Hating Michael Bay is in vogue, but is he as bad as critics say?
Michael Bay is a talented filmmaker who’s spent a substantial portion of his career making movies that suck, and their existence often overshadows the belief that he’s made some good movies as well. As our own Christopher Campbell states, “he’s a well-educated, well-trained, technically skilled director who is most famous for delivering hit blockbusters enjoyed around the world.’’ That sums Bay up well, but “enjoyed” is a stretch when it comes to critics as they typically aren’t fans of his movies. Critics and audiences don’t always see eye to eye though, and the nearly six billion dollars in box office receipts don’t lie. Bay’s brand of mayhem has been putting bodies in theaters for over 20 years, so he’s clearly doing something right even if we don’t always see it.
Bay cut his teeth as a filmmaker directing music videos for the likes of Lionel Ritchie and Tina Turner in the early 90s. Back then, both of them were a big deal. His big break then came in 1995 in the form of Bad Boys, a buddy cop action/comedy starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith which you’ve all likely seen more than a dozen times. While the film is littered with the same clichés that make up similar films within the genre, Bad Boys has garnered enough good grace throughout the years to be chalked up as an overall win. The sequel — although derided by critics for its bloated plot, misogyny, and graphic violence — is more of the same laughs, explosions, and car chases.
His second feature, The Rock, is his masterpiece. Regarded by many action buffs as a 90s classic, the film is a prime example of what Bay is capable of when he has a good script to work with. By no means is The Rock an intelligent movie; but the screenplay is witty and the visceral thrills are plentiful. For a filmmaker whose entire shtick is providing adrenaline-pumping cinematic experiences, it succeeds and then some. Plus, along with Con Air, it also helped launch Nicolas Cage into the stratosphere for a brief while. Those were good times to be alive. The Rock has a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes at 66%. It’s the only one of Bay’s films to achieve this status.
But let’s return to how Bay’s films portray women for a second. Accusations of misogyny have cropped up regularly in critiques of his work from Bad Boys to the more recent Pain and Gain as they’re dominated by male protagonists and told through the male gaze. As Bay himself once said, “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime.’’ Bay is under no illusions of who he is a filmmaker.
You could interpret Armageddon and Pearl Harbor as Bay showcasing his sensitive side in a bid to be embraced by teenage girls as well. Sure, both films are rife with explosions and disaster, but they do possess romantic moments and formulaic emotional cues to bring on the waterworks, dispelling the idea that all of Bay’s movies are pure testosterone. Even I cried when Bruce Willis died in Armageddon. Now I cry whenever there’s another Die Hard sequel, but I digress.
While there are valid arguments to be made for how women are portrayed in some of Bay’s movies, you could also argue that characters are an afterthought in general. You’d be hard pressed to find the term “three-dimensional” applied to any of them. In the Transformers franchise, humans are an afterthought to CG-generated robots.
The Transformers movies represent the director’s bombastic traits turned up to the maximum volume, with sensory overload preferred to little things like coherent stories and character development. Granted, these traits are commonplace in lots of action blockbusters with the Fast and the Furious series taking pride in reaching new heights of grandiose spectacle with each passing entry after all, but most critics and audiences will agree that it’s one of the better franchises to embody like-minded ethos.
The Transformers movies are also derided for their convoluted plots, quick camera cuts, and lame attempts at humor, all of which are criticisms of a substantial portion of the director’s canon. Of course, none of these are uncommon in this type of popcorn fare in general, but this series just feels like overkill at times.
Coherent stories and strong character development are never a bad thing, but I’m a firm believer that an entertaining experience has just as much merit. While I’m not a fan of the Transformers movies, I appreciate a big, dumb, loud blockbuster more than most. Whenever a new Transformers is released, I find myself at the cinema opening night against my better judgment hoping the series has finally found its groove. All the components for greatness are there including giant robots, childhood nostalgia, and a director who is capable of delivering… but but somehow doesn’t.
The sad part? Bay knows guys like me will show up, as will his most ardent critics. In an interview with MTV when promoting Transformers: Age of Extinction, he said: “They love to hate, and I don’t care; let them hate. They’re still going to see the movie! I think it’s good to get a little tension.’’ Now while most critics need to see his movies because their jobs demand it, Bay makes a valid point: critics will see his movies, and their reviews and opinion pieces will create a discourse. For some movies, poor reviews are a death knell. But whenever a new Bay joint finds its way into our multiplexes, people talk.
He’s also smart enough to make movies in-between Transformers to remind on the fence viewers that he still has good movies in him. Pain and Gain and 13 Hours are both solid, and the latter even comes across as a film with a mature audience in mind. Much like his 2005 sci-fi actioner The Island, both films are somewhat overshadowed by everything else when you consider the grand scheme of things.
Bay has stated that The Last Knight will be his final Transformers movie. Let’s hope that’s the case as maybe the franchise can be salvaged under the guidance of someone better. It also affords Bay more free time to focus on other projects that might even turn out to be good. Some people would be happy to see him never make another movie, but I think the pop culture conversation is more interesting with Bay around.