The Secret of 'Transformers' Success: Being Transformative

This photo released by Paramount Pictures shows, Mark Wahlberg, front, as Cade Yeager, and Lockdown, rear, in a scene from th
This photo released by Paramount Pictures shows, Mark Wahlberg, front, as Cade Yeager, and Lockdown, rear, in a scene from the the film, "Transformers: Age of Extinction." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, ILM)

With a first weekend of $100 million domestically, Transformers: Age of Extinction is on the road to blockbuster status, which these days starts around $200 million at the domestic box office. That's great news for the studio, theater owners, director Michael Bay, and all of the talented craftsmen involved. Even better news is that the worldwide box office has already passed $300 million.

We should pause and appreciate the success because in today's world, most sequels become extinct, literally, because they are dreadfully bad. While it may appear that the basic narrative for this sequel was the same as in the past, it was not. The skilled storytellers provided just enough freshness to make it worth seeing.

There are many ways to be transformative. Some efforts are truly reinventions. This is the case of the Disney's recent Maleficent in which we discover that the evil faerie wasn't really as evil as we thought and that she was, in fact, the hero of the tale. This reflected the wildly successful Broadway musical Wicked in which we discover that Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, was the hero of the story and that the tale of Dorothy was simply a narrow, slanted view of what was really transpiring in the Land of Oz.

Other ways to bring freshness to sequels is to tap into different emotional drivers in each subsequent narrative (e.g. Toy Story sequels do this), adjusting the past in order to invent a new future (e.g. Back to the Future sequels), bringing a fresh new cast onboard (e.g. Star Trek franchise), showcasing different family relationships such as father and son (e.g. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade), adding truly unique, newsworthy production values (e.g. Avatar's performance-capture technique), inserting contemporary pop culture icons, trends and issues into the narrative (e.g. The Simpsons franchise), adding bolder goals and challenges for the hero to face (e.g. Pirates of the Caribbean), or by eliminating the barrier between live-action and animation (e.g. Smurfs franchise).

There are other approaches as well, but most sequels miss all of them and fail. However Transformers: Age of Extinction smartly utilized a couple of these techniques. It engaged us with a new relationship, that of a father and a daughter, thus allowing us to experience a different emotional fulfillment. These new characters experienced Transformers for the first time, thus allowing us to see them through fresh eyes, making them new to us, too. The film added new, popular actors across the board. And it added fresh Transformers... Dinobots... that gave us something bigger and better to watch.

I can quibble with some aspects of the sequel, but I won't. Plenty of professional critics gave it dismal reviews, which tells you that they don't understand what appeals to moviegoers. But none of that mattered, nor should it. The artisans who crafted Transformers: Age of Extinction did it right by providing enough freshness where needed. And so moviegoers rewarded them with an A-minus CinemaScore and an initial $300 million in worldwide box office gold.

Those are the benefits of understanding how to be transformative.