Bumblebee Delivers the Transformers Movies’ First Great Human Characters
As much as I may love Mikaela Banes due to the charm and energy that Megan Fox brought to the character, there has not been a lot of great human characters in the Transformers movies that hold up upon rewatching. Sam Witwicky is the curdled milk of mankind, and I tapped out of the franchise before Cade Yeager appeared, but from what I’ve seen from Lindsay Ellis’ “The Whole Plate” Transformers franchise breakdown, I didn’t miss much.
That’s what makes Bumblebee so impressive: Not only does the movie do justice to the bots, but also to the humans.
Bumblebee introduces us to Charlie Watson, a young woman on the edge of eighteen who has shut down emotionally in a lot of ways after the death of her father. Charlie has a “tude,” but you find out very quickly that it comes from feeling disconnected from the person she felt knew her best.
Her mother, Sally Watson, has already remarried the nice, but slightly oblivious Ron, with her brother, Otis, being young enough to adapt to this change. For Charlie, it feels like she is mourning alone, and everyone is moving on with their lives as she remains in self-imposed exile from other people.
Much like Mikaela before her, Charlie has mechanical training and spent her time helping to fix cars with her father. It is at the junkyard Charlie frequents where she finds Bumblebee, feeling a kindred spirit in the refugee Autobot. I love that her relationship with Bumblebee allowed Charlie to feel empathy and care for people again—not because she wasn’t a good kid, but she was lost in her own way.
An unexpected delight is Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who is Charlie’s neighbor/friend/love interest. He has a lot of the same nerdy goofiness that Sam Witwicky had, but he never treats Charlie like an object. They actually have fun together, enjoy each other’s company, and he respects her. Instead of pretending to be macho or doing arm flexes in front of her, he is just vulnerable, kind, and supportive.
While they aren’t a couple by the end of the movie, they share a friendly kiss, and Memo is content to be friends without expectations. Is he excited when Charlie does seem to share his feelings in some way? Yes, but he never pushes her or tries to trick her into anything. The affection builds naturally.
Charlie’s family are also allowed to be more defined within their comedic roles, with Sally, Otis, and Ron all playing a role in the final conflict. Even John Cena’s Jack Burns is a strong secondary antagonist, because you can understand from his point of view (especially since this is still the Cold War era) and why he’d see the Transformers as a dangerous force. When he calls out the foolishness of trusting a group of robots called Decepticons, it gets a huge laugh, because he’s the only one in the room who’s seen one up close.
Finding a good balance between the human element and the extraterrestrial/robotic fun is a hard balance to strike as we saw in movies like 2014’s Godzilla, which felt like a really long kaiju tease, with a protagonist so bland you could replace him with a toaster and it’d have the same emotional impact. Charlie feels like a lived-in person, and the story allows her to have a coming-of-age story with her robot
boyfriend best friend Bumblebee.
She’s cool without seeming gimmicky, and even though Steinfeld isn’t playing a multi-racial person, it’s satisfying to see the best human character of the Transformers movie franchise played by a multi-racial actress (Steinfeld has Filipino and African American ancestry) in a script written by a half-Taiwanese woman.
I loved every minute of Bumblebee, and if you have been waiting for a truly great live-action Transformers movie, then you finally got one, so I hope you check it out if you get the chance. It’s a winner for Autobots and human alike.
Also, Shatter and Dropkick are excellent baddies, and I love how Angela Bassett has just decided to be good at every aspect of acting, including voice acting at sixty. Legend.
(image: Jaimie Trueblood/Paramount Pictures)
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