Do fans care about Transformers movies anymore?

That question might inspire laughter about the movies’ apparent mediocrity. Yet despite their flaws as films, Michael Bay’s series of robo battles not only carved out a sizable space in pop culture but were massive box office hits that made money hand over fist. However, that success was taken for granted by both Bay and the studio. The original 2007 film is an enjoyable blockbuster; it’s not an amazing movie, but it was still awe-inspiring to see these icons of 2D animation come to life in live action. Then, the sequels would quickly descend in quality. I’m talking about some of the worst screenplays you’ll see in a mainstream, four-quadrant, billion dollar earning franchise. It didn’t help that Bay and the film’s producers refused to take the movies’ criticisms seriously, resulting in a stream of tone deaf films that seemed actively spiteful against a portion of its audience. While these movies continuously racked up gold overseas, their dwindling domestic box office totals and Bay’s wandering interest for the future of the franchise meant that a reset was inevitable.

This led us to Bumblebee (2018), a mostly solid but imperfect little romp that accumulated a modest $465 million worldwide cume. While the film was profitable (it “only” had a $100 production budget), this was a far cry from the franchise’s billion dollar heights. There’s many reasons for why that is; for starters, the absolute dogshit sequels cratered the franchise’s reputation, driving off many fans. On the opposite end, diehard Michael Bay supporters may have been discouraged by the director’s exit from the franchise, as Bumblebee was helmed by the little-known Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings). Going from a series that usually promised an assembly line of heroes with each entry, led by the grandiose Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), to a stand-alone film focused solely on a supporting character like Bumblebee (no matter how lovable) may have also eaten into fan interest. But perhaps most important of all, the general public just really didn’t know what to make of this movie – Bumblebee is a prequel, set in the 80s, and has little to do with the events fans saw depicted in the prior films. It was such a weird and unconventional attempt at a rebrand and likely left many observers confused about why they should have cared about it.

To be clear, the movie is superior to most of the Bay films, which were largely abominations bordering on acts of terror, but it carried little pop cultural cache. Fast forward 5 years later, and the franchise finds itself in an uphill battle once again. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is attempting to claw its way to relevancy, sandwiched in a crowded summer movie season. Often overshadowed by a Chris Nolan epic, Tom Cruise’s death wish, The Malibu Stacy Movie Barbie, DC’s latest attempt to convince you their bad movies didn’t happen, Orlando Hopkins and the hard drive of De-Aging Technology, and a throng of Spider-People. These movies may end up representing varying degrees of quality, but they are the movies most cinephiles are talking about online and are poised to be the biggest winners at this summer’s box office. So, Rise of the Beasts needs to be damn good to compete with that level of fan interest. The marketing of the film is promising. There are things I like, but also some things I have my reservations about:

First off, I know it’s set in the 90s, but the DMX song feels so out of place. Respect to the legend, may he RIP, but I have no idea why they thought a poorly tempo’d riff of Ruff Ryder’s Anthem was the tone this trailer needed. That song wasn’t even out in 1994! Add that to Shazam 2’s embarrassing use of Eminem’s Business, and 2023 is just off to a raucous start for ill-fitting and awkwardly crowbarred songs in movies where CGI characters punch each other. Moving on, the film is juggling a great deal of Transformers mythology. As the title already suggests, it’s going to depict the famed Beast Wars conflict, but will do so in the face of an impending threat from Transformers super villain Omnicron. On the big screen, the planet-eating baddie was most recently seen in Transformers: The Last Knight (2017). Do you remember that? No? Good, neither does anyone else.

The character is perhaps most famous for its appearance in the beloved Transformers: The Movie (1986). It was there that the character made its debut, clearly inspired by Marvel’s Galactus, as a planet eating megaforce that often threatens to be a more powerful entity than even Megatron. However, the idea of this being a 90s period piece and the knowledge that we’ve already seen the character in a present-day setting takes some of the stakes out of their presence. Reportedly, Rise of the Beasts is the 1st in a planned trilogy, which makes its story choices even more confusing. So are we doing 3 movies in the 90s? Or is each movie going to jump ahead to the next decade? If it’s the latter, sorry, I saw the X-Men try and fail to do this already, in SPECTACULAR fashion. It’s such a strange way to handle this rebrand. Which calls into question if there’s some semblance of logic being employed by the filmmakers and producers, or are they just making it up as they go along?

However, as benign and perplexing the story choices may be, this film feels like a sequel to Bumblebee not just in continuity, but also in visual style. One of the many (many (many)) complaints levied at the Bay movies was how the camera movements and framing completely scrambled the images of these robot fights. That for all the scale and bombast, a Transformers fight can get really boring really fast if you can’t tell what the hell is going on. Here, director Steven Caple Jr., in keeping in line with Bumblebee, has sacrificed scale for visual clarity and improved framing. You can see every movement the Autobots make, and their reactions to various attacks are captured with the detail of a Manga or comic book. Instead of the shaky cam and blistering editing speed, Caple Jr. seems to want to lay splash pages on his canvas. Seeing Wheeljack, Arcee, and Cheetor in uninterrupted glory, not cut short by an aggressive editing strategy, will look gorgeous on the big screen.

However, what may potentially hurt the movie is if the human characters are a dud. In the spirit of Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), this has the potential to be a striking piece of CGI wizardry when the giant machines are on screen, and an insomnia curing bore when the human characters are shown. Much of the spotlight appears to center on Dominique Fishback and Anthony Ramos. Fishback has been strong in other films (Judas and the Black Messiah), while Ramos I’m less confident in. But if the screenplay is shallow and dull, the acting talent on-hand may not matter, and the franchise’s history doesn’t inspire much confidence. Overall, I think Rise of the Beasts may overachieve in some areas and predictably fall short in others. Let’s hope the scales tip further to the former. For a franchise in transition, its best road map to return to relevancy is to exceed expectations.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts pulls up to theaters everywhere on June 9th, 2023.