The Curious Case of Michael Bay

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Another summer, another Michael Bay movie.  Or perhaps vice versa is more appropriate?  After all, he appears to have marketed himself successfully as the King of the Summer; indeed, I can’t name anyone else compacting all of the elements of the typical “turn off your brain” summer flick into a single 2+ hour experience more consistently than him.  These days, no one expects layered, thought-provoking cinema from a Michael Bay film, but they can sit back and rest assured that he’ll provide big explosions, relentless action sequences and buxom young women in implausible professions.

Yet at this point in his career moviegoers also comfortably expect other hallmarks of the director: racist caricatures, incoherent action, cheap clichéd sentiment, an overlong running time, oversaturated photography and mind-numbing violence.  These are all elements of his films that have been blasted numerous times across the internet.  I think it’s safe to assume that Bay does not garner respect among most movie geeks, not to mention the critical drubbing of his works.  I also get the feeling his mainstream reception isn’t a lot better.  He’s not ignorant of it, either, saying: “Look, a lot of people think it’s fun to hate on Michael Bay. People always try to knock someone who’s had a ton of success in movies. Whatever…”

But the numbers tell a different story.  The average domestic box office take of his films stand at over $185 million.  They have, combined, grossed $1.5 billion in theatrical runs.  Include worldwide grosses and that number is doubled.  His previous film – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which is without exaggeration one of the most wretched experiences I have ever had in a theater – was his most successful yet, raking in over $800 million worldwide.  And here we are with yet another Transformers installment, and despite how universally hated its predecessor appeared to be, the anticipation is high for this one.  In the weeks leading up to its release last weekend, Dark of the Moon’s trailer was the most watched trailer of the year so far, and the activity on Twitter and its official site exploded.  Now the film has set the record for the third-highest worldwide opening of all time at $372 million.  It is, for all intents and purposes, another slam dunk for him…to my bafflement.
To be perfectly clear, I do not begrudge anyone seeing – or even enjoying – a dumb-but-fun action movie.  In this day and age, where most people are working demanding jobs (if they’re lucky enough to have one) and taking care of families, personal relationships and in general just the problems of their daily lives, it is totally understandable for the “Average Joe” to enjoy some cinematic junk food.  I don’t mind it because I know in my heart that people like stupid movies not because they’re stupid, but because they are stressed out and want to see something that requires no intellectual or emotional investment once in a while.

But here is where I’m confused about Michael Bay’s success: I don’t think others really enjoy his movies, either.  Whenever I go to see one of his films in a theater (which is not that often, I’ll admit) I’ll glance around and see fellow theater patrons looking bored and restless.  When they leave at the end, they appear more exhausted than elated.  Keep in mind that I’m not drawing these observations from Snobsville, USA.  For the past four years I went to college in Vallejo, which is not exactly a high-class city, and grew up in a small town before that.  Right now I’m living and working in the Florida Panhandle, which is also not a population of cultural elites.  The crowds I see in theaters are usually comprised of normal, working class types.  These same people turn out in droves for a Bay movie and don’t appear to take pleasure in the resulting experience.  Why?

Perhaps everyone just believes it’s a cultural thing.  It doesn’t matter if incoherent, ear-shattering action spectacles about giant robots fighting each other are not interesting to you; everyone else is seeing it, so you can’t miss it either.  With aggressive marketing and the current state of shareholder cinema, the past ten years have seen an explosion of films that you “had to” see, because everyone else was talking about it.  Of course, the only reason everyone’s talking about it is because the marketing department sold it as the film on everyone’s mind, and so on and so forth.  But I’m not sure if that fully explains it.  Maybe I’m giving the general population of filmgoers too much credit, but people buy tickets to films like Green Lantern and The Hangover: Part II because they (rightly or wrongly) believe that they’ll enjoy them, even if they’re influenced at least somewhat by media blitz.  I don’t see that kind of genuine enthusiasm for Bay’s latest.

Or perhaps moviegoers are amused at how bad his movies are?  Back in April, Daniel O’Brien of Cracked.com complained about the rise of movies that people like “ironically;” that is, bad films that audiences watch with a wink and a nudge.  In the interest of full disclosure, I adore the Twilight films in exactly that way, because I find their badness totally fascinating.  But Bay’s films aren’t like that, are they?  To me, movies like Bad Boys II and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are so aggressively awful that even outside humor usually gets drowned out (some of RiffTrax’s least funny downloads are of Michael Bay movies, for example).  His films are not possessed of the kind of benign inanity or hilarious incompetence of Twilight or Battlefield Earth – it’s draining, off-putting and even a little depressing.  I can’t imagine any sane person watching, say, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence cruelly intimidating a teenage boy and finding it even “ironically” entertaining.

The worst part is that Bay was not always this insufferable.  I still find The Rock to be a lot of fun (though that may have been due to the chemistry of its lead actors).  Armageddon is so shamelessly corny and over-the-top that it’s sort of endearing.  Nowadays, it seems like he’s testing the limits of his auteurial trademarks to see how far he can go before “breaking” his own audience.  And we’re totally willing to go along with it even as most of us trash his assaulting aesthetics on message boards and chat rooms.  Hell, I bet that that’ll happen on this very site.

What do you all think?  Is there some other reason why Michael Bay enjoys immense success despite being widely dissed?  Or maybe you think I’m totally wrong and most audiences legitimately enjoy his work?  Let me know in the comments!