Optimus Prime: Character Assassination

Before I delve into my review of “Transformers: Dark of The Moon” I feel like I must confess something vital to my opinion on the third film.  Let’s get this shit over with, I hated “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” with a passion.  After a good start to the franchise, the sequel was one of the more disappointing movies I have ever seen.

I am a huge Transformers fan.  I love the characters, the stories and everything about the universe in which my favorite animated robots live.  No movie could ever live up to my standards, it’s impossible.  I accepted it going into the first entry.  I left the theatre happy; it wasn’t far off from what I so fondly associate.  There were some technical flaws like not being able to tell one giant robot from the next, but it was a cool summer movie.  By the time the second came around I was looking forward to seeing where the franchise would take me.  Fuck me, was I ever disappointed.

The second movie turned my favorite hero, Optimus Prime, into a psychotic ninja.  The low part of the movie came when Optimus murders a Decepticon who committed the grievous act of hiding from the slaughter-happy Autobots (Slaughterbots?).  This was an act so incongruent with what I hold so dearly it ruined the entire movie and possibly the franchise.

One of my most indelible childhood memories is watching “Transformers: The Movie” (the animated movie) in a theatre and sobbing like a baby when Optimus Prime is killed. For those unaware, in the beginning of that (much better) movie the Decepticons go on a killing spree, pushing the Autobots to the brink.  Optimus confronts Megatron and delivers one of the most epic lines in animation “One shall stand, one shall fall”.

The shift from Optimus always trying to “save” Megatron to saying he must be stopped at all costs was an emotional one for my childish mind to endure.  Optimus had been pushed too far, his friends were murdered and Earth was in jeopardy.  He knew he had to act ruthlessly to stop his long-time foe.  It was shocking to see Optimus die of course.  However it was just as shocking to see him finally pushed past his usual stance of “beat him, but let him fight another day”.  He may be a naive character but Optimus’ core belief is that anyone despite how reprehensible can be redeemed.  Hell, it’s basically spelled out in his damned name (optimist, Optimus).

The first live action movie got his selfless ideals right.  In the finale of that film Optimus is prepared to sacrifice himself to save humans after being beaten up by Megatron.  Throughout that film Optimus behaves like a leader, in control, level-headed and is a paragon of virtue and morality.  He even precludes his Autobots from using lethal force several times.

In “Revenge of the Fallen” Optimus is a killing machine who slices and dices Decepticon ass with the lethality of prostate cancer.  He dual-wields swords and is as agile as a cat, and there is no stopping him when he is in a blind rage.  Yes, it’s a cool visual but it’s the polar opposite to what he is as a character.

This marks a dramatic, nonsensical departure from the Optimus’ values.  While other characters in the Transformers universe would lose themselves to revenge, Prime only succumbed to it once and it cost him his life.  He is the sole surviving Prime; he has been through the crippling war on Cybertron and its subsequent destruction.  Through all that he didn’t lose his faith that even the worst Decepticon could be reformed.  It took Megatron clearly being intent on destroying every single Autobot and his human friends to push him past his breaking point.  In the animated series and the first film Optimus represents the ultimate good guy, supremely opposed to lethal force.  His cool head, logic and compassion are the hallmarks of his character.

“Revenge of the Fallen” strips him of his morality, transforming him into a temperamental killing MACHINE and takes all the humanity out of the character.   It may seem stupid to write that a giant robot has humanity but that’s what makes the series so fascinating.  The cold steel anthropomorphic robots are laden with emotion.  They can be heroic, villainous, friendly, jealous, brave and cowardly.  The disrespect for what the main character in the Transformers universe represents is astounding.  The hero, Optimus Prime, who sacrificed himself to save humanity, is gone.  In the third movie Prime won’t transform from vehicle mode because he is mad at a human.  This is not Optimus Prime!

I understand times have changed.  The antihero is now cool.  It’s semi-antiquated to be a true blue hero who does the right thing all the time.  We crave complicated and somewhat conflicted heroes.  It’s understandable; the world itself is a complex place.  We want our heroes to reflect the world we live in.  Optimus Prime doesn’t really fit that mold of the modern hero.  Then again, neither does Spider-Man or Batman.  The refusal to take life even when faced with total devastation was the main thrust of “The Dark Knight” which is probably the best reviewed superhero movie of all-time.  So if it’s good enough for Batman, why does Optimus have to change?

The new Transformers cartoon “Transformers Prime” updates the series to modern times, and uses terrible CGI animation, however it retains the traditional Optimus Prime.  He leads by example; he is a moral, thoughtful and caring leader.  There is no shred of weakness in this.  In battle he is a fearsome warrior however he still retains his unwillingness to kill.  This version of Optimus is an honorable warrior who allows his opponent dignity in defeat.  He would not stoop as low as to yell “Die” as a combat charge.

I care about this character.  He’s every bit a part of my childhood as Luke Skywalker, Spider-Man and Captain Kirk.  Yes, if I step back from it I realize it’s a cartoon.  It’s has its fair share of problems and in the end became a ridiculous parody of itself.  The cartoon was started in order to sell a line of toys, it was basically a long-form commercial.  All that said it still treated its characters with a certain dignity and respect.  It’s this lack of respect from Michael Bay and the writers which puzzles and frustrates me.  As great as the special effects are they cannot gloss over the truly awful storytelling and shaky characterization.

I firmly believe that the second movie would have been shit even with a better portrayal of Optimus.  The production was a complete mess.  That movie had no hope, however the worst offense was their portrayal of Optimus.  This portrayal continues into the third movie.  I have to be honest and say that it did color my judgment of the film.  For this reason I felt I must write this confession in order to assuage any accusations of bias.  I believe I have done a fair job of the reviewing the movie without harping too greatly on the Optimus Prime debacle.  You can be the judge, please enjoy.

I’ll stipulate this wasn’t much better.

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