Up until now, the Transformers franchise has been critic-proof. It doesn’t matter how bad the reviews have been, Paramount’s Transformers movies continued to make billions of dollars worldwide. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Transformers movies run on hatred, the more we dislike each passing sequel, the more money the franchise makes. Well, I once believed that very thing, but the staggeringly disappointing launch of part five (The Last Knight) suggests that the critic-proof series has finally run out of gas.
Two years ago, Paramount put together a writer’s room for the wider Transformers world led by Akiva Goldsman. The writer of Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, plus The Da Vinci Code doesn’t inspire much confidence in what to expect, but to his credit, Goldsman has written some of my favourite episodes of Fringe, so perhaps there are some hidden depths. Really, really well hidden.
The goal of the brain trust/think tank/room full of grown human beings playing rock em sock em robots on a loop for six months was to map out multiple movies. Prequels, sequels, spin-offs, the whole nine yards. However, as US audiences are seemingly bored of giant robots smashing into each other, does that mean all of Goldsman’s work will get thrown out? Should Paramount just hit the reboot button now that Michael Bay has totally promised for the third time that he’s done?
I won’t bore you with the numbers too much, but to put The Last Knight’s opening weekend into perspective and to gauge the future of the franchise we have to drill down into the numbers a bit. The fourth movie (Age of Extinction) managed a $100 million opening in the US back in 2014, three years on and The Last Knight could only muster $44 million ($69.1 million for first five days). Domestically, Transformers peaked with the second instalment Revenge of the Fallen that grossed a whopping $476 million from US audiences. Ever since then, the domestic box office has been on the decline, but international takings have increased with each passing sequel.
Each Transformers sequel since Revenge of the Fallen has shed more than $100 million from its domestic takings. Dark of the Moon generated $352 million (down $124 million) and Age of Extinction made $245 million (down $107 million). You’d think that those drastic drops would concern Paramount, but the rest of the world can’t get enough of them and Age of Extinction clocked up more than $858 from international ticket sales. Yep, the first Mark Wahlberg one made $1.1 billion globally, shame on you world.
At the time of writing, The Last Knight has grossed just shy of $250 million from the international box office. There are still a number of key territories to go, but so far it’s not looking great for The Last Knight. For the most part, the old rule that big studio movies need to gross three times its budget to break even is still valid. However, The Last Knight needs to make $1 billion as Paramount has plotted at least six more Transformers themed projects.
The Last Knight is something of an overhaul, not a reboot, but it does retcon the mythology already established in the big screen universe. I’m well aware that the King Arthur thread is from the original animated series, but the casual viewer is unlikely to know that fact. To the untrained eye, Bay has gone mad with his Knights of the Round Transformer Table story, actually, even to the trained eye, this is a bit of a leap even for a franchise about giant transforming alien robots.
Regardless of where the main Transformers franchise is going, there is every reason to be excited about the next Transformers film aka the Bumblebee spin-off. That’s right folks, in a third act plot twist to what you thought was going to be a few more lines of me plopping over Transformers, I’ve stunned you all by being unexpectedly optimistic. Travis Knight will direct the Bumblebee spin-off, and that’s enough to get me through the door. You might not instinctively know the name, but when I say that Knight is the director of Kubo and the Two Strings, you’ll share my cautious positivity. We also know that Bumblebee will be a prequel to the first movie and will be primarily set in the 80s and will star Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Pitch Perfect 2). A period set prequel that takes out all of Michael Bay’s bombastic action in place of something more low key seems like a good place to start rebuilding.
In summary, maybe Paramount is better off making smaller movies about giant robots that retain a sense of personality give us characters to care about rather than spectacle. By all means, blow some stuff up, but just don’t blow everything up.