Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Why Optimus Prime Needed to Die
No, this isn't about exactly what you think it is. While I do have my opinions on the death of Optimus Prime in "Transformers: The Movie" I am talking about something else entirely.
In the 1980's, action cartoons often had their designated hero leader among the good guys. The Autobots had Optimus Prime, GI Joe had Duke, Flint, and General Hawk (depending on the episode), the Ninja Turtles had Leonardo, and the 80's and early 90's were full of many other examples. They were always right, they always knew what to do, it showed the audience why they were the leader. Whenever they were disobeyed, things would go wrong and the designated hero leader would rush in to save the day. But, there was a dark side to this.
Back then, Moral Guardians tried to instill two primary lessons in to the young audience: the group is always right, the complainer is always wrong; and obey your authority figures. Be it a parent, a teacher, an administrator, a police officer, the local pastor, or the President of the United States. Conform to the system, don't think for yourself or have an opinion of your own, or else bad things will happen. The designated hero leader was that stern father figure that social conservatives love to look up to. Who were the villains? The other, of course. In Megatron and the Decepticons, you had easy to identify villain with badges and red eyes; in Cobra you had foreigners; were they villains? Of course. I don't plan to be a villain revisionist or apologist. But what they represented, and what the designated hero leader like Optimus Prime represented was something far more sinister.
"Freedom is the right of all sentient beings" but if you think differently than I do, or defy me you are wrong and the universe will punish you for it.
The mid-90's and beyond brought us better heroes. Goliath from "Gargoyles" is a great example. He was the leader, he had three young warriors to lead and protect. But sometimes, often even, he was wrong. He did not have all the answers. He was not infallible. Goliath was making the best of a bad situation and doing his best given what he knew. It also helped that this time, Goliath and his kind were the other. One of their own was a treacherous villain, and they had to struggle to survive, learn and adapt. There were far better lessons to be learned here than there were in the action cartoons of the 80's and their insidious social agendas.
Bringing it back to Optimus Prime, in "Beast Wars" we got Optimus Primal, named after Optimus Prime but without that infallibility that his predecessor always had. Likewise, he too was thrust into a situation he was not prepared for, he had to deal with a squabbling crew, and he did the best he could even when he made grave mistakes that allowed the Predacons to gain an advantage. The same could be said for Optimus Prime in "Transformers Animated" who had to deal with, not only the Decepticons, but corruption and incompetence among his own superiors in the Autobots. It helps that neither of these Optimuses were the supreme, benevolent dictators of the Autobots. Because, as much as we might want to look up to him, the President, no matter his party affiliation is a human being.
Optimus Prime needed to die, because while, for an entire generation, he seemed to be a father figure and a larger than life hero, what he really represented was a lesson to children to do what they were told. Isn't it better that children learn that there are no easy answers in life, and we should all try to do the best we can?