A mature take on the Transformers franchise coupled with the budget and reach of Netflix seems exactly like what fans of the original '80s cartoon, who are now much older and hungering for more-sophisticated storytelling, have been waiting for.
The ridiculously long-titled Transformers: War for Cybertron (Chapter 1: Siege) looks at the grim final days of the war on the eponymous robotic race's home planet of Cybertron. It does scratch the itch for deeper character work, and it offers a nice, steady progression toward more chaotic robotic rampage. But at only six episodes, the show sports a plot that feels as if it got shortchanged, and the hints of a deeper backstory about the conflict are frustratingly vague and beg to be fleshed out.
Still, the show, based on a Hasbro toy line that debuted in 2018, is a fresh take for a franchise that's often been a mixed bag for those older fans, with high points like the late '90s Beast Wars giving way to a parade of kid-friendly series and, of course, the much-maligned Michael Bay films that progressively got stupider and more needlessly bombastic.
War for Cybertron wastes no time in declaring that it's not a children's show, as it works to reboot the Transformers origin story. The freedom-loving Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, are typically billed as the underdogs, but in this show, the situation looks particularly dire. Their hidden headquarters are lined with injured or scrapped bots, a graphic illustration of the price of this war. They're losing -- and badly.
On the flip side, the Decepticons, led by Megatron, claim superiority in both numbers and resources. At Megatron's side is Jetfire, who leads the sky-patrolling Seekers, which include in their ranks constant franchise-schemer Starscream.
The way the show deals with these characters is a key highlight. Optimus Prime is far from the all-knowing paragon of right that he's often portrayed as, with some of his lieutenants questioning his decisions. At least in the beginning he's not an overpowered character, and he gets his butt kicked early on. Likewise, Megatron isn't just a mustache-twirling villain, often showing signs of honor and shades of complexity before going full-on villain midway through the show.
Are Optimus Prime and Megatron making decisions based on what's good for their factions? Or is it more to win some personal rivalry? Even viewers are left to somewhat guess at times.
Bumblebee is the other standout that plays against type. Like Optimus Prime, he's often portrayed as the loyal Autobot scout. Here, he's not even an Autobot at the beginning of the show, choosing to remain a neutral scavenger of energon, the fuel source of all Transformers. The last thing he wants to do is stick his neck out for anyone or any faction.
The complicated character work is great and rare for a franchise dedicated to action and painting things in black and white for its youthful consumers. There are a few other highlights, including the Autobot military commander Ultra Magnus, Jetfire and medical bot Rachet, but with a cast so large (Hasbro's gotta sell them toys), not everyone's favorites will get proper time in the spotlight.
Where things fall short is in the plot, which seems to move too quickly for its own good, a victim of the short, six-episode count. To avoid spoilers, I won't get too deep into the details, saying only that most of the show revolves around the hunt for the Allspark, the source of energy and life for the Transformers and an oft-used MacGuffin in the franchise.
And -- this sounds almost sacrilegious to say after years of clamoring for more-sophisticated storytelling -- the show feels a little too dark and depressing. It takes itself too seriously, and there's little levity to balance out all the grimness.
You're also constantly feeling like you're missing out on the rich history that's only alluded to in offhand comments. From Megatron leading an uprising to the former camaraderie between Optimus Prime, Megatron and Ultra Magnus, these little hints tease at something deeper. But sadly, unless you're steeped in the comic book lore or remember some of the history revealed back in the original series, they remain out of reach. (Even then, I'm not sure they'd provide proper answers, since this is supposed to be another reboot.)
And while the character designs look good -- if a little bulky (although accurate to the toy line on which they're based) -- the animation feels a bit stiff. It's unfair to compare this to a big-budget film, but the opening scene of, , managed a nice balance of making heavy machinery move fluidly.
The creative team behind War for Cybertron also produced Transformers: Prime Wars Trilogy, another series skewed toward older viewers, which was largely ignored because it debuted on Verizon's now-defunct Go90. That series also tried to take a more nuanced approach with some of the franchise's original characters, but it suffered from the same sort of stiff animation, thin plot and inconsistencies, and a soulless feel. The series did get better over time.
War for Cybertron represents continued improvement, and it's a show with a lot of promise. It ends on a cliff-hanger, though any fan can figure out what happens next. Fortunately, Netflix has committed to telling the next two chapters, so there's no chance of being left hanging.
I won't offer any spoilers on the ending or what's to come, but you can Google Hasbro's follow-up toy line, as well as the third and concluding line, unveiled last week, to get hints of its near-term direction and end game.
These toys are aimed at older consumers with fond memories of the original Generation 1 cartoon, a reminder that this show is decidedly not for kids -- it's something I won't be showing my boys for a long, long time.
Yes, I have reservations about the series, but that doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to the next chapter. Here's hoping the show gets more room to breathe.
The first chapter of Transformers: War for Cybertron dropped on Netflix today.