercy of a megalomaniacal hack and all his shoddy whims?” That’s a question Transformers fans have likely been asking for years.
I didn’t grow up with Transformers; as a 1973 baby in the U.S., I was weaned on the original Star Wars, and then transferred to G.I. Joe action figures when my tastes got more “sophisticated.” By the time Transformers really took off, I was moving on to music and girls. But let’s pretend I had been playing with Optimus Prime and Megatron instead of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. I wouldn’t have ever signed a deal with the devil that consigned the cinematic future of my beloved characters to a testosterone junkie with bad hair. If this was your actual experience, you certainly wouldn’t have either.
And yet we’ve been stuck with Michael Bay for ten years, as he’s steadily ground away all the remnants of what once made us love the Autobots and hate the Decepticons. Instead, now we hate both, and Bay most of all.
This sad situation has become possible because Michael Bay has had a stranglehold on this franchise. He sunk in his metal talons ten years ago and has never relinquished that grip, despite the overwhelming critical consensus that he should. Of course, Hasbro and Paramount are glad he hasn’t, because he continues to make them money hand over fist.
It got me thinking about what other franchises have been running as long as Transformers without a single change in the director’s chair … and some of those that have benefitted from new blood. And also, some that benefitted from new blood, but then were unceremoniously wrested back into the hands of the megalomaniacal hack who had them in the first place.
The obvious answer that jumps to mind is the six-part series of Tolkien’s Middle Earth films, all of which have been directed by Peter Jackson. While the first three films had almost no detractors, and culminated in a Best Picture win for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Jackson couldn’t get the same magic back with the series of Hobbit films that launched in 2012. I’d say there was never any question of turning the reins over to somebody else, as fans welcomed Jackson back for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and then, with the movies being made simultaneously, there existed no feasible route for shifting control. I’d say that, except those films were actually once planned as a Guillermo del Toro series, and that certainly would have been interesting to see.
A similar logic might apply to Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series, if you consider three movies “long running” enough to discuss here. The second and third films created the template that Jackson would later use, having been made back-to-back to maximise the actors’ availability and other related production costs. (With the benefit of minimising the amount the characters aged between films.) The Wachowskis also followed that template with the second and third of their Matrix movies, without nearly as positive results.
In terms of more traditionally staged three-part series, no one but Christopher Nolan could have shepherded the Dark Knight trilogy through to completion and maintained such a consistent tone. You don’t hear anyone complaining about how that one turned out, critically or commercially. On the other hand, the Godfather trilogy, the only series to have ever yielded two best picture winners, probably would have been better stopping at two, though Francis Ford Coppola came back for some unneeded fan service in 1990 with Godfather III. Came back and embarrassed himself, I should add.
Going to a fourth movie seems to be especially risky. Steven Spielberg was doing just fine with the Indiana Jones movies until The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was just a bridge too far. Richard Donner probably should have known it was time to stop the Lethal Weapon movies when Danny Glover was already “getting too old for this shit” in the second. Then again, it being a fourth movie – not to mention the 30-year gap leading up to it – didn’t prevent George Miller from making his best Mad Max movie, one that won multiple Oscars.
The results have been predictably mixed, with few certain conclusions to draw. It’s hard to speculate how much better or worse a series might have been when no other director has gotten his or her shot. But we do have concrete examples of series where the original director left, then came back, then made some bad movies that made you wish he’d stayed gone.
The first example that comes to mind is George Lucas, who apparently wished he’d never let Irvin Kirshner direct The Empire Strikes Back and Richard Marquand direct Return of the Jedi. When episodes I through III were planned, he wasn’t letting anyone else get near them, to the eternal chagrin of Star Wars fans everywhere. Fortunately, with the sale of his company to Disney, he’s no longer making those decisions. Another guy who’s come back but hasn’t let go again is Ridley Scott, who stayed away from three whole Alien sequels before returning to the director’s chair for two more of dubious value. As he wants to make at least three more, they’ll have to pry this one out of his cold dead hands if they ever want to get it back from him.
Which is a shame, because the Alien series is the platonic ideal of how to give birth to a series and then let other creative minds shape its future direction. With James Cameron making as much of a stamp on that series as Scott did, the series got far more mileage than it likely ever would have if Scott had come back and made a sequel in the same vein as the original. Then David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet each got to come in and make their own Alien movies that were each also very different from the ones that had come before. Those movies may not have been massive critical hits, but the cult appreciation they’ve accrued over the years has been significant.
So will someone else get a shot at Transformers? Yes, it appears so. Despite the horrifying announcement earlier this year that 14 – yes, you read that right – future Transformers movies have already been written, Bay has said this past week that he’s done directing them. That’s not the first time he’s said that, but for the purposes of this piece and for my dying hopes in a world that is good and just, let’s just say he’s telling the truth this time. That means that as many as 14 other directors could get a chance to put their stamp on a franchise that has been surprisingly durable.
Whether it’s too late to salvage Transformers is anybody’s guess. Besides, even if he’s not directing, Bay will still be producing, urging some young turk that he’s personally selected to throw in a few extra explosions and a few more stunt men on trampolines hurtling through the air. All I know is, I’m glad the child version of me was playing with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader instead of Optimus Prime and Megatron.