Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped. Each installment is more profitable than the last, and a fourth entry begins the series anew—Age of Extinction, which replaces Shia LaBeouf’s original hero with Mark Wahlberg’s badass daddy—hits theaters this Friday. That sort of popularity has given it a cultural clout rivaled by only a few cinematic blockbusters. Yet other than imparting its Hasbro toys catchphrase (“More than meets the eye”), what exactly do the Transformers have to say about humanity, war, sacrifice, and sexy women screaming in slow-motion while enormous explosions echo around them? What, in other words, are the core values and fundamental messages of this most beloved of giant-alien-robot sagas?
To find out, I sat through Bay’s three prior installments—2007’s original Transformers, 2009’s much-reviled Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and 2011’s epically insane Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon—to bring you this rundown of the lessons we can learn from the robots-in-disguise’s big-screen adventures.
The do-gooder Autobots are led by noble Optimus Prime, but Michael Bay’s series envisions human heroism as the province of improbable outsiders and rebellious studs. Chief among them is Sam Witwicky, Shia LaBeouf’s nerdy teenager-turned-savior, who acts like a doofus and yet somehow repeatedly manages to both save the world and nab stunningly beautiful girlfriends.
He’s not, however, the only dorky champion of Bay’s films. From John Turturro’s freaky-deaky intelligence agent to John Malkovich’s bizarre corporate CEO, the good guys are generally the idiosyncratic weirdos. Except, of course, for Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson’s military hunks—and yet, despite their peerless manliness, even they triumph primarily because of a go-it-alone, screw-protocol attitude that invariably aligns them with Sam and his wack pack.
Don’t Trust the Establishment
For a series that prizes rebelliousness as a path to victory, it’s no surprise that establishment figures are routinely depicted as no-good variations of “The Man.” That includes John Benjamin Hickey’s cowardly know-it-all politician from Revenge of the Fallen, as well as Frances McDormand’s hardass intelligence bigwig from Dark of the Moon. In both cases, the powers-that-be are presented as rash, uncompromising, and illogical morons who are too busy asserting their authority to realize that their actions are counterintuitive to the mission at hand. And then, of course, there’s Patrick Dempsey’s WASP-y one-percenter from Dark of the Moon, whose Richie-Rich treachery is so all-consuming, he not only betrays his own species and home world, but does so while simultaneously stealing guys’ girlfriends.
Twilight Military Majesty
While Duhamel and Gibson’s army supermen often break the rules, they nonetheless embody Bay’s vision of the U.S. military as a force of unimpeachable good. For the director, there’s no better way to celebrate that virtue than by habitually shooting them during magic hour, silhouetted against the setting sun. And if a scene calls for the military to strut in slow-motion or fight in chaotic battles during the daytime? That doesn’t prevent Bay from inserting a few postcard shots of shadowy soldiers or choppers set against a majestic golden-hued landscape, the better to uphold their status as icons of rah-rah jingoistic might.
The Oft-Maligned Minority
If the military receives nothing but admiration from Transformers, minorities routinely get the shaft. Why Transformers have various Italian/Irish/British/Latino accents is a mystery never answered by Bay’s series, too busy is it reveling in unflattering stereotypes. Latinos are chided for not speaking English (Transformers’ Amaury Nolasco), or depicted as hysterical sissies (Revenge of the Fallen’s Ramon Rodriguez). In Dark of the Moon, gays are presented as creepy pseudo-rapists (Ken Jeong) or fey killers (Alan Tudyk).
African-Americans, however, suffer the worst treatment. In the original film, they’re defined by sweaty countenances, motor mouths, and antagonistic relationships with their grandmothers (both Bernie Mac’s car dealer and Anthony Anderson’s computer hacker). In Revenge of the Fallen, they’re also shown to have disgusting, mockery-worthy teeth (via the prologue’s tribal warriors, and an employee at Turturro’s mom’s deli). Oh, and don’t forget about that sequel’s Mudflap and Skids, the Autobot twins who speak in hip-hop-y jive and have ears and large buckteeth that make them look like monkeys. Seriously. Racism doesn’t come any more blatant.
Parents Just Don’t Understand
You know who are worse than minorities, according to Transformers? Mom and Dad! As evidenced by Kevin Dunn and Julie White’s elder Witwickys, they talk to you about masturbation and getting laid when hotties are hiding in your bedroom (Transformers). Then they take you to college, eat pot brownies (even though they’ve been warned not to!) and proceed to tell girls that you just lost your virginity (Revenge of the Fallen). And then they show up to your post-graduation pad in matching ugly track suits and bust your chops over not having a job (Dark of the Moon)! I mean, really, it’s a miracle LaBeouf’s Sam can even concentrate on using magical All Sparks and Matrixes of Leadership when his parents are all up in his personal business.
Still, even the Witwickys’ horny behavior is more palatable than the Transformers’ own creepy interest in Sam’s sex life, be it Bumblebee trying to help Sam score with Mikaela (Megan Fox) and Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), or Sam’s mini-Transformer sidekicks hanging out in Carly’s underwear drawer.
The Holy Female Trinity
Transformers envisions women in three ways: as kooky embarrassments (White’s mom), ball-busting nags (Frances McDormand’s security chief), or as sex objects (Megan Fox’s Mikaela, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s Carly, Rachael Taylor’s computer whiz, Isabel Lucas’ undercover-Decepticon). That last group is the most prominent, and are required to pose and strut about in short shorts, midriff-baring shirts, and/or panties, swoon at nerdy Sam’s lame come-ons, and photogenically weep and scream when he’s in danger.
Whether criminally-inclined brunettes with auto-mechanical skills (Fox’s Mikaela), or super-slender blondes too dim to realize that their boyfriend might not like them accepting $200,000 cars as gifts from their predatory bosses (Huntington-Whiteley’s Carly), Transformers argues that females are best when they’re not only sexy, but also a little bit dangerous and dumb—a lesson in keeping with the rest of the franchise’s less-than-enlightened messages.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.