In the 80’s movies for children were either inane or psychotic. Those that fell in between these two categories were easily forgotten. For a person who is obsessed with bizarre and inexplicably macabre films, the 80’s offered a wealth of bafflingly grim kids movies. At the time Transformers: The Movie existed as a strangely disturbing entry into a pretty campy series. The tone of the film better matches the tone of Longboxing While Black’s favorite comic series, IDW Transformers. If you want to know exactly how screwed up this film was, imagine the 80’s era Transformers cartoon mixed with the darkest parts Hamburger Hill or Apocalypse Now. Got the vision? Now imagine showing that film to a theater full of pre-teens, not expecting to see the wholesale slaughter of many of their most beloved characters.
Transformers: The Movie was seen by Hasbro as a way to roll out a new a new Transformers line. Hasbro was under the impression that children routinely destroy their old toys whenever their parents purchase new ones. This movie decided that six year olds needed to be exposed to smoldering robot corpses to hasten their decisions to abandon their old toys. The first action beat of the movie sets the tone for what the audience can expect. An Autobot ship is ambushed by a Decepticon assault team. On the TV series, this sequence would have ended with everybody on the ship being captured and Optimus Prime choosing a few Autobots to mount a rescue mission. In the movie it ends with fan-favorites like Prowl, Ratchet and Brawn being gunned down while the audience gets the bonus of watching the life drain from Prowl’s eyes and Ironhide getting shot in the face.
Remember, NOTHING in the TV series was this hardcore. Entire theaters of children were brought face to face with graphic animated death without warning. Just throbbing 80’s hard rock droning over the smoking corpses of the Autobots.
Optimus Prime was the Hero we deserved…they killed him too.
As a black child in the Reagan Era, our assortment of fictional heroes was limited. In most cases the Trinity was some variation of Mr T, Hulk Hogan and Optimus Prime. Optimus was everything we needed in a hero. He was brave, he always stood up for the little guy and he never gave up. Against the backdrop of crushing economic destruction, the crack epidemic and dwindling opportunities for the black community, Optimus Prime was the constant. He was just a good dude. He even tolerated Bumblebee’s existence, which makes him a better person than me and my classmates at the time. Optimus stood out from other heroes of the era because he was pretty effective. When Optimus decided the day needed to be saved, the day was saved…no accidental victories…no deus Ex Machina.
Like many of us 80’s Era WWF fans, Optimus was a loyal devote to shooting a fair one. No magical chest lasers or powered up attacks, Optimus walked into every conflict with Dem Hands and a Plasma Cannon. The Plasma Cannon was only for enemies outside of punching range or when Optimus was done playing with y’all. Optimus was vintage in Transformers: The Movie.
This scene encapsulates everything Prime was. The filmmakers decided that Prime’s Crowning Moment of Awesome should be bookended footage of his gutwretching death because…it’s a family picture so the kids should be crying…right?
Here’s the Problem
I completely understand why Hasbro made the decision to kill off the characters from their original product line. They had new characters they wanted to roll out and Transformers: The Movie was their best vehicle to do it. As a toy company, Hasbro makes decisions for one reason: To Sell Toys… this drove every decision to kill off characters. The majority of the major players from the cartoon died in the first 30 minutes of the film. The new characters were kind of interesting and vaguely defined enough to build a series around. The thing Hasbro didn’t take into account was their treatment of the established characters. How can you expect the audience to invest in the new characters when the old characters are treated so poorly? They didn’t just replace the original Autobots and Decepticons, they SLAUGHTERED them. It was an ugly way to treat these characters.
Some died in front of our virgin eyes
Some were even killed off screen
But they were killed with extreme prejudice in the first half of the movie. Remember…the intended audience for this movie was CHILDREN. This was before studios started considering an older demographic when making these types of movies. What sane person thinks that 5-12 year olds would enjoy 90 minutes mean-spirited robot torture porn? The response this film received from parents and children prompted Hasbro to scrap a big screen release of G.I Joe: The Movie, re-cut the film to remove Duke’s death and release it directly to video. Transformers: The Movie was game changing…we didn’t see another feature length Transformers movie until 2007.
They didn’t know their audience…
Here’s the thing….Marvel’s Transformers books had no reservations or compunctions about killing characters, they did it often and with glee. I believe that Hasbro simply misread the popularity of the comic and assumed the fans of the TV Series were also fans of the comic. The comics had more mature and involved story arcs because of differences between the mediums. Fans of the comics enjoyed them because they were darker and offered a better vehicle for telling a story than the TV Show. The fans of the comics were simply older than their counterparts who only watched the TV Show. So when the tone of the comic was brought to the big screen, most of the audience was not prepared for the level of violence they saw.
New wasn’t better….
For the young fans of the first and second season of original Transformers series, the characters introduced in the movie never landed. Springer and Arcee were OK, Daniel was nearly as useless as Spike, Ultra Magnus was the Token Semi-truck that made us miss Optimus Prime and Rodimus was an affront to the Da Gawd Optimus. I realize that the show was always about selling toys but Season 3 was so preoccupied about introducing new Transformers, they neglected to write or animate a competent show. Transformers: The Movie missed an opportunity to make us care about these characters before they became the main cast in Season 3 and started the downward trajectory of the series in the US. To be honest, the tone of the movie was so far removed from Seasons 1, 2 and 3, that it doesn’t even seem to belong in the same canon as the series. Although I enjoy the movie, I enjoy it as an Elseworld, a self contained universe that has no real connection to the series.