Can you really call a character a “hero” if they once yelled “Give me your face!” at their enemy right before going all Ed Gein on them? Asking for Optimus Prime.
The leader of the Autobots definitely started out as a good-guy robot in Michael Bay’s 2007 live-action movie Transformers. A common complaint thrown at the Optimus Prime of that film is that, in his quest for the all-powerful All Spark, he took the Autobot-Decepticon war to the streets of Mission City, risking countless human lives. But that decision was actually made by Josh Duhamel’s Captain Lennox, and as soon as Optimus arrived on the scene, he tried to get the All Spark and lead the fight away from humans. He even offered to sacrifice his life and merge with the All Spark to destroy it — that’s hero behavior right there.
In space, no one can hear you scream — but that doesn’t stop an evil-doer from trying. This week, Polygon celebrates all forms of sci-fi villainy because someone has to (or else).
And yet… even back then, there were some concerning things about Optimus Prime’s behavior.
For one, he allowed Bumblebee to be captured by Sector 7, sacrificing him to a shadowy, torture-happy government organization because he didn’t want to risk losing the All Spark. And when OP gets informed about the death of his comrade Jazz, who was ripped in half by Megatron, his reaction was little more than “Oh no! Anyway…” You can try and excuse this by saying that Optimus was fighting a war, which can desensitize people and robots alike. The problem, though, is that Optimus, an eternal veteran of the
bloody oily war for Cybertron, is always in War Mode. And that makes some of the things he did in the live-action movies essentially war crimes.
In the 2009 sequel Revenge of the Fallen, the Autobots team up with humans to hunt down all remaining Decepticons on Earth, like Demolisher, who Prime executes with a point-blank headshot after he’d already been disabled and posed no threat. That had to contravene some kind of Robot Geneva Convention about POW.
Throughout the film, all Optimus seems to care about is killing Decepticons, perhaps to go out in a blaze of glory after the All Spark was lost, taking with it any chance of saving Cybertron. And halfway through the film, he gets his wish, dying at the hands of Megatron.
Later in Revenge of the Fallen, Optimus is brought back to life with the Matrix of Leadership. Resurrections are often a tricky business. Sometimes, when things come back… they come back wrong. Add to that the fact that Optimus Prime was then augmented with parts from the Decepticon Jetfire (who supposedly changed sides, but still) and suddenly the scene of Optimus going all deli slicer on the face of the Fallen, the original Decepticon, makes a lot more sense.
Optimus would continue down this dark path in the 2011 follow-up Dark of the Moon, where he’s betrayed by his mentor Sentinel Prime, causing something inside him to just snap. In the very same movie, he allows Decepticons to stage an attack on Chicago that results in 1,300 deaths, all to prove that Decepticons are a threat to Earth. Sentinel actually accused Optimus of not prioritizing the needs of the many over the needs of the few (cute, since he was voiced by The Wrath of Khan’s Leonard Nimoy). But it’s Optimus who was the real Number Cruncher of Doom in the movie, deciding that over a thousand innocent deaths was an acceptable sacrifice to save the rest of humanity. Although, you do have to wonder how much him getting to slaughter his enemies again factored into his decision…
In fact, when leading a counterattack on Chicago, Optimus doesn’t give an inspiring speech like “Let’s save Earth” or “Let’s honor the sacrifice of those lost here,” but rather says: “We will kill them all.” Though that’s not totally accurate, because Optimus doesn’t “kill” Megatron in the movie. He performs a Mortal Kombat fatality on him by ripping off his head and spine.
It’s like with every movie, more and more of the little goodness left in Optimus Prime was chipped away until he was running on empty. One of the biggest blows to his soul was the 2014 movie Age of Extinction, where humans kill several Autobots and Optimus witnesses Stanley Tucci’s character melting the corpses of his friends for metal to make Transformers of their own. In that moment, it dawns on Optimus that, to humans, Transformers will never be fully sentient creatures. They will always be machines that can be stripped down for parts, or, from their point of view, have their corpses desecrated for profit. His psyche never stood a chance after that.
At the end of the film, Optimus leaves Earth to look for the Transformers’ creators. He ends up finding one, Quintessa, in the fifth installment of the series, The Last Knight. The problem is that she turns out to be kind of a dick. A mind — human or robot — can take a lot: war, seeing your friends’ corpses mutilated, betrayal. But finding out that, well, god exists and is a jerk would be too much for a lot of people to handle. In the movie, Quintessa supposedly “brainwashed” Optimus into becoming the evil Nemesis Prime, but what really happened was more like what the Joker did to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. All OP got was a little push over the edge when he was already dangling over it on his robo-heels.
In the end, Bumblebee helps Prime return to normal, proving that OP’s case of purple-eye wasn’t really brainwashing but rather a psychotic episode brought on by too much mental trauma, which could 100% happen again. If anything, The Last Knight leaves Optimus in an even more fragile state of mind after finding out that Earth, “the only place in the universe whose people let me call it home,” is actually Unicron, which in Cybertronian religion seems to be their version of THE DEVIL.
Unless Optimus gets some professional help, chances are that he will continue to periodically succumb to his demons until he ends up on trial in Space Hague. I guess this is why Paramount went ahead and made Bumblebee instead of dealing with that.