by Darren Franich
Even by the surprisingly flimsy standards of ’80s action cartoons, Transformers was not a good show. The toys were fun — this was back in more innocent days, when talking cars didn’t have tongues — but the cartoon was a parade of random robots with colorful names and zero personality. The one exception — really, the only reason why Transformers has become so iconic — was Optimus Prime. Designed like a cross between a medieval knight and a robo-Captain America, Prime had a surprising amount of character depth, especially considering that he was a tall robot machine that transforms into a truck. For one thing, he seemed to be the only Transformer who actually cared that they were, you know, the last of their race. There was a weird streak of melancholy in Prime — imagine Jack on Lost, except without the ability to cry all the time. He had compassion. He was not, in short, a homicidal war junkie who seems to get a delicious thrill from forcefully tearing his enemies in half.
So of all the various offenses of Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy, one in particular sticks out: The slow devolution of Optimus Prime from a caring leader to a homicidal ninja douche rocket. In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Prime pays lip service to noble causes, saving humanity, etc., etc. But his actions don’t bear that out: If you read between the lines, Prime is actually something like the ultimate Michael Bay protagonist, a character who uses the cause of Goodness to justify every conceivable violent atrocity. Really, he’s a sociopath. He’s also a complete idiot.
Let me explain (Spoilers ahead, for anyone who still cares about plot, in which case you’re adorable): The final act of Transformers: Dark of the Moon begins when the Autobots are forced to leave Earth by the sniveling diplomats in the United Nations, who for some reason always think it makes sense to negotiate with gigantic evil robots who are called Decepticons, which would sort of be like negotiating with a terrorist group called “People Who Lie To the United Nations.” The Autobots’ rocket is then shot out of the sky by Patrick Dempsey, a sniveling corporate guy. And then the Great Chicago Massacre begins. We see buildings brought to the ground, Decepticons firing laser beams that explode civilians into ambient bloodfog, and because this is a PG-13 movie, we don’t see any grieving mothers or children with their faces burnt off, but predictably that is what would happen if giant evil robots purged a city of all living beings.
After 24 hours of this, the Autobots show up, and Prime reveals his brilliant stratagem: They faked their death to prove to those sniveling U.N. bureaucrats why they need the Autobots. Hold on this for a second. The Autobots have been on Earth this whole time, and they let Chicago burn to the ground… just to prove a point? Oh, thanks so much, Optimus Prime! My cousin in Chicago is dead because you had to be the biggest douche in the universe and wait for us humans to beg you for your help! What a hero!
Anyways, at this point, Prime kickstarts the last hour of the movie with a line that had everyone in my theater gasping: “We will kill them all.” That’s not an empty boast — the Autobots fight their way through Chicago killing every Decepticon in their way. I don’t want to sound like a wet blanket. A lot of this is pretty awesome. But the Prime that I remember was a real hero: He didn’t want to kill anyone. Compare that to Movie-Prime, who, in one eye-popping shot, flies down into the middle of a Decepticon squad and kills nine of them: He slices, he dices, he shoots, he punches through robo-hearts, and he grabs the last one by the throat and performs a fatal tracheotomy. All that’s missing is a scene where Prime bathes in the blood of the fallen Decepticons and screams, “I am become Death!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love bloodthirsty action heroes, which is why Conan the Barbarian is basically my favorite action movie ever. But Conan has code of honor, and a grisly sense of humor. Prime is a just a self-righteous douchebag. The big twist of Dark of the Moon is that Prime’s mentor, Sentinel, is actually a bad guy — and, since Prime brought him back to life, he’s indirectly responsible for the complete destruction of Chicago, which you will remember he could have also stopped at any point, but he had to teach the U.N. a lesson. (At one point, Shia LaBeouf tells Prime, “It’s not your fault.” YES IT IS. TAKE SOME FREAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOURSELF, YOU HIPPIE.)
At the end of the battle, Sentinel lies wounded, completely defeated. This is the point at which a real hero, say someone like Batman, would say something really clever and assert his moral superiority by taking Sentinel in custody.
Instead, Prime shoots him in the back of the head.
And when that doesn’t do the trick, he shoots him again.
So, in short, by the end of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Optimus Prime has become a bloodthirsty idiot douche rocket with no moral code, who gladly sacrifices millions of lives in order to prove that humans can’t last long without his awesomeness. Who’s ready for a fourquel?