Movie Review – Web vs Wheels: The Spider-Man Trilogy vs The Transformers Trilogy
Ahh, my favorite film trilogy of fighting robots, versus the web-slinger in the Sam Raimi-directed trio of comic-book epics: the question was put to me, who would win in the battle of two of the most successful film trilogies of recent times? Today, we find out.
This article was originally posted over on Movie Smackdown! , and can be read here.
Giant robots fighting on Earth. Heroic spider-themed young man finding his way in the world. Measure out in equal increments, stir rapidly until explosions and effects look shiny, and serve with a cool drink and surround sound. The ultimate trilogy Smack (at least for this year!) finally lands on Earth, as we put Optimus Prime, the Decepticons and all that Bayhem into the ring with Spider-Man, Doc Oc, Sandman and Mary Jane Watson. And we all know Kirsten Dunst can land a punch. It’s The Spider-Man Trilogy vs The Transformers Trilogy. It’s an all out geek-cool battle to the finish!!
Based on a toy franchise created in the 80’s, and turned into a successful animated series – which went on to spawn multiple iterations – Transformers was every teenagers fantasy writ large. Salivating at the potential for a knock-down, drag-out visual effects extravaganza, Michael Bay delivered all that and more; Transformers was his most commercially and critically successful films to date. In 2009, Bay overstepped the mark with the critically panned and universally condemned Revenge Of The Fallen, a bloated hemorrhoid of a film that undid all the good work accomplished in the original. Human lad Sam Witwicky and his association with a group of cybernetic automatons from an alien world formed the basis for the Transformers franchise, and it was with some labored anticipation that the third film in the saga would be a return to form for Optimus and his Autobot pals. Dark Of The Moon, the most recent of all the films in this trilogy tete-a-tete, delivered big-budget spectacle in spades, as the Decepticons ultimate plan for world domination starts to come to fruition.
The Defending Champion
Created by Stan Lee for Marvel Comics in 1963, the adventures of Spider-Man have been a comic, television and cinematic staple ever since. In 2002, Sony Pictures and director Sam Raimi realized every fan-boys fantasy by bringing the web-slinger to the big screen, with state-of-the-art special effects. Spider-Man, which went on to be 2002’s third highest grossing film, introduced us to Peter Parker, a young teenager bitten by a radioactive spider (as you do) and who develops powers similar to that of an arachnid. Using these powers for good, Parker faces off against the man who killed his Uncle Ben, as well as the Green Goblin, a power-mad villain threatening to kill Peter’s unrequited love interest, Mary-Jane Watson. The sequel, Spider-Man 2, saw Spidey go up against renegade scientist Doctor Octopus, while Spider-Man 3 gave us not one but three villains – a resurgent Green Goblin, the Sandman, and the alien symbiont Venom. Three highly successful films, based on another well-known franchise, directed by a fan favorite cult director Sam Raimi. After all, the man who gave us Bruce Campbell with a chainsaw as an arm couldn’t go wrong with a man who can shoot webbing from his wrists, right?
And so we come to it – the Trilogy Battle of the year! In the one corner, the comic-book film juggernaut of Spider-Man, arguably the most recognizable superhero aside from Superman and Batman. In the other, reeking of cordite and Energon, the Transformers, a franchise based on an 80’s cartoon which was itself based upon a toy line produced in Japan, and fondly remembered by those over the age of 28. Both film franchises were (and are) monstrously successful at the box office, even if critical reaction to them wasn’t always in tune with that success – both series have major missteps along the way, although both also have some of the very best examples of their respective genre styles going around.
Taking the “origin” films of each franchise first, we have the tried and true comic-book methodology from Sam Raimi with Spider-Man: a young boy, Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) goes on a school excursion to a local laboratory, only to be bitten by a radioactive spider. Thinking nothing of it at first, he goes to bed with the cold sweats and wakes up the next morning exhibiting strange new powers – the most amazing of which is his ability to shoot a weird web-like substance from his wrists. Also able to crawl up walls, and possessing an amazing “spider sense”, by which he can anticipate future events with increasing accuracy, Peter decides to put his powers to good use and win some money. Entering a cage-fighting competition, he soon beats his rivals, although his tacit acceptance of one mans thievery soon leads to an awful coincidence – his Uncle Ben is brutally gunned down on a new York street by the same man Peter let walk past him. The guilt spurs him into donning a costume and fighting evil. Peter also has the problem of trying to “get the girl”, so to speak, with his next door neighbor – the gorgeous Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) – is seemingly out of his league. A second suitor for Mary Jane’s affections is Peters best friend Harry (James Franco), the son of a multi-billionaire industrial scientist, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). When Norman tests a new chemical upon himself, he soon develops his own set of powers, and sets about becoming the evil villain known as Green Goblin. Spider-Man must thwart the plans of the Goblin, get the girl, and protect his friend Harry from discovering his father’s darker side.
Michael Bay, meanwhile, eschewed any semblance of character development with his inaugural entry into Paramount’s Transformers, where a group of alien robotic lifeforms land on Earth to retrieve a mysterious power-source known as The Cube. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) goes out to purchase his first car, ending up with a beaten up Camaro, with which he hopes to woo the super-sexy Michaela (Megan Fox). Unfortunately, his car happens to be the Autobot Bumblebee, Sams earthly guardian sent by Optimus Prime to watch over Sam – it turns out one of Sams ancestors happened across the dormant Megatron, leader of the cruel Decepticons, buried beneath the ice in the Arctic; apparently his ancestor also brought back an object inscribed with the whereabouts of the Cube, an object Sam is currently trying to sell on eBay. Optimus Prime, as well as a small collection of fellow transforming robots, make their presence known, setting about to retrieve the Cube before the Decepticons can find it. A secret arm of the US government, known as Sector 7, is also working to keep the Cube secret, although Megatron’s fellow Decepticons soon breach the secret base beneath Hoover Dam, inadvertently reactivate Megatron, and set in motion a cataclysmic final battle in the streets of a major urban center.
As far as origins go, Spider-Man has perhaps the most famous since Superman. Boy bitten by spider gets superpowers. If only it was that simple in real life, right? Sam Sami doesn’t waste too much time with set-up in Spider-Man, getting Peter’s arachnid attack over with within the first fifteen minutes or so. What Raimi does well with Spider-Man is get the delicate balance between telling the origin, keeping the modern, upbeat flavor of the franchise, and giving us a “fresh, new, exciting” Spider-Man for the new millennium. Transformers, meanwhile, isn’t as bogged down with any formal “origin” as such, instead going right to the action with an awesome Decepticon attack on a US military base somewhere in Quatar. There’s a fair bit of time developing Sam as a character, something Michael Bay was given free range with I guess, since as a character he’s not that well known outside the original animated cartoon. And even then, Sam was a stock humanoid character: here, he’s allowed to flourish as an angsty, hormonal teenager wishing for a car and a hot girlfriend. Both Spider-Man and Transformers tapped into that primal human emotion of wanting to fit in, that awkward teenage period when everything about your body and mind are in flux, and you are trying to “find yourself”. Where the two films diverge is in their application: Peter Parker must overcome his initial fears of estrangement and suspicion to become New York’s resident hero, while Sam Witwicky must overcome his fears of insignificance once the massive robotic war is brought to Earth. He fears not being able to “get the girl”, and there’s perhaps a tinge of “bravery to impress the girl” about his resolve to fight alongside the Autobots.
To be honest, the story in Spider-Man is a little tighter, a little more fluent than that in Transformers, a fact I put down to the possibility that Spider-Man’s been around for four decades while Transformers has been around since 1980.Creative storytelling’s had plenty of time to marinade Spider-Man, while Bay was let loose on Transformers in what can only be described as “open book” policy with regards to the characters. The characters in Spider-Man also feel more rounded, less cliched than those in Transformers, Sam and Optimus Prime aside. Peter Parker feels to me more like a young teenager than Sam, although Sam’s everyman quality shows through as the carnage escalates, while Peter tends towards the arrogant by the time his tete-a-tete with Green Goblin takes place at the films conclusion. It’s a subtle difference, to be sure, but Peter’s more believable character arc flows more easily on the screen, than Sams misogynistic chasing of tail amongst the explosions.
However, if I had to score a films visual effects and action sequences as I might the character development, Transformers would smash all and sundry with ease. Okay, there’s some 5 years between Spider-Man and Transformers, and no doubt several upgrades in processing power, so it’s a walk in the park for Bay’s robot epic to outdo Spider-Man in both visual perfection and scale of action – the final battle with Megatron, Starscream and the rest of the Decepticons in Capital City makes Spider-Man’s finale battle with Green Goblin look like an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba. As an example of building the tension, building the scale and size of the finale, Bay manages to outdo Raimi in this department: personally, I found the excitement of Transformers a more palpable and realistically rendered event than the rather tepid Green Goblin/Spidey smackdown. Sure, Spider-Man doesn’t have the cannons or massive size of Optimus Prime at his fearsome best, but Raimi’s finale lacks genuine thrills.
Surprisingly, I found more to like with Transformers as an overall film than I did Spider-Man. I’ll be honest, I never associated myself with Marvel comics during my geek years of the 90’s, and found more solace in Superman and Batman than I did Stan Lee’s creations; I think that malaise overshadowed my appreciation for the resultant film outcome presented by Raimi. Both Transformers and Spider-Man offer genuinely nice character development (Spider-Man moreso), but only Transformers offers a genuinely thrilling cinematic escape. The slimly devised Normal Osborn/Green Goblin arc, a facet I found the weakest part of Spider-Man as a whole, undid all the good work the script and direction of the Peter Parker arc managed to accomplish. Sitting in the cinema, watching both these films, I admit I had a better time with Bay’s robot epic than I did with a guy climbing the walls.
The first round of Origin films goes to the newer, louder kid on the block: Transformers.
After the success of Spider-Man, it was a given that a sequel would be rushed into production. As, of course, the same could be said for Michael Bay’s Transformers.Spider-Man 2 took Peter Parker into darker territory this time out, with his fractured friendship with Harry Osborne finally coming to a head, and a new villain to defeat – the rage-afflicted Doctor Octopus. While Peter and Mary Jane begin their relationship (after events in the original film led to them becoming closer), Harry is filled with rage at Spider-Man killing his father. Seeking revenge, Harry sides with recently bereaved scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who is also seeking revenge against Spider-Man for the death of his wife in an experimental accident; an accident which fused four robotic arms to his spine, giving him the eight appendages the media uses to dub him “Doc Oc”. Harry uses Doc Oc to further his plans of revenge against Spider-Man, since they both see the wall-crawler as a common enemy. Peter, meanwhile, finds his double-life starting to become something of a drag, and undergoes the angst-ridden decision to either go hard as Spider-Man, or go home. Thankfully, New York’s citizenry come to his aide during a particularly tense struggle to save lives, and Peter’s faith in himself is restored. Among the films major plot developments are Mary Jane’s decision not to marry somebody else, and get back with Peter, and Harry’s discovery that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are one and the same – meaning his best friend killed his father; a fact he struggles to reconcile.
Revenge Of The Fallen does what most Hollywood sequels do best: go bigger and louder, and hope like hell that pleases the audience. Sam, now off to college, is struggling to come to grips with his relationship with Michaela, since he must now enter every teenagers rite of passage and further his education. His inability to proclaim his love for her, as stupid as it sounds, brings some tension to the relationship; a relationship seemingly built more on physical attraction than any emotional or intellectual one. The Autobots, meanwhile, have seconded themselves a military aide-de-camp with the USA, and now spend a great deal of time hunting down left-over Decepticons around the world. In the years since the original film, there are some in the government are starting to see the presence of the Autobots as doing more harm than good, and with the arrival of the powerful Fallen, things start to go really bad for the good guys. The Fallen, one of the original Cybertonian Primes, became a renegade against his own kind when he tried to take all the Energon power for himself – Energon being the primary power source of Cyberton. Cast down by his Cybertron bretheren, the Fallen has since spent eons hatching a plan to return himself to the God like status he desired originally – and must find the eponymous Matrix Of Leadership to do so. How this ties into Sam and the Autobots is a little hard to understand, but it’s got something to do with the wielder of the Matrix being “worthy” to do so – with Optimus Prime killed by Megatron in an earlier battle, Sam must race to find the Matrix before the Fallen in order to save his Autobot friend, and by default, save the world from certain destruction.
I admit my plot synopsis on Revenge Of The Fallen is a little thin on detail, but that’s mainly because it’s so damn hard to figure out. The film struggles to deliver the emotional impact of such a convoluted and hard to follow narrative, with a veritable cornucopia of new characters introduced; to the detriment of the film overall, I think. Sam and Optimus Prime, the two main figures in the original Transformers, are overwhelmed by an avalanche of second-tier characters and undercooked scripting, as well as a ramping up of style over substance. It’s hard to imagine any Michael Bay film having substance of any kind, but at least Transformers tried to make it’s human characters feel human-like – here, the humans are reduced to screaming cliches and 2-dimensional plot devices, while the robots we’ve all come to see pound the crud out of each other in a blaze of stunning visual effects. Revenge Of The Fallen is one of the worst big-budget sequels Hollywood’s produced in recent memory, so much so that even star Shia Labeouf came out and apologized to fans for the film. Which was a lot like Gorge Clooney apologizing for Batman And Robin. Ultimately, pointless.
Spider-Man 2, meanwhile, remains high atop the pile as one of the best Comic Book Films ever made; probably only topped by The Dark Knight. The character work in Spider-Man 2, manages to eclipse the original for depth, add a twist to Peter’s friendships (the love triangle with Harry, as well as Harry’s discovery of Peter’s secret identity) and make the franchise feel… well, bigger. The brawling between Spidey and Doc Oc, especially a sequence on the side of a building after a bank robbery, are thrilling and more nuanced than those in the original. Raimi feels more sure of himself with 2, more at home amongst the franchise’s story beats and character arcs. I think this is because Peter’s Spidey origin is done with, and he can sit back and open up the rogues gallery to his hearts content. Raimi once more balances the bigger-is-better sequel ideas with a naturalistic approach to continuing the story of established characters, something most sequels ignore in favor of repeating the successful elements of the original film. Spider-Man 2 ups the ante on Peter’s identity and desire to be a hero, while his relationship with Mary Jane is put through the ringer. Over in Revenge Of The Fallen, Sam’s relationship with Michaela gets a little rocky, although the impact of this lasts about a minute before all is well again (although no actual reconciliation to Sam’s “busted with another woman” fracas is forthcoming).
I think this is the main problem with Revenge Of The Fallen: the fact that ever plot development and story arc is transitory at best; consequences seem irrelevant to the predisposition of explosions, robot-on-robot brawls and excessive special effects. Everything about Revenge screams overkill, an abundance of cool smothering the life from any semblance of story; while some films thrive on this kind of thing, Revenge Of The Fallen falls short of being entertaining simply due to the fact that we, as an audience, simply can’t care about whatever it is that’s going on. Because it’s all too confusing. Characters come and go, behave irrationally from scene to scene, and ultimately, it all feels like one giant orgy of visuals trying desperately to cobble together a story, something which, as we’ve learned from the Star Wars Prequels, doesn’t work.
In the battle of first sequels, Spider-Man 2 wins this bout by a wide, wide margin.
In the same year that Transformers was just beginning, Spider-Man 3 was released to the public to a blaze of hype and anticipation. After Raimi’s massive success with 2, 3 was anticipated to go even darker and more epic again. Pre-release footage showed us the Venom character (an alien symbiont somehow able to feed of its hosts darkest desires, perverting them for evil), the Sandman character (Flint Marko, an escaped convict) and the resurgence of Harry Osborn as the new Green Goblin. The use of three villains in a single film made some fans worried that Raimi was going down the route used by Joel Schumacher for the Batman films: largess and excess in place of quality story and character. Upon release, those fears were born out. Spider-Man 3 isn’t in the same league as the immediate sequel, but after re-watching the film recently, I think a lot of the internet hatred people have for it is misplaced – it’s not that bad. Sure, 3 has some faults, but they’re minimal and hardly detrimental to the overall arc of the franchise. Sure, three villains mitigates the character development each can receive through the course of a feature film, and the additional character also push Peter Parker’s arc out of the frame more often than not, yet I think Raimi does a great job of trying to balance the dark and light of the script with the multitude of competing stories.
Often, Spider-Man 3 feels a lot like a “villain of the week” entry into the franchise, and at other times, it reaches the same heights of greatness achieved by Spider-Man 2 a few years earlier. The uneven tone of Venom’s creepy arrival and Marko’s atypical fate-driven transformation from human “monster” into actual monstrosity are at odds with each other throughout the film – Sandman feels more like a comic-book hero, while Venom seems to be played like a character out of Supermatural or something. Peter Parker’s transformation from lovable guy-next-door to a Venom-afflicted douche-bag seems roughly handled, almost as if the screenwriters have had to force the issue to generate any tension – while the arc may suit the story of the film, it feels a little hokey in relation to the rest of the characters in the film. The resolution to the Spider-Man/Green Goblin triptych of conflict is also a little wobbly in execution, although if I can offer some tacit approval to James Franco’s well honed performance across all three films, it does tend to be the most believable.
Dark Of The Moon, the third of the Transformers films directed by Michael Bay, redresses some of the problems instigated by Revenge Of The Fallen. Gone are the abominable Twins (Mudflap and Skids) and Devastators scrotum, and in comes genuinely tense, widescreen action film-making of the highest order. If the previous two films were the preamble to delivering giant robots laying waste to the Earth in battle, then Dark of The Moon is where the franchise delivers. Sure, DOTM has its own problems of pacing, and the penchant for Bay to include some major stars in minor, obscure (and pointless) roles, as well as some juvenile humor (it’s Michael Bay, folks, not Michael Mann) but for sheer epic-ness and apocalyptic magnificence, then DOTM outclasses anything we’ve seen in Transformers before. Unlike Revenge Of The Fallen, however, the third Transformers film actually has some point, and goes out of its way to generate audience tension with regards to the survival of the characters – people die in the hundreds, if not thousands, with this film: the previous films had the Autobots and Decepticons getting about in relative secrecy, although the finale of Revenge had Megatron and the Fallen revealing themselves to humanity – Dark Of The Moon is when we must make a stand. Sam, who has moved on from Michaela and now has a new supermodel girlfriend to contend with (and is now job-hunting, unsuccessfully) uncovers a plot by the Decepticons to bring Cybertron to Earth via technology the US and Russians stole from a crashed Cybertronian spacecraft on the moon. Reuniting with Agent Simmons from Sector 7, Sam meets a new Autobot known as Sentinel Prime (voiced by geek God Leonard Nimoy). The plans of the Decepticons, however, soon reveal themselves, and with a number of betrayals and deceptions amongst both the humans and robots alike, Chicago is invaded and used as the Decepticons’ home base on Earth. Cue explosions.
Anybody expecting more from Dark of The Moon than they got in both earlier Transformers flicks will be disappointed: character and plot play second fiddle to a breathless pace and gargantuan action sequences. If Dark of The Moon serves to prove one thing, it’s the undeniable fact that Michael Bay is the current, undisputed world champion of blowing stuff up. He makes destruction look sexy, regardless of content and story. Which is a problem, because the weakness of DOTM, much like its predecessors, is story. The effects and action seem in place to serve no master save eliciting howls of awe from the teenage audience this film is aimed at. That’s not to say there’s nothing here mature adults will appreciate, but anybody hoping for the intellectual stimulation of a quality script or depth of characters will be left limp-wristed at the end of this. What I can say is this: Dark Of The Moon delivers “bayhem” on a massive, epic scale, a scale I’ve never seen in a feature film before. George Lucas tried and failed in spectacular fashion by trying to “go large” with his pitiful Star Wars prequel films, but where he failed, Bay succeeds. This isn’t Shakespeare, it’s robots demolishing everything in their way on a fifty foot screen with millions of dollars of effects thrown in – and every cent is up on screen.
As a comparison between the two Threequels (if I can borrow that questionable term from internet forums), Dark Of The Moon delivers on the promise the trailer gave us moreso than Spider-Man 3. While the character count in both films escalates from both original and first sequels, and the narrative swells into “bloated” territory on both films, Dark Of The Moon actually delivers the more entertaining film. Spider-Man 3 does buckle under the weight of it’s expanded cast roster, while Dark of The Moon manages to skirt the same territory by utilizing its extraneous characters in meaningful, often tragic ways. Character die in DOTM, characters we’ve followed for three films, and characters we’ve only just met. In a surprise, Bay actually manages to make each death/near-miss mean something. Spider-Man 3 seems to be going for the shock-and-awe of epic-ness, and the characters can’t cope with the expectation.
In the smackdown of the Threequels, I give the win to Dark Of The Moon.
On a purely score-based result, the win must go to Transformers for sheer spectacle and awesomeness. A major misstep in Revenge Of The Fallen, however, wasn’t enough to derail the overall success of the franchise: the original film, and the most recent Dark Of The Moon were more than enough to push the saga over the edge to victory. The Spider-Man Trilogy, including the superior second film, is still a damn fine entertainment, let’s be honest, but as far as singular entertainment value based on character, action and scope, Optimus and his pals take the prize in this case. The flat Spider-Man 3 felt like a retread, and the original film did tend to get a little bogged in the “origin” part of the story (check out Batman Begins for the best comic-book origin story yet seen on screen), so as an average, Bay’s brawlin’ robots scoops the prize by a Dark Of The Moon knockout.
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