Cartoon Nostalgia, Cartoon Revolution, Part 3: Cartoon Morality in Transformers

With Transformers 3 less than a week away, we present the third installment of Jeremiah […]

Mockingbird / 6.24.11

With Transformers 3 less than a week away, we present the third installment of Jeremiah Lawson’s excellent four-part series on Cartoon Nostalgia, in which our hero takes a hard look at moral undercurrents in the Transformers universe. And speaking of nostalgia (and golden ageism), if you haven’t yet seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, it’s a delightful look at the same subject, and one that comes to similar conclusions:

When certain friends of mine saw the Transformers movie in 1986, they reported, “Honestly, it was pretty lame. It was kinda cool that Optimus Prime died but it was done in a dumb way and he was replaced by an even dumber Autobot leader, some Rod guy.” Trusting my friends, and hesitant about asking my parents to spend or lend me money to get toys for a cartoon I was no longer sure was all that fun to watch, I began to shift my attention to other things in life. So while I still liked my Megatron toy and still thought Skywarp and Starscream were cool characters, even as far back as 1986 my interest in Transformers began to wane.

In a 2007 article for Slate, John Swansburg mentioned how devastated he was at the age of 9 to see Optimus Prime die on screen. I, at the more seasoned age of 12, greeted news of Prime’s death with ambivalence. I wanted Prime to fail for years and when I heard he was replaced with a lamer character/toy, I only felt mild regret. I began to feel that the money my parents gave me would probably not be best spent on these new toys.

Contrary to Swansburg’s unpersuasive assertion that the 1986 Transformers film is better than Michael Bay’s film, the old cartoon movie is simply a travesty. Yes, it’s even more insufferable than Michael Bay’s film. Bay’s first Transformers movie did not demand an audience bring two seasons of the show with them as preparation for the feature. Had it not been the dubious swan song of the late and fallen Orsen Welles (!), the 1986 film might not even merit a footnote in a cinematic history.

Let us not forget that, years before the 1990s gave us the cloying and oppressive category “political correctness” there was … Optimus Prime! “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings” is nothing if not politically correct. What was not so politically correct were the flamboyant stereotypes and design elements that went into identifying heroes and villains. Optimus Prime, as leader of the Autobots, had a right hand robot in the form of the Texan-sounding, loyal bodyguard Ironhide. Ironhide and all the other characters were basically one-note gimmick characters fleshed out just enough to make their toys identifiable. Truth be told, Prime was so invincible in the TV show why he ever needed a bodyguard always baffled my brother and me.  I remember my stepfather seeing some episodes and snorted, “If that guy is so perfect why does he even need a bodyguard?”

As in the Bay movies, so with the cartoon original, if Optimus Prime didn’t do something, basically nothing got done. I suppose, by way of concession, kids latched on to Optimus Prime because he was an embodiment of nobility and altruism.  Sure, he was the most powerful and perfect of all the Transformers but he used that power and perfection for good (sorta like Superman, eh?). The Autobots were so righteous they were easily identified by being swathed in warm colors; having soft edges; warm and friendly voices; and transforming into, you guessed it, mostly automobiles. In 1980s popular entertainment we were treated to a feast of morals indicated by physiognomy as well as characters with significant name.

The bad guys were equally apparent and imbued with equally obvious badness. Just the name “Decepticon” announced evil with the subtlety of Reagan calling the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire”. Their leader was the ruthless and evil Megatron.  If “Megatron” sounds suspiciously like “megaton” – as in nuclear weapons – that pun was as deliberate as puns come. Megatron, who transformed into a gun, led the Decepticons in their endless quest for galactic and then universal domination. Megatron’s second in command was the screeching, egotistical, cowardly, and conniving Starscream whose voice literally embodied his character! Megatron’s motto was simply, “Peace through tyranny.” Just as the perfect good guy leader who didn’t need a bodyguard had one, so did the evil warlord have a treacherous lackey who wasn’t able to really do much to help his overlord. The Decepticons transformed into darkly colored weapons of war, had jagged lines, and spoke in guttural, distorted voices. The most memorable voices were those of Frank Welker’s Megatron, Chris Latta’s Starscream and Frank Welker’s relentlessly vocoded and memorably awesome Soundwave. The sounds themselves were used to reinforce what Scott Brown called “Cold War moral clarity”.

Any given episode would begin with Megatron scheming some way to suck Earth’s natural resources dry to revive the mechanical planet Cybertron. The Autobots, on the other hand, wanted to preserve Earth’s natural resources. At some point the Autobots would learn of the terrible plot. As soon as Optimus Prime uttered the words “I have a plan” you could bet that the bad guys would be beaten.

For two whole seasons, things more or less went on this way. Even though three of the Decepticons were F-15s, planes that can carry their own empty weight in payload, the Autobots invariably won or battled to stalemate in the TV show. There was no explanation for why just three Decepticon jets couldn’t drop cluster bombs on all the Autobots and simply destroy them. Somehow, even though the Autobots were outgunned and outnumbered, they won every time by virtue of that most virtuous of robots, Optimus Prime! Each episode, as a general rule, the Autobots defeated the Decepticons. Eventually this pattern became tiresome. I didn’t object so much to good guys and bad guys fighting, I grew weary of the good guys always winning and there being no doubt as to who heroes and villains were.

By the time the movie came out, the simplified good vs. evil trope in the cartoon had gotten seriously old. I wondered why there was no real effort to explain Decepticon motives as anything other than self-identified lust for conquest. About eight years later, at the suggestion of a friend, I subjected myself to about fifteen minutes of the 1986 film – I couldn’t make it past the death of Optimus Prime and Megatron’s transformation into Galvatron at the hands of Unicron. The music was cheesy and awful; the film that John Swansburg claimed was shocking for the time was as much shocking for its poor story-telling as the transgressive swear word and character deaths. After two whole seasons of Autobots besting Decepticons, the movie begins by telling us that between 1986 and 2005 the Decepticons had won the war for Cybertron.  And after two whole seasons of no casualties, the 1986 movie dispatches numerous characters within the first ten minutes. In other words, the movie demanded a suspension of disbelief so severe that not even a child could take it seriously. Only someone who is fully in the thrall of unexamined childhood nostalgia could imagine Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie being inferior to the 1986 film.

By the age of 11 I had seen divorce and unemployment and plenty of other problems in my family and social circle. I objected to the idea that the good guys always won or that one could even tell who the good guys and bad guys were in real life. I could believe that there were some villains who were not necessarily convinced in their own minds that they were evil. So it’s difficult to relate those folks who claim that their childhood died with Optimus Prime. Yet it would be safe to say that in the 1980s a kind of cartoon moralism prevailed not just in cartoons but also in other entertainment mediums. To understand the moral simplicity of Transformers as emblematic of 1980s children’s’ programming, we need to take a wider look at entertainment in the age of Reagan in the context of the Cold War.


Next up: the final installment, “Cold War Clarity and Cold War Ambivalence… on Saturday Morning”!