By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García
“It’s done in fun. I don’t know if it’s stereotypes — they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”
— Michael Bay, as quoted by the Associated Press
This argument is, of course, sophistry. Bullsh-t, if you prefer. As was discussed over the weekend, Revenge Of The Fallen brought out the worst in Bay and writers Ehren Kruger, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. And the “twins,” Skids and Mudflap, have only become a joke. As you read above, Michael Bay was content to throw voice actors Tom Kenny and Reno Wilson under the bus for the uproar they’ve caused. And let’s not forget, this film just flat-out sucks.
But in this story, it’s alleged that Bay had a heavier hand in making the twins “fan-friendly.” It’s also been explained in the novelization of the film that their inability to read extends only to ancient Cybertronian, rather than contemporary language. In the Film School Rejects story, Wilson, who is black, offered this slightly more plausible explanation for Mudflap’s behavior:
“It’s an alien who uploaded information from the Internet and put together the conglomeration and formed this cadence, way of speaking and body language that was accumulated over X amount of years of information and that’s what came out … If he had uploaded country music, he would have come out like that.”
Not a bad spin, but it would’ve helped immeasurably if either Wilson’s explanation or the specifics of the twins’ reading difficulties had been written into the script. As it is, all we have to go on is what we get on screen, which isn’t pretty. But here’s the scariest thing about Revenge: the robots fare better as characters than the flesh-and-blood POCs, a fact consistent with these long-standing Michael Bay tenets:
1. The U.S. Military is always right. Every troop movement is given a fawning slo-mo deployment scene. When Jordanian allies arrive to back up Josh Duhamel and company against the Decepticons, they’re dispatched within seconds. It should also be noted that the authority figures (Duhamel, the captains and the general) are white males. Tyrese Gibson’s character, Master Sergeant Epps, could’ve been written more capably, but ended up so underwhelming he came off like a military version of this guy.
2. Liberals Are A-holes. Mr. Galloway, the political “liaison,” is coded as a liberal because he wears glasses and can’t handle himself in the field. He’s also indirectly linked to the Obama administration when the president is name-checked in the media during the Decepticon assault.
3. College Is Hot. Besides the ubiquitous Megan Fox, every woman we see on campus during Sam’s brief tenure there is dressed like they were plucked out of a Girls Of The ____ Conference spread. In the case of Alice the Decepticon (Isabel Lucas), at least we got a pay-off behind her appearance – she’s there to seduce and capture Sam. One can only imagine, though, that a non-sexual female antagonist would have been coded as a Liberal/”uptight” Women’s Studies major, complete with frumpy clothing and thick glasses.
4. Bloggers Are Not Normal. Leo (Ramon Rodríguez) and Agent Simmons (John Turturro) are both revealed to run online information sites and immediately coded – in Simmons’ case, this dates back to the previous film – as being “weird” conspiracy theorists. Leo and Sam’s other roomies are also cut-and-paste fanboy pastiches, another carry-over from the first film, where Sam’s only friend (who he ditches for Fox’s character) is utterly devoid of social skills.
5. People Of Color Are Funny. Leo’s character is harder on the eyes and ears than Skids and Mudflap, and not just because he takes up more screen time. Besides being bound to Rule #4, Leo is little more than a coward, a hanger-on and an easy target for tazer-related “humor.” During the scene in Simmons’ butcher shop, one of the employees, Yakov (Sean T. Krishnan) is shown with buck teeth and a bug-eyed expression as Simmons berates him. And then there’s the Egyptian border guard (Deep Roy) who magically lets our heroes into the country just because they’re from New York, despite not being able to communicate with Simmons in English.
Defenders of Revenge will say, “But it’s about giant robots fighting each other! What did you expect, Shakespeare?” This argument is also weak. As someone who grew up watching kaiju films and the original series, I wouldn’t have had a problem with just that. But we don’t get enough of those moments anywhere in this movie. And we certainly don’t get any sequences like this one, which, even if it was “kids’ stuff,” actually drew an emotional response when myself and other young people saw it back in the day.
The only character, white, non-white or robot, who drew a response in the Revenge screening I attended was Sam’s mother (Julie White), and that’s thanks to the cheap gags she was involved in. The controversy over Skids and Mudflap isn’t just because they’re pointless characters; they’re pointless characters who sum up the worst of Michael Bay’s excesses, and serves as another example of how Hollywood seems to insist on dealing with POCs. Are there “more important things to complain about”? Maybe. But this isn’t and shouldn’t be an either/or discussion. If POCs are asked to invest in “America’s No. 1 movie,” we can’t just be represented as cheap punchlines – these kinds of questions have to keep being asked, regardless of how well this film does at the box office.