The Power and Pathos of Optimus Prime

As you might know, I am a great fan of the old-school Transformers, the 1986 Transformers animated film in particular. (I even hosted a whole podcast episode about it.) For all their flaws (which are plentiful), the franchise was a watershed moment for me, introducing me as a child to a kind of storytelling, a style of animation, and a degree of out-and-out violence I’d never experienced, for better and/or worse.

What stays with with me more than any other aspect of the franchise, more than the novelty of form-shifting robots or the grandeur of heavy-metal space opera, is the character of Optimus Prime. This is not simply due to the fact that he was the “leader of the good guys,” or that he was strong, or visually striking, all of which are true. But there is a kind of nobility to Prime that permeates every manifestation of Transformers, be it the old cartoon, the animated film, the comic books, or even the recent Michael Bay movies (of which I have only seen the first). Though astoundingly powerful and even deadly, Optimus Prime has always been at the same time almost naive in his idealism, his self-discipline, his personal sense of morality and honor.

My friend Kyle Calderwood directed me to an interview with some of the folks behind the 1980s show and film, and one part stood out to me. Here, voice director Wally Burr described creating the Prime character’s voice with the man who would play him, Peter Cullen:

We were auditioning lots of people for the show, and he was auditioning for Optimus. [Cullen] didn’t have it yet, but he was well known, so he was obviously going to be one of the best candidates. And I was pushing him pretty hard at that audition. And he’s a big guy, a master of everything. And he said “Wally, I’ve got about thirty promos to do for ABC tomorrow, can we back off a little bit?” And I said, “What if we back off a lot and just make Optimus a very nice gentleman who doesn’t shout at anybody, because he knows what the hell he’s doing?” And so Peter softened his voice, and became noble! Instead of a shouting boss, he was noble. And he credited me once at a convention when someone asked him how he created the character. He pointed to me at the back of the room. He agreed with me that we could soften him, yet still make him a very strong character. And he’s been doing it for over thirty years now!

It feels kind of obvious thinking back to it now, but it makes sense that this decision by Cullen and Burr to “soften” the character’s delivery, rather than voice him as some kind of ultra-macho task-master, made all the difference in making Prime a character with a palpable pathos. It spoke to Prime’s strength that he didn’t feel the need to constantly project it. It spoke to his authority that he didn’t need to reinforce it. It spoke to his determination that he didn’t waste effort making grand protestations about it.

I am reminded of Optimus Prime’s entry in Marvel Comics’ Transformers Universe series, a kind of Transformers encyclopedia in comic book form, and even though I last read them at the age of 9 or so, the closing lines stuck with me. I rediscovered them archived here at this website, where, under the entry for Prime’s weaknesses, it says:

Otherwise the only weakness he could be accused of having is being too compassionate and concerned about the safety of others. He would be a more effective military commander if he were more ruthless, but then he wouldn’t be Optimus Prime.

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