The first thing one must understand about Michael Bay is that, like Skynet, he is totally self-aware. How else to explain this? Bay knows exactly what he’s doing. Every set piece, every winking joke, every single moment of his traveling whirling dervish of demolition derby cinema is designed to provoke one response: awe.
This is why you can’t go through 20 minutes of his Transformers films without being subjected to an explosion. It’s why the female extras in his films look as if they’ve walked off the runway at a Victoria’s Secret shoot (or Cheetahs). It’s why his films are chock full of impressive vehicles: he’s not into cars, he’s into Ferraris and Humvees; he’s not into the Space Shuttle, he’s into the experimental X-71; he’s not into robots, he’s into robots that turn into F-22s and Corvettes and Lamborghinis; he’s not into actresses, he’s into Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
In short: He’s into awesome.
And Michael Bay is into these things because he knows the movie-going audience is into these things. There’s a reason the Transformers films have grossed some $3 billion worldwide and why its most recent installment earned an A- from audiences despite its 17% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There’s a reason Armageddon grossed a half-billion worldwide back when that meant something, why The Rock managed to gross a third-of-a-billion despite its R-rating and has since become a Basic Cable Classic, why Bad Boys allowed Will Smith to make the leap from Modest TV Star to Biggest Movie Star In The World. Like Guy Fieri, Michael Bay knows what you want and is more than willing to give you 27 servings of it. If you get diabetes, well, that’s your own fault.
What’s interesting, though, is that Bay isn’t a mindless advocate for wealth and the wealthy. He likes the toys money can buy, but he’s deeply skeptical of the money itself, of the methods one must pursue in order to enter the One Percent. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Pain & Gain, Bay’s crime caper about a trio of muscle-bound morons who have massively misunderstood the American Dream.
"If you’re willing to do the work, you can have anything," Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) informs us in the opening moments of Pain & Gain. "That’s what makes the U.S. of A great. When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies. Now, it’s the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet. That’s pretty rad." Lugo and his compatriots Paul Doyle (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are buff and pumped up. But their effort to improve their bodies has not improved their standing in life. They are pushed around by scrawny nobodies in the real world, ignored by the beautiful women who should be theirs, stuck driving jalopies and living in one-bedroom apartments and stewing with rage.
To fulfill their dreams, Lugo and company decide that they’re wholly justified in simply taking what others have. Lugo’s blind desire for money and material goods infects Adrian and Paul. The drive for cash corrupts them: we’re introduced to Paul as the sort of guy who will defend weak from bullies; by the film’s second act, he’s running men down with his car and then backing over them, all so he can get coked up and purchase Blahnik’s for his stripper-babe girlfriend. Adrian’s big and dumb but no criminal; however, by the film’s close he’s a double-murderer chopping up bodies to avoid arrest.
"For a little bit of money," Marge Gunderson might say. She might not understand. But Bay does. And he’s deeply judgmental of the drive.
There are clues to Bay’s distrust of wealth in the cars he assigns to the Transformers in Age of Extinction. The two most honorable Autobots are a big rig and a military vehicle; meanwhile, an Autobot with no sense of responsibility is a Corvette, and the bad guy is a Lamborghini. But the shocking demise of Lucas (T.J. Miller) is where we see how Bay feels about those chasing bucks at the expense of loyalty: After selling out his friends and Optimus Prime in the hopes of obtaining a reward from the government, Lucas is killed in a rather horrifying way by the very people who promised him his cash. He pays the price for his greed.
Or think back to The Rock, and that film’s competing factions of villains. On the one hand there’s Gen. Francis Hummel (Ed Harris), a war hero who has undertaken an ignoble mission for noble reasons: He’s trying to force the government to recognize those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for kin and country. On the other hand, the soldiers he has chosen to help him carry out this mission are little better than mercs: they’re in it for the money, nothing more. Whereas Hummel comes across as duty-bound and humane, his cash-obsessed cronies are sociopaths. "I’ll take pleasure in guttin’ you, boy," snarls one of the mercs, prompting Nic Cage to ask, "What is wrong with these people?"
Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man is made quite literal in The Island. That Michael Bay production is practically Marxist in its critique of wealth: The premise of the film is that the one percent use their cash to pay for clones, the organs of which are harvested (and the clones, naturally, killed) when the need arises.
Like the American populists of old—and no small share of the populists today—Bay is deeply skeptical of the wealthy and deeply skeptical of the drive to accumulate wealth. Bay also leavens his work with a healthy dose of patriotism; watching Age of Extinction, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that hero Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) barely appears in a shot without a flag fluttering in the background. Sometimes Bay shoots from a low angle, a heroic Wahlberg in profile dominating the frame as the flag waves over his shoulder; in another shot, you see Old Glory on a porch shortly before black-clad government spooks and their robot ally destroy his home in a massive fireball.
On the one hand you have the patriotic Yeagers and a red, white, and blue Optimus Prime; on the other, you have a black bag CIA team accountable to no one and a multinational corporation that hopes to build America’s warfighting machines in Chinese factories.
The audience knows exactly who to trust in that scenario. And that's just one of the reasons they love the Auteur of Awesome.