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Universal taps big talent for Transformers think tank

Fans of the Transformers movies could be getting a lot more of the battling bad-guy and good-guy robots. Plans for a shared cinematic universe based on Hasbro’s classic 1980s toy line are starting to take shape at Universal, and already it's attracting some big talent.

A few weeks ago, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman (“Batman & Robin,” “A Beautiful Mind”) was brought onboard by producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and series director Michael Bay (with whom Goldsman attended college) in order to organize a Pixar-esque brain trust for an expanded Transformers universe.

Now, Deadline is reporting deals have been made with several writers to join the brain trust, which will operate essentially like a TV writers room. Rather significantly, among those who have been enlisted so far are several veterans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, namely “Iron Man” scribes Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, “The Incredible Hulk” and “Marvel’s The Avengers'” Zak Penn and “Ant-Man's” Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari.

Another name enlisted is Jeff Pinkner. Although he's not a contributor to the MCU per se, he is no stranger to expanded universes based on Marvel properties having written “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

The odd man out in terms of Marvel experience, but also very possibly the most interesting addition of them all, is comic writer Robert Kirkman, creator of AMC’s breakout hit “The Walking Dead.” With his background in comics as well as recent experience developing a spinoff of his own series (AMC’s upcoming “Fear the Walking Dead,” which follows a group of survivors in postapocalyptic Los Angeles), he will no doubt be able to help steer the Transformers movies in some different directions.

Along with the names of the writers who make up the new think tank, Deadline also reported on what might be the first spinoff from Bay’s core series. Tentatively titled “Transformers One,” it is said to be a prequel set on Cybertron, home planet of the Transformers’ warring factions, the Autobots and the Decepticons.

As with any major expansion of a franchise, the question is, is there actually audience demand for it?

Despite a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 18 percent, last year’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” still managed to gross upwards of $1.1 billion, according to Box Office Mojo, and it became the highest-grossing film of all time in China. Since then, however, it has been passed by “Furious 7.” All told, Bay’s movies have generated close to $4 billion in global box office.

However, notwithstanding the success the MCU has had with its interlocking superhero universe, the format is still a risky one, and other studios’ attempts so far to establish their movie universes have fallen pretty flat. Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which was supposed to set the stage for Spider-Man spinoff films like “The Sinister Six” and “Venom,” instead forced the studio to reboot the character for a second time. And a universe based on Universal’s classic movie monsters (with “Transformers” writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman in the showrunner role) is still a big question mark after “Dracula Untold”’s middling box-office performance last summer.

As any Transformers fan can attest, though, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the Transformers mythology, of which Bay’s films have only scratched the surface. Along with the toys and the original animated series that ran from 1984 to 1987, there have been decades’ worth of comic book stories and animated sequel series.

One of the current Transformers comic titles is a crossover with the G.I. Joes. As the Transformers universe expands, fans could very well see the Autobots join forces with the Joes. Even di Bonaventura, who also produced the G.I. Joe movies, hasn’t ruled it out. Speaking with Total Film, the producer said, “if at some moment we all think, ‘you know what? It’s time to bring the two of them together,’ we’ll do that, but I think they’re strong enough to exist on their own.”

Whatever ends up happening, it should be interesting to see if a company other than Marvel can pull off something like the MCU.

Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University.