There are two deaths that I remember very clearly, with more crispness than I recollect any other passing in my life. I recall where I was, the very spot where I stood, when I found out that my grandmother, the only grandparent I really got the opportunity to know, passed away on a cool day in October 11 years ago. Her passing wasn’t wholly unexpected; her health had been going downhill for quite some time since a fall a couple years prior. The night before her death, when she was rushed to a hospital, talking to her as she lay in bed, I couldn’t help but think of the worst. Still, when I heard the news, it hit me in the gut, something warm and cool breaking in my 24-year-old stomach.
The other death I remember with that much vividness is the death of Optimus Prime.
I don’t say that glibly. The Transformers: The Movie hit theaters in 1986, later released on VHS the following year. I didn’t get to watch it until it was released on video, and 7-year-old Jed couldn’t wait. We didn’t own a VCR at the time—this is when they were still a bit pricey and not as ubiquitous as they were just before the mass production of the DVD player. So when Mom, who knew how much I wanted to watch the film, rented both a VCR and the film from the local video store, it was a big deal. This was also before a time for the Internet—I’m ancient—so I had no idea about spoilers or plot points of the movie. I had no idea what to expect other than some cool animation and an Autobot/Decepticon battle royale.
I recall a lot about that movie: the Stan Bush soundtrack with power ballads that I was too young to think of as anything but awesome (You’ve Got the Touch!); animation better than anything I’d been exposed to in the normal TV schedule of American weekly animation; and being amazed that Leonard Nimoy was a voice in the film (I had watched a lot of Star Trek by that point, primarily the movies and the cartoon series).
But more than anything, I remember seeing Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, mortally wounded during a fight with Decepticon general Megatron, telling the heroic Autobots who surrounded him not to grieve. As he explained, he was about to become one with the Matrix, which, at its simplest, can be described as a type of compendium of all knowledge from previous Autobot leaders that each current leader carries with him. It also has some pseudo-spiritual properties that are best left to another article, because we would be here for hours.
I was a Transformers fiend, just like a lot of kids my age in the 80s. Through synergistic marketing of cartoons and toys, I was hooked on All Things Robots-in-Disguise. The Transformer story was one that had me hooked and, really, probably led the way to my love of serialized storytelling as seen in comic books. But the thing about that also appealed to me at the time, although I didn’t know it, was the comforting sense of permanence that the series gave me. The good robots fought the bad ones every week and, every week, the good guys won. And, really, the bad guys won, too, because no one ever died. The Decepticons were beaten, but would live to fight another day.
That’s why when Optimus Prime did die in the film, his metallic blues and reds turning to shades of grey, his head lolling to the side, I was stunned. I felt punched in the gut. Optimus couldn’t die. I wasn’t familiar at the point with the idea of fictional characters being written back to life. In my mind and as far as li’l Jed knew, that was it for the former leader of the Autobots. Talking to folks who saw the death when they were my age, it’s amazing how many others felt the same way. Some admitted to crying. Some, like me, were in shock, disbelief, feeling betrayed. As near as I can figure it out, there are three big reasons, other than the aforementioned hook of loud cartoons and bright toys, that made the death of Optimus such a huge deal.
When it gets down to it, the 1980s cartoons were my first real exposure of morality outside of my parents, teachers, and the clergy. Optimus was always spouting homilies about the sanctity of life in all forms and why doing good by one another was the best way to live. And he meant it! He was proactive about it. When evil did its thing, Optimus and his warriors were those who stood at the wall and said, “No further.” I knew vaguely about doing the right thing and why it was favorable over doing the wrong thing, but to see it in action is another thing entirely. Beyond the flashy ray guns and epic battles, Optimus just wanted to do Good with a capitol G. He was a one-robot course in the philosophy of morality and ethical behavior.
Also, let’s be honest: Of all the 1980s cartoons, Optimus Prime was the dad of the bunch. Lion-O and He-Man were all kickass and what-not, but Optimus was the sound voice of reason. He was the Atticus Finch of the superhero lot. Hell, he even has the baritones of Gregory Peck.
Finally, the death of Optimus Prime was a beginner’s lesson in the nature of impermanence. As I said, you could pretty much count on the Transformers cartoon to be rote, going through the motions to get back to the reset launchpad by the end of each episode. I didn’t know that Hasbro, the maker of the series and a partner in producing the cartoon, had had a hand in the deaths of Optimus Prime and other Autobots and Decepticons to create newer Transformers and to sell more toys. I didn’t know that the Autobot leader would be brought back to the life in the series months after the film. For all I knew, for all any of us knew, Optimus Prime was dead. And that made me realize that nothing was certain in life.
Pretty heady stuff for a cartoon and a 7-year-old. But beyond that, I knew that Optimus Prime had died doing what he thought was the right thing. And while that “right thing” was pretty cut-and-dry in the animated world, it helped steer my sense of morality at a very early age. Long before Dumbledore taught readers in the Harry Potter series that what is right and what is easy are very different things, Optimus Prime was putting his heart and soul into doing what was right for his friends.
Thanks for coming around for another Flashback Friday. Now I have “You’ve Got the Touch” stuck in my head. And no, not the scene from Boogie Nights, either. Don’t know it? Check YouTube and hate me later.