A Rejected Hero
by Sharon "Tut" LaBorde
Like many Transformer fans who express their love of the mythos through writing, I have allowed myself to step into their realm and interact with the characters in my stories. For this reason I often look at the mythos from a Decepticon point of view--but recent observations have given me cause to step forward and defend the Decepticons' most powerful adversary. Given the popular anti-Autobot and anti-hero tone of the Nineties, even Megatron himself would agree with me that his arch rival Optimus Prime has been subjected to grossly erroneous attacks. He would also find it just as puzzling that his foe's established role has been reversed, and that a champion of the weak and disadvantaged must now himself be defended.
Of course, even Optimus Prime knows that part of being a good leader means accepting responsibility for all other members of the group and whatever actions they may take. Therefore, negativity directed at him due to his comrades or other circumstances should be expected--to a certain extent. However, within the fan community he also receives personally-directed attacks that extend far beyond reasonable bounds. Every aspect of his personality and actions, indeed his every word, has become fair game for denouncement among fans, as though his own validity as a character has become questionable. This does no credit to either side. Regardless of which insignia we like best, it is wisest for us all to understand our opponents' methods and motivations just as intimately as we understand our own.
Champions of Decepticon characters have made the perfectly legitimate point that the writers of the cartoon series created several flaws, biases and--in more than a few cases--outright bad episodes. They seem to forget, however, that this applies just as well to the Autobots, and as their spokesperson Optimus Prime was often given forced, almost self-righteous sounding lines. The overall series gives us enough of a template to understand characters' basic personality, though, and pick out good representation from mediocre. For example, at the end of War of the Dinobots, Grimlock approaches Optimus Prime with an apology for his actions earlier in the story. We know from other examples that Prime should have first responded with a pat on the shoulder and words to the effect of, "No one is created perfect, Grimlock. Apology accepted." Instead of this, however, his line was trite, even officious to the point of seeming cold: "The meteorite menace is gone. Let's roll for home!". This gives the distinct impression that the writer of that episode felt somehow uncomfortable letting the Autobot leader calmly accept an apology onscreen. Rather, Prime was kept within the typecast of a military commander unable to express his true feelings. Indeed, the Decepticons were not the only ones subjected to shallowly stereotypical moments.
As we previously established, however, not all of the writing was bad and most of the main characters--both Autobot and Decepticon--were reasonably fleshed-out; with that in mind, let us examine what we have been given to determine exactly how justifiable a character Optimus Prime really is. In the occasional instances where Optimus did resort to tactics such as insults, it was seldom if ever for the sheer sake of spite. In one example, when he taunted Megatron atop crumbling Sherman Dam in More Than Meets the Eye, he obviously meant to goad his opponent into making a rash move; being in the precarious position they were, a false step made in anger would certainly have ended in a very long spill. It was Prime who eventually tumbled, though, having been distracted by a call for help instead of a verbal attack. But in a number of instances throughout the series, Prime used his characteristically dry sense of humor to make light of a situation, or to take advantage of his arch rival's impulsive streak by spurring him into overreacting. Optimus never said anything out of plain meanness, nor spoke without purpose to his words--even in poorly written episodes.
This is not to say that Optimus Prime is infallible; he himself would not make such a claim. He is every bit as human in personality as his equally fallible Cybertronian brothers. At the end of More Than Meets the Eye he became furious when the Decepticons finally escaped aboard their new starship. His usually calm, collected tone of voice vanished as he demanded Sideswipe's jetpack in order to pursue the ship personally--a move he would have deemed foolhardy in any other situation. If he should be condemned for having the emotional capacity to anger, then he should have all the world as company.
Optimus also took less carefully calculated risks in order to protect someone very special to him: Elita-One. Clearly, Optimus and Elita had a deep, longstanding, very human relationship; both put their own lives at stake to save the other. At the end of Search for Alpha-Trion, they clasp hands and say goodbye only briefly--for surely, neither cared to prolong a sorrowful moment, or be the one to end a proper embrace. Certainly Optimus Prime's relationship with Elita-One illustrates his capacity for love and compassion.
In many varying respects, Optimus and Megatron stand optic-to-optic. They are more than just rivals; they compliment each other, for each of the two loses his meaning without the contrast of the other. Prime was built to be Megatron's equal, and for his own sake Megatron cannot afford to underestimate him. If he did not have such a serious opponent in Prime, then he would have conquered Cybertron eons ago. That fact established, Megatron never took his arch foe lightly or even disrespectfully. In Heavy Metal War, he beamed as he divulged Prime's "only weakness--his overdeveloped sense of honor". This singular fact was precious to him because it was the Autobot leader's only readily exploitable weakness, and plainly Megatron took pride in that. Any lesser opponent would have been beneath contempt or effort, but Optimus Prime represented a challenge Megatron eagerly took on again and again.
During their final showdown in Transformers: the Movie, the two rivals met an unfortunate stalemate. Hot Rod's attempt at aiding his leader cost not only Optimus' life but also a conclusive end to his age-old struggle against Megatron. If Prime had intended to gun down his unarmed adversary, he would have done so immediately and still have ample reason: Megatron had already killed a number of Optimus' comrades, endangered many others and attempted to kill him. But even so, Prime waited for his nemesis to reach the weapon he so blatantly inched toward, bound by personal belief not to shoot a defenseless enemy. Megatron's unique brand of the same courtesy was to savor his would-be moment of triumph and revel in his apparent victory.
Both Prime and Megatron's actions in the cartoon and movie can be argued a number of ways, but they represent only part of the overall issue. Perhaps Optimus Prime's most vehement opposition rests not with what he did onscreen, but with the fact that he was an off screen icon during the Transformers' heyday. Despite all the criticism expressed today toward over-marketed concepts, merchandising or the excess thereof does not solely determine a character's worth. Furthermore, we cannot truly appreciate what Optimus was meant to represent unless we look objectively at his background. Hasbro meant for the cartoon to reach a primarily male audience ranging from five to thirteen years of age--in other words, The Transformers was a children's show. The fact that it lured in so many people outside that group is a phenomenon in its own right. But for the target audience, Optimus Prime was meant to be instantly recognizable as the hero of the story, and Megatron the villain. While it does credit to the characters that we adults can read more into them than what lies on the surface--that they live up to their catch phrase of "more than meets the eye"--we totally miss their original purpose if we fail to at least once look at them through the eyes of a child.
Indeed, for the children he was meant to reach, Optimus Prime was very powerful. After he was killed in the Movie, Hasbro received a flood of letters from upset children and phone calls from their parents, according to the Shreveport Times article "Hasbro Can't Toy With Optimus Prime". The outcry was so great that Prime found himself resurrected a year later, in what is probably one of the best-written episodes of the show, and certainly of the post-Movie series. If we Decepticon fans love our characters so much, why did we not immediately put pens to paper and demand our own heroes' return after we left the theatres? The only acceptable excuse for not voicing our opinions would be lack of information--being only an unenlightened nine year-old at the time Transformers: the Movie was released, I had no way of knowing how to write Hasbro and woefully ask for Starscream's return.
Each time we Decepticon fans denounce Optimus Prime, we render meaningless a part of some person's life, their morals and their motivations. The characters we love have unquestionably inspired us and motivated us to overcome difficulties of varying degree, and in more than one instance a Transformer has inspired someone who was ill to get better. Optimus Prime has had that honor several times. In issue 31 of the U.S. comic, someone wrote to the letter column describing how her friend overcame a rare disease after taking an interest in Transformers: "from that moment on, her illness became a symbolic battle between the Autobots and Decepticons...her life-giving machine was now Optimus Prime, and he was an ally to her. This kept her mind active and encouraged her not to give up". How small our own bickerings over Prime's justification seem to be, when compared to the life-giving gift of inspiration he gave to someone who was deathly ill. I find even less room to discredit this fact when I take into consideration that my own fiancé continually looked to Optimus Prime for reassurance during the eleven agonizing surgeries he underwent because of cerebral palsy.
This is by far not to say that Optimus alone holds such a distinction; certainly someone in this world has called on the attributes of a favorite Decepticon in their own hour of need. Still, it reflects badly upon all of us when any one of the Transformer characters is dismissed as unworthy of respect. Our own personal views should be expressed as just those: personal views that differ from others' and by no means reflect upon the character in question. We have worked too hard to keep the Transformers mythos of our childhood alive, to then kill it slowly with pointless attacks upon characters and their fans. Each time we denounce Autobot leader Optimus Prime as being shallow, two-faced and evil without first looking unbiasedly at his record, giving him the same benefit of the doubt that we first gave to our own purple-sigiled heroes, we take on the selfsame quality of hypocrisy that we assign to him. It is okay to be a Decepticon fan, but in order to be one we must first be Transformers fans--and no matter who hard we may try to avoid that fact, included prominently among the Transformers is a big red Autobot known as Optimus Prime.
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