During a phase in the 5th grade I watched Transformers: The Movie every day after school for a whole semester. My brother had “borrowed” the VHS from one of his friends in that way one “borrows” things in Elementary school with the invalid assumption that you can loan things that don’t belong to you. That’s how your video games ended up down the street at your friend’s neighbor’s cousin’s house, and how my brother handed Transformers: The Movie to me. A fitting change of possession honestly, because no one could have loved that VHS more than I did. Absolutely no one. In my daily ritual I jumped off the bus from school after arguing the latest from Power Rangers or Pokémon, walked inside through the side door (no one used the front), through the kitchen, and to the den where I tossed my bag on the couch and watched Transformers all alone, content in my being, more carefree Black boy than I ever have been and ever will be.
The casual parent may have seen Transformers as a basic action cartoon, a predictable adventure of good versus evil, the fall of the villain inevitable. Late-comers may conjure images of Michael Bay’s shaky cam, Shia Lebouf running, or Megan Fox. Yet whether you enjoyed the $320-million-dollar blockbuster film for lighthearted fun or loathed it as the dumpster fire of a villainous Director more threatening than Megatron himself, you know better than that. Transformers: The Movie was a movie of heart, death, power dynamics, and motivation.
The earliest shock of the movie came in what is more or less a throwaway scene meant to introduce the Decepticons. I sat on the couch unblinking as the Decepticons hijacked a ship, shot lasers at unsuspecting Autobots who rallied, returned fire, and… wait, did they die? Are they dead? All of them? It couldn’t be right. And just like that, Transformers was one of my earliest examples of cartoons where death was real, a thing that could actually happen to characters. Throwaway characters, sure, but death happened nonetheless, solidifying the evil Decepticons as truly evil, having literally killed. It was in that light that I met Hot Rod and Danny, the other end of the spectrum full of light and levity. “If you’re gonna ride, Danno,” Hot Rod spoke to Danny as they cruised side by side, only for Hot Rod to jump into the sky and transform mid-air to catch Danny in his driver’s seat. “Ride in style.” That moment of absolutely inconsequence was anything but to me. What I would have given to run and transform in the air or, a consolation prize, to have a friend who could transform and catch me in its cockpit as we sped off towards adventure. Having a place to run would even be enough; the need to run, because something is urgent, because something or someone needs you.
And off they ran in service to the greatest leader of all, the one and only Optimus Prime, carrier of the matrix of leadership, an orb that signified his position. The matrix had another purpose though, which was to open in the world’s darkest hour for good to triumph over evil. And, as it turned out, the matrix was sort of an ass. If you had answered the call to protect the world and named leader of the cause, you might fairly assume the matrix would respect you enough to save your metal skin if your life were in danger. It would behoove the world you were protecting if you stayed alive, you would think. Except you would be wrong, as I learned anew every weekday on the couch in the den. From beginning to end, Optimus Prime versus Megatron was one of the most electrifying fights of my childhood, and it began with the noble words of the world’s most noble warrior:
Good must prevail over evil. The Autobots must win. This is why I lead, why the matrix chose me. Cue the most inspirational song that you still sing in your heart when you need strength, yet never tell anyone about for being too embarrassed. You know it, I know it, and at least once your soul has risen to the guitar riff of “you’ve got the power, you’ve got the touch.” With the guitar screaming in the background Optimus transforms on his way towards danger and – I can’t say this hype enough – literally drives through two Decepticons. One leaps out of the way while three others begin firing on Prime, who then drops the cargo, transforms into the air, and blasts each of them with the cannon so big he uses both hands to carry.
And then he sees him. They see each other. Optimus Prime stands opposite Megatron. Then Optimus says the words of nerd legend, the words that tell you this is really it. There will be no parley, no negotiations. We won’t run to fight another day; we won’t have this same fight again. This is game 7.
“One shall stand, one shall fall.”
One of us is falling right here, today. And it was Optimus who fell. Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots and carrier of the matrix.
But not before he wrecked Megatron so bad that he nearly died too. The bravado of this fight is levels above what I had normally seen from arrogant heroes against outmatched villains, or falsely confident villains against reluctant heroes; Megatron said “I’ll kill you with my bare hands” and Prime basically said “Bring it.”
What happened in this fight was nothing short of amazing. Optimus and Megatron crashed to the floor to a whirl of electricity that surrounded them. Seeing the boss is in trouble, Hot Rod wanted to come through screaming “Regulators” with the extra horses and the burners, but Cup told him to fall back because it’s on Prime to do or die. Hot Rod would just get in the way and get fam killed. Optimus had it covered anyway as Megatron was hurled backward into a dilapidated wall behind him, and you just knew O.G. Prime was about to rush his ass against the ropes. The shoe shine was coming; the bicycle kick; maybe a shoulder rush straight to the sternum. Optimus geared up to rush, but then he made a mistake. Prime paused. He hesitated. Prime stood like a deer in headlights as Megatron picked up a spear of debris, sharp as a stake, and turned into the first Cy Young winning Decepticon. That spear huddled through your hopes, your dreams; your fears and aspirations; by the time you blinked Optimus had a foreign object making friends with his digital organs. Fam pulled the joint out from his waist and his Con Edison meter started going down. Megatron’s internal dialogue yelled “he’s cut!” and he fired the cannon so hard DJ Drama was born, but Prime slipped the laser and just like that began a new round.
Megatron rifled through his weapons inventory — cannon, pistol, battle debris, ah here it is — and pulled out a light saber to slash Prime in the exact same spot because he knows them ribs were tender. Megatron was doing targeted advertising on Prime’s right side that was straight up leaking battery acid and Energon, and Prime was holding his side trying to keep his toy parts in, slowly backing towards the death pit behind him. Megatron saw the end as he leapt ten feet in the air, light saber above his head, swinging down for the death blow with the sun shining behind him. And just like that, Optimus shows us why he’s the real G. Prime hits down, diagonal, forward, and connects with Megatron’s jaw on an emotional level with the rising dragon punch. It was officially a dog fight. They grappled, arms tangled in arms, hands digging into each other’s faces, and Prime took his advantage. With a plant of his left foot, a hip to the body, and an arm in his hand, Optimus judo threw Megatron, and that was it. Prime had finally won, he bested Megatron head to head, hand to hand, toe to toe.
“Finish him off, Prime!” yelled an on-looking Cup, having had faith in his leader all along as he walks calmly to the gun that lay on the ground, ready to give Megatron the long kiss goodnight.
“No more, Optimus Prime!
Grant me mercy, I beg you!”
What’s this? Megatron… pleading? Submissive? And that’s when we learned something about the leader of the Decepticons. That’s when we saw in him what we were taught to see in bullies – a buried fear, one that rises when you add heat. Only there was a gun out of Prime’s sight that Megatron was reaching for, that is until Hot Rod sprang onto the scene to rescue his leader. Did he save Prime in that moment? Did he spell his doom? Without a clear shot Prime yelled for Hot Rod to get out of the way, but he was already a human shield for Megatron who held Hot Rod in his left hand, his laser gun in his right, and shoots Prime in his side. The same side. He fired a second time. And a third. “Fall, Prime, fall!” he yelled. And on fourth shot, he did. “One shall stand, one shall fall,” and it was Optimus who fell. Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots and carrier of the matrix. With his gun pointed, Megatron looks down at his fallen enemy. “It’s over, Prime.” And with his last ounce of strength, with every drop of Energon left in the tank, Optimus Prime said no.
Forgive me, I need a minute.
Two decades after my afternoons on the couch, just me, my backpack, and a worn out VHS, I met the creator of Transformers, Bob Budiansky. “Creator” is loosely defined here as Transformers already existed before Budiansky. Hasbro had the toys, which was in fact the only reason the movie and cartoon were made – they existed to raise popularity of these characterless toys that could be turned from car or plane to mech warrior with a name and personality. It was Bob Budiansky’s job to do just that: name them, add a personality, give them a purpose. In that regard, while Transformers existed prior to Budiansky, he named Iron Hyde and Ratchet; he made Starscream jealous and Grimlock the combination of Homer Simpson and Cookie Monster; he invented them as we know them. A group of young comic book writers, he told us how many of our favorite characters came to be; looking at their figure, he drafted personality traits for Autobots and Decepticons one by one, drafting names he felt fit with their structure and personality. Soundwave. Devastator. Ultra Magnus. Hasbro gave him the creative flexibility to bring life to these lifeless figures. Occasionally they pushed him to try something different – change this detail here or that trait there – and he largely complied fairly easily to their requests. They were a paycheck, after all. It was a good gig from a popular employer worth keeping happy.
Only once did he push back.
In the wake of nuclear terror in current events, Hasbro sent Bob Budiansky one name back, telling him to change the name of a one of the main characters. That name was “Megatron.” It was too menacing-sounding, they said. It was too evil. “Too evil?” Bob thought. This was the Lord of Darkness, the villain who wanted to rule and destroy. They had told him this character was meant to be the leader of the bad guys, and that’s what he gave him. Menacing? Evil? That’s exactly how he was supposed to sound. And so for the first time Budiansky pushed back, standing by the villain he created. The villain who wanted to rule, who stood against Optimus Prime.
To think, we were one bad executive decision away not having that guy. One acquiescence away from losing “Fall, Prime! Fall!” No one knows what Megatron would have been, but I’d take my chances with this one over an alternate universe any day. This Megatron and this Optimus Prime. These Autobots and these Decepticons. Those school day afternoons, through the kitchen and to the den where I tossed my bag on the couch to watch Transformers: The Movie all alone. More carefree Black boy than I ever have been and ever will be.