October 1, 2012

Transform, and Sell Out

Ok. So it's been a while since I've gotten something more traditionally "Me" on this site so I think it's time for a return to form. I know some of you are expecting my Post-Con entry, and I assure you it is coming, but I have something special in mind for it that will take some more time. Don't worry...the further away from Con we get, the more cold water I feel justified in pouring over it (spoiler alert). I can virtually guarantee you'll like it (spoiler alert).

What, you might ask, do I have in mind then? Well, I may not have Dragon*Con to complain about right now, but that doesn't mean I can't get in my two cents in (which in this economy will be worth far less than two cents by the time this goes live) about something else relating to my beloved "Geek Culture" world. So then, let's get down to business, eh? I've got a bone to pick with the people responsible for bringing one-time Nerds-only icons into the larger popular culture. See, I've been speeding down memory lane by going over cartoons and such from my childhood (read: the 80's and 90's) and I think I've finally nailed why so much of what has emerged lately just doesn't sit right with me. Put succinctly:

Even Products Have a “Soul”

Of all the many, MANY, icons of my childhood that I've been re-consuming rabidly, one of the most important and often misunderstood by both geek and pop culture is The Transformers. No, stop! Do not close that browser window! Yes I know they're basically just toys and toy commercials. I also know that you probably can guess where I'm about to go with this. Maybe you can't or simply don't care. Either way: patience, grasshopper. Patience.

Since the last decade has only provided me Michael Bay’s incarnation of the property alongside a couple newer, well-meaning-but-empty cartoon iterations, I’d been craving some of the old-school version. To that end I've been watching the first two seasons of The Transformers cartoon from the early 80’s known as the G1 Transformers. I fully expected it to be pretty pathetic compared to the rose-tinting of my memories, and I was partially right about that. I have so many fond memories of the characters and their antics, and I still treasure those memories. I went into this stroll down memory lane confident that whatever flaws I found in the show (and make no mistake, they are there), I’d still cherish those positive associations. However, as I got through the first season and switched over to the second, a funny thing happened: I didn’t feel the rose tinting dissipate. In fact, I felt my fondness for the show and it’s “shtick” grow.

And then another strange feeling; I instantly knew what it was that got to me about their recent transition into modern world, and specifically with the recent movie adaptations. Michael Bay has made, as of this writing, three Transformers movies in live-action using CGI robots, and a fourth is currently in the works. All three of them worked in many of the classic G1 Transformers I’d expected along with some of the original iconography of the show. All three were sprawling epics depicting explosive battles and near constant action. All three were box-office mega-hits grossing billions of dollars. And all three of them…how shall I put this….SUCKED!

Don’t get riled up…if you personally enjoyed them, then good for you. You’re wrong, but good for you. All kidding aside, there were some definite bright spots to the “Bayformer” movies, and I confess to having enjoyed some of the blatant fan-baiting this franchise has managed to crowbar into the script and sets. Unfortunately, that’s actually the problem: in attempting to make something to appease its fan-base (i.e. people like me who grew up on them) and make it marketable to a wider less devoted audience, they can’t do anything but pander while basically tossing out everything that made Transformers what it was. In essence, they managed to (mostly) replicate the body of the work, but left out the “soul” of it that gave personality and meaning.

Those who would (rightly) point out that Transformers is, was, and always will be a toy commercial with an overly-elaborate budget should keep in mind that this kind of “simplicity” actually gives writers and directors a good deal of creative freedom to create the “product” in imaginative and intelligent ways. Look underneath the hood (get it? Car joke? No? Fine, I’ll stop this now) and you’ll find a pretty well thought out show with well realized characters and a consistent moral and philosophical infrastructure.

As a small-ish example of this, let’s look at the way the Autobots and Decepticons (the two opposing forces, for those who still haven’t clicked the link above) are depicted as teams. The Autobots function as a sort of Arthurian democracy where their well-respected and beloved leader rules absolutely, but with compassion, and who maintains a healthy respect for his “subjects” and there contributions throughout their struggles. The Decepticons, on the other hand, would seem to operate under a similar structure, but their leader is a megalomaniacal tyrant who inspires his team, not to cooperate, but to betray him and each other at least once per episode; often to the detriment of their mutual goal. See what they’re saying here? Heroism is achieved by unity under a respectful and thoughtful leader, while villainy is ultimately its own downfall due to the failure of its leadership to achieve that unity. That’s pretty deep for a toy commercial, wouldn’t you say?

So if a commercial can make philosophical statements with just its setting and characterization, why is it that a multi-million dollar special-effects laden spectacular has to boil down to a story about a suburban teenager trying to get laid? Seriously, if you haven’t noticed, the plot of all three of these movies is basically “how do I get into Meagan Fox’s (and eventually Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s) pants?” repeated ad-nauseum, while occasionally being interrupted by some explosions caused by giant robots. Well, it’s because the G1’s were basically a cult phenomenon (slightly bigger, I’ll grant, given the legions of followers; we…er….they are called “Trans-fans”), and cult phenomena don’t sell enough movie-tickets. So the solution: use the images, language, and iconography of the old show (the easiest pieces to replicate – even I could design an Optimus Prime themed website, for example) and swap out the infrastructure for something broad and pleasing to allow for greater audience reach. The results speak for themselves.

Any of you who haven’t had their heads in the ground while reading this will know that I am absolutely for inclusivity in all things, and that absolutely applies to the franchises I love. So why does the obviously far-reaching approach to Bay’s Transformers bug me so much? You’d think that this would be a form of that ideal made into reality. Well, unfortunately, it isn’t. Because inclusivity is not about making people like what you like. It’s about allowing people to discover why they like it, too. Exposing new audiences to Transformers is a good idea; great even, by my standards. Doing it by removing the thing that made it a phenomenon in the first place so that more people will be “convinced” they like it? Not so much. That’s not inclusivity at work; it’s just pandering. Moreover, it yields an entirely different product than the original. In essence, Bay’s Transformers is NOT The Transformers of my childhood. It’s something new, masquerading under the marketable name of The Transformers. This isn’t a problem in-and-of itself, but it will ultimately just disappoint people like me who have built up an expectation over the years and simply mislead “new fans” by offering something completely unlike what is claimed to have inspired it.

Just to prove that it can be done properly, look at Marvel’s The Avengers. Tons of fan-service, lots of flashy special effects and gorgeous actors (seriously…I don’t care what your sexual orientation is, that’s one hot team) all designed and marketed to invoke the world of the comic books that inspired them. What did they do right? They didn’t toss out the underlying principles and ideas that made them The Avengers. Instead, they tossed out the specific details and minutiae from the comics. Any comic book fan will tell you that the fine details don’t resemble any of the Avengers books with much fidelity. Sure, the heroes themselves are visually recognizable as their comic counterparts, but the reason that works is that they feel like the heroes from the books. They speak and behave like The Avengers rather than like walking monuments to a previous incarnation of the same name. The story isn’t actually much like any of the canon that I know, but it feels like an Avengers story just the same. Pandering iconography like the Tesseract (or The Cosmic Cube, for you fans out there) or the tease at the end (which I won’t spoil) are all present, but they work because that “soul” remains that keeps the whole enterprise grounded and coherent. Now that’s how it’s done.

So if anyone else out there reading this hopes to bring some vestige of my childhood to the world at large, just keep this in mind: everything (commercial, art, or both) has something like a “soul” that defines it. Those things also have their distinctive looks, language, and icons, but that soul is the most important part to understand. If Transformers doesn’t feel like Transformers, your job wasn’t done right. And remember, lackluster or uninspired source material isn’t a license to “not care” about or disregard that soul. One of the most successful films of the last decade was about a billionaire who dresses up like a flying, rodent-like mammal and beats up a criminal in clown make-up because his mommy died. It can always be done.

I’m not saying you “shouldn’t” enjoy something like the Bayformer movies and I'm also not suggesting that these two new groups of fans can't get along or even unite. But I am asking that we take a moment to consider that real inclusivity and real outreach means giving others a chance to discover the thing it is, not the thing it was marketed to be. You might find something great, but at the very least, you’ll have learned something more about yourself in the process: this just isn’t for me.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed this return to my over-crowded mind.  It's good to be back.  Given the subject matter, I suppose there's really only one thing left to say: ‘Til all are one!

I’m Trevor, and that’s my Frame of Mind.

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