Optimus Prime: hero or psychopath?

Transformers-4-Billboard

It’s kind of interesting that even four years after it left theaters, the ending of Transformers: Dark of the Moon can still cause controversy. (Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t see it yet!) Megatron has been portrayed as incredibly pathetic in this movie and the last. When he’s introduced in this movie, he’s alone without followers, impotently howling “All hail Megatron.” While he’s complicit in what happens to the Autobots after, he’s not the one pulling the strings. He himself is being played by Sentinel Prime, the movie’s real villain. At the end of the movie, Megatron actually comes to the rescue of Optimus Prime, who’s getting his butt handed to him by Sentinel Prime. “Now, we need a truce,” he says. “All I want is to be back in charge. Besides, who would you be without me, Prime?”

To which Optimus snarls, “Let’s find out,” after which he decapitates Megatron.

Now, let’s ignore for a minute that Megatron has survived worse. He was left for double-dog dead at the end of the first movie, after all, and he managed to come back none the worse for wear. I imagine he’ll probably be back in a future movie, perhaps bearing the name of … GALVATRON? (But probably not voiced by Hugo Weaving.)

Was Optimus being a total psychopath in decapitating a guy who was helping him out for once? This was apparently even changed from the original intended ending. According to IMDB:

The original script ended with Optimus Prime accepting Megatron’s truce offer and forming peace with the Decepticons. Megatron would have left for Cybertron while the Autobots remained on Earth, trying to build up a new Transformer civilization together on the two planets. This idea was scrapped for the finished film, in which Optimus executes Megatron instead of accepting his offer. The original ending was used in the novel and comic adaptations. Since those came out before the movie, the movie’s actual ending surprised many people who’ve already read either the novel or the comic.

Some see this as a betrayal of Optimus. They see him being transformed (heh) from the beloved father figure in the cartoons to an abusive uncle in the movies. From some of the arguments, it makes it sound like cartoon Optimus was the warm and cuddly Major Dad, while movie Optimus was Hannibal Lector. A betrayal of character because, of all things, Michael Bay is obsessed with explosions. How dare they ruin these innocent characters from an 80’s children’s show?

I call foul on this interpretation. In fact, I think Bay did a lot of his homework. From the beginning, Optimus has always been portrayed as a soldier. The conflict between Autobots and Decepticons was always a war, with neither side gaining an advantage over the other. And while there were indeed silly episodes, the Decepticons were almost always portrayed as competent. Far more competent than their Cobra counterparts at GI Joe, in fact. So even cartoon Optimus was never going to approach Megatron with any attitude other than that of a dangerous adversary. (In the movie continuity, in fact, Megatron is responsible to the death and destruction of Cybertron. That’s a lot of blood on his hands.) Major Dad may indeed by warm and cuddly, but you don’t really know what he was like on the battlefield.

Second, are we so sure that movie Optimus wouldn’t have done the same? Let’s go back to Transformers: The Movie. During the most famous scene in the movie, Optimus and Megatron do battle. Megatron is outmatched. After getting beating down, he asks Optimus for mercy. And yet, Optimus is having none of it. “You, who are without mercy, now plead for it?” he says famously. “I thought you were made of sterner stuff!” I think that, given the opportunity, cartoon Optimus also would’ve ended Megatron then and there.

Besides, the ending provides that rare blockbuster ending that doesn’t end in triumph. Optimus knows what he’s done. He’s doomed his entire race because he’s sworn to protect humanity… the same humanity that had no problem exiling him from the planet. Who knows if he was right. After all, don’t the Transformers just have every right of survival as humanity? And from their point of view, human are inferior. The mere fact that humans are sentient just wasn’t reason enough for the majority of Transformers, expatriate Autobot characters included. Pictures emerging from TF4, in fact, seems to show that Optimus’ defense of Earth will not be rewarded. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And that’s how movie Optimus should be viewed, in my opinion. A character who is very consistent with his portrayal in the cartoon, and one who sided with humanity despite the peril that he would not be seen as a hero by either Transformers or human beings. Maybe it would have been merciful to let Megatron live and continue his perpetual cycle of violence and destruction… but after Earth was on the verge of total annihilation, it would not have been responsible.

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