Optimus Prime and the Religion of Toys, Part 2: The Birth of (Cybertronian) Tragedy: The Cyclic Deaths and Rebirths of King Optimus Prime

Thankful for this one, the second part of a series by Jeremiah Lawson. Don’t forget […]

Guest Contributor / 2.12.19

Thankful for this one, the second part of a series by Jeremiah Lawson. Don’t forget the first part!

In The Golden Bough, James Frazer proposed that ancient kings died and were reborn in cycles in fertility religions. Nothing can die and be reborn quite like a robot. Surprisingly, one of the most prominent examples of a cyclically dying and resurrecting king in pop culture is found in the story of a robot that turns into a truck.

Sure, the first time Optimus Prime dies in gladiatorial combat with the Decepticon leader Megatron it was traumatizing for a whole generation of children who were about the right age to be traumatized by Watership Down in the same period. Optimus Prime nearly prevails against Megatron but dies, thanks to the incompetent interference of an Autobot named Hot Rod, an event as traumatic as the death of Bambi’s mother in an earlier generation. As Optimus Prime dies, he asks that the Matrix of Leadership be given to Ultra Magnus, the next designated person to become a Prime, leader of the Autobots. But in an accident of the hand-off, the Matrix touches Hot Rod, who is thereafter destined to become Rodimus Prime, at least until Optimus Prime is brought back from the dead in an episode years later. In becoming Rodimus Prime, Hot Rod embodies a cinematic cliché of youthful incompetence causing the death of a great leader, then getting “redemption” by way of becoming the next heroic leader. Rodimus Prime simply opens the Matrix of Leadership and within a matter of seconds destroys the planet-devouring robot planet Unicron whose path of destruction drives the plot of the 1986 film.

Since then the mythologies and story arcs have become so labyrinthine that attempting to summarize any of them is a futile task, if you aren’t already willing to go to a Transformers wiki. But even kids from the 1980s could also recognize that what was presented as an epic drama of good and evil spanning the history of the universe could be seen as a blatant phase-out of the toys we actually liked playing with in favor of a new line of toys. As stick-in-the-mud righteous as Optimus Prime so generally was, Rodimus Prime was a distinctly inferior replacement.

Rodimus Prime was so inferior that the powers that be realized it made more sense to keep telling stories of an Optimus Prime who dies but can be brought back. Thus a new cycle of a dying and reincarnating robot-god hero ensured that every subsequent generation of kids could be introduced to Optimus Prime by those who played with the toy before.

By creating a cycle of Optimus Prime being born, dying, and being revived, the stage was set for the refinement of what Joseph Campbell described as a crucial part of the hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Stated in direct terms: the work of the hero is to slay the tenacious aspects of the father (dragon, tester, ogre-king) and release from its ban the vital energies that will feed the universe. … The hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow, unless he crucifies himself today. (303)

The mighty hero of extraordinary powers—able to lift Mount Govardhan on a finger, and to fill himself with the terrible glory of the universe—is each of us: not the physical self visible in the mirror, but the king within. (315)

Film critics sometimes complain that they don’t know why or how so many of these kinds of movies like Transformers get made, but George Lucas has not been shy about who has inspired him, and screenwriting books in this vein are well-known. We could probably point to two people who inadvertently paved the way for the Hollywood blockbuster: Campbell, whose legacy of panentheistic Pelagian self-actualization has been processed through the scripting story beats prescribed by the second figure, Blake Snyder, in his screenwriting guide Save the Cat. But reducing all mythology and religion to a path of self-realization and mapping out the story beats for a screenplay only get you so far. You still have to have a character people will go the distance for.

Yet Optimus Prime came into this status of self-sacrificing king kind of by accident the first time around. The first time Optimus Prime is slain in battle, in 1986, it is an accident of plotting—Prime dies because Hot Rod won’t get out of the way. After 1986 it becomes a religious rite. Robot (toy) though he may be, Optimus Prime represents the best of humanity, and the best of what human technology can achieve. While George Lucas set out to make Star Wars films that he claimed retold the stories about friendship and loyalty and courage for a new generation, this bid at telling the story about our stories was not confined to Star Wars.

If anything, the proliferation of Transformers lore suggests that its core mythology has been moving fitfully toward greater continuity and coherence, while George Lucas made an abrupt shift, from the adventure of Luke Skywalker (Episodes IV -VI) to the tragic tale of the rise and fall of the whole Skywalker clan (Episodes I-VI), a fall that has been confirmed by The Last Jedi. The hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of today unless he chooses to kill himself, after all. The question of whether Rey will have to kill herself to avoid becoming the villain as Star Wars continues remains to be seen, but if Joseph Campbell’s checklist of plot points is to be observed …

Unlike the generic little green army men of yore, the Transformers toys have a giant narrative that purports to tell the history of Cybertron, of Autobots and Decepticons, and of their forebears, going back to the birth of the universe. In a war over the control and use of their planet, Cybertron, millions upon millions of years elapse. During that time the noble Autobots and evil Decepticons transform into vehicles to disguise themselves the better (?) to carry out the war between them.

But in reality, what matters is that their war comes to our planet and that Autobots transform into cars, vans, motorcycles and mechanical emblems of commerce and communication, while the Decepticons transform into weapons and the machines of war. Optimus Prime is a robot who becomes a mighty truck. Megatron becomes a gun, or a military aircraft, or a tank, or a dragon or anything that threatens to kill you. Whereas Optimus Prime continually seeks to save or spare humanity, Megatron seeks to conquer, exploit, and move on until the universe belongs to him. The Transformers are robots in disguise and their disguises take the form of American machines of commerce and war. The Megatron toy (and character) has not transformed into a life-sized replica of a Walther P-38 handgun in generations (that is what is known as the G1, first generation Megatron), but he transforms into whatever best embodies conquest.

The war for Cybertron is merely a backdrop for a war that comes to Earth, about how to use the planet’s resources. That a cartoon and a movie about a toy line would so flagrantly be a parable about ecological exploitation can be forgotten thanks to decades of fine-tuning the Transformers mythology—and of outright changing it. Each iteration of Transformers lore has become more explicitly mystical and religious despite the continual use of technology, as if to prove that any technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. While the mythology covering the multiverse has been refined more and more in television and comics, the notorious Michael Bay-directed films present another matter. There’s a simple reason that the Bay films are as bad as they are, which, believe it or not, has very little to do with Bay’s directing and a whole lot more to do with the films’ failure to present a coherent mythology. Whatever the numerous flaws of the 1986 film as film, fans are devoted to it because its mythology is internally consistent on key points, even if in the cartoon series Megatron’s origins feature two or three mutually contradictory tales.