The Best at His
by Sharon "Tut" LaBorde
As a little kid watching The Transformers every weekday afternoon, I didn't like Megatron very much. When he wasn't enacting some new plan to destroy Optimus Prime, who was dear to my heart, he was bashing around Starscream, whom I loved even more. But when I started to watch the cartoon again more recently, I could look at it from an older, more laid-back perspective. I still cherish the same characters that I always have, but now I also laugh at cheesy lines and story flaws that I never caught as a kid, or say "ouch" with a grin whenever someone gets bashed particularly hard, never mind what side they're on. Besides, both Prime and Starscream died in the Movie, so in retrospect the abuse they got in the series seems fairly minimal. But more importantly, now I can look at Autobots and Decepticons alike for who they are, and appreciate their individual purposes. As a result, I've come to like a great deal more characters, and high on that list is Megatron himself. He may not be my absolute favorite, but I love Megatron because he is such a great villain.
"Villain". Today most everyone is too politically correct to use the word, much less bestow the title to a deserving character. We are more willing to demote them to the status of merely misunderstood than honor them in the classic school of memorable villains, from which Megatron graduated summa cum laude. People forget that being a villain is a unique honor, and by far not an easy one to attain. Heroes always take the easier route and do the right thing. However, it takes a special character to not only be deliberately nasty, but also make the audience enjoy watching him do so. Megatron has certainly earned that distinction.
But why is Megatron a villain? Simply being a warrior is not proper qualification, because his opposition are warriors in their own right, albeit not by choice. By definition, villains are doers of evil. This term is also highly misused, and wrongly applied to anything different or contrary to someone's ascribed norm. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, though, defines it quite distinctly:
adj. 1a: the fact of suffering and wickedness:
the totality of undesirable, harmful, wicked acts,
experiences and things... d(1) evil actions or deeds...
2a: something that is injurious to moral or physical
happiness or welfare...
copyright 1986 Merriam-Webster, p. 789
Therefore, Megatron is a villain because he carries out wicked deeds that cause others to suffer.
People who fit this description abound in real life, and they are abhorrent, detestable beings. But each time Megatron steps onscreen we cheer him on. Why is this? Besides providing the element of conflict that is crucial to any well-told story, he entertains us with a sense of flair and showmanship that only memorable onscreen villains possess. The paramount reason for his success, however, comes from the paradoxical fact that he accomplishes good by doing evil. He does this through his role within the actual world of the Transformers, and how it relates to his audience.
We, as that audience, have the luxury of watching his world from the outside looking in. If we were actually a part of his domain as humans, we would hardly find him entertaining; rather, we would live in constant fear of his presence and publicly decry his actions. In fact, within his realm the title of "villain" would not be used, because the very word usually refers to fictional characters. For the humans living onscreen with Megatron, the threat of becoming enslaved or killed is assuredly not fiction--and in Megatron's Master Plan, for a brief time not even the Autobots could keep that threat from becoming reality. He made no secret of his complete and total disregard for both the inhabitants of Earth and the preservation of its natural resources; once he gained the trust of his unwitting accomplice, Mr. Berger, he told his fellow Decepticons, "The pompous fool! He thinks he will be king--but he is nothing more than a pawn." After lulling the human public into false security and disposing of the Autobots, he revealed his true intentions: "My plan is to conquer this mudball of a planet and suck it dry of energy!". He has no concern for the environment, or conservation of energy. He has no long-term plans for Earth. He sees its people as nothing more than tools. His aspirations, as far as inhabitants of Earth are concerned, speak nothing of nobility.
But he has to be this way, in order to serve his purpose: Megatron is a teacher. Whether those sharing airtime with him learned from their encounters or not, we the audience have valuable lessons to learn from his onscreen life. The events of Megatron's Master Plan illustrate what happens when one person plots the downfall of his fellow man, particularly with someone who bears a strong record of underhandedness and deceit. Humans sharing their planet with the Transformers had to learn, oftentimes the hard way, that their own petty differences were indeed insignificant in the face of a greater threat--certainly a worthwhile moral in our own world as well. In my own personal experience, however, Megatron had a much more poignant message. Because he was such a believable tyrant, he deserves genuine credit for showing me how important it is to stand up for yourself, no matter much smaller or weaker you are--because sometimes, not even the Autobots could do it for you. His immense strength, combined with ruthless cunning, made him a convincing force to be feared and reckoned with. Without him the human characters in episodes like Megatron's Master Plan and many others, would have had no reason to struggle, no cause to rise above their predicaments.
Humans were not the only ones with reason to fear Megatron. He meets the Autobots' definition of evil for many more reasons, by far, than a simple matter of different ideology. For them, his victory translates into certain destruction. Again, in his Master Plan, he could have easily won without ending the lives of his Autobot opponents; but Megatron was not satisfied until he had not only reprogrammed their ship to meet a fiery end in the sun, but visually confirmed that it had been destroyed. (Luckily, by the time he tuned in, the Autobots had managed a last-minute escape.) Once he and his team of Decepticons secured the Autobots' shuttle in Transformers: the Movie, he brutally executed Ironhide--who was on death's door regardless--at point blank range without hesitation. He even brushed off his victim's last show of defiance with the words, "Such heroic nonsense." If heroism is indeed nonsense in Megatron's view, then he certainly does not consider it a proper title for himself. But the mere fact that the Autobots accept that title of hero, does not protect them from the strong possibility that they will meet death on the battlefield at his hands.
Of course, in battle each side's primary interest is survival, and Autobots and Decepticons are no different. But Megatron's inhumane side of the story carried a particular point. He wanted to conquer the Autobots because they did not agree with his goal of building an empire. Rather than let them have their own form of government and make their own decisions, Megatron insisted on forcing them to his will or, if they still refused to submit, murdering them outright. His methods were cruel and totalitarian, but they were clear and simple enough to be easily understood. Even the youngest children in Hasbro's target consumer range could readily grasp the concept that nobody has the right to force an opinion or decision onto them. By standing firm in this ideal, Optimus Prime and the Autobots came across as the heroes, but their strength was only as great as their opponent's. Megatron had to be bad in order to make everybody look good.
Humans fear him and Autobots defy him, but the Decepticons look to Megatron as their leader. While they do not call him a villain, however, they probably do not give him a hero's fanfare either. They need him to keep the armada unified and command them to victory, but he does not lead them out of charity. Quite simply, Megatron is an egotist who uses his soldiers to further glorify himself. In Revenge of Bruticus, he refused to donate his own spare parts to repair damaged space bridge controls, giving the bold statement, "Never! I am autonomic perfection." Only after realizing that his own welfare, not just that of the humans', Autobots' and other Decepticons', was at stake did he reluctantly donate parts for the common good. While the Insecticons and Starscream insisted on occasional exceptions to the rule, by and large the Decepticons served him faithfully; but Megatron's cause was his own and not theirs. In Heavy Metal War, Starscream very rightly accused him of cheating, because he disregarded Cybertronian law and used additional power chips in a plan to help him win a duel against Optimus Prime. But Megatron, who refused to observe laws even the other Decepticons respected, threatened him into submission by stating, "I will win by any means, at any cost--even if it means terminating you, Starscream. I am not concerned with technicalities, only victory interests me." Although Starscream received more such threats than any other Decepticon, he knew to take them seriously. The very same leader who obviously gave him vicious beatings following Countdown to Extinction and Enter the Nightbird, and shot him without a second thought in countless other episodes, most assuredly would not keep Starscream's best interests in mind. Just because he was kept alive did not prove his personal value, as stated in Transformers Universe: "Megatron overlooks the potential threat Starscream represents for one very good reason: Starscream is very good at his job." Furthermore, considering that he was one of the highest-ranking warriors in the armada, those lower in the chain of command would have had even dimmer prospects for generous treatment.
Learning moral lessons from an evildoer who is your adversary is easy, but accepting the villainous qualities of a character whom you choose to side with is not. Some choose never to look at those traits at all. While taking Megatron completely out of context and naming him a hero might serve a purpose for some fans, instead I found particular value in his contextual role. Through his onscreen persona, Megatron has taught me to keep my eyes open; anyone can have an ulterior motive no matter how generous they might seem, just as he often did. But he needed a little help to illustrate what, for me, is his most important message: that no one has the right to abuse their position. For example, in the Movie Starscream scowled noticably when Megatron took yet another chance to belittle him in front of the other Decepticons, saying, "You're an idiot, Starscream." Though he acted no better by scornfully kicking his fallen, half-dead leader later in the show, then outright jettisoning him into deep space, his reaction to Megatron's actions perfectly embodied the idea of quid pro quo. Megatron's doings, and what resulted from them, proved that authority alone can never justify a person's deeds, and that might does not equal right--because everyone, regardless of rank, reaps what they sow.
Indeed, none of the Transformer characters existed in a vacuum. Optimus Prime was a strong leader himself, but it was only with the help of his arch rival that he could impart some of his most important lessons. That is Megatron's greatest strength of all. In fact, by being the cold and merciless villain that he was, he helped to justify a cartoon show that fell under repeated attack in the mid-1980's for violence. Parents accused the show of encouraging violence in youngsters, but their accusations fell on deaf ears because those same children learned from characters like Megatron that hurting others is wrong. Had Megatron instead been painted as a misunderstood victim oppressed by the Autobots, his actions onscreen would have had no consequence. If that had happened, then no matter how heroically Optimus Prime and his comrades carried themselves, neither Autobot nor Decepticon would have won--for parents' groups would have claimed all, leaving childhood fans of the Transformers as the real losers.
Ironically enough, I love Megatron now for much the same reason I disliked him as a kid--because he was a terrifically sinister villain. I often wonder what kind of person he would be if he could step offscreen and leave the cartoon battles behind; chances are he would be quite the agreeable soul, and would have a special place in his heart for the children he entertained. But onscreen he has a job to do, and I much prefer him that way. Trying to argue that Megatron is really not a villain misses the whole point, because characters like him should be loved, accepted and appreciated for who and what they are. In a media world where only animated stars belonging to the well-established name of Disney get any praise from critics, Megatron has remained strong in the memory of an entire generation without even a fraction of the critical acclaim--that's twenty years of true success. If he were to inherit the earth, he certainly wouldn't do it by being meek. Rather, he would choose to take the world by storm with the same wonderful wickedness that has always been his trademark; for as villains go, Megatron is the best at his job.
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