Michael Bay is a man of the people, except for all those people who write about film for a living. Just take the scene from his latest box office-crushing blockbuster, Transformers: Age of Extinction, in which protagonist Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) raids a crumbling movie palace for junk parts. As he steps over 35mm reels of John Wayne epics, Yeager ignores the owner grumbling that the cinema has been overrun with “sequels and remakes—that kind of crap” and uncovers a truck that is actually Optimus Prime, the massive robot that will do battle with other massive robots incessantly over the course of the film’s sprawling 165 minutes. When Optimus Prime rises from the dust, the movie kicks into the highest-octane sequel-y remake crap you have ever seen. As the audience applauds (at least, they did at my theater), the critics groan.
By design, perhaps. This scene, and Age of Extinction at large, seems plotted to discourage critics, once and for all, from paying Michael Bay so much attention. “Let them hate,” he told MTV’s Josh Horowitz. “They’re still going to see the movie!”
Bay is the rare self-professed “popcorn movies” director whose entire body of work regularly attracts deep analysis. Entertainment Weekly started the trend in 1998, when it semi-admiringly asked if the director was “the devil.” In the time since, he’s released Pearl Harbor, The Island, Bad Boys II, Pain & Gain, the Transformers franchise—and has also been labeled Hitler, a hack, and sexist. In the past few years, however, Bay’s films have amassed a surprising amount of cred. In 2011, Variety’s David S. Cohen marveled at how critics were taking Bay seriously, with Scott Foundas calling him an “auteur,” that most highbrow of monikers afforded a film director. Well-respected outlets Grantland and Film School Rejects have echoed the sentiments. “His films resonate louder than any explosion contained in the movies themselves,” Chris Ryan wrote.
But with Age of Extinction, the 12th entry in his oeuvre of big, brash, and bro-y feature films, it’s time to recognize Bay really isn’t an auteur—he’s something else entirely.
Originally conceived by director François Truffaut and his compatriots at the Cahiers du Cinéma during the French New Wave, the auteur theory generally goes like this: The director is the principal “author” of his own film, and the auteur is a director who imposes a strong sense of personality or “signature” on the final picture. The term usually implies a style at odds with profit-minded Hollywood formulas.
Bay’s films certainly share some signature tropes. Sweeping camerawork, splattering fluids, exposition relegated to quick filler scenes, and set pieces that thrill via visual chaos are all typical. The Criterion Collection, an elite series of DVD re-releases that usually canonize the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu, has honored Bay twice, for Armageddon and The Rock.
Those films are nearly two decades old, though. In the years since Armageddon’s 1998 release, the blockbuster epic has become quotidian, but Michael Bay hasn’t changed. Age of Extinction arrives at a moment when a mega-sized, CGI-filled “event” movie opens every few months (and every few weeks in the late spring and summer). If you go to see the movie in Imax 3D, you’ll sit through trailers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Dracula Untold, and Interstellar, which are about apes taking over the world, vampires taking over the world, and the end of the world, respectively. The shrapnel will launch at your face, the blood will spill onto the first few rows, and the rapid cuts will escalate until the titles—pretty much the only distinguishing factors here—flash in metallic, bulky font across the screen.
The main act, Age of Extinction, plays like an extended set of commercials, or a prolonged version of its own ultra-sharp 1080p trailer.
If you’re looking for the hallmark Michael Bay explosions, one-liners, and flawless effects, Age of Extinction has plenty of them. But that’s not because he’s an auteur, per se. Bay may have inscribed his style all over a massive franchise, but that massive franchise has also co-opted his style as its own.
If there’s a signature on Age of Extinction, its name is Hasbro. Transformers 4 is a reboot of Bay’s own spinoff trilogy, which rebooted a cartoon that spun off a toy collection, which was itself a rebranded hybrid of two separate toy labels. The brand at large, administered by Hasbro and the Japanese corporation Takara Tomy, already extends across comic books, toys, television series, video games, and films. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger recently said, rather ominously, that Age of Extinction “lay[s] the building blocks for some other stories we have in the back of our heads.”
“Building” is the key word these days in Hollywood, which has taken to a business model of constructing narrative universes rather than single stories. Disney-owned Marvel is currently unfolding the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” of interconnected superhero stories, many helmed by little-known directors, that coincide every few years with an Avengers film. Warner Brothers has devised a similar strategy for the Justice League. All of which means this new Transformers trilogy—just one branch of the lucrative tree—may outlive Bay. He, after all, was only convinced to sign on to Age of Extinction after having an epiphany while in line for the Transformers ride at a Singapore theme park.
The film itself is as crassly commercial as you’d expect. With new 3D Imax cameras, nearly every frame contains CGI and references to the corporations that funded it. The epic ending battle in Beijing is a destructive pastiche of Victoria’s Secret, Tom Ford, Coors, and untold amounts of Chinese product placement, a concession to business interests both domestic and foreign.
Rather than contradict Bay’s vision, however, the commercialism only amplifies it. Untold numbers of corporate alliances plus $165 million have bought Hasbro the most Michael Bay of all Michael Bay movies. As shown in a brief ad before Imax screenings of Age of Extinction, Bay prefers to shoot in Imax 3D on top of a Porsche Cayenne. This explains the hundreds of swooping and sweeping shots in the film, a technique that often makes the viewer feel like a helicopter, or one of the surveillance drones added into the film to boost its relevance.
A filmmaker who develops such a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood isn’t an auteur in the traditional definition. Instead, Bay is the blockbuster’s most valuable emcee: an entertainment personality who livens up a familiar formula by performing in direct communication with the audience. He concerns himself not with his place in the cinematic canon, but rather with his two real constituencies: audience and studios.
From his beginnings as a filmmaker, Bay has hacked the system to give the moviegoers more bang for their buck. That’s quite literal: On the set of his first feature Bad Boys in 1996, Bay asked Paramount for $25,000 to film an ending scene in which Martin Lawrence shoots the villain out of a plane. When Paramount wouldn’t pay for an unnecessary action sequence, Bay wrote the check himself (he would be recompensated when the film crossed the $60 million threshold).
This is a guy whose macho movies reflect the character he presents to the media. Interviews with him often read like his own scripts—clipped, assertive, and strangely idealistic. His public persona, almost as well-known as the films, made this Verizon FiOS commercial a viable bid to the television mass audience:
These days, plenty of other big-name, auteur-ish directors play emcee for franchise properties, though rarely with such indifference to the critics. Bay’s peer in the blockbuster genre, Christopher Nolan, sold Warner Bros. executives on the Batman trilogy by telling them he wanted to embrace the superhero film “as a real film genre.” He later leveraged his brand name to realize his $260 million passion project Inception. Directors J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon, too, work strategically on tent-pole movies that will pay for smaller highbrow projects with original content. Take Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was funded out of his own, Avengers-stuffed pocket.
The newest members of this directorial club are Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the team behind (and the faces of) of this year’s 22 Jump Street and The Lego Movie. They come from an animation background that might have previously funneled them into independent work. Instead, they now have a reputation for taking bad film ideas and infusing them with off-beat, meta humor. With a tendency to turn interviews into self-aware comedy routines, their off-screen personas have a way of leaping their films: an Annie Hall reference in 22 Jump Street; anti-business messages into The Lego Movie. Where Bay flips off the critics, Miller and Lord deliver a conspiratorial wink. With a nearly $500 million worldwide gross, Lego’s probably not complaining.
Neither should the audience. If the box office continues to orbit around massive narrative universes, having commercial-savvy directors behind the camera matters. Whether your taste aligns with artistically ambitious types or Bay’s brand of pure entertainment, filmmakers can help differentiate one generic-seeming story from the next, and restore consumer choice. And in a market that is increasingly devaluing the director, those who develop household names are, in effect, brands themselves. If you go to see Age of Extinction, Paramount will try and sell you on the charms of Mark Wahlberg’s new protagonist to sustain the latest trilogy. Michael Bay, meanwhile, will be selling all the explosions, adrenaline, and all the summer movie popcorn fun you could wish for, lest you forget it’s his film.