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I guess I just like liking things

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. ~Anatole France

I saw Transformers: Age of Extinction over the weekend. I have a few questions:

  • How is Optimus Prime able to fix himself? Not twenty minutes prior to scanning a new truck and making himself look like it, a broken-down and rusted Optimus said something along the lines of, “Get me to the other Autobots. They can fix me.”
  • When did Optimus Prime gain the ability not only to fly, but to fly into space?
  • What am I doing with my life?

changeI’m actually in an enviable position when it comes to the Transformers movies: I was aware of Transformers when I was a kid, but I wasn’t a huge fan.  It’s not that I wasn’t impressed by things that could change into other things – I actually was, quite a bit! – it was that I didn’t have much access to them.  I knew a kid who had tons of Transformers, including the “Optimus Prime with trailer” that was in the top five on many a kid’s “If I had a million dollars…” list. knowing that kid didn’t give me access to those toys, though, and I never had the cash to get them myself. I did have a couple of the smallest GoBots, but I couldn’t tell you which ones (nobody remembers the names of any of the GoBots without looking them up, not even the original creators of the GoBots). So I liked the Transformers because they were really cool giant robots that fought each other, but that’s about where it began and ended for me.

Fast forward a bunch of years to the first Michael Bay Transformers movie. It had its moments, but it was overall a pretty bad movie. But, see, I had the luxury of not liking it for its badness, not for its badness as a Transformers movie. I had no great attachment to the property, so that freed me to dislike things like the 472-minute “giant robots try to hide in the garden” scene and the “giant robot urinates oil on John Turturro” scene on their own merits. I wasn’t distracted by the fact that Optimus Prime’s face didn’t look anything at all like Optimus Prime’s face ought to look.

I went to Transformers 2, 3, and 4, for no good reason other than it had become a tradition to see Transformers movies with one particular friend. None of them are very good, but they are very loud and exciting. Two is the worst one, and it turns out I do have a ranking of them, regardless of how well I like any of them (that ranking is 1, 3/4, 2 – I can’t really decide between 3 and 4, so they share equal second place billing). I actually sort of like the story idea behind 4, but not enough to not notice how loooooooooooooong the movie felt while watching it. If you had asked me upon my exit from the movie, I would have said it was about 4 hours long. Turns out, it’s about 15 minutes shy of 3 hours long, and that’s crazypants.

Filmmakers who breathe new life into old properties have two main goals, as I see it:

  1. Give fans of the original property a new shiny version they can appreciate
  2. Gain new fans for the property (read: kids)

It’s hard to be mad at someone for wanting that second part – after all, if there aren’t new fans, the franchise/property will die out eventually because the old fans will also die out eventually. Usually people get up in arms about that first part: “I expected _____________ but got ______________!” I can’t really speak to that point as it relates to Transformers, but there’s a TMNT movie coming up that looks like it’s trying to get me to have an opinion about that (also a Michael bay production, it should be mentioned). Without having seen the new TMNT movie, I can say that the most likely complaint I’ll have about it (and is most likely what fans of other “updated” properties would claim) is that it updates things that didn’t need to be updated.

If you update Spider-Man’s origin from “radioactive spider” to “genetically-altered spider,” that’s an okay update, perhaps even a necessary one. We understand radioactivity more now than they did in 1963. Changing the Ninja Turtles’ origin from “turtles get coated in ooze” to “aliens!” or even to “turtles specifically coated in ooze as a controlled experiment” changes the characters in fundamental ways. And now I’m revealing to you exactly my point: the more attached one is to a fandom/property, the more easily one is outraged by changes perceived to be unnecessary.

That attachment can also work the other way, however. Consider Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. There are two very unBatman things in that movie:

  1. Jack Napier killing Bruce’s parents (thereby creating Batman eventually)
  2. Batman telling The Joker, “I’m going to kill you.”

In spite of those things, I love that movie. For years now it’s been my go-to answer for “What’s your favorite movie?” Overall, it’s a fantastic movie, and it allows me to forgive those two things, which, I need to remind you, are very unBatman things. Very!

(Side note: I love the fan theory on that first point: Batman sees all criminals as the man who killed his parents. If Burton meant that, it’s beautiful… but I don’t think he did. The dialogue in the bell tower at the end makes me think he didn’t – “I made you, you made me first,” that whole thing. There is still no good explanation for Batman intending to kill, though.)

In the end, I don’t know what makes that difference for me. I can forgive the errors in Batman, but not the ones in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. I’m primed to have issues with the new TMNT movie, but I can’t bring myself to care about Transformers enough. Maybe it’s the baseline of “Is this a good movie or not?” That makes the most sense. If you have a change you want to make, make it work. Don’t throw it in “just because.” Explain it, make it make the most sense anyone’s ever heard. Worry about making a good movie first and foremost.

And, really, if you want to make a drastically different movie, perhaps just make a drastically different movie and leave the existing license alone.

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