Bumblebee being a good movie has made me less embarrassed to admit that I really love Transformers. Michael Bay’s movies somehow managed to make a shitty cartoon from the 80s designed to sell toys seem LESS sophisticated and more of a point of shame, which is kind of amazing. Look no further than 30 Rock’s fake Transformers poster to get an idea of where these films rested in the Zeitgeist:
One could (and probably should) say that Transformers is a depressing example of marketing run amuck, a product of Reagan-era deregulation that allowed toy companies to target children and make some serious cash. But as the time past, and those weird, non-discerning little jerks grew up to be nostalgia hungry wage earners, Transformers began to develop into a multimedia empire. When I was seven or eight, I saw the Transformers movie on VHS (the animated 1986 film). I didn’t have a channel that showed the cartoon, but my friend Adam did, and he also had the toys. I’d catch the occasional episode and always loved playing with his Soundwave or his Grimlock, but seeing the movie on tape was my main understanding of the Transformers universe. I did eventually get a G1 Optimus Prime in the early 90s, but I wasn’t really playing with him all that much. It was more an item of conquest, something that I wanted when I was young but never managed to get until it was too late to enjoy it as only a child can.
Anyway, flash forward to 2013, and someone recommends the IDW comics to me. I read Nick Roche and James Roberts trade paperback of Last Stand of the Wreckers, a story about a bunch of third tier Transformers characters attempting to wrest control of an Autobot prison that has been taken over by a sadistic Decepticon named Overlord, and I was hooked. If Roberts was writing it, I was gonna read it. I also started watching Transformers Prime, which was the series airing during that time (also, it was the early days of my second son being born, and the cartoon was great Netflix fare for 3AM feedings). From here, I started buying the toys, and it lasted for three years.
But that eventually stopped. Transformers are expensive, and there is an endless stream of product every year. I chose to stop, and to sell off my collection. My oldest kid started getting into video games, and he wasn’t too keen on playing with toys. We needed money for car repairs in the fall of 2016, and I figured a functioning car was more important than a pile of toys that my Oldest son was too old to play with, and my youngest son was too young to enjoy.
That all changed when I took them to see Bumblebee. They immediately wanted to watch the old Transformers DVDs I had, and they started playing with the half-dozen Transformers I still had left. And now they want Devastator and the Combaticons for Easter. My nine year old and my six year old are actually playing together instead of fighting with each other. I picked up the Siege War for Cybertron Optimus Prime and Megatron toys, and they’re constantly being played with. Transformers is one of the most seductive, addictive, and successful toylines ever created, and even though I know the origins are pure marketing calculation, I love them to pieces. The fact that my kids are so enthralled with the story Jim Shooter and Bob Budiansky concocted over a couple of days in the early eighties is truly fascinating to me. It’s a simple premise that allows for these puzzle/action figures to be engaging and imaginative subjects of play. Bumblebee, for better or for worse, basically resuscitated my enthusiasm for these stupid toys, and I’m already magically engaged by how much my kids are completely bonkers over them.
The origins may be mercenary, but a good idea is a good idea. Who knew combining robots, cars, action figures, and puzzles into one toy would be such a winning idea?