Bumblebee’s Comic-Con panel was fueled by nostalgia with a series of shout-outs to the retro 1980s Transformers series.
The filmmakers teased appearances in the Dec. 21 movie by Optimus Prime, the triple-changer villain Blitzwing, and a new version of the mechanical alien world of Cybertron.
If you grew up running home from school to catch the classic cartoon, this is the touch you were hoping for.
(Speaking of … the panel literally opened with singer Stan Bush doing a live performance of his synth-pop anthem “The Touch” from the soundtrack of the 1987 animated Transformers movie.)
After five rock’em, sock’em Michael Bay extravaganzas, the Transformers franchise is trying to go back to basics. Bumblebee filmmaker Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) was tasked with fusing nostalgia for the Generation One toys and cartoon with a movie that doesn’t discard the Bay films, but does start the story anew.
For one, Bumblebee is set in 1987, and Hailee Steinfeld stars as Charlie, a gearhead teenager who hopes the battered old Volkswagen Beetle she finds rusting in a junkyard can help her find a new life, away from the somewhat lonely, outcast existence she currently leads.
“We meet Charlie Watson as a sort of typical misunderstood teenager and she has experienced a major loss in her life,” Steinfeld told the crowd. “She’s constantly trying to find that freedom that she craves and fill that gap of loss with love or friendship or something or someone that understands her or sees her.”
Her friend Memo, played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr., is a shy neighbor who unexpectedly finds himself along for the ride. He sees her, even if he’s not sure she notices him. When it comes to Bumblebee, he can’t believe his eyes.
He said Memo goes through a coming-of-age story, too: “When you gotta fight aliens, you definitely turn from a boy into a man.”
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Charlie quickly discovers that her new yellow junker is actually dormant, shapeshifting alien robot, who was critically wounded while being pursued by both human military trackers and Decepticon foes from his own world.
That world, as fans know, is Cybertron, and Bumblebee will give audiences a new look at this collapsing, clockwork Garden of Eden. While Knight didn’t reveal exactly how Cybertron would look, he did confirm it would be something moviegoers hadn’t seen in the previous movies.
“The idea of me being able to make a Transformers movie and not see Cybertron? I mean, come on,” Knight joked. “If they’re gonna give me the opportunity and money to do that, I’m gonna do it. So yes, we see Cybertron and let me say, it is awesome.”
Before Comic-Con, EW revealed the identities of two Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) who are stalking Bumblebee in the vehicle form of muscle cars, with her Shatter taking the form of a cherry-red Plymouth Satellite, and his Dropkick appearing as a blue AMC Javelin.
“They had to be a little bit more complex, so … they’re triple-changers,” Knight said. “They had to turn into two different things in addition to being a robot. So they are muscle cars… but also Decepticons are aircraft. They turn into things that fly. So Shatter can turn into a harrier jet and Dropkick can turn into a chopper. And you can see little pieces of that in the design.”
These villains convince John Cena’s Agent Burns and the robot-hunting military unit of Sector 7 that they are merely on Earth hunting a “dangerous criminal” from their world. So deception truly is one of their weapons.
“I’ll just say that Agent Burns knows that he’s right and that’s the reason why he does sometimes the naughty things that he does,” Cena said, milking the audience with the kind of bravado you can only learn in the WWE. “Agent Burns is a complicated man. Damn, he looks good in a suit though.”
But he’s not fond of these two meddling teenagers. “I guess if he figures that if humans would help these things that he believes are not-so-good, he would also think that those said humans are not so nice,” Cena said.
Knight went on to reveal that Shatter and Dropkick’s design was partly inspired by elements of the ’80s cartoon.
“For Shatter, I was inspired by the design of this robot ninja character called Nightbird in the original animated series. She was awesome,” he said. “And with Dropkick, that helmet was inspired by Megatron’s design.”
In the Bumblebee trailer, there was also a flying Decepticon who wasn’t identified, but Knight revealed that his identity is also a nod to the Hasbro triple-changing toys of yesteryear: Blitzwing.
“I’m gonna break a few hearts today. It is not Starscream,” the filmmaker said, although he understood why fans jumped to that conclusion. That retro character and the similarly designed “Seeker” jets inspired Blitzwing’s look. “The seekers essentially had the same design aesthetic,” Knight said. “It was an opportunity to dig in and weave that in while still trying to do something different.”
In ’80s toy form, Blitzwing could shapeshift into both a jet, and a tank. In the movie, he’s only a jet. But one a lone Autobot can’t defeat without some heavy scarring and damage. The roughly 7,000 guests in Comic-Con’s Hall H got to witness an extended cliffside battle between the robots in the opening of the film.
At the end of the panel, there was the usual audience Q&A — but the last question came from an unexpected guest with a very familiar voice.
“Travis Knight, my name is Optimus Prime,” said Peter Cullen, who has voiced the heroic Autobot leader in countless Tranformers iterations over the years, beginning with the original cartoon series. “I could not help but notice my absence in much of your footage.”
“Well… it’s not really a question, in fairness,” Knight replied. “The movie’s called Bumblebee. It’s about Bumblebee. So it’s really his moment in the sun.”
“Well, in that case, what does an Autobot have to do to get his own movie?” Cullen asked, followed by a roar of approval from the audience.
“Fair question,” Knight deadpanned. “I don’t know, I mean, maybe we could showcase your emotional range. Why don’t you show us, I don’t know, ‘joyful exuberance’?”
“Rightfully so,” Cullen said in his stentorian baritone. “I am elated to be here.”
“Ok, I’m sold!” Knight said. The producers have confirmed that if Bumblebee is a success, Optimus Prime could be in line for his own stand-alone.
In some of the teaser footage shown at Comic-Con, we saw that Optimus Prime will feature in Bumblebee’s story. There was a glimpse of a hologram image of the robot-turned-tractor-trailer.
The design of this Optimus is both new … and old.
The robot looks like it incorporates the flat-nosed Freightliner truck from the Generation 1 line.
That is sure to activate the nostalgia receptors of Transformers fans who have been in it for the long haul.
EW’s Marc Snetiker contributed to this report.