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I just don’t know how to feel about dead Transformers

From Transformers: The Movie to Rise of the Beasts, movies keep killing off Autobots. Do they care? Should we?

Like pretty much every story in the wide-ranging Transformers franchise, the live-action movie Transformers: Rise of the Beasts has an odd relationship with death. Most of its primary characters are living machines who can take seemingly fatal damage and then be repaired or revived later in the story. That makes it hard to take any apparent character death seriously, especially given the franchise’s long history of killing off beloved characters and then bringing them back later. Even superhero comics can’t compete with the death-and-revival cycle of Transformers media.

Just to make things more confusing, the Transformers movies sometimes play character deaths for big drama and pathos. At other times, the robot characters are so casual about their companions’ destruction that they come across as callous and uncaring. Does life or death mean anything to Transformers? Given how Rise of the Beasts plays up some character deaths as big emotional moments while completely glossing over others, is the audience meant to take any of these beats or emotions seriously?

As a casual longtime Transformers fan, I have no idea how to feel about dead Transformers anymore, so I asked the least-casual longtime Transformers fan I know what we can learn about Transformer life and death from the larger franchise — and how writers have used those elements to manipulate readers and viewers.

[Ed. note: Significant spoilers for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts ahead.]

Optimus Primal, a giant gorilla-shaped robot, stands with Optimus Prime, a giant man-shaped robot, in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Image: Paramount Pictures

Tasha: David, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if Rise of the Beasts didn’t try to wring big-time pathos out of multiple Autobot and Maximal deaths, then quickly reverse some of them, but not others, for reasons that are unclear. I know these quasi-deaths are meant to be important and frightening, to show that the stakes are high in the Transformers’ Great War, and that the villain characters are extremely dangerous.

But c’mon, you know when they kill off Bumblebee early in the movie that he’ll be back in action by the final act. I just can’t get emotional about a dead robot that just needs a jump-start or a lube job. Am I being a jerk?

David: No, I get it: Not knowing how exactly we should respond to a Transformer’s death is baked deep into the franchise itself. Do you know who else shared your frustrations? Spider-Man!

Just three issues into the Marvel run, he watched the Autobot Gears die, or so he thought. Usually when somebody falls from a great height, that somebody is Dead with a capital “D.” (Spider-Man would know.) And as Spider-Man is mourning his fallen (new) friend, he wonders why all Gears’ Autobot pals are crowding emotionlessly around his shattered corpse. In response, Optimus Prime thinks to himself that Spider-Man is an idiot who doesn’t know he shouldn’t be sad, because robots can just be repaired. Stupid humans! Don’t get sad about dead robots! It’s like getting sad about a busted lawn mower!

In The Transformers issue #3, a group of Autobots gathers around a dead companion. One Autobot: “That’s the last piece — we’ve collected all that’s left of him!” Spider-Man, descending on a web from above: “How can you all be so cold and unfeeling? He died a hero!” A second man, in silhouette below: “Don’t you even have mechanical hearts?” In panel 2, Optimus Prime thinks “The humans don’t understand! Our form of life is vastly different from theirs! But there is no time to explain now!” Image: Jim Salicrup, Frank Springer/Marvel Comics

And yet there were nearly 40 solid friggin’ years of Transformers stories where they repeatedly beg you to get sad about dead robots. Despite generations of being yanked around by contrived narratives, sometimes I still get sad anyway. Which is wild, because I should be numb to this by now. I watched a shuttle full of my favorite Autobots get systematically, callously murdered in the first five minutes of The Transformers: The Movie when I was 6. And I paid Scholastic Book Fair Catalog Betamax Prices to see that with my baby eyes. Nothing should hurt me now. I should be invincible.

Tasha: The people behind The Transformers: The Movie thought you should be invincible back when you watched it! That 1986 film, which pretty much casually wipes out almost all of the characters from the 1980s TV show, still stands out as a traumatic event for ’80s kids who thought they were going to get to see those characters have full-scale cinematic adventures with better animation than the TV show provided, and instead got to see them all ganked so Hasbro could try to get the audience to buy new action figures. Apparently the filmmakers had no idea that was going to be an issue. Story consultant Flint Dille kind of laughs about it on one of the DVD commentaries: “It was a toy show. We just thought we were killing off the old product line to replace it with new products.”

More or less the same thing happened with Michael Bay’s Transformers in 2007. The Autobot Jazz gets torn in half and tossed aside in the final battle, and the rest of the Autobots barely seem to notice. Fans at the time were incensed. I was just baffled. Either they’re machines fighting an endless war, and every resource matters, so they should make a point of recovering and repairing their fallen, or they’re people — supposedly the heroes, the good guys, the ones who have some semblance of empathy or altruism — and they should care when one of them goes through a heinously traumatic experience. “One of ours died and it’s not really worth mentioning” doesn’t fit either narrative.

That Spider-Man panel is a great illustration — as with so many things the Transformers TV shows and movies I’ve seen never really have time to explore, Optimus’ attitude in that comic speaks to a real alienness about the Transformers that I’ve always found fascinating. The most mainstream Transformers stuff just never seems to grapple with the idea that all these ancient, sentient combat machines wouldn’t think and feel exactly like human beings. But you’ve seen and read a lot more Transformers stuff than I have. Have you ever come across a Transformer death story that really explored that alienness around death, or that worked for you in some other way?

David: The alienness of Transformers really cuts both ways when it comes to whether Transformers deaths “work.” Writers can be as creative as they want, but sometimes these avenues just open up more questions. Like in the original Marvel comics, when Optimus Prime dies from being remote-detonated. Like, OK, sure, detonation seems pretty final. But the human in charge of the detonation, the tech savant Ethan Zachary, secretly keeps a backup copy of Optimus Prime’s mind stored on a floppy disk.

This is undoubtedly a novel way to approach life and death that works with Transformers, but not humans. It’s a neat idea! But then you start to think, Does Optimus Prime’s whole mind, personality, and soul take up no more than 1.2 MB? And wait, can Ethan now make as many copies of Optimus Prime as he wants? Can he build infinite Optimus Prime bodies to input infinite copies of his mind into? Why doesn’t every Autobot and Decepticon just keep cheap remote backup storage of themselves on hand, in case guns ever suddenly start working like they did in the 1986 movie?

Likewise, let’s consider the deaths and nigh-deaths in Rise of the Beasts. Scourge, agitated at Airazor, shoots what’s essentially a poison dart at her. As it begins to take its toll, Airazor says that touching Scourge “leaves a scar.” Sure, that’s an alien way to die. It’s a great character touch for Scourge that he’s able to do this… but he only does it the one time. It’s not a weapon he uses on the regular. I kept expecting him to try to fire a poison bullet at literally any other character in the movie after this, but he doesn’t. So at the end, I’m left feeling a little hollow about that death, because retroactively, it feels like it was just, Oh right, the poison for Airazor, the poison chosen specifically to kill Airazor, Airazor’s poison. A rule of sorts was established, but it wasn’t fleshed out.

Scourge, a rusty-looking, intimidating Transformer with glowing orange eyes, seen in close-up in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Image: Paramount Pictures

Tasha: That one didn’t bother me as much in the moment because it’s pretty well established that Scourge likes to kill other Transformers up close and personal, so he can rip their symbols off and add them to his trophy arm. (What’s more alien than putting a notch in your gun or a stamp on your plane for every enemy you take down? Adding a chunk of that enemy to your own body, permanently.) Whereas Scourge has to take Airazor down remotely because she’s a flier, so he shoots something after her.

Where the writing falls apart for me, though, is that his poison appears to be both corroding her body and overwriting her mind, yet no one ever seems to try to deal with that problem while it’s happening. It’s implied that he’s infected her with a mental virus of some kind, which seems like a very effective way of actually permanently killing a Transformer — if you take permanent control of someone else’s body, repairs or recharges don’t help. Maybe a million years in the future, Ethan’s infinite Optimus Primes will have to fight the infinite Scourges that resulted from him bodysnatching every other Transformer he could get to.

If Transformers are otherwise largely immortal, though, this kind of soul-killing, mind-rewriting poison should be an absolute horror, though — a real mark of evil, the Transformer equivalent of a biologically engineered weapon, and a problem all the heroes should immediately focus on fixing. But Rise of the Beasts doesn’t really explore that horror or that opportunity for meaningful action. And Airazor being casually discarded and forgotten a moment after her death leaves her in a weird “Who knows, maybe if her movie toys are popular, we’ll come back to her?” limbo.

David: I think that since the number of variables in Plausibly Killing Robots is so insanely high, what’s needed to make death work in the Transformers franchise is establishing rules, fleshing them out, and sticking to them.

Now I’m going to surprise anyone who’s ever known me by bringing up the death of Dinobot in the mid-’90s Beast Wars series. It’s a memorable death that has left a mark on Transformers storytelling to this day. But it’s surprising that it managed to do so, when you consider how taking damage in that cartoon often worked on Looney Tunes rules. Someone could literally shred Waspinator into metal shavings, and he’d be fine later. Silverbolt could be in the epicenter of a massive explosion and his head could pop off, and he’d be OK by the end of the episode. So how did Dinobot’s death succeed, narratively?

It comes back to establishing rules, I think. Beast Wars put forth the idea that Transformers have these operating systems in charge of menial biological tasks. They all have little onboard Alexas that they can bark orders to, which lets them transform, start repairs, or — this is pertinent — drop into unconsciousness, or “stasis lock,” when they take on too much damage. It’s a novel, alien idea.

In the episode “Code of Hero,” when Dinobot is making his last stand against Every Dang Predacon and takes on massive damage, his onboard computer tells him, Hey, you need to be put into stasis lock, or you’re going to die. And Dinobot tells his systems, No, me having this last uninterrupted five minutes of life is crucial. He overrides his internal systems, pushes through, saves the day (and the timestream), and dies shortly thereafter.

DinoBot, a brown-and-blue humanoid Transformer, lies dead on a mottled brown CG background in the Beast Wars episode Code of Hero Image: Mainframe Entertainment

And the audience accepts that, because his death follows the rules. He isn’t just shot a whole bunch, so he falls over. The rules were established, we’re reminded of them, and they serve as a marker that, Hey, this counts. This is a real death. We’re not just making this up as we go along. The audience is rewarded for investing in some kind of internal reality to the show. And that helps it not feel cheap or contrived.

Did you feel the same way about any of the other death… attempts during Rise of the Beasts? Did they make sense, or did they just create more questions?

Tasha: None of those quasi-deaths were meaningful or emotional to me at all, because of that sense that any of them might be, and probably would be, taken back. Honestly, all it would take to get me invested would be some kind of clarity about what death means to these characters, within this one story.

That might necessarily change from writer to writer, and from franchise installment to franchise installment, as it does with so many multimedia franchises, and as it clearly did with Beast Wars. (This is the first I’m hearing about “stasis lock.”) But even within Beast Wars itself, the script seems uncertain about what Transformers think about death, or even about each other as living, valued individual beings.

Show me a Transformer who conveys that there are real stakes to having a companion die even temporarily, and has emotions about it that linger more than 60 seconds, and I’ll probably feel that emotion with them, because I’m a sucker. In Rise of the Beasts, we actually get about as close as we’ve gotten to that in a Transformers movie, when Bumblebee goes down in combat and Optimus Prime is upset, but still hopes to find a way to bring him back. If it had been literally any other character on the slab, and there was even the slightest chance of him not returning for the big climax, that might have been a resonant plot point.

But most of the time in Transformers media, even the heroes don’t seem to care much about their dead companions, or think about them after they’re gone. So why should I?

Bumblebee, a yellow Transformer with glowing blue eyes, flies into battle with all his panels unfolded so he just looks like a spiky metal ball with a face in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Image: Paramount Pictures

David: This is why the longer-running Transformers series have tended to grab a better emotional hold over me. When stuff reboots every three years or so, it doesn’t matter as much when, say, Shockwave or Prowl dies in a series like Transformers: Cyberverse. It isn’t always the series’ fault — I’m sure the showrunners of any Transformers series would be happy to get a full decade to tell their stories, but the impermanence of the franchise often means the stories shoot themselves in the foot. You know Shockwave and Prowl will be back in the next iteration, when some other animation studio inevitably gets its own series.

You have to look to long-form material like IDW’s first Transformers comics run to see time spent on Transformers contemplating death in any real way. Not only did that series eventually find ample page count to maturely grapple with the idea, but the continuity also lasted long enough that a death could feel final in a way that approaches how we feel about real-life death.

In James Roberts and Alex Milne’s ongoing comics series Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye, when characters die, there’s both a sense of finality and a sense of emotional resonance, specifically due to how much time is spent on these characters’ inner lives. In this series, Transformers fall in love and get married, and that adds an extra layer of emotional stakes that was missing elsewhere. We know these robots can hate each other, but it’s important to know they can also love.

Rewind’s death is a culmination of all these aspects. He and Chromedome were robot-married (or in Transformers terms, they were “Conjunx Endura”), and Rewind dies due to a prisoner escape that’s Chromedome’s fault. We were gifted an entire issue dedicated to Chromedome’s mental state in the aftermath of the death of his spouse, where he considered wiping his own mind to escape his own grief.

A simply drawn Robot tells another simply drawn robot “I love you,” in a panel from the More Than Meets The Eye comic Image: James Roberts, Agustin Padilla/IDW Publishing

Ultimately, he decided to honor Rewind and live with his bereavement, and as a result, he’s able to process the message Rewind left for him just before dying, an “I love you” cobbled together from snippets of his own memory. It was the first time a Transformer, in all 35-ish years of the franchise, had ever said those words.

Sometimes these moments win out. And sometimes in one movie, Megatron is killed when someone shoves the AllSpark cube into his chest, and then he’s brought back in the next movie by… someone shoving a fragment of the AllSpark into his chest. Death in the Transformers franchise is always kind of a potluck.

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