Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Last Knight - Trailer Reactions (and Further Toy Musings)

I'll put my cards on the table and preface this opinion piece by saying that I'd made up my mind - quite some time ago - to avoid seeing TransFormers: The Last Knight. It was evident from the earliest trailers that it had taken the franchise's ongoing retconning game way too far, linking the story of these shapeshifting alien robots with Arthurian legend pushed things into the realms of the utterly ridiculous... and that's coming from someone who read the UK Marvel comics circa Man of Iron. That said, a glut of trailers - some almost character-specific - have been released (and there may well be more to come, even now), and I've been watching them for a reason to change my mind.

I haven't seen one yet.

I have seen lots of signature 'Bayhem' - pyrotechnics, stunts, spectacle and ill-fitting 'humor' - and indications of a 'story' that seems to jump between the mythical past (both the times of King Arthur and an alternate World War II) and the present, travelling from Chicago to the UK via what looks like a small American ghost town, and to a giant Cybertronian artifact/vehicle of some kind under the sea.

I've seen some Autobots that fit the aesthetic of the first three movies alongside the ridiculous 'knights in armour' look that sprang up in Age of Extinction and Decepticons that wouldn't look out of place in a Dungeons & Dragons manual.

I've seen great-looking transformations (WW2 'Bee, Hot Rod) and blobby-looking cheats (Megatron, who just seems to wrap around like the Lament Configuration in mid-air before sort of just absorbing his wings).

I've seen Dragonstorm, the three-headed gestalt dragon supposedly made up of two knight-style robots, but who looks like he's really just made out of needles... an unwelcome reminder of Megatron from the first movie.

I've seen dinky Quintessa torturing Optimus to ensure his compliance... but, let's face it, Murder Prime has behaved like the bad guy from the very first movie.

I've also seen how the stakes have been raised, with what may be the remains of Cybertron - after the unsuccessful attempt to spacebridge it into Earth orbit - actually raking through the ground on the Moon and the Earth.

I've not seen anything that seems like a coherent plot... and, if I remember correctly from an interview with some of the writers, that's basically because they just jammed together two or three ideas deemed interesting, yet not worthy of their own movies.

That said, I have seen signs that some of the characters - both human and robot - might actually be a bit more interesting this time round. Not least, we're seeing the return of at least one of the humans from the very first film - Lennox - and another is apparently related to one of the (mostly background) characters from KSI in Age of Extinction. Cogman is an intriguing concept - the first live action HeadMaster, apparently, and well able to handle himself against robots several times his side (Crosshairs falling foul of the diminutive robot's self-defense capabilities in several versions of the trailer) - but the clockwork automata design doesn't fit the high-tech look of the rest of the film. I cannot see how Izabella fits into things... but I don't really care because I know it somehow involves the suspiciously cute-but-rubbish-looking Sqweeks. The humans have always been the weakest link in these movies - taking up way too much screen time and what passes for plot, and that seems not to have changed.

I have no objections to TransFormers turning up in different time periods, I just want it to make sense within the universe set up by the first few movies, as opposed to completely rewriting its own history for the sake of a new and misguided plot point. I'm not even averse to the idea of Cybertronian technology playing the part of Merlin's magic - after all, in the words of the late, great Arthur C. Clarke, "any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic". In fact, having introduced us to the concept of TransFormers in World War II, I'd be quite interested to see what could be done with a story focused on that era. We've had Nazi zombies, why not alien robots as well? In fact, who knows, maybe there's already a movie involving alien robots and Nazis..?

I do object to the utter bastardisation of Arthurian legend, which is cool enough in and of itself, and so needs neither transforming alien robots nor giant frickin' elephants (I'm looking at you, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), and Hollywood's frequent attempts to shoehorn it into unsuitable settings. Plus, the only dragons referenced in Arthurian legend are metaphorical for Wales (red) and the Saxons (white). Dragon forms worked in RiD/Car Robots, in Beast Wars/Machines and even in Galaxy Force/Cybertron... but in a real-world setting, they're as ridiculous as Dinobots.

Obviously, these are movies based on a toyline, not historical documentaries... but I'd thought the plan with the much vaunted Writers' Room was to make a coherent universe that would support an ongoing franchise. Maybe not something to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at least something that focuses on a society of mechanical beings, their homeworld, and their interactions with humanity.

What we've got is a series of movies that aren't even consistent with each other, let alone able to suggest a grand, overarching plan... because, to begin with, there was no plan. Paramount and Hasbro only started considering a plan to unify their franchise after four financially successful exercises in alienating a fair proportion of the toyline's fanbase.

The first movie implied that Megatron was the first Cybertronian to land on Earth, possibly millions of years ago, and that Optimus Prime, Ironhide, Ratchet, Jazz, and that other one arrived in the present day. The second announced that, actually, Cybertronians - specifically the original Primes - had visited Earth before and that one had tried to harvest our sun to keep Cybertron alive, as well as hinting that a handful of others - the so-called 'Seekers', including Jetfire - had come to Earth in search of the Matrix of Leadership. The third added that, by the way, a Cybertronian spacecraft (something that wasn't thought to be needed in the first film, hence the Autobots' arrival in comet form) crash landed on the Moon, and that the Space Race of the late 1950s to the mid 1970s was primarily a means of establishing some sort of contact with it before the gosh-darn Reds. The fourth decided to kill off as many established characters as possible before the movie even started, where previous films had at least had the decency to do it on-screen (albeit while still barely acknowledging the deaths, let alone giving them any significance) and replace them at the last minute with inexplicable Dinobots who had not a single line of dialogue between them.

What bugs me most of all, though, is the minuscule chance that Hasbro will decide - after milking Bumblebee across every size class over five toylines so far - to release a World War II Bumblebee toy, let alone a contemporaneous Hot Rod or Hound. Not that we're not getting a new Bumblebee... as usual, we're getting several... but, due to the horrific licensing agreements in the background of the franchise's productions, only the new vehicles have any chance of appearing in plastic form, on the shelves of any toyshops. Hasbro have been skimping quite noticeably on the 'transforming robot toys' portion of the most recent movie toylines, producing 'role play toys' - battle masks, etc., which are basically superfluous with a property like TransFormers - and 'vehicle only' models, as well as some larger-format non-transforming, barely articulated action figures.

This seems to be following a 'one size fits all' approach to movie merchandising, taking the patterns of toymaking for the Marvel/DC movies, Star Wars and other such cash cows and applying them to the TransFormers brand... Perhaps I'm labouring a point somewhat, but the TransFormers movie franchise is based on a toyline made up of transforming toys. Surely, if you're representing these transforming toys on screen, your first - not to say your only - focus should be on transforming toys based on the transforming characters from the movies based on transforming toys? I mean, sure, we've had a handful of the human characters represented in the Human Alliance subline, but we haven't had a dedicated line of TransFormers-branded human action figures, nor would we want them. By the same logic, not only are the role play toys superfluous, but the branded model cars, digital watches, figurines, statues and baby-frickin'-onesies are also superfluous. Sadly, though, they are expected parts of a great merchandising machine that works on the principle that if you throw enough shit at the fans, some of it is going to stick.

Perhaps this is just the middle-aged Fanboy part of me writing, but I honestly think Hasbro could improve its profit margins by focusing more intelligently on the strengths of its properties. Taking the scattershot approach may ensure a certain level of takeup across their whole portfolio, but most of the rubbish they present to retailers just won't fire the imagination of a generation the way their rebranded Diaclone and MicroChange toys did back in the 1980s.

And, by the same principle, a scattershot approach to the live action movies, with inconsistent art direction, doesn't make for a winning franchise, whatever the box office returns might suggest.

Sure, the focussed approach could be a risk... but that's business. And in the unlikely event that the focussed approach turned out to be an outright failure, they could always be sure of making money with G1 reissues.

I will, somewhat reluctantly, be buying some more of the movie figures - Leader class Megatron is already on preorder - but will make no special effort to get all of them as the Deluxe class figures are quite disappointing. I know I'm technically not the target demographic, but I can't help but think I'd still be disappointed with most of the toys even if I was... and I know I wouldn't be interested in any of the non-transforming merchandise.

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