NB: The following contains spoilers for Transformers: The Movie.
When parents took their kids to see Transformers: The Movie in 1986, they probably weren’t expecting quite as much death and mayhem. But in the feature-length spin-off from the hit Hasbro toy-line and accompanying TV show, the spectre of death was everywhere; one early scene alone saw the evil Decepticons hijack an Autobot space shuttle and execute all the heroes inside.
It’s worth bearing in mind, first of all, that the Transformers TV series, which had been running for two years by that point, had never killed off any of its characters – even though they often engaged in protracted brawls and laser battles. In Transformers: The Movie, a number of much-loved characters were not only shot and killed, but occasionally died in surprisingly graphic fashion.
On a personal note, I still recall seeing the film at the age of about nine, and being slightly stunned at the sight of Prowl – he was the one who could transform into a police car – being shot in the chest, causing a gout of fire and smoke to issue from his eyes and mouth. “Wow,” I thought. “This film isn’t messing around.”
Other Transformers who met their demise in Transformers: The Movie included Brawn, Ironhide and his ambulance doppelganger Ratchet, Windcharger, and Wheeljack. Even the Decepticons didn’t walk away unscathed; Megatron and two of his fellow villains were mortally wounded and magically changed into the new, more futuristic-looking Galvatron, Scourge, and Cyclonus. The duplicitous Starscream, who’d planned to usurp Megatron for years, eventually got his comeuppance: he was repeatedly blasted until his body turned to ash.
It was fairly strong stuff for an animated movie at the time. But it was as nothing – nothing – compared to the shock of what happened to Optimus Prime. In the midst of a pitched battle which saw Autobots struck down left and right, Prime engaged in a brutal fight with Megatron. At first, it looked like the kind of confrontation we’d seen in the TV series a dozen times; lots of cool-sounding mottos (“One shall stand, one shall fall!”), punches and stray laser blasts. But as the fight wore on, there were odd signs that things were about to get nasty: Prime is stabbed in the abdominal area first with what appears to be a huge piece of shrapnel, and then a laser sword. But then something shocking happened: Megatron shot Prime repeatedly in the chest.
By the end of the fight, Megatron and Prime are both left in a crumpled heap on the floor. But Prime pulls through, right? Wrong. In a scene that no doubt left its mark on entire theatres full of wide-eyed kids, Prime died on an operating table, the Matrix of Leadership falling from his hands and his once vivid red paint fading to a sullen grey.
From toy maker Hasbro’s standpoint, killing off all these characters came down to simple economics: Prime, Ratchet, Prowl, and their compatriots were all part of the original 1984 Generation One line, and Hasbro wanted to replace them with shiny new toys like Kup, Blurr, and Rodimus Prime. What better way to do it than in the Transformers’ big, expensive debut movie?
For kids who loved Optimus Prime, however, the Transformers robot massacre was akin to, say, Walt Disney shooting Mickey Mouse to death in the middle of Fantasia. In fact, Hasbro had completely failed to predict how kids – not to mention their exhausted parents – would react to Prime’s shock death. In a brief documentary on Transformers: The Movie’s 20th anniversary DVD, story consultant Flint Dille expresses his surprise at the level of grief the event provoked.
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“We didn’t know that he was an icon,” Dille says, still seemingly baffled by the response. “It was a toy show. We just thought we were killing off the old product line to replace it with new products.”
If Hasbro – and the film’s makers – thought kids would rush out of the cinema in search of the nearest toy shop, they were sorely mistaken.
“Kids were crying in the theatres,” Dille recalls. “We heard about people leaving the movie. We were getting a lot of nasty notes about it. There was some kid who locked himself in his bedroom for two weeks.”
There was, however, one person working on Transformers: The Movie who apparently tried to avert Prime’s death: screenwriter Ron Friedman. Already the writer of GI Joe and Transformers TV episodes, he was given the task of writing the Transformers movie script. Realizing that Prime was the heroic father figure in the Autobot family, he advised Hasbro against killing the character off.
“I recognised that I needed to assign family identities to characters in order to create the recognition factor that young people need,” Friedman explained in a 2013 interview with Todd Matthy. “They cannot verbalise this; it’s beneath the surface. To remove Optimus Prime, to physically remove Daddy from the family, that wasn’t going to work. I told Hasbro and their lieutenants they would have to bring him back but they said no and had ‘great things planned.’ In other words they were going to create new, more expensive toys.”
While some movie-goers reeled at Prime’s death, they should at least be grateful that Transformers: The Movie was rather less violent than initially planned. One sequence in the script describes new Autobot leader Ultra Magnus being torn apart by Galvatron’s flying henchmen, the Sweeps:
Sweeps, quarter him!
ANGLE ON THE SWEEPS – TRACKING
Four rope-like rays shoot out of them and…
ON ULTRA MAGNUS
wrap around his arms and legs.
ANGLE ON ULTRA MAGNUS AND THE SWEEPS
His arms and legs caught by the four ropes, he knows he’s just about had it.
He struggles for one last moment, then…
ANGLE ON THE SWEEPS AND ULTRA MAGNUS
Pulling their rays taut, the Sweeps fly in four separate directions, effectively drawing and quartering the Autobot leader…
ON ULTRA MAGNUS
As all of his limbs are separated from his body and scattered in the distance, he SCREAMS IN HORROR.
Ouch. The sequence remained in contention long enough to reach the storyboarding stage, and the Marvel comic book adaptation of Transformers: The Movie also saw Ultra Magnus meet the same undignified end. You can see how it might have looked in the following video:
Clearly realizing that drawing and quartering a toy robot’s a bit much for a family film, the scene was changed so that Ultra Magnus is simply cornered and shot to death by ruthless Decepticons.
Younger viewers may also have been mildly traumatized by another scene that was planned but ultimately never created: a battle in which a group of Autobots, hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned, charges directly into an army of Decepticons.
“[The scene] basically wiped out the entire 84 product line in one massive ‘charge of the light brigade’” Flint Dille recalls. “So, whoever wasn’t discontinued, stumbled to the end. That scene didn’t make it into the finished movie. But if you think kids were locking themselves in the bedroom over Optimus Prime, basically in that scene they would’ve seen their entire toy collection wiped out.”
As it was, the backlash against Prime’s death was so fierce that the creators of the movie and TV series eventually had to relent and bring the character back from the dead in early 1987.
The great irony of Optimus Prime’s death – and the rest of the Transformers who were killed in the great massacre of 1986 – is that, while those deaths were a business decision, they resulted in a film that was something more than a glorified toy commercial. Transformers: The Movie wasn’t a particularly big success at the time, but it retains a cult following – and, of course, the death of the Autobot leader is still talked about today. Ron Friedman, who tried and failed to prevent Hasbro from killing the Autobots’ father figure, is even calling his memoir I Killed Optimus Prime.
After Transformers: The Movie, Optimus Prime was killed and brought back from the dead so many times in various TV shows, comic books and even Michael Bay’s live-action movies that listing them would take up an article in itself. For a generation of Transformers fans, though, it was that first death in 1986 that sticks in the mind. Prime and dozens of other robot compatriots may have died for business purposes, but their deaths provoked an emotional response that even Hasbro hadn’t predicted.