In August of 1986, The Transformers: The Movie was released in theatres, and Optimus Prime was killed. Not just Optimus, mind you – Ironhide, Ratchet, Brawn, Prowl, and a handful of other season one Autobots were killed, while some of the older Decepticons were reformatted into Galvatron, Scourge, Cyclonus, and the Sweeps.
Continuing with the tradition of there being 14 times as many Autobots as Decepticons, Hasbro decided that upgrading Optimus Prime into the Ultra Magnus mold (As was the case with the pre-Transformers “Diaclone” line, where Convoy became Powered Convoy) wasn’t good enough. No, there had to be a new Autobot leader. And he would be COOL. He’d be a hot rod with flame designs. He he would be voiced by teenage ruffian heartthrob, Judd Nelson. And, hey, since he turns into a hot rod, why don’t we just name him… Hot Rod?
At the end of the movie, Hot Rod acquires the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, and it upgrades him into Rodimus Prime (possibly the most contrived non-Go-Bots Transformers name, ever). Of course, toys were released of both Hot Rod and Rodimus. But as a kid, I didn’t want the Hot Rod toy. Rodimus was the new leader! I had to have that version! He was going to be the leader in the third season!
Now, remember, in late 1986 and early 1987, when season three of the Transformers was airing, I was 4 years old. I often describe The Transformers to be my “first favorite thing that wasn’t Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, because the series started when I was two, and I must have immediately fallen in love with it. I honestly do not remember a time in my life where I did not own at least one Transformers toy. But, I digress.
Season three of the Transformers cartoon showed us that there was a new crew of Autobots to follow – Ultra Magnus, Springer, Kup, Arcee, Blurr…Wheelie (whom, nobody loves)…and their new leader, Rodimus Prime. And since I was 4, I just accepted the fact that Optimus Prime died and Rodimus was his successor. My parents had explained to me that people die and that it was just a part of life. More importantly, it was just a cartoon, and my parents had done a terrific job of explaining to me the difference between real life and fantasy. I think that’s why I spent so much of my childhood watching cartoons, and completely missing out on shows like Miami Vice and The A-Team – As far as I was concerned, shows with real people were shows for grown-ups, and cartoons were what kids like me were supposed to watch. Ooh, again with the digression.
So, Rodimus was important. Why? Because David Wise, head writer for The Transformers, told me so. As a kid, that was enough. I believed adults when they told me things, even if if the adults were telling me through the shows they were writing.
But I’m turning 28 this year. So, clearly, I need to get in line with modern society and come up with a good reason that involves things being “dark.” After all, The Dark Knight is the most successful movie of all time (or was. I don’t care enough to look it up). And that’s dark, right? I mean, it says so right in the title. You want dark? Here we go.
Rodimus may be red and orange and yellow, but he’s a DARK hero. That colorful “neon” (The quotes mean he’s really not-neon, but he also isn’t primarily BLACK. It’s a toy collector thing. If you don’t understand, just ignore it and accept that toy collectors are mostly idiots.) exterior was just a bright, cheery disguise for the pain and torment that Roddy was feeling inside. After all, Optimus Prime had been the leader of the Autobots for NINE MILLION YEARS, and, over that time, he had done a pretty good job. So much so, that the original VHS release of The Transformers: The Movie had a bit added on to the end labeling Optimus as “The Greatest Autobot of Them All.” Rodimus, meanwhile, when season three started up, had been Autobot leader for about two weeks. And the first thing he does is get yelled at by Ultra Magnus for not being as verbose and loquacious as Optimus. Check out The Five Faces Of Darkness part 1 on YouTube, and wait for the first time we see Rodimus. He introduces the intergalactic Olympics or whatever, and then Magnus is like, “don’t you want to say more words?”
Incidentally, who the hell is Ultra Magnus to talk? When Hot Rod and Kup’s shuttle were getting shot down by Decepticons in the movie, when Magnus was the temporary leader of the Autobots (as HAND-CHOSEN by Optimus Prime, mind you!)Magnus’ response was “I can’t deal with that, now!” But now that he’s not in charge, he suddenly knows what Roddy should be doing? Screw that noise! A friend of mine once nicknamed Ultra Magnus (in a non-homophobic way) as “Ultra Fagness.” It’s hard to disagree with that nickname. Ultra Magnus is stupid. He doesn’t even know when his birthday was.
So, Rodimus is already down on himself, because he has huge shoes to fill. Here in the United States, we don’t hear much about Andrew Johnson. You know why? Because he was the president AFTER Abraham Lincoln, who is pretty widely-regarded as the greatest President that America has had (except maybe George Washington, but he had teeth as wooden as Hayden Christensen’s acting skills, so he doesn’t count). Man, this article is filled with a lot more useless crap than usual. You could probably just read the first sentence of each paragraph and save yourself a lot of time.
So doubting yourself is dark, right? And then Rodimus goes and shorts himself out so that he can dive INTO the Matrix of Leadership on the off chance it might lead to the Autobots being able to rescue their recently-kidnapped friends. I’m pretty sure that nearly committing suicide for the sake of your friends is dark.
Then, this planet of perfection gets blown up, and the triple-changer Autobot, Sandstorm, says that his former planet is as beautiful in death as it was in life. And Rodimus says this: ” Well, no need to get all mushy. Cybertron’s a better place anyway—not so…perfect” I’m sorry, Cybertron is A BETTER PLACE than PARADISE? Seriously? Dark all over the place.
Jump ahead to the episode “Dark Awakening,” where an Evil Robot Zombie version of Optimus Prime shows up. And Rodimus just hands him over the Matrix of Leadership without even asking questions. Yes, handing over the symbol of leadership to an evil zombie is dark. Plus, the episode has “dark” in the title, so that’s clearly dark, too.
And in “The Burden Hardest to Bear,” Rodimus gets pissed about everybody looking to HIM for leadership, so he drives off a cliff. No, seriously. He drove right off a cliff. And the Matrix fell out of him, and was absconded by Wild Rider and Dead End, two of the Decepticon Stunticons.
By the way, the Stunticons are my favorite of the combiner teams. I’ll get to them more in the future, I’m sure, but just look at their basic info: Motor Master is a diesel truck like Optimus, but he’s black and white and silver and purple (which happens to be my favorite color combination), and he’s obsessed with becoming the most powerful thing on the street; Dead End is a maroon Porche 928 who is the most pessimistic defeatist you’ll ever meet; Drag Strip is a yellow race car who CANNOT LOSE EVER, especially in racing; Wild Rider is a grey corvette with red windows (that color scheme is SO bad ass) who is FREAKING INSANE and DRIVES LIKE A MANIAC ON PURPOSE just to show people HOW insane he is; and Breakdown is a white-and-blue Lamborghini Countach who thinks everyone and everything is out to get him. And the Stunticons are the only combiner team in the entire series where ALL OF THEM get their distinct personalities developed. So freaking awesome.
Rodimus Prime is the archetypal “Chosen One” hero (like Luke Skywalker) who begins as a brash, impractical kid and develops into a worthy leader. Unfortunately, a bunch of crybaby kids wrote letters to Hasbro and Sunbow, basically forcing them to bring Optimus Prime back to life in order to keep ratings and viewers, which is terribly unfortunate for ol’ Roddy.
And I can’t even say, “Well at least we kept Hot Rod around after Optimus came back,” because the show got cancelled three episodes later. So bringing Optimus back was pretty useless, anyways.
And I always felt (or, at least, since I was old enough to be able to think about such things) that Rodimus’ imperfections and faults and self-doubt made him far more relatable than the Perfect Leader that is Optimus Prime. Don’t get me wrong – I love Optimus and all, but I feel that he works better dead, as the standard to which everybody else is supposed to try and achieve. Kind of like Jesus is to Christians. Optimus Prime as Jesus? Interesting. But that’s an article for another day…