Three is just a bad idea
The typical pattern for franchise based films drawn from science fiction and the world of comics is as follows. The first one is generally good but, because the backstory needs to be established and the actors are getting use to the material, it always feels like it could be more. Lose of the origin story, the second one hits the ground running, knocking over all expectations and really tearing up the screen. The third film tends to suffer under the weight of expectations and time, as a director may leave or the studio puts on pressure or the freshness of ideas just aren’t there anymore. At best it fails to live up to expectations; at worse, it collapses under its own weight and kills the series.
And if the franchise survives to the fourth film, then all bets are off.
Examples are out there. The Star Wars trilogy, the four Star Trek: Next Generation films, Superman, Batman, Blade, X-Men, Spider-Man… The list goes on and on. Yes, in some cases (Jedi, Insurrection, X3), the film remains watchable, even enjoyable, but it never hits the peak established by their predecessor (in these cases, Empire, First Contact, X2). Add in the other cases (Superman III, Batman Forever, Blade Trinity, Spider-Man III, to say nothing of Superman IV: Quest for Peace or Batman and Robin) and it’s clear that they are nowhere near where their predecessors had been.
The Fallen digs in
A common problem (but by no means the only problem) in this last set of four films is the introduction of too many characters, which take screen time away from the central protagonist(s), while requiring new backstories of their own. I often wonder what would have been if the stories had attempted to jettison some of these characters, if the film would have turned out better. Take Spider-Man for instance. I’m not a fan of the series but there was something good about Spider-Man II, which featured a well-acted villain while not relying on as much of the sentimental garbage that took up too much time in the first film. But we went from Peter, MJ, Harry, Aunt May and Doctor Octopus, to Peter, MJ, Gwen Stacey, Aunt May, Harry/New Goblin, Sandman and Venom - too many villains and not enough focus on the key parts of the story.
Which brings us to the Fallen.
Revenge of the Fallen breaks the mold established above by simply jumping the excellent second movie and crashing ahead into the abyss of the third. And directoral queue, story editing and other glitches aside, one of the most substantive issues is simply the realization that it had too many characters whose individual narratives and stories were too small to have any impact and yet too numerous to allow the story to continue.
The first movie already had characters in droves. The introduction of Sam, Mikaela, Lennox, Epps, Madsen, Whitmann, Keller, and Simmons, as well as Sam’s parents, meant competing storylines that, at times, drew attention away from the focus of the story. Add in the Transformers, spotlighting on Bumblebee and Optimus and Megatron, with the others as supporting role, and you have a big cast to wield. But at least the storylines intermingled well, so that, at the end, our heroes were all together.
Who's the star here anyway?
Revenge of the Fallen loses Madsen, Whitmann and Keller, and gains Spitz, Alice and Morshadow, while picking up Mudflap, Skids, Wheelie, Jetfire, Starscream, Soundwave, Devastator, Ravage and the Fallen to add to the cast (to say nothing of the expanded armies on each side). So what happened? The Fallen relegated Megatron to second banana, while the twins ate into the time alloted to Bumblebee (already played for comic effect). I was actually left wondering why either Megatron or Bumblebee needed to be in the film in the first place, with Megatron’s fight scene aided by other Decepticons (thereby diminishing the character) and Bumblebee getting limited face time. And then Jetfire basically became a cranky Optimus Prime, in the hour and a half when he was out of the fight.
It’s no wonder that the movie never felt like it got going. The movie had to keep intersecting from one location to another to ensure a bit of time for this character and a little effort for that plot point. Sometimes there is something to be said for streamlined scripts.
So where do we go from here? Well, my prediction at this point is a massive opening week for Revenge of the Fallen, followed by a fall off of ticket sales rivalling Watchman and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. My gut feeling tells me this film doesn’t have the drawing power for repeating viewings by fans, and the combination of new movies and bad reviews will kill off all but the most curious. All this doesn’t limit the possibility of a third installment but it may well handcuff the length and the budget.
Ditching the hangers on
To come out with a third film, without rebooting altogether, we need to streamline this cast. Jettison all but a few key robots (Optimus, Bumblebee, Megatron, Starscream, one or two others) and rely on the numbers for big epic battles. Focus on Mikaela and Sam’s story and use Lennox, Epps and Simmons with care and respect. And find one main storyline with maybe one or two sublines. Nothing elaborate. Perhaps a beacon from space calls the Autobots home to find their world further devastated by Decepticons, leaving our human friends and Bumblebee on Earth to find the key to final victory. Perhaps a sub-plot could be Sam deciding between duty and family with a pregnant Mikaela, with Bumblebee torn between his human alliances and the needs of his brothers-at-arms.
Anyway, something without so many stories. And perhaps with some more care given to backstory terminology like Energon, space bridges, matrixes and the like. That would be nice too.