What Does A Cinematic Universe Mean To Transformers?

Perhaps emboldened by the amazing success of Marvel's take on a shared continuity for its increasingly numerous movies and now TV projects, Hasbro has made known their plans to try this approach with the Transformers movie series. But what can we expect from this direction, and how might it affect Transformers 5? Keep reading for some thoughts.

It should be prefaced that right now we don't really know how this plan may be executed, and in honesty the Hasbro Studios people probably don't know either yet. But with some common sense and experience gained from other efforts like this, we can have some reasonable speculation.

How Big Is The World?

The greatest benefit to pursuing an expanded fictional universe is in opening up other settings and concepts with which to tell stories. And Transformers can bring a lot to the table because it lends itself just as well - if not maybe a bit better - to stories in space and on alien worlds as it does to Earth-centric adventures. That's where the potential should really lie in broadening the reach of the continuity. In the process it gives the chance to introduce new casts of characters, letting the old standbys of Optimus and Bumblebee have a breather between "main series" movies. Age of Extinction took what is for this franchise a big step by making the Autobot cast be much more individually distinctive both visually and in personality. If that can carry forward it would be much easier to have different "teams" of Transformers be featured and stand out uniquely from each other, in a way that would make it meaningful to even use different groups of characters in the first place.

Where's The Opening?

The ending of Age of Extinction offers an ideal jumping off point to see what the larger Transformers movie universe has to offer. With Optimus blasting off to space on a mission of murderous self-discovery, the door has already been opened to approach new locations and meet new people. Not that the movies have ever been shy about rotating the cast without explanation, but we can start to hope for better things a little. The timing is probably not right given that Transformers 5 is already pegged for a 2017 premiere, but the neat thing about widening the scope of things is that the idea of an EU movie to lead in and help set up Movie 5 wouldn't otherwise be very far-fetched. A partial sidestory with an alternate cast out in space somewhere that Optimus manages to meet while on his personal quest. That movie's own story could be run through all the while setting up things on the side to get Optimus where he needs to go when Transformers 5 would roll around. Again, the currently established timeline probably won't allow for that this time, but as a storytelling mechanism it would certainly be available and valid as things move forward.

Where Does The Story Go?

So think back to ...well, all the Transformers movies, really. They're all increasingly meandering, lengthy marches to an end, even if the end doesn't seem to coincide with anything other than running out of movie. But a cinematic universe can be one factor in fixing this. In the previous example, I suggested using an intermediate movie to help build some of the next chapter in Optimus's story. Otherwise one of two things would happen. First we'd either spend an hour or more of Movie 5 setting up its own story to explain the what and why of his latest killing spree, or it would go basically unexplained even while taking up the same hour-plus by somehow not communicating any plot information. Of course the third outcome is spending the over an hour delivering set up but doing it so poorly that we might as well have not gotten any.

But that's what I'm getting at. Instead of doing all of that work in one movie, you do the heavy lifting as part of another story. You throw a little expository dialogue and/or a flashback to bring viewers up to speed if they missed the movie in the middle, but apart from that the groundwork is laid and you're ready to jump in to the part that matters. None of this guarantees that the story will objectively make more sense or gain any quality when all is said and done, but having the chance to cut things in to chunks, you get portions that are more manageable on their own. One of the most common complaints I've heard about Age of Extinction laid with the run time. And while AOE was verging on disaster in terms of telling a coherent story, it still needed a lot of the time to express its ideas - and even then some important stuff got glossed over or neglected while we were learning about legal loopholes around being charged with statutory.

What About Bay?

That might be the best news. An increased volume of production pretty much means Bay can't be involved with it all, or at least not in a meaningful way. The recent news that he's connected to Transformers 5 is really like anti-surprise, and colors what we can expect of that movie. But the world is bigger than that now. An expanded Transformers cinematic universe means that new people will have a chance to come in and add their interpretation to the world of the movie Transformers. Michael Bay basically designed this world according to his own vision, and while it is financially successful for sure, no one can be blamed for feeling some fatigue from this singular concept as we come to almost a decade of it.

While stylistic consistency will probably be enforced to some degree - particularly the visual design of the characters - there's still a lot of room for new expression. Much of this is elements discussed whenever it's announced in a new cycle that Bay is retiring from Transformers, and it all comes down to the same thing: A new look and new feel. Your alien robots may still look basically the same, but the way they behave, the way they're presented, and the environments they inhabit can all be different to what our experience has been so far. And Age of Extinction showed us how the look of the robots can be changed while still keeping in a consistent general style. So just because they all have to have a similarity doesn't mean that all we can ever have is piles of knives.

It's being speculated right now that even though Bay's involvement with the fifth movie has been promised, he might not be doing the directing work for it. If he's been brought on as a producer in order to get his name on the movie, we may already be in line for a newer, fresher look at this world in the main series. Bay's name was featured pretty prominently in TMNT last year despite that he didn't direct it, and it was all for the fact that his name on a movie makes sure people pay attention. Transformers is regarded as "his" franchise. If Bay is truly ready to move on, having him produce may be a transitional step. Producing the fifth movie with a new director introducing a new style but still with the general regard that it's "Michael Bay's movie" could help ease the larger audience through a shift in look and feel. And even if Bay continues to be involved or even direct later installments, this kind of movie would only be beneficial to creating EU movies that he can't be very involved with.

Isn't This Going To Make Story Consistency Even Worse?

Well first of all, you can hardly get worse than the state of the "overall story" of the Transformers movies that are already inconsistent and often outright contradictory from one to the next. But jumping the Transformers movie franchise to this new level actually stands to be able to help things. Hasbro has hired Akiva Goldsman to head the writing team that will be working on the EU projects. This essentially puts him in the position of a story editor where he'll have the opportunity to guide the scripts and keep everything focused and working together instead of flailing wildly all over the place with no greater concern than getting to the next explosion. The requirements of making a bigger media franchise of the movies mean that there necessarily has to be a tighter grasp on the story side of the production. I believe the chances are good that as this plays out, the days of shooting Transformers movies in advance of a script will probably be over with.

How Expanded is "Expanded", Anyway?

With no real plans announced so far, it's hard to say. The common belief is that it means more Transformers movies, and that's certainly the premise we're talking about now. In ideal circumstances, a yearly Transformers-branded movie could certainly be possible with parallel production taking place. Main series movies on the odd years, EU on the even, so they still each get their two-year production cycle and don't have to be rushed. I'd hesitate to expect any greater frequency just because of the specific complications the Transformers movies bring. With a meaningful chunk of the main cast being rather complicated computer effects, it's just not as easy to knock out production and get a couple of franchise movies in the same year like when your whole focus cast is real actors. The other things is, if some of the movies happen away from Earth, you suddenly are looking at a big increase in the visual effects needed. To keep mass appeal, I don't believe the series can afford to risk a full-CG film yet, so even with the potential of alien worlds, you'll still need actual actors and some real sets.

Where this goes is also likely to depend on what happens this year with Marvel. How Avengers and Ant-Man are received in terms of box office numbers are going to inform a lot of things, and if they don't perform to expectations, it's likely that Transformers EU plans may be accordingly dialed back and played safer. Cinematic universes are the "in" thing right now, and it makes sense for Hasbro to go after this idea as well, but they need to be aware that they're joining a little late and they may have gotten here just in time to watch the downard slope of the curve begin. There's a lot of potential in this and we as an audience could stand to benefit greatly from what this might bring.

We should also remember that Hasbro has a lot of legacy properties to draw from, many of which could play well with Transformers in the right hands. In the best case where this expanded universe winds up being very successful, it could open the door to other franchises being explored. A shared continuity would also help facilitate crossover media, even if not necessarily involving the Transformers. If the universe becomes truly "expanded" to house a range of compatible brands, we could be looking at a really interesting future of media.

So, Is There A Future In TV?

This is something I've given some thought to even before the EU idea was formally announced. Realistically, I think we're a long way from an attempt at a live action Transformers series. There's a lot of things working against it, particularly the VFX it would tend to require. For a typical TV show budget you'd have to cut a lot down. For one, use of robots would have to be minimal to the point of basically not happening at all. Now, Autobot characters could be represented as cars or other vehicles using real vehicles the same way the movie does. But without the robots you're basically remaking Team Knight Rider. I myself don't have a problem with that, but I'm apparently among singe-digits' worth of people who think back fondly on that show. Or remember it. Anyway, putting that aside, a TV series that has to minimize the robots would need non-Decepticon antagonists. There's enough concepts for that to pull from, not the least of which are MECH from Transformers Prime. There's material to be tapped in this. The MECH group pursuing leftover Transformer tech to reverse engineer and sell and a human team with a few Autobots trying to secure it all. It's probably not anyone's ideal vision of a live action TF series, but it might be enough of a starting point to get this universe out there more visibly and regularly than a yearly movie cycle. But again, if this were to happen at all, it's realistically a long way off and probably not something to really consider at this stage.

Couldn't This Go Really Badly?

Yep. But there's a couple of useful models to look at right now to help figure things out. Hasbro can see what Marvel's done right to get an idea of making things work, and they can look at what DC is trying to do to learn all the things to avoid. It's to Hasbro's benefit that they aren't the trailbreakers on this. And they have another thing on their side besides. Comic book movies did well enough since Fox and Sony started giving them a real try, and with Marvel starting to produce directly they came to perform even better. Transformers has a rock solid history with its international box office numbers. They're jumping in to this field with a property that's a proven moneymaker. So unless an increase in available media actively backfires and kills popular interest in the movies, I think everything is going to work out.

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