If you were asked to name a director that frequently touched upon queer characters and subject matter, it’s doubtful transformers director Michael Bay would come to mind. Heck, you could ask someone to rattle off a dozen or so filmmakers and it’s still likely that Bay would never even come up. And yet, the man behind such films as rock and Pain and Gain has often included queer characters in his works. Sometimes, or even many times, as offensive caricatures, but his newest film of him, ambulance, features an openly queer man, complete with a same-sex smooch, without ever resorting to making a mockery of his sexuality. The recurring presence of queerness in Michael Bay’s work is complicated and often reflects the larger trends of queer representation in American cinema.
Before moving forward on this, it’s important to note that Michael Bay does not write his movies. Nothing better exemplifies how Bay is removed from this part of the creative process than how his solitary writing credit from him on IMDB is for a 1990 Colin James music video. This is not meant to be a critique of Bay, but rather to provide context for who’s responsible for the various queer characters and stereotypes that emerge in his works from him. Bay is often handed screenplays that he then films, an evolution of how he was hired to direct commercials and music videos for larger companies and bands, respectively, in his nascent filmmaking days. This doesn’t mean that Bay doesn’t influence story beats, character details, or anything else, it’s just that he’s not the primary architect of those ingredients.
This is all meant to clarify how queer stereotypes and downright harmful jokes about queer people have often crept into Bay’s work, even though he rarely works with the same screenwriter twice. This is emblematic of how ingrained such dehumanizing concepts are into mainstream Hollywood. You can work with different writers, but these elements keep coming in. Just as mainstream American action movies are expected to feature car chases and a guy kissing a girl in the final act, so too is there going to be a requisite gay panic comedic moment, at least in the 1990s and 2000s. This is not meant to remove any blame from Bay for the homophobic jokes and characters in some of his movies of him, but rather to illustrate how omnipresent they are in the general Hollywood machine.
This level of prominence means that queerness in Bay’s first two decades of filmmaking was often manifesting in an exclusively negative light. Gay people weren’t shown as multi-layered human beings just existing, but rather manifesting as people coded as gay stereotypes for the sake of providing comedy for cis-het audience members. Anthony Clark‘s Paul in rock, for example, is a perfect example of this; a man who enters the film saying “Helloooo” and then, upon being called a barber, notes that he’s actually a “stylist” in a heavy mincing lisp.
There’s no question that Paul is supposed to inhabit the “pansy” stereotype that so many Hollywood depictions of queer men fell under. In this case, the use of such a stereotype was meant to provide cis-het audiences with amusement at seeing a conventionally “feminine” man being contrasted with the ultra-macho personality of Sean Connery‘s John Patrick Mason. As Paul darts out of a tense scene making tiny squeaks and flailing his hands around, it’s easy to imagine this character being plopped into any other 1990s or 2000s action movie with ease. That’s how much of a microcosm Paul is of the stereotypes gay men were locked into in this era of American cinema.
So it went on with Michael Bay’s works, which tended to feature queerness only as the butt of jokes or in stereotypical characters that the audience was supposed to laugh at. Perhaps the culmination of this came with Bad Boys II in 2003, which featured an onslaught of homophobic gags. While discouraging to see, this was par for the course in an era where even Spider-Man would ask wrestlers if their “boyfriend” made them their outfit for the ring. This isn’t meant to excuse the uncomfortable intolerance normalized throughout Bad Boys IIbut rather a way of being cognizant of the larger cultural forces dehumanizing queer people and making jokes like these appear normal.
Unfortunately, the trend of homophobic jokes in both American pop culture and Michael Bay’s works continued into the transformers movies. Despite being squarely aimed at youngsters, these films often resorted to easy gay panic gags for the sake of comedy. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, for instance, decide to have the racist caricatures, the Twins, dig their serious even deeper by asking one frustrated human character “You gonna go whine to your boyfriend?” Even more notable in this franchise is a Transformers: Dark of the Moon set piece where ken jeong‘s Deep Wang confronts Shia Le Beouf‘s Sam Witwicky in a bathroom stall. After repeating his double understandings of a name multiple times, Wang begins to straddle Witwicky in an attempt to pass on important information.
To passersby, including their boss (played by John Malkovich), it looks like two men engaging in physical intimacy in a bathroom stall, a perception reinforced by Wang emerging with his pants around his knees. Remember how this is a movie about robots? That’s not the only instance of queerness in the film, though, as Alan Tudyk‘s bodyguard character Dutch is heavily implied to be queer. Though adhering to stereotypes of queer-coded men in mainstream cinema, Dutch is at least a more interesting variation on this archetype given that his character of him is hinted to have a deep disturbing backstory involving martial arts skills. How many “pansies” in Hollywood history can attest to that?
When Michael Bay shifted away from Autobots and Decepticons for the first time since 2005’s The Island in 2013 with Pain and Gain, he was able to go whole-hog with an R-rating. This allowed for a greater level of violence and debauchery compared to his PG-13 works by him, though the screenplay by Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely still found time for the kind of homophobic gags that peppered so many of Bay’s works no matter the rating. Most notably, a scene where protagonist Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) visits a priest ends with this man rubbing Lugo’s knee and making sexual advances towards him, much to Lugo’s horror.
The scene is interesting for several reasons, including how it’s apparently a fabrication in a movie that claims to be based on a true story (although there are lots of extra fictitious flourishes scattered throughout Pain and Gain). While presented as a gay panic joke, it can also be interpreted as a way for Bay’s film to depict how much moral rot has taken hold of 1990s Miami. Even the priests are not there to help people, but rather to look out for their sexual desires. Granted, the execution of the gag still plays too close to something that would appeal to people who unanimously shout “No homo!”, but at least this instance of a gay panic joke has more layers to it than similar ones in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Pain and Gain arrived as a new culture shift happened in mainstream American cinema. People had gotten tired of characters spouting out “that’s so gay!” or endless parades of jokes about gayness as a slur, as seen by the public controversy erupting over similar jokes in movies like The Dilemma. Homophobia didn’t suddenly get erased from all of American cinema, but the days of gay panic jokes did suddenly start to decrease, at least in movies not entitled Get Hard. Even R-rated comedies for teenage and college audiences like 22 Jump Street featured characters being aware of how using homophobic phrases wasn’t cool.
Just as Bay’s 1990s movies tended to reflect fratboy attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community, so too did Bay’s post-2013 works suddenly reflect the evolving approach to queerness, both for good and bad. While gay panic jokes were no longer acceptable, mainstream American movies also didn’t replace them with prominent queer representation. There was just now a void where queerness of any kind should go. Thus, Transformers: Age of Extinction pumped the brakes on any kind of references to queerness, which meant no gay panic jokes, but also no attempts to provide positive LGBTQIA+ representation in the franchise. Bay’s 2016 film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was the director’s most solemn film to date, so it had no time for either mockery or acknowledgment of the existence of queerness.
This trend continued with Transformers: The Last Knight and 6 Underground, the latter of which didn’t even use the creative freedom afforded by being released on Netflix as an opportunity to inject an openly queer person into all the Bayhem. Then suddenly ambulance arrived. Almost halfway into the film, the audience meets FBI Agent Anson Clark (Keir O’Donnell), who’s in the middle of a therapy session with his husband. His partner observes how Clark never makes time for him. As if to reinforce this a hundred-fold, Clark suddenly gets a notification about the hostage situation at the heart of ambulance, says he has to go, and, before leaving, kisses his husband on the mouth. None of this, including the smooch, is played for broad comedy.
chris fedak‘s screenplay for ambulance Clark offers a chance to be a human being rather than the kind of caricature that was seen throughout earlier Bay works. Even when he gets into arguments with police captain Monroe (Garrett Dillahunt), their comedic barbs revolve around their differing ages rather than homophobic jabs. Much like how the caricatures in films like rock were emblematic of similar stereotypes popping up all over Hollywood, Clark is a microcosm of how LGBTQIA+ individuals have become more prominent as supporting characters in mainstream 2022 cinema. Titles ranging from scream to Lost City to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have featured LGBTQIA+ characters and/or performers, it’s no wonder ambulance also got in on the fun.
In terms of queer representation, ambulance provides a startlingly unexpected but welcome Gallant to compare to the Goofuses of Bay’s filmography, like Bad Boys II. Perhaps this will be an anomaly in Bay’s career, but here’s to hoping it’s not. Maybe someday he’ll provide the same excess to the presence of LGBTQIA+ characters that he constantly delivers regarding explosions and quick cuts. Until that day comes, though, audiences will have to settle for the ups and downs of how Bay has depicted the LGBTQIA+ up to now. It’s an approach that, among other qualities, tends to provide a fascinating mirror to how Hollywood itself has approached queer identity in various modern eras.
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