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A Lesson about Text and Toys from a Franchise No One Likes

The title I’ve chosen for this post is exaggerated, of course. And, yes, maybe even a tad mean-spirited.

It would be far more accurate to say that I dislike what I’ve seen of the Transformers franchise, which to date is the first film and enough of the third one to know that I didn’t want to continue watching it. Still, these films have been mega-hits and, moreover, part of a fandom object that easily pre-dates them.

From a media literacy perspective, however, the mild anti-fandom surrounding Transformers might be more interesting to take a look at. In a nutshell, its members contend that the basing of big-budget, narrative entertainment around a line of toys is a sure sign of the bankruptcy of ideas in Hollywood; additionally, the films’ critic-proof popularity signals something equally dismal about contemporary pop culture as a whole.

Well, recently that take on things got some support, as a Starburst Magazine report on the next film backs up the creative-merchandising-still-ain’t-art argument. Here’s the key passage:

Addressing the poor toy sales at the recent UBS Best Of Americas 2012 Conference, Hasbro president Brian Goldner had this to say… ‘…it’s because of [the] same characters in all three movies. This is why TRANSFORMERS 4 will have a new cast of characters and it will be a story revolving around these new characters.’

So how to use this honest, yet still somewhat startling, admission in the context of engaging in critical inquiry with students? There are probably lots of fruitful ways to follow up here, but these are the ones that occur to me top-of-head…

  • Why isn’t it all right for ancillary or tangential marketing, such as that of toys, to drive creative decisions in a medium such as film?
  • Is the notion of affording toys some importance in the development of a storyworld more palatable if the property in question is a transmedia one? That is, does it matter if toys share the narrative stage with other access points and media, or does granting them any role in the creative process somehow demean that process? Why?
  • How do toys differ from other consumer products in this respect? For example, is there a big distinction to be made between toys and video games, which, after all, are games? Why do we assign greater respect to media products based on games versus toys? Don’t toys feature a narrative text as well—just one that’s harder to detect because users must supply virtually all of it by virtue of their imaginations?
  • What if the core universe of a fan object is based upon toys in the first place, as is the case with Transformers? Shouldn’t that be taken into account, so that we evaluate the situation differently than we might if we learned that, say, the lineup of heroes in a Justice League movie was being determined solely with toy sales in mind?
  • Doesn’t the centrality of toy sales to a franchise such as Transformers simply make more blatant the commercial impulses that are more cleverly hidden in other properties? For example, does the fact that James Bond’s car is chosen not by MI6 but by whomever the producers have struck a product placement deal with? And what about the case where the added sales are in the medium itself, as with the forthcoming adaptation of The Hobbit, which is now being stretched out over three films? Or in such instances do we really believe that it’s purely narrative considerations that are driving these decisions?
  • Finally, even if in theory we might balk at toy execs calling shots that ultimately affect what we see on the screen, does that inherently mean that the finished product will suffer as a text? Why or why not? Couldn’t an innovative new series of toys inspire a creative team to produce some work or merit?

Actually, this last question might represent wishful thinking on my part more than anything else. In fact, I’d welcome any overhaul to the Transformers franchise that reflects even half of the joyfully wild imagination that I see kids displaying when they play with action figures.  Maybe then I could even make it through one of these films.

About Peter Gutierrez


  1. Laura Sell says:

    Thanks for asking these interesting questions. One thing I find interesting about the marketing of Transformers and other movies that come out of toys is the disconnect between the kids who play with the toys and the movies’ ratings (usually PG-13). Are these movies trying to capture teens’ nostalgia for their youth already?