The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

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?


  1. *Cue Moral Guardians raging at this analysis*

    For me, you make some very solid points in this article.

  2. Agreed 100%. Everyone needs to learn that while we should trust our leaders they also aren't infallible and will screw up.

    Of course being British actually having respect and faith in government is a foreign concept to us. Now that I think about it we have a lot of "anti-authority" children's stories/comedies/all other types of media.

    "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?"

    Or to put it another way:

  3. The trouble is, Optimus Prime never died. For all fun Primal and Animated Optimus were, there's a million other Optimuses clearly designed to be like the original and perpetuate the same stuff. Which is pretty sad, even though Hasbro is a toy company and of course they have to stick with a formula.

    Fortunately, as you said, there are better leader characters in children's shows these days.

    1. Yeah, there was Murder Prime of the movies who let a million in Chicago die to "teach us a lesson."

  4. Prime Example: Goliath.

  5. Though I generally agree, given the comment about "better heroes" in the 90s I think something should be pointed out. I recall reading a post here about the LOTR trilogy, which was rightly positive about Gandalf as a sort of ideal "father figure" and even as an angelic sort of being. A guy who couldn't save the day for us, true, but a guy who guided and rallied the the people around him. This is even more true in the books, at least when he has ascended to Gandalf the White. It's not for nothing that when Aragon becomes king, he tells everyone this about Gandalf: that he's "...the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory."

    Of course there are many layers to LOTR, many fallible people on the side of good and certainly a lot of heroism and initiative to go around. What I'm getting at is that the big problem with this heroic, inspirational archetype is that it was used as a crutch in an era of rather unimaginative, repetitive and derivative creativity. In short, bad writing was the problem, not the essence of the "father figure".

    Goliath & more have been a part of a necessary correction against that old way of doing things. I like to think their impact is that they put the "father figure" in its proper place, as opposed to killing it forever.

    On another point, I think Dumbledore from Harry Potter makes for a very interesting and unique study on the topic. As an inspiration to those fighting Voldemort and his evil, the man was indispensable. Even in death he was someone people looked up to. His wisdom was put on a pedestal and when people don't listen to what he says, it's a good bet the result will be bad. Yet he also made great mistakes, and he was humbled by them and didn't prop himself up as the person others saw him as. But for all his flaws and errors and all of the doubts Harry Potter has about him at times, ultimately the hero still trusts him and believes in his goodness. Rowling created someone who was everything a "father figure" even though he was vividly shown to be all too human.