Transformers is a multimedia mega-franchise that’s been steadily making mega-bucks since the 1980s. What originally began as a unique toy line of shapeshifting action figures has since transformed (I’m sorry) into a pop culture juggernaut consisting of various television series, comic books, video games, lots and lots of merchandise, and of course, a live-action movie franchise that’s made billions at the box office.
Five of those movies were directed by infamous master of mayhem and verified insane person Michael Bay. There’s perhaps no other filmmaker working today that loves destruction and explosions more than Bay; no other director that quite captures a certain kind of Americanism like he does. Whether you hate his guts or love the endless hours of pyrotechnics, Bay has very much established and succeeded at his own brand of big screen spectacle, and there’s perhaps no other series that allows him to go all out as much as Transformers.
Bay first blew audiences’ minds in both good and bad ways back in 2007. Thanks to the star power of Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Peter Cullen, and some stunning special effects that still hold up very well to this day, the original Transformers was a smash hit. The predominantly children-focused franchise was now a worldwide phenomenon for…all ages? Kinda? These are weird movies - awesome, but weird. Are they good? Are they bad? Sometimes it’s very hard to say.
No matter what you think of Bay’s original five-movie run, the Transformers live-action franchise has earned enough international appeal to probably keep things chugging along for a very long time. Travis Knight was the first to take over with 2018’s Bumblebee, capturing a different kind of movie magic that calls back to the feelgood era of the 80s. This year, Steven Caple Jr., the director behind Creed II, attempts to pick things back up after a five year break with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.
How does this latest Transformers adventure compare to the decade of Bay-style devastation and Knight’s more family-friendly approach? Check out our ranking of all seven live-action Transformers movies below.
‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ (2017)
The lowest of the low. It (hopefully) doesn’t get much worse than this. To be honest, jokes about the way Michael Bay directs action don’t hold much water if you actually watch his movies. Bayhem can certainly feel chaotic, yes, but there’s more thought and style put into those sequences than you might think. There’s no discernable rhyme or reason behind anything in The Last Knight, however. Nothing makes any sense in this movie, not its action, its acting choices, its constantly changing aspect ratio, or its frenetic plot that reveals Merlin (as in the mythical wizard) and Harriet Tubman (as in the American abolitionist) were good friends with the Autobots back in the day. You’d think a movie this baffling, where at one point you see Sir Anthony Hopkins get obliterated by Megatron, would at least be dumb fun, but the fifth and final Transformers from Bay is somehow more mind-numbingly boring than anything else. No one should watch this thing under any circumstances.
‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ (2014)
At this point I can’t tell if this movie isn’t actually as terrible as I initially believed or if I’ve just developed some kind of Stockholm syndrome from having watched all 165 minutes of it way too many times over. Like a true supervillain, I’ve shown this movie to several different unsuspecting people who once trusted me. It’s a dizzying whirlwind of very noisy nonsense. This is a nearly three hour long movie about Transformers that feels more like five hours. Things happen that seem important and then nothing becomes of them. The climactic battle in Hong Kong goes on for an eternity and is ludicrous even for a Michael Bay Transformers movie. None of the new characters are likable in the slightest. The blatant product placement is out of control even for a Michael Bay Transformers movie. But Lockdown is pretty cool. Stanley Tucci is having fun. Optimus Prime shoots Kelsey Grammer with a comically giant gun and then blasts off into space to fight the Transformers’ version of God. There’s a T-Rex Transformer. Maybe it’s not so bad.
‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ (2023)
The latest Transformers adventure to hit the big screen and the second without Bay in the director’s chair, Rise of the Beasts takes things back to the 90s and…doesn’t do much of anything with that besides give the movie an admittedly killer hip-hop soundtrack. The Maximals are here from the Beast Wars show, remember them? Well, they’re here for a few minutes at least. And sure, only a couple of them have actual lines, but they’re there! Rise of the Beasts starts off solidly entertaining enough in its first half but then keeps getting worse. It also comes across as painfully familiar; a film struggling with its identity and failing to shrug off the franchise’s reliance on Bay’s basic formula and visuals. Too much of its action, its characters, and its humor feel lifeless, missing the explosive energy that Bay (love him or hate him) brought to the series. You could do a lot worse than Rise of the Beasts but you could easily do a lot better too. What does it mean for your movie when Pete Davidson is one of the best parts of it?
‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ (2009)
“I am directly below the enemy’s scrotum.” is a line that beloved award-winning actor John Torturro delivers an hour or so after he gives unsuspecting viewers a close up of his ass in a thong. There’s a lot of potty humor in Revenge of the Fallen. At one point, a mini Transformer voiced by legendary voice actor Tom Kenny humps Megan Fox’s leg. “Say my name, say my name!” he pants in an unfunny moment that goes on for way too long. Hindered by the 2007-2008 WGA strike, Michael Bay’s first sequel to his smash hit Transformers movie was met with pure disdain from critics and is undeniably messy. But the maximalist style of the original, as well as its returning characters, thankfully feel intact. As discombobulated as the movie is, there’s still plenty of inspiration in this ridiculous Egyptian action sci-fi adventure, like a brawl between Decepticons and an outnumbered Optimus Prime in a forest, or a scene where a jaguar Transformer and a razor-thin insect Transformer infiltrate a military base. Plus, we got ‘New Divide’ by Linkin Park out of this movie. That song goes hard. It became a staple of their live shows. Show some respect.
‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon’ (2011)
I sometimes feel like this is a little better than the original movie. It’s definitely the best looking one out of the franchise, and the action in that third act is Michael Bay at his very best. Excessive and relentless, dense and grandiose, Dark of the Moon delivers on the exact kind of spectacle you pay to see for a summer blockbuster like this. Cool robot designs, some solidly hilarious jokes, inspired set pieces, and a surprisingly concise plot involving an old school conspiracy theory help keep this finale of the Witwicky trilogy moving with some genuinely thrilling momentum. It’s acclaimed Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand who pulls actor jury duty this time around, but she’s spared the humiliation of getting killed by a giant robot gun and instead settles for being sexually harassed throughout the movie by John Turturro. Is that better or worse? It hardly matters - what does matter is that shot we all know where Optimus swoops into Chicago and wipes out most of the Decepticon army by himself. That’s quality stuff. As is the sequence set in a collapsing skyscraper. And pretty much every other action scene in this movie. Blockbusters movies have been taking notes ever since.
Like a very silly version of War of the Worlds or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first live-action Transformers movie is full of discovery, testosterone, and groundbreaking special effects that still look better than virtually any action blockbusters coming out today, even 16 years later. Michael Bay perfectly blends his signature brand of real onset stunts and explosions with spectacular CG chaos for a sci-fi IP tornado of cinematic - dare I say it - artistry. Seemingly targeted almost exclusively towards straight teenage boys of the time, Transformers is so stupid, so sweaty, and so, so awesome. Yes, there’s more than one instance of a character being peed on. But come on, this rocks. Literally - let’s not forget that sweet ‘07 soundtrack featuring Disturbed, Smashing Pumpkins, The Used, HIM, and of course, Linkin Park. This was a game-changer, for better or worse.
Coming out only a year after the disaster of The Last Knight, the criminally underappreciated Bumblebee movie was always going to be an underdog. The choice to spin-off the franchise into separate films focusing on individual robots was always a questionable one (not everything can be turned into an Avengers-type megafranchise) but director Travis Knight, the first filmmaker to tackle the Robots in Disguise after Michael Bay, understood that this series is at its best when it's actually, you know, geared towards a younger audience. Bumblebee throws things back to the 80s and takes clear inspiration from the Amblin-style movies of the time, focusing on the relationship between the titular fugitive alien robot and the young girl whose home he winds up in. There’s a refreshing sense of true wonder and playfulness throughout the movie, and features characters that you’ll actually like and care about. Did you ever think you might cry at a Transformers movie? In a good way, I mean. The ending to this one-off coming-of-age adventure earns every bit of its tearful sappiness. Bay may have irreversibly established the look and feel of this franchise, but Knight’s take on the classic children’s cartoon is what all future attempts should be modeled after, and probably where these movies should’ve started in the first place.