Megan Fox's Mikaela does not fare well in the Transformers movies. She exists to be an object, obviously, but that objectification is worth examining further. In the first movie, she is an object of desire and status, Sam's (Shia LaBeouf) attainment of her an affirmation of his heroic status. In the second movie she is an object of resentment as Sam has to contend with the fact that Mikaela is a human being with needs of her own. Finally, in the third movie she is an object of hatred, no longer on screen yet very much present within every action that Sam takes. She was a bitch, obviously, and Sam didn't need her. He's way happier with this nicer, better, hotter new girl.
These movies are awful, and their treatment of Fox (both within the movies themselves and in the winder culture) is deplorable, yet they always left me wondering. Michael Bay's Transformers movies are such perfect illustrations of the toxicity and violence of masculinity that I've always wondered if, if made with an ounce of self-awareness, it could become something worthwhile.
That movie totally exists in the 2014 film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Despite his role as just one of several producers, Bay is inexorably linked to the new TMNT. He's arguably the biggest name attached to the film (the series is referred to as the Michael Bay TMNT films), and it owes a great debt to Transformers visually, tonally and conceptually. It's a dark and "realistic" live action movie based on a popular 80s kids franchise, with a greasy, lens-flare laden cinematography, a tonne of bro-out humour and starring none other than Megan Fox.
Yet TMNT diverges from the Transformers formula in its very first scene, as Fox no longer stars as object, but as our protagonist, April O'Neil. Although the film's gender politics are not that much better on the surface - the camera still leers, a gross older man and a gross teenage turtle both try to fuck her for the entire movie - April's role as protagonist means we see this world through her eyes. Through this framing, intentionally or not, the movie becomes an illustration of just what it is like to be a woman in a Michael Bay movie.
In the opening act, Will Arnett (his character has a name but I guarantee you that nobody on earth knows what it is) says flat out to April that she should be happy being the "froth." He tells her that she has been hired to look pretty and deliver puff pieces for the evening news, that this is why she is valuable and that should be enough for her. Arnett functions as an audience surrogate here and throughout the film, transparently helping April out of a desire to attain her; even his repeated acts of kindness and assistance are acknowledged as nothing more than ploys to get into April's pants. He wears a fedora. It's hilarious.
April never accepts Arnett's logic, or even entertains the possibility of a relationship with this dude clearly twenty years her senior. She remains resolute in her quest, which unfortunately for her is to try to convince the news to run a story about Vigilante Turtles, so she's fired pretty quickly.
It's important to say at this point that April is an idiot. She wrecks her own career, leads the bad guys to the Turtles, and is incapable of reacting with anything other than complete and total earnestness to everyone no matter how obviously evil they may be. April is not a Strong Female Character™, she is still written as a woman within a Michael Bay movie. However, when she fucks up, the audience are brought along on that ride, and experience every beat with empathy for her position and her humanity, and her place at the centre of the movie is never questioned.
At the end of the film, April and the Turtles save the day, and Arnett is still hopelessly pining after her. He never gets April as a prize, or the reward of a catharsis for finally acknowledging her as a person. The epilogue centres entirely on April's newfound feeling of belonging, and the movie ends with her smiling between two idiots, finding comfort in her sense of accomplishment with what she's been able to achieve, yet still having to navigate their unwanted advances, Just another day in the life.
I don't think that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an amazing, progressive movie (in fact, I think all this praise just shows it meets a very low standard of basic decency), but it does deserve a lot more respect than it ended up getting. In a movie world in which noted Strong Woman Black Widow has done literally nothing but show up to propel dudes forward for over half a decade, a blockbuster marketed at young boys which invites them to acknowledge the humanity of women that other films so violently deny is something that has to be worth something.