Transformers: Dark of the Moon came out 10 years ago to mostly negative reviews. Critics were never the series’ loudest cheerleaders, but beyond a predictable lack of enthusiasm for the third entry in the blockbuster franchise, the film made a fatal flaw in losing series co-star Megan Fox—the first domino to fall in Transformers’ slow decline in the following years.
One could argue that the series fizzled out by succumbing to the scourge of “worldbuilding,” but more to the point, it turned its back on its strongest asset: Fox. Or more broadly, it turned its back on the human element that she and other casually jettisoned elements represented.
There’s a lot to criticize in the Transformers franchise, no doubt. Regressive depictions of race and gender, hokey dialogue, rah-rah militarism and a more-is-more approach to action set pieces have been among the more common, very justified complaints from critics. But well-earned snark aside, even if we approach these films on their own terms, letting ourselves get invested in a story based on a toy line and centered on MacGuffins with names like the “Matrix of Leadership,” there’s a real dip in quality when we hit part three. Parts one and two are genuinely a lot of fun—emotionally engaging, even—and there’s a very human reason for that.
To break this down quickly, there’s an ancient, ongoing war between Autobots and Decepticons, two races of giant robots who can transform into various vehicles. In the original film, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is our human protagonist, a dork with no romantic prospects who gets embroiled in the drama via his new car, a yellow Camaro-cum-Autobot named Bumblebee. When Sam’s crush, Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), happens to witness Bumblebee transforming, she dives down the rabbit hole with Sam to fight by his side with the Autobots.
The second film, Revenge of the Fallen, was already faltering when the writing team opted to give Mikaela less to do. She spends the first few reels pining for Sam, who’s off at college now, and the rest of the film, once they’re reunited, playing sidekick as he ascends to the status of Prime—a designation traditionally reserved for big daddy Autobots who look over a brood of smaller, younger Transformers. The film also dropped some of the supporting cast who’d helped the first film rise above some of its sillier plot points, most notably an odd-couple pair of tech wizzes played by Anthony Anderson and Rachael Taylor.
We’re still in serviceable human territory in Revenge of the Fallen, though. Beyond Mikaela’s general ass-kicking, I have a fondness for Sam’s well-intentioned, kind of clueless, ultimately caring and protective parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), and they get a good amount of screentime adjusting to the empty nest while palpably proud of their boy, the first Witwicky to go to college.
But with Dark of the Moon, there’s a sudden shift, reflected most notably in Mikaela’s absence. The premise is admittedly pretty cool and arguably has more narrative potential than the first two outings: What if the creation of NASA and the 1969 Moon landing were all a cover for the U.S. government to dig around Transformer wreckage on the lunar surface? Fun plot points aside, the soul of the franchise is gone before the film even starts; Mikaela is gone.
Fox’s departure from the series (as well as her generally vile and sexist treatment by Hollywood and the press) has been extensively documented. Ultimately, her relationship with director Michael Bay soured while promoting Revenge of the Fallen—and following a fateful interview in which she detailed Bay’s misogyny and habit of endangering crew on set, and infamously accused him of wanting to be a tyrant like Napoleon or Hitler.
The response was swift and mean. A deeply offensive open letter by three anonymous crew members who’d worked with Bay called Fox “dumb,” “trailer trash,” “thankless,” “classless,” “graceless” and a “bitch.” The letter appeared on the director’s website soon after the interview and was taken down only after the damage had been done. Then she was unceremoniously dropped from the third film ahead of filming the following year (Fox maintains that she quit, while Paramount claimed at the time that it was the studio’s unilateral choice). As ugly and public as the whole affair was, it was a fittingly cruel turning point on the road to stripping Transformers of its humanity by way of removing Megan Fox.
This isn’t just about Fox, though. It’s also about the people who give these kinds of movies something to root for. With Dark of the Moon, the Transformers franchise committed to ignoring the human core of any good movie about giant robots (or monsters) wreaking havoc on little old us. Big tentpole monster movies (or smaller indies like Nacho Vigalondo’s brilliant Colossal) tend to need humans to ground them and give them emotional weight. It was odd to see fans react with outrage to 2014’s Godzilla for giving the titular force of nature just eight minutes of screen time, and again to see the internet rise up over critiques of the two-dimensional homo sapiens of Godzilla vs. Kong earlier this year.
“It’s not about the humans, duh!” the narrative goes. But it’s hard to accept this line of reasoning. Titans may not care about our fates as they lord over our world with impunity, but we puny humans sure do! And that’s why their massive conflicts matter to us. Thus far, Kong: Skull Island is the only “MonsterVerse” outing to fully grapple with the futile and tragic role of humans amongst nearly unstoppable, prehistoric kaiju.
Skull Island is a riff on Apocalypse Now, refiguring the colonial roots of Kong as an allegory for and extension of the Vietnam War. We follow scientists travelling to a mythical island. Their escort is mostly made up of American G.I.s taking on one last mission into the heart of darkness despite their orders to return home to their families as the U.S. finally pulls out of Southeast Asia. There are plenty of monsters filling the screen, but there’s also human tragedy. Lots of it. By providing the perspectives of men already used to following unconscionable orders in an unjust war, finally ready to return to normalcy, the film is a surprisingly effective portrait of humanity at its best and worst. We can’t escape our fates, the film tells us, and our attempts, noble or not, mean nothing to the gods above us.
Skull Island got it.
The first two Transformers films got it, too. They’re deeply enriched by the story of the admittedly annoying Sam and his non-annoying girlfriend Mikaela. We first meet Mikaela as a seemingly shallow popular girl who likes jocks (this trope again?). But then we quickly see that she’s smart and brave and noble. In the first film, she puts herself in the line of fire to save Bumblebee, refusing to leave him behind and fashioning a wheelchair out of a tow truck when he loses the use of his legs. In the second film, her bond with machines is developed further, as she converts a Decepticon to the Autobot cause. All of this happens as she’s falling deeper in love with Sam, the two finally speaking those three magic words aloud to each other before the credits roll.
Mikaela also has a solid backstory: Her dad’s an ex-con, and as government agents extort her and threaten to revoke his parole, we learn Mikaela has a juvenile record of her own for refusing to narc on the old man—go Mikaela!
By dropping Mikaela, the films thumbed their noses at a person we were invited to care about. And it wasn’t just that Mikaela was replaced that stung. It was the callous way her character was written out, and even rewritten into someone unrecognizable. She’s never mentioned by name in Dark of the Moon, but Mikaela’s departure is signaled by a brief conversation in which Sam’s new fling is framed as an improvement. Wheelie—the very born-again Autobot whom she converted from the dark side—now describes Mikaela disparagingly as “the last girl.”
“She was mean. Didn’t like her,” adds Brains, a new addition to the Autobot family.
She was mean? That doesn’t track at all with the character we followed through the first two films. The whole scene feels like a cheap shot at Fox at the expense of her character.
Dark of the Moon then takes us back through familiar steps, asking us to care about whether Sam will say “I love you” to his new girlfriend, Carly. Predictably, he does, but do we care? Rose Huntington-Whiteley handles the role of Carly perfectly well, but the writing just doesn’t give us a reason to invest any emotion here.
If, against all odds, you did happen to care and felt okay losing Fox and Mikaela, the films take another detour following Dark of the Moon. Part four effectively starts fresh, and the human element feels even more half-baked. Transformers: Age of Extinction takes place years after Dark of the Moon. We follow a new batch of humans, along with some convoluted backstory for the Transformers.
Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is an inventor who discovers a damaged Optimus Prime and joins the Autobot cause. Cade is a widower raising his 17-year-old daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz). They have a classic protective father/rebellious teen relationship, bolstered by Cade’s cringey “no dating household” rule and recurring quips about Tessa showing too much skin. (Tessa’s secret 20-year-old boyfriend reciting Texas age of consent laws by heart certainly lacks the romantic charm of Sam and Mikaela’s meet-cute.)
As human drama goes, it’s pretty thin, and only gets thinner in the next film, Transformers: The Last Knight. What little emotion the Yeagers invite is stripped from The Last Knight, with Cade now on his own, fighting alongside the Autobots while Tessa’s off at college. (No word on her secret boyfriend’s fate, but that’s probably for the best.)
It took almost a decade after Megan Fox’s departure for the Transformers franchise to get back on track in 2018 with the one-off Bumblebee, a prequel that mostly throws out the rulebook and is easily the best use of the Hasbro property we’ve seen. Bumblebee is a refreshing take, focused on one Autobot decades before the events of the original franchise titles. At its core, it’s a boy and his dog story, or a girl and her ‘bot, to be precise. Picture the end of White Fang, but it’s a California teen who loves the Smiths yelling “Go on, get outta here!” to a big yellow robot instead of a wolfdog.
Director Travis Knight zeroes in on what makes these movies click, treating Bumblebee as a coming-of-age story first and foremost, with a backdrop of intergalactic warfare to up the stakes and remind us how precious and fleeting our lives are. (Leave it to an animator like Knight to trim down the animated action sequences into something coherent and engaging that serve the bigger, human story). Crucially, the film also has a sense of humor about itself: “They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?” asks an incredulous government agent played by John Cena.
Paramount is developing new projects in the Transformers cinematic universe, so hopefully they’ll have learned something from the loss of Fox and the success of Bumblebee. If they’re accepting pitches, I’d love for someone to check in on Mikaela and see what she’s been up to since helping save the world twice. She’s earned it. There must be someone at the studio who still has Megan Fox’s number.
Frederick Blichert is a Vancouver-based entertainment writer. His work has appeared in VICE, Xtra, Senses of Cinema, io9, and more, and he has written books on the films Serenity and Jennifer’s Body. In his spare time, he holds out hope for a sequel to Jupiter Ascending and a fourth season of Hannibal. Find him on Twitter.