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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #15: Optimus Prime

Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.

Let's forget for a moment that modern Hollywood ruined the Transformers like they've ruined so much else that was good from yesteryear (Indiana Jones and Star Trek come to mind). Let's just think back to the early 1980s, to a line of awesome toys and the comic book and cartoon created to market them. I was a Transformers guy. I liked GI Joe, sure, but Transformers were where my allowance went on weekends, what populated my list at Christmastime, and what I wanted for my birthday. Right now there's a bin of more than a hundred of them upstairs, and my own kids enjoy them as much as I did thirty years ago. Only one figure isn't in the bin. Optimus Prime, who resides in a place of honor on a shelf in my office.

Optimus Prime was a civilian dockyard worker on Cybertron until he was chosen by the Matrix of Leadership for his inherent nobility and moral strength to lead the Autobots in their tragic civil war with the Decepticons. Wise, patient, witty, compassionate, resolute - Prime is a model of leadership that many would do well to study. His decisions always considered the greater good, as well as the ancillary costs to innocents and even opponents.

The seminal moment in his character's narrative took place during the seismic 1986 animated Transformers: The Movie (which remains endlessly better than the live-action schlock of the last decade, with stellar voice performances by Leonard Nimoy, Orson Welles, Judd Nelson, and others). During a desperate battle he personally turns the tide, and has his arch-foe Megatron at his mercy. Given the opportunity to finally crush his enemy, he hesitates, and in that moment one of his fellow Autobots, the tyro Hot Rod, gets in the way. A more ruthless leader would have destroyed them both, but Prime hesitates again, to his ultimate ruin. His subsequent death scene is deeply emotionally affecting. Prime? Dead?

His death opened the door for a new generation of toys to be sold, but you can't ignore a character of his towering importance, so those behind the cartoon brought him back (going so far as to drop a little of Stan Bush's "The Touch" on their prepubescent audience). To me, Optimus Prime will always be a symbol of the happy, carefree days of my boyhood, and he will always be a reminder that leaders need kindness and love as much as strength and power.

'Til all are one!

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