Michael Bay: Action Genius or Frat Boy with a Camera?

Credit: Paramount Pictures

How does one calculate the success of a director? Though not mutually exclusive, critical acclaim and box office returns are usually the measuring sticks when it comes to Hollywood filmmaking.

One film director who has become known for financial triumphs, but who has become a bit of a pariah with critics, is Michael Bay. His movies typify giant Hollywood blockbusters, but in terms of artistry and substance, he’s been found more-than-slightly lacking in a myriad of reviews over the years.

We are well aware of how most critics feel about Bay, whose latest Pain & Gain arrives in theaters this week, as a filmmaker. But where does he stand with the theater-going public? His movies continue to make serious coin, so obviously he still has an audience, but we decided to poll both fans and detractors alike to better understand where Bay’s reputation stands.

There were those who were rather effusive with their love for Bay. “Michael is a genius,” says Chris Todd of Austin, Texas. “He has a understanding of visuals that few directors do, I really believe he’s top tier on that regard.” Todd acknowledges that the location in which Bay’s films are seen makes a tremendous difference. “What makes him great is that he’s one of the few guys left today who makes films for the big screen. He has no interest in the home experience really. It’s all about the theater. And that’s why his work loses a lot of power once it’s viewed at home.”

His visual prowess also proved a major draw for fan Jenni Lee. “I love his panorama shots,” she says, “hands down the bomb scene from Pearl Harbor is one of the most gut wrenching scenes in history, not only because you know what happens when it hits, but because if the way it was shot. He also knows how to film explosions in an epic way.” Lee went on to note that his visuals prove to be the ultimate mitigating factor when considering his faults. “At the end of the day I will always go to a theater to see his movies and at least give it a shot because at a minimum I know I will at least get to see something that is visually stunning.”

However, even those who counted themselves Bay fans could not deny his shortcomings. Biostatistician Ryan Machtmes suggests that maximizing enjoyment of Bay’s work means clearly defining one’s expectations. “Truthfully, I watch his movies because they’re just that: [movies],” he says. “No, I don’t go to his movies expecting art, but sometimes a movie is just a movie, an escape into the fantastic and a way to just watch something and be entertained by it for purposes of relaxation and unplugging my otherwise always-on brain.”

Still others maintain that Bay’s appeal is a function of his time. “He came to power as the resurgence of the indie film crowd began to wane,” says fan Craig Dougherty. “After the minimalist early 90’s that birthed [Steven] Soderbergh, [Kevin] Smith, [Richard] Linklater, and [Quentin] Tarantino, I think the general audience was itching to return to the big budget action genre.” Dougherty further argues that Bay doesn’t ever aim “to neglect emotion or substance, he [just] chooses to focus on delivering that message through high octane action rather than story and character development. He’s the purest definition of a movie director currently working in Hollywood, and I can respect that moniker.”

But again, Bay has cultivated a legion of hecklers over the years who are just as vocal, if not moreso. “Michael Bay is the most frustrating filmmaker,” asserts Anthony Donovan Stokes, “because he has an endless amount of resources, and completely squanders them on aesthetics instead of actually storytelling.” Mikus Duncis adds, “he has a lot of untapped potential and indulges himself way too much.” Duncis also echoed oft-heard criticisms of both the length and poor comedy of Bay’s films. “His films are way too long and have an absurdly large amount of unfunny, offensive supporting characters and the story is always somehow muddled. If he could learn how to make a straight up 90-minute action films with a bare-bones minimal plot and no comic relief, I think he would be known for making great, fun and fast paced action.”

Some have argued that Bay’s offenses run even deeper, and that he is in fact a detriment to film. “I think Michael Bay’s biggest crime as a filmmaker is that he perpetuates cynicism in numerous aspects of the movie-going experience,” contends Patrick Girts, “his films are very well made products, but they rarely respect the audiences watching them.” Most damning of all, Girts points out, is that “despite that lack of respect, [Bay’s movies] make money hand over fist. More studios are adopting this model, and quality storytelling pays the price.”

Surprisingly, no matter the side of the fence polled people happened to fall, many of them had ready-made associations locked and loaded.

“The man is like your cheesy bachelor uncle. He’s loud, curses and drinks a lot, always has some new skeeze he calls a girlfriend with him, and is definitely not someone you want to hang out with long term, but he brings over all the cool fireworks on the 4th of July and let you have some of his beer one time so he’s alright,” says Tony Rex Bowler, Houston.

“Michael Bay is like a student of the culinary arts,” says Jose Antonio Rivera of New York City. “He knows the ingredients, he knows the recipe, but when it comes to actually making the food, he pulls it out before it’s fully cooked. He sprinkles his films with a dash of style to cover up the fact that it’s undercooked and then proceeds to tell you how ‘good’ it is.”

Jordan Worth Cobb of Conway, Arkansas calls Bay “a painter,” but backhands him by suggesting that he “goes for what’s easy and doesn’t try.” Anthony Donovan Stokes, Manassas, Virginia is even less kind. “[Bay] is a ten-year-old boy in a fifty-year-old man’s body. A really dumb, impatient, perverted, hyperbolic, defensive 10 year old.”

Inversely, Ryan Timothy of Brace, Montreal compares Bay to his contemporaries and gives the Armageddondirector the advantage. “I know Zack Snyder has the image of a teenager with a camera, but Bay was, still and will probably always be that guy for me,’ Timothy says.

But for every fan, there’s a naysayer. “He seems to be a living example of what would happen if you gave a frat dude a very technical understanding of film and millions of dollars and told him to make a movie,” says Stephan Krosecz of Cypress, Texas. “The only difference is you’d find a lot more kegs of crappy beer, Gatorade, and Mountain Dew on set.”

It seems the relationship between Michael Bay and movie consumers is no less complicated now than it was when he first appeared on the scene in the mid-90s. Bay fan T.C. De Witt may have summed it up best when he said, “aficionados of film consider him a hack and a disease to the art of filmmaking, but he doesn’t make art movies; he doesn’t make intelligent movies. He makes the movies he loves with the stuff he loves. That passion, even if it’s shallow to most, should be admired.” Further putting things in perspective, Angela Behm reminds us that “for all the hate [Bay] may garner, at least he’s not Uwe Boll.”

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