A confession: I love the Transformers movies. These big, long, sometimes problematic, often dumb, always visually enthralling, and occasionally even emotionally stirring movies are the cinematic equivalent of a snack you can’t have in the house because you’ll just eat it all and feel ashamed. They exist to sell toys and, increasingly, to cash in on Chinese box-office opportunities — and I have seen every single one in theaters because they are (almost) always an extremely fun time. Whatever Faustian deal Michael Bay made back in 2007 to acquire the most realistic CGI technology known to man has yielded a franchise that often feels like you’re watching real robots destroy real cities, and that Transformers-specific set of machine sound effects still fills me with joy after all these years.
But I am also an adult with self-awareness. To determine the below ranking, I had to consider an array of factors for each entry: How magnificent were the action sequences? Which Transformers look the coolest? Do you have to regret enjoying this movie because the director did creepy things? Are there racist caricatures disguised as robots? Would you risk it all for each film’s two central characters? How many times did you cry at the sympathetic robot eyes? Is there a John Cena or a Mark Wahlberg? Taking all these criteria into account, here is your indisputable hierarchy of Transformers movies. There have been some real low points in the Transformers-verse, but thanks to Bumblebee, the future looks bright.
6. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
In some ways, Revenge of the Fallen feels like it was a sadly under-loved Transformers movie. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) had their struggles, but damn it, those kids had a love more powerful than any Decepticon plan for intergalactic domination. It was also the last time we would see Fox and LeBoeuf together as the one Transformers couple to rule them all, even though, in a more fair world, they would have rode out the original trilogy together as a beloved pair of star-crossed robot whisperers. We would have had one more movie to hear Fox yell “Saaaaaam!” in her very specific, perfect way.
Fallen also had some of the best action sequences of any of the Transformers movies. The opening scene in Shanghai with the Demolisher bot, tearing through an industrial facility on a pair of gigantic truck wheels, is still a jaw-dropping spectacle, and the final battle in Egypt, which featured the Devastator Decepticon and his gargantuan vacuum mouth, is like a ballet of robot-on-man violence that is most remarkable for the fact that no one actually died on set while bringing it to life. It’s insane.
And yet in other big ways, there’s a lot of Fallen better left to the cultural waste bin. The Autobots Skids and Mudflap were like a cyborg minstrel show, functioning as the essentially “black” members of the bot group, complete with bucked teeth and plenty of jive talk. Even too offensive for Michael Bay, the characters did not return for Dark of the Moon two years later. It was also the end of Fox’s run with the franchise, thanks to a broken relationship between her and Bay. Fox said she felt unsafe at points while filming Fallen — which the director mocked her for — and there was also her general discomfort with the way Bay filmed women. A movie meant to be pure escapism just can’t be marred by misogyny, possible mistreatment of actors, and really obvious racism in its fun and crazy robot stars and still rise higher than the bottom of this list. Mikaela and Sam’s final run (and especially Fox herself) deserves better than cellar-dweller status, but Revenge of the Fallen just takes too much apologizing for with hindsight. It’s not the worst Transformers movie (that goes to you, Last Knight!), but it does have to answer for having the worst legacy.
5. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
The best part of The Last Knight is when we get deep into the backstory of the Order of the Witwiccans (the human faction that guards the secret of Earth-bound Transformers) and learn that Harriet Tubman was a member. Yes. The best part of the movie is when it’s glossed over that Harriet Tubman was part of an underground robot railroad. The rest of the movie is two hours (or ten) of so much more of what you’ve already seen, except more boring. Laura Haddock has an important role in theory as Oxford professor Vivian Wembley, but a descendent of the wizard Merlin (not kidding, the Knights of the Round Table also enter the mythology in T5) should have had far more cool shit to do than just occasionally sass Mark Wahlberg. Nicola Peltz went one and done after Age of Extinction, relegating Cade Yeager’s daughter to just outgoing-message status on a voice-mail.
There are, of course, small highlights in Last Knight. Impossibly perfect human Gemma Chan provides the voice for the sinister Quintessa. There’s a kind of robot Jeeves named Cogman, a companion to Anthony Hopkins’s historian character, who is just the size of a small man and is like a plucky British sociopath that gives Cade tons of shit. And watching Cybertron collide with Earth has a lot of “Wow!” going for it. But overall, Last Knight is the most soulless, video-game-esque Transformers movie. Bay was just collecting the check at this point, and the kitchen-sink approach to mythology — now factoring in the staff of Merlin, Stonehenge, a new Über-villain named Unicron, the aforementioned Witwiccan connection to Harriet Tubman — made for something too bloated to even be fun.
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
The first movie in the Transformers A.F. (after Fox) timeline made a believer out of me. A strong Fox allegiance made me wonder, Will the replacement presence of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Sam’s paramour feel like watching a scab cross the picket line? It did a little bit, but as a dedicated Huntington-Whiteley fan, I was able to open my heart enough to let the love in for Dark of the Moon. That’s basically all thanks to LeBeouf, who managed to turn some franchise paychecks into work he could be proud of. Sam Witwicky is a great hero, and his closing chapter in Dark of the Moon was a strong send-off for the character that really made him a household name. (And also made him tanner than he will ever be again in his natural life.)
Honestly, you’re not here for the plot, and Transformers always hits its lowest points when trying to serve up too much of it. The important things here are villainous corporate douche, Patrick Dempsey (a part he should really play more often), working as a human lackey for the Decepticons; the continued presence of John Turturro as Agent Simmons and Josh Duhamel as now-Colonel Lennox; and some visual effects that are almost impossible to believe. There is the requisite incredible highway fight, but the creation of the massive, undulating beast that is Shockwave is Dark of the Moon’s Hall of Fame–level visual effect. With LeBeouf on the way out, Fox already gone, and an unclear future for the franchise, the third Transformers could have been a phoned in snoozefest just meant to sling toys. (Looking at you, Last Knight.) Instead it was just extremely fun, and a pretty great bridge movie between the original iteration of the franchise and its imminent next phase.
3. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
Shia LaBeouf was so damn good as the franchise leading Sam Witwicky, it was hard to imagine how anyone could make this silly mess work without him, especially the special magic of how he frantically screamed, “NONONOnononoNONONO!” But it turns out Bay had two aces up his sleeve: Mark Wahlberg and Dinobots! The director actually had the stones to make Wahlberg into a humble inventor and family man named Cade Yeager, who gets a dormant Optimus Prime up and running in his work shed. And not only does he have a new Autobot to deal with while security squads comb the landscape for rogue bots, he’s also got an obstreperous teenage daughter in the form of Nicola Peltz, who is definitely an underage girl with an adult boyfriend.
After the events of Dark of the Moon, official human-robot combat partnerships were banned by Congress, making Cade and his daughter outlaws for harboring one in their barn. But of course, an evil corporation is using Transformer parts to make their own weaponized tech, and a Decepticon called Galvatron has his own designs on destroying humanity. That means Cade has to topple a multinational corporation and an evil robot overlord if he wants to stop the destruction of Earth — all while repairing his relationship with his daughter. Age of Extinction excelled because things felt fun again. As always, there is an extraordinary fight on a busy roadway that leads to one of the most striking visuals in the franchise, with Lockdown emerging from a smoke cloud, accompanied by a massive Decepticon ship. Optimus Prime literally rides a team of Dinobots into battle, whipping his giant arm sword against the ass of a metal T. rex to make it go faster before dismounting and wasting a team of Decepticons. And the epic battle across all of Hong Kong doesn’t even feel long because it’s just so damn impressive. Age of Extinction made a strong case for the continued existence of this money-hungry, merch-pimping franchise, and it made this fan want to say, “Yes, Paramount, you may continue to take my money.”
2. Transformers (2007)
Putting this one at No. 2 hurts a little bit. The first Transformers is my personal favorite installment of the franchise, and you could easily bait me on social media into arguing about how it is the most impressive display of digital VFX ever put onscreen. (The only actual argument against the CGI supremacy of Transformers is that there was no work done in postproduction, and the Transformers are just real, actual robots that Michael Bay found to cast in his movie. Therefore, no effects were required.) The chemistry between the actors is also incredible. Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Mr. and Mrs. Witwicky were note-perfect as Sam’s batty parents. John Turturro gave a Coen brothers kind of performance as the paranoid Agent Simmons. Josh Duhamel established himself as the inexplicable franchise stalwart, the roguish yet vanilla Captain Lennox, a military man whose jaw could shatter a sledge hammer. All of these actors were better than they had any right to be in a movie based on some Hasbro toys, and yet they’re all a sideshow when compared to one of the great love stories of our time: Mikaela Banes and Sam Witwicky.
There are only three doomed fictional couples I have ever cared enough about to ship with my whole heart. Ryan and Marissa. Eve and Villanelle. And Sam and Mikaela. I’m 33 and I still basically want to be Mikaela Banes when I grow up, and Sam was the best possible iteration of the nerd who gets the girl. Their dynamic gifted Transformers a more substantial heart than Bay himself is capable of creating with just his wits, and that combined with the best VFX of all time made for one of our great 21st-century action romps. But alas, the realities of how Bay handled Fox have not aged well in the intervening decade, and that feel-bad factor prevents Transformers from the top spot on this list. The key highway battle, however, will live on as the greatest action sequence in franchise history.
1. Bumblebee (2018)
It only took 11 years and six tries, but the Transformers franchise finally produced a movie that you don’t have to kind of apologize for loving. (I know, because I love these movies.) When it was announced, the idea of a Bumblebee movie felt like a cynical cash grab. There were already four Transformers movies out with another on the way, and after the truly uninspired slog that was The Last Knight, the prospect of a spinoff felt akin to being strapped to a chair and force-fed a really sugary pie you didn’t want at all. But it turns out, Bumblebee was actually a great idea, and the ideal way to make an extended Transformers universe not only possible, but even exciting.
Resident best American screen teen Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie Watson, an 18-year-old gearhead who just wants a car of her own — and who misses her deceased father terribly. She comes into possession of Bumblebee when she finds him as a dusty old VW Bug in a junkyard, and after getting him running and taking him home, is extremely surprised when he unfurls in her garage.
With his memory wiped and his voice gone, big Bee is like an eager but shy puppy that Charlie has to train. He becomes her massive metal best friend, and reader, believe me when I say that I got misty every single time his blue robot eyes dilated with fear at being harmed or disappointing his human keeper. A Transformers movie is always going to deliver you some top-shelf robot combat in arenas of battle that are grand and thrilling (a shipping yard! Cybertron!), but Bumblebee goes full Wall-E, and watching Charlie cope with the loss of her father by finding companionship in an awkward robot pal is a heartening adventure for the whole family — sans the lens flares or anyone getting excessively sweaty, and with the added bonus of Better Mark Wahlberg, a.k.a. John Cena. Bumblebee is wonderful and pure on its own, but it’s also the first Transformers movie that won’t feel like an ethical downer one month to three years from now. Long live Transformers!