The “Transformers” franchise is back with its fifth movie in a decade, and possibly its last. Neither Mark Wahlberg, the star of the last two films, nor the director, the remarkable Michael Bay, seems interested in making yet another one. Of course, “Transformers” is just a toy that turned into cartoons that transmogrified into a multi-billion-dollar franchise. There is much that’s objectionable in that course of events, and it certainly does not do Hollywood any honor. But as summer entertainment for kids goes, what’s better than “Transformers”?
Action blockbusters naturally show young audiences two crucial things about a free society. First, they show us that good and evil are real, and make up the moral drama of our lives to a very great extent. Secondly, they indicate that we are caught up in struggles much greater than ourselves and cannot delude ourselves into believing we are ever fully in control of events, people, or circumstances.
‘Transformers’ Is An Earnest, If Mediocre, Film
The Transformers give moral dignity to our science, even as they awe our young with their size and power. If they seem like caricatures, it is because they are earnestly moral on an enormous scale, in an age in which spectacles are supposed to deliver moralistic slaughters with sarcastic remarks interspersed. There is much to learn about ourselves here, at least if we take a charitable and welcoming view of this movie.
Just about every criticism of “Transformers,” insofar as it deplores mediocrity, would apply at least as well to almost all other successful movies. The awful ratings of the movie, for this reason, show our desire to find a scapegoat. Part of this is an unwillingness to live with what we’ve got, because we don’t really have great movies—we just call everything great or awesome. Dissatisfaction with our situation is not itself blameworthy. Blockbusters are naturally poetic answers to that dissatisfaction. The problem lies in our desperate desire to be deceived with the polished mediocrity that passes for greatness these days. Most of the prestige we heap on success is merely self-deception at the level of an entire society, with an enormous influence on the taste of the rest of the world. That’s the depressive part—not earnest spectacles like “Transformers.”
The blame this movie incurs reveals that honesty about our mediocrity is the only sin known to blockbusters. Refusing to deplore the popular taste for action in favor of a more prestigious taste for treachery is the path to public scorn for a successful director like Michael Bay. A fake sophistication is now supposed to hide what popular movies really are, because the people who like them don’t dare like them for what they are. At this point, deceit more than anything else is what the most prestigious popular movies have to do, and that’s obviously perverse. It’s also why it’s become necessary to reveal the ugliness of this scapegoating before one can plausibly say something good about a movie like “Transformers.”
Michael Bay’s Greatness Is Too Quotidian For Critics
Now, a word about Michael Bay. He is the rare Hollywood director who made his name when great action movies were being made. He wasn’t nearly the best, but he was a reliable storyteller with a rare gift for technological invention. (His only competitor was James Cameron, who made two movies in 20 years). Michael Bay’s talent, treated with scorn by self-appointed sophisticates, is usually treated with respect by far more prestigious fellow directors. This is not because of his success—if anything, that makes him loathsome to his critics—but because of his remarkable craft. And he’s really doing a public service developing technologies and techniques for the use of computerized special effects. Filmmakers of the future will be grateful, if there will be any gratitude in the future.
The “Transformers” movies, because of their strong, simple moral themes, have been replete with symbolism that is discounted simply because our critics and our educated classes think themselves too good to respect the honest work and ingenuity put into movies. Had Michael Bay been a pretentious self-appointed enemy of democracy and popular opinion on matters moral, he’d be far better loved. Had he been an eccentric trying to make the world anew in techno-illusions for the big screen, he’d be obsessively revered by a faithful, vociferous few. Instead, he is too normal and too attached to his American audience, and that proves unbearable to those who feel they need to have opinions about successful directors.
So this time, Michael Bay is taking no chances. He’s going for the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, recently attempted rather bravely, but not very thoughtfully, by Guy Ritchie, another poet of the democratic audience. The importance of this legend for Americans should be obvious from the most famous American statement about the relationship between America and Europe: Mark Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” In that story, the typical American, in love with technology and hoping to substitute crafty engineering for politics and religion, takes over medieval England from the Knights, and then ends up in a horror of bloody catastrophe because of his arrogance. This protagonist, Hank Morgan, who has no respect for nobility and is utterly ignorant of his own manliness, arms children for slaughter—there’s a startling view of Enlightenment. And there you have it: what was supposed to be an utter affirmation of American superiority over old world superstition and inequality ends up a cautionary tale against thinking that a manly scientific power is sufficient to guide human conduct, individually or collectively.
‘Transformers’ Considers The Moral Problem Of Tech
The Transformers are always telling that all-American story, in their popular way, without this horror of an ending, and therefore without being taken seriously. Again and again, the moral problem of technology, the threatening despair of men confronted with a science beyond their understanding or control, plays out in a way that’s meant to reassure and even to prepare Americans for the future by instilling nobility. Hence the use of King Arthur and his Knights, the original egalitarians of Anglo-Saxon mythology, however unegalitarian in their martial prowess. So really, all we need to do is let these stories do their work without perverting them. Teaching the thrill of power, the sacrifice for a common good, and the heartbreak of losing comrades even in a just cause should bring tears to people’s eyes, not the contempt with which these movies are treated.
I’ll give you two examples of what’s at work in these stories, to do some of the work critics have been unwilling to do, as they’re more interested in humiliating American craftsmen like Michael Bay than in helping them pay more attention to their symbols. Remember “Revenge of the Fallen,” which identified ancient pyramids with the source of a science that’s all about enslavement, turning men into mindless automata and exploiting the world for the nihilistic purpose of immortality? Power turns out the be a death cult in that story. That’s a worthwhile insight into ancient politics, and very important for our own scientific obsession with acquiring power. It could have been done much better, but who is even interested in doing it better?
Now let’s turn to this newest story, “The Last Knight.” This is the only quest for redemption in the “Transformers” series. It’s dedicated to its noblest hero, Optimus Prime, so it’s a fitting end for the franchise. He learns what an awful curse it is to have to destroy something in the name of what’s right. His great effort to bring his own original planet back to life is shown in its moral ambiguity. Beyond the human villains who have tried his faith before, who are really sorcerer’s apprentices, he finds a real sorcerer, and therewith the possibility of a corrupting creator. As in previous stories, the question is whether control over events means doing politics by human sacrifice.
The convolutions of the plot, simple as they are, get the basics right: it really is the case that belief in acting for the right reasons can corrupt us, because we assume we know enough to do what’s right even in the most dangerous situations. It’s also true that this needn’t cause a tragedy, if we’re not too self-important to wake up in time from the fantasies that often guide us. To this problem of knowledge in relation to action is tied the problem of the powers involved in creation, whether they can ever do anything but make enemies—love of one’s creation can lead to sacrificing everything else to that purpose. People don’t take these things seriously because they are shown in a story rather than said—and because the dialogue, which has replaced action in superhero movies, doesn’t pretend to any sophistication in this case. That reveals more of a failure in critics, however, than in the movie.
These Stories May Not Be Elegant, But They’re Still Noble
Optimus Prime needs help from our human world in order to have a chance to redeem himself. That moral drama is what young people should be seeing, not to mention aspiring movie-makers and canting critics. The need to put robots and humans together while keeping their worlds apart is an obvious symbol for our own technological problems. What’s shockingly counter-cultural about this story is that human beings could supply moral guidance for powers beyond human imagination. It is this moral uprightness that also leads the story to look at the very un-American Middle Ages in such an approving way, as evidence of the nobility of man’s moral struggle against the corruption of power.
So it’s worth taking seriously the idea that this robot-hero has a split mind: the powers involved in his creation might turn out to be destructive of humanity, inasmuch as they are dedicated to controlling energy and ensuring one’s mechanical survival. Over against them rises the belief in what’s truly right, and therefore a reliable guide to his noblest actions, on which humanity’s survival might depend. These stories about scientific power are always searching for a way in which might does not make right, but maybe instead right makes might.
These stories are not the most elevated or the deepest public reflections on nobility and the need for sacrifice. Nevertheless, their pattern and structure are not reproachable. We have no great movies that reject the central concerns of the “Transformers.” We have precious few great movies which, embracing them, do them justice better than the “Transformers” stories. That’s what Hollywood has to offer and what the American audience is used to, and we had better admit it. Michael Bay is not what’s wrong with either Hollywood or America. He actually helps make Hollywood better.
Michael Bay Helps Us Live With Our Mediocrity
Indeed, for all the corporate commercial spirit that makes billions out of often flimsy spectacles and oftener silly toys and merchandise—people do not go to see “Transformers” unless they believe, secretly or openly, that the moral drama of good and evil and the attempt to add redemption to justice are the true yearnings of the American heart. Mediocre stories patterned on that yearning do a real, albeit modest, good.
We should try to understand the commercialization of our nobler yearning in terms which, however witty, protect the heart from the laceration of cynicism. After all, another lesson Mark Twain teaches in his own foray in King Arthur’s court is that modern American men trying to sell their products and ideas for money are not too different from the ancient knights who wore their principles emblazoned on their shields and banners. Those men were not all self-effacing honor or self-aggrandizing arrogance; our men are not all commercial-minded profit-seekers. There is something more than a little heroic about the working men and women of America, and that includes even Michael Bay. Compared to that, our corporations seem mindlessly commercial, making movies almost by accident.
Michael Bay quietly gives us the chance to live with our common mediocrity, without desiring some excellence or celebrity which would actually destroy happiness or decency. He shows us proud greatness falling into evil because of arrogance; he does not try to seduce us with exceptionally intriguing, voluptuous, or confident villains. He has no interest in corrupting his audience; a fairly stern, unerotic morality guides his stories. They are juvenile because they live on morality and idealism. But that is not a bad thing. That is the heart of his audience, and he’s not breaking it. He does not look to elicit critical ravings or nightmarish fantasies—only the thrills of the movie theater and a quiet nod of recognition.
He shows that our mediocrity is our basic awareness of good and evil and our often-stymied striving to deal with it. We’re neither heroes nor villains—we live by our awareness of heroism and villainy. We cannot now tolerate true stories about the greatest heroes and villains, because as an audience we are confused and fearful that we’re running out of future. But at least some heroism and villainy is still needful to us and good for us. And modest blockbusters can do that job.