The birth of the Transformers’ big-screen adventures began with the death of its most iconic hero.
35 years ago this week, Transformers: The Movie (now on disc in 4K from Shout! Factory) blasted into theaters full of stadium rock needle drops (Stan Bush!) and a production budget that allowed for some truly epic — and violent — set pieces that the Hasbro toyline’s animated series could not afford. Among those action-packed sequences is one of the most traumatizing events for Transformers fans and ’80s kids everywhere: The death of Optimus Prime. Prime (Peter Cullen), at first, wasn’t a casualty of narrative necessity. While the bold choice to kill off this fan-favorite character and leader of the Autobots gave Transformers: The Movie the type of “no-one-is-safe” stakes rarely afforded in animated films at the time, the motives behind that decision would ripple effect across the franchise for more than three decades.
At the time, the Autobots and Decepticons had spent two years on the animated series, where they traded blows and laser blasts with neither side registering any battle damage or fatalities. So when parents took their kids to see Transformers: The Movie on opening weekend 35 years ago, they were not expecting to be greeted with a high body count. The death march kicked off in an early scene aboard an Autobot shuttle, where Megatron and his fellow Decepticons murder fan-favorites like Ironhide in shockingly graphic fashion. (The Autobot Prowl, after being shot in the chest, leaks small plumes of fiery smoke from his eyes and mouth). This massacre set the tone for Prime’s death, which occurs after an epic brawl with Megatron (Frank Welker) sees Prime succumb to his fatal injuries, blacken and die. Why would Hasbro scar its young audience with such disturbing, “we’re-not-messing-around” imagery? So they could hopefully inspire their audience to buy more Transformers toys. Even if it meant killing off an icon.
“We didn’t know that he was an icon,” admits story consultant Flint Dillie on the movie’s Blu-ray commentary. “It was a toy show. We just thought we were killing off the old product line to replace it with new products.”
The miscalculation on Hasbro’s part gave the movie a darker edge that allowed it to stand out from the era’s usual animated fare. The more adult themes and violent robots-killing-robots action helped the movie endure as a load-bearing column of ’80s pop-culture in the minds of its passionate fanbase. But one of Transformers: The Movie‘s filmmakers was aware of the character’s appeal, and tried to prevent his death.
Screenwriter Ron Friedman, who had several animated episodes of GI Joe and Transformers under his belt when he was tapped to write Transformers: The Movie, strongly urged Hasbro not to kill off their flagship character. Friedman saw Prime as more than just a leader, he was a father figure to the Autobots — one that Hasbro should not be so quick to retire to the rust pile.
“To remove Optimus Prime, to physically remove ‘Daddy’ from the family, that wasn’t going to work,” Friedman reveals in a 2013 interview. “Hasbro didn’t know how to evaluate it. They didn’t recognize that Optimus Prime was the heartbeat of the Autobots. You cannot pass that over and have any hope of duplicating the success you had. Once you establish an icon, you’re a fool if you don’t try to preserve it.”
Despite Friedman’s objections, Hasbro moved forward with the hero’s demise and those of other memorable Transformers like Starscream. The movie had a mandate to deep-six the old guard so more robots from Cybertron could take their place on toy store shelves. But this business decision did not quite work out as Hasbro planned.
“The kids were crying in the theaters,” Dille says on the commentary track. “We heard about people leaving the movie. We were getting a lot of nasty notes about it.”
Hasbro was also getting negative feedback in the form of less-than-stellar toy sales. The new line of figures launched by the movie, like Hot Rod (voiced by Judd Nelson) and Wheelie, struggled to match the sales figures and popularity of the Generation One line. The same reasons that factored into Prime’s death, toy sales, ironically contributed to the character’s resurrection — this time, back on the small screen.
In February of 1987, the Transformers animated series aired part one of the two-part “The Return of Optimus Prime” storyline. Here, the Autobot formerly known as Hot Rod, Rodimus Prime, must resurrect Prime in order to stop a dangerous plague from wiping out both the Transformers and humans they protect. Thanks to audiences’ reactions to Prime’s demise in the 1986 feature, and a massive letter campaign, Hasbro stopped its efforts to phase out the character. But the character didn’t have a figurine out in stories until 1988, so Hasbro used “Return” as a stopgap of sorts until they had inventory to properly capitalize on Prime’s “newfound” resurgence in popularity. The two-parter proved popular enough with viewers that Hasbro made sure Prime would be the toyline’s figurehead for decades to come.
Despite the problematic practice of letting marketing and sales influence filmmaking at the ground level, the decision to kill Prime is a crucial factor as to why Transformers: The Movie is still the franchise’s best entry. Michael Bay spent a decade churning out Transformers movies with his signature Bayhem and visual flourishes. But even after five blockbusters full of photo-real CG robots and jaw-dropping spectacle, not one of them features a scene half as compelling or moving as Prime’s death — even when Bay and his collaborators tried to pull off a version of it themselves. In 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Bay’s Prime dies in battle like the animated version, only under considerably less compelling circumstances. It’s revealed that Prime faked his death and seemingly sat on the sidelines until returning in the third act — but only after the Decepticons have laid waste to most of Chicago and its human population. Heroes don’t fake their deaths so that the people they are entrusted to save can really die. That obvious lesson that Dark of the Moon failed to consider is what makes the movie it was chasing after such a success.
Transformers: The Movie, unlike most of its live-action successors, is mostly character-first eye candy. It’s not the best-animated movie ever made, but it knows that the best stories — animated or otherwise — are those that tether the action to characters audiences can’t help but invest in. And that’s why Prime’s death, and the emotional stakes that result from it, still registers. He was the audiences’ hero, and he died like one. While the scene didn’t pay off for Hasbro at the toy store, it stuck with their customers long after the end credits rolled.