Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura knows how to roll the dice. During a tenure as an executive at Warner Bros. Pictures, he snatched up the film rights to Harry Potter and threw an exorbitant budget at two indie filmmakers to make something called — checks notes — “The Matrix.” When he went independent in the 2000s, di Bonaventura lured none other than Michael Bay to take the long-gestating Transformers over the finish line. Cut to 16 years and seven sequels later, and the producer is still gambling on the robots in disguise.
“And it is a gamble,” di Bonaventura tells Polygon, as his new movie, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, continues to roll out across theaters and digital platforms. “Every movie is a gamble and what you add or take away are gambles.”
Rise of the Beasts had its own gamble: While di Bonaventura says his team wanted to add the Maximals, the animal-like Autobots who took off in the ’90s Beast Wars cartoon, into the core franchise for years, they couldn’t crack a story that would actually work. “Naturally, animals and cars don’t mix,” he says. “They can’t go into an urban environment, they’d be a little obvious. There’s no robot in disguise for them in an urban environment.” The fix was a prequel-sequel, squeezed between the core Bay movies and the ’80s-set Bumblebee, that transplanted the action to Peru with an Indiana Jones relic-chasing twist.
The modest success of Bumblebee prompted di Bonaventura and Paramount Pictures to carefully weigh their follow-up play; it’s been five years since the Optimus-less one-off, and the yellow Autobot takes a bit of a backseat this time around. But the Transformers team isn’t waiting to take its next gamble on the franchise. This time it’s built right into the end of Rise of the Beasts, when the film’s human hero Noah (Anthony Ramos) is recruited by none other than the G.I. Joes, who want the Autobots’ help for… something.
“[The G.I. Joe tease] is definitely a promise,” di Bonaventura says, when asked if the Easter egg is anything more than chum in the water. “I’ve had a lot of questions about this, and here’s my direct answer: We have not developed the script. So we don’t know exactly [how they fit in], but the answer is like in every other movie, a group of humans and robots fight the bad guy to save the day. G.I. Joes will be part of that.”
The G.I. Joes were very much not around during the initial Transformers movies (although one could easily mistake Josh Duhamel’s Autobot-affiliated strike team NEST as an offshoot), which raises the question of how they will suddenly team up with the Transformers in a future movie. Di Bonaventura says don’t worry, the team behind the series actually does care about continuity. The producer notes Rise of the Beasts takes place in 1994 and the first Bay movie is set in 2007, which gives them 13 years for the Joes and the Autobots to run together in secret.
“Continuity definitely matters,” di Bonaventura stresses, while likening his approach to how Peter Jackson adapted the Lord of the Rings books. As a Tolkien fan, there were certainly things he missed and characters he wanted to see — but the dramatic effect of the tweaks was everything. “For me personally, I think [continuity’s] overblown, because sometimes you miss a great idea. […] I think one of the things that I find particularly exciting about this movie is, you get to meet Optimus before he’s the character you met in Bay’s films. There’s definitely an evolution between the two things. For me, that’s not in contradiction. You’re letting in Optimus’ emotionality, his vulnerability.”
The gamble of breaking continuity doesn’t always work out. In an early encounter with Rise of the Beasts’ villains, the Terrorcons, Optimus Prime… gets his ass handed to him by their leader, Scourge. Not every Autobot makes it out alive, but when Optimus stands back up, he’s livid. Maybe too livid for Optimus Prime purists.
“We had to dial it back a little bit,” di Bonaventura says. “When we first showed it to an audience, there was a scene that’s been removed from the movie because we just didn’t need it. Optimus’ anger over being caught was so violent, they were like, Whoa, that’s not Optimus Prime! But it was. And it was right. I think Optimus in some respects has the same problem as Superman, which is you’ve got to be careful if he just seems invulnerable because then how interesting can he be? So I really like that he gets his ass handed to him in the first fight, and that builds into the further fights.”
Mounting an epically scaled Transformers/G.I. Joe crossover event should not threaten the delicate fabric of the TF Cinematic Universe — there is a long history of comics pairing the two teams that have paved a way for this moment. But di Bonaventura knows he’s still gambling. When I ask him to clarify how he imagines the crossover working, he draws specific lines that people not in charge of billion-dollar franchises might balk at.
“They’ll be part of a Transformer group — we’re not going into the G.I. Joe world, they’re coming into ours,” the producer says. And as for the classic Joe characters established by movies like 2021’s Snake Eyes? “Characters should come in, I think.”
Just don’t expect Cobra Commander to hit Optimus Prime too hard.