The Underwhelming Box Office Opening of Transformers: The Last Knight in Context
Falling in just shy of industry expectations, Transformers: The Last Knight has been the lowest box office opening in the franchise so far. It’s worth stopping to consider why that is and what it means for the franchise.
First, let’s get this out of the way: Transformers: The Last Knight has not flopped. It has thus far drawn in $265.3 million at the global box office against its $217 million production budget, compared to previous entrant Age of Extinction‘s opening of $302.1 million against a $210 million price tag. Director Michael Bay is very attentive to the China-dominated international audience, and estimates show that the film is making a record-breaking pull in China, well ahead of Age of Extinction; the international box office in general has kept course for a $199.2 million first week, nearly matching the previous film. But the domestic numbers seem less enthusiastic, enough to signal a shift in some of the commentary around the film from something like “Why does this keep working?” to something more like, “Why did it stop?” Here are the numbers and one possible interpretation.
Domestic Openings and Reception
Box Office Mojo records the films’ respective opening weekends as follows. The detailed figures count The Last Knight’s opening weekend as a mere $45 million due to its Wednesday release, a schedule shared only with Dark of the Moon, but the full five-day weekend figure being widely reported elsewhere is the likely more representative $69 million:
- Transformers: $70.5 million
- Revenge of the Fallen: $109.0 million
- Dark of the Moon: $97.9 million / $162.6 million (5-day)
- Age of Extinction: $100.0 million
- The Last Knight: $45.3 million / $69.0 million (5-day)
By any metric, The Last Knight is the weakest domestic opening of any Michael Bay Transformers film, including the franchise-opening original.
Reviews and fan reception of the film have been “mixed”, much as they have been for prior installments: no one will discount Bay’s ability to create a stunning action set piece, and neither will anyone accuse the films of coherent storytelling, plot, and characters. Some find the films to be an offensive assault and others enjoy the ride. As a story, The Last Knight is the most complex of the films yet, and possibly the least coherent, edging out the writers’-strike-beset Revenge of the Fallen. As we heard from the writing team during the ramp-up to Age of Extinction, “logical sense” sometimes has to take a backseat to the thrill ride, and even some critics appreciate the magic in that formula, sometimes and sometimes not with tongue in cheek. Like its predecessors, the film is maintaining a Rotten Tomatoes score in the healthy mid-to-upper teens.
At the same time, it’s worth questioning what a franchise established on pure spectacle has to build on for succeeding installments.
A Timely Shift in Strategy?
Until now, the films have shown a gradual increase in runtimes, an increased proportion of that time spent in action featuring the robot cast, and a massive increase in the scope, scale, and spectacle with each installment. Where the original film pitted the heroes against a small cast of named villains, Revenge of the Fallen introduced hordes of faceless enemies and defaced national landmarks, while Dark of the Moon introduced planetary-scale events and city-scale destruction presaging the climax of the following year’s Avengers. If Age of Extinction cooled the spectacle somewhat by returning to merely city-scale destruction with a new anti-gravity weapon, The Last Knight more than compensates with a shift to truly planetary-scale spectacle that softly echoes Roland Emmerich’s 2012. The Last Knight‘s runtime bucks the trend – as well as both the rumors of a three-hour film and Bay’s claim that The Last Knight would be shorter “by a lot” than the last three installments – slipping in seconds under Revenge‘s 2:30 in the domestic cut.
Michael Bay has claimed – as seems to have become his tradition with each Transformers film – that The Last Knight is his last, even if its star Mark Wahlberg, who is leaving the franchise himself, claims it probably won’t be. But the next film to be released in the Transformers movie franchise – a Bumblebee-focused spin-off film set outside of the main series’ numbered sequence – will be the first Transformers franchise film not directed by Bay, and aims for a smaller scope and character focus within its 1980s setting, with no intention of competing with Bay’s massive spectacles. If audience fatigue at a largely one-note thrill-ride is to blame for The Last Knight‘s slouch in box office numbers, that shift might be a welcome one. Bay himself made an unusual nod to 14 future films planned in the broader Transformers universe, hinting that Hasbro’s and Paramount’s plans for the brand well exceed the scale of Bay’s own series.
One Last Head-Scratcher
It’s hard not to notice, at the same time, that The Last Knight does mark one shift against franchise expectations in another sense: the hooks planted by its immediate predecessor. While each film has reinvented the history of the Transformers and the Earth for the sake of a new, bigger, more ancient villain for the heroes to battle, Age of Extinction particularly seemed to lay out a clean slate, packaging the first three films starring Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky as a “trilogy” of sorts and introducing a new human cast. Age of Extinction also replaced all but the most iconic of the surviving robot characters, and introduced a new origin story for the Transformers without any mention of the 2007 movie’s AllSpark “Cube”.
More than any of the previous movies, Age of Extinction also worked to plant unanswered questions to be addressed in the next installment – the Transformers’ ancient, apparently biological, creators; the nature of the Knights, a legendary order of Transformers that seemed to include Optimus Prime; and Megatron’s transformed motivations and nature as the soulless, human-built, revenge-driven ghoul Galvatron. At hazard of spoiling some key plot elements of The Last Knight, while nods are made to elements of prior continuity stretching all the way back to Revenge, the follow-up on these more immediate sequel hooks from Age of Extinction ranges from indirect to re-envisioned to nonexistent, following the same very selective, short-attention-span strategy of each of the previous movies.
While it’s hard to imagine that word of mouth about the plot of the new film played any great role in the substantial drop in its opening numbers, it might help to illustrate why this is the time for the franchise to step back for a different approach toward building its cinematic world in the form of the upcoming Bumblebee film.
Update: Thanks to Allspark user LV! for pointing out an erroneous link, now corrected.
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