Optimus Prime passed away on 8 August 1986. It was 30 full years ago, when Transformers: The Movie debuted, that the heroic robot sacrificed his own life to defeat the evil Megatron. But an event that was tragic for Prime’s fellow Autobots turned out to be completely traumatic for me and God knows how many other kids.
I was nine when Transformers: The Movie came out. My great-grandparents had died when I was too young to understand what that meant; to me, they were occasionally around, and then they were not occasionally around. So I’d never really experienced the loss of death before, how someone that seems to be a permanent fixture in your life can just disappear.
I wasn’t really a big Transformers fan growing up, but not being a fan didn’t mean that I wasn’t watching the cartoon every single morning before I went to school or that I didn’t demand to see the movie the first weekend it was in theatres. One of the cartoons I watched… as a movie? That I could see in a movie theatre? It was too cool to miss, even if I had disliked the Transformers, which I certainly didn’t.
That said, I was quite sad when Optimus died in the movie, after he and Megatron give each other mortal blows. He may not have been my favourite, but the character was awesome, and absolutely the star of the cartoon; it was moving to see the rest of the Autobots in anguish, and to see Prime’s final act to give the Matrix of Leadership to a young Autobot named Hot Rod, who was unready to lead.
I was sad, but I knew something the Autobots didn’t (or at least I thought I did) — Optimus Prime would be back before the end of the movie.
This wasn’t a wild hope as much as it was a fact of my entertainment life, presented by… well, every TV show, movie, book, comic and so on that I had ever read. The idea of telling a kid about the reality of death in a cartoon was almost as anathema as giving a child heroin; it seemed so heinous as to be impossible. This was a culture that prevented He-Man — a barbarian who wielded a sword — from even punching his enemies in his cartoon. (If you rewatch it, you’ll see that in every single physical alternation with a living being, He-Man tosses him into mud, water, a barrel and so on. It’s crazy.) Sure, Optimus Prime had died, but he was a robot. He could be rebuilt! And besides, Megatron had been resurrected as Galvatron just a few minutes later in the film — I knew with absolute certainty that Optimus would return, ready to fight anew, before the end of the film…
…and then he didn’t. Instead, Hot Rod transformed (er, from a robot into a different robot) into Rodimus Prime, a more adult Transformer who was somewhat capable of leading the Autobots, but was no Optimus Prime. When the end credits rolled out, Optimus Prime was still… dead.
Honestly, I don’t think I was even sad. More… confused. It seemed impossible to me that Optimus Prime was actually gone. He was a hero. He was the hero of the Transformers. I was Fred Savage in The Princess Bride, looking for someone I could inform that an error had been made — that this was wrong. Still, I was certain the TV series would correct the error.
According to Wikipedia, the new season of Transformers premiered 15 September 1986, not much more than a month after the movie. I am certain this wait felt like approximately a decade to me as I wondered how Optimus would return. Would it be immediately? Would the season begin with the Autobots on a journey to recover their lost leader? But when the episode arrived, Optimus Prime was still dead.
That’s when I realised he was truly gone. And that’s when I cried.
Again, I didn’t cry because Optimus Prime was my favourite character, or because Transformers was the series I lived and breathed. It was because for two years — a large portion of my cognitive life — Optimus Prime had been part of it, and now he was dead, never to be seen again. For the first time I realised that heroes didn’t always survive, that being good didn’t always protect you from the bad things of the world. In a way, I suppose this was exactly what the adults who regulated the children’s entertainment industry had feared would happen if a kid ever accidentally got a glimpse of the harshness of reality. But just because the lesson upset me doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.
There’s so much to recommend about Transformers: The Movie: some excellent animation, a bizarrely over-talented voice cast, the Junkions, Stan Bush’s “The Touch” and so much more. But when I think about this film, I think about mortality, and crying hysterically, and innocence lost — and I’m grateful to this film for all of it.
PS — Optimus Prime was totally resurrected in the cartoon on 25 February 1987. Too little too late, guys.