I had a sermon to preach about Optimus Prime some day. For better or worse, WIRED magazine beat me to it. Pointing out that while geeks have Batmen and Star Trek toys in their cubicles, even the jocks have Transformers decorating their workspaces, WIRED writer Scott Brown explores the reasons why in the July print edition.
“.in 1986, the original Prime did something that distinguished him from most other cartoon heroes. He died. He died for freedom, for righteousness”. Brown goes on to assert that American culture American males are looking forward to the July 4th release of the “live-action” Transformers movie for “more than galvanic summer thrills or simple nostalgia. They’re looking for redemption, as men.”
While Brown forgets to mention Optimus did resurrect from the dead to “light our darkest hour” in 1987, missing the exclamation point on his Semi-Christophany, he strikes a narrative chord that is unmistakable. Bouncing between comparing Prime to a father and “Our Father…” the WIRED writer demonstrates how this hydraulic hero became a surrogate object for kids to respect, mimic, and yes even worship:
“Prime practically parented the latchkey kids of the mid-“80s. He was our Allfather at a time when flesh-and-blood role models were increasingly few and far between”.
Indeed. While I had a solid Christian dad and stay-at-home mom at our tiny home in Kent, I remember scrambling to the television when voice actor Peter Cullen would command the troops to “Roll out!” and my second father with a voice like John Wayne playing Abraham Lincoln would contort into a Mack Truck, rev his engine, and roll his crushing 16-wheels down the heroic highway, barreling over the face of evil with unstoppable resolve. An action figure, Rubik’s cube, and Tonka toy all rolled into one, combined with an unshakeable morality and sacrificial love, even the “tech specs” on his packaging in 1984 proclaimed his mission to bring freedom to “all sentient beings”. 23 years later, his steely face is plastered on a poster with a single word: “protect”. It’s no wonder so many boys laid their weekly allowance on the energon altar.
Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
– Psalm 68:5
True to postmodern form, Transformers emerged in the 80s with a marketing ploy few realized would have such a dramatic impact on our generation. Before the 80s, toys were rarely so linked with a “ready-mixed narrative”. George Lucas’ merchandising success with Star Wars coupled with the deregulation of television advertising to children in 1983 opened the door for this phenomenon. Toys were tied to a sweeping story (and usually a story that demanded you buy them all). Little did we know it would do more than simply enhance merchandising; it would give a generation something to believe in when dad and the local parish had failed; it would give boys an animated role model. and perhaps even a Cybertronian god.
This is why so many people I know are polarized: excited or exacerbated, feverish or furious, titillated or ticked off, by the Michael Bay directed / Steven Spielberg produced return of Optimus and the bots, transforming into box office revenue on 2007’s Independence Day. This is why a holiday once owned by Will Smith has handed over the fireworks – and 150 million dollars – to the 21st century version of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. This is why MuteMath is delivering yet another version of the memorable theme song, reminding us that “Autobots wage their battles to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons.”
The question on everyone’s lips: “When Papa comes truckin’ home, will we recognize him?”
With a lack of faith in earthly fathers, and lacking a relationship with God, who is our Father, I can see the grand attraction of a robot that is both “Optimal” and in his “Prime”. Intentional or not, there is something godlike built into the stoic Autobot Commander, a titanium trinity imaging a loving Father, a sacrificial Son, and even an indwelling Spirit represented by the “Matrix of Leadership” he carries in his heart (or cab). To a lesser degree, he also represents a rugged, brass-knuckle, rubber-meets-the-road manliness that contemporary culture has slowly leeched from its men. Optimus Prime is a desperate grab for God, daddy, and lost masculinity.
“With bated breath and shaken faith we await the return of our Almighty Rig. Because without Prime, we’re stuck with whiney Spider-boys, metrosexual pirates, and koan-spouting kung-fu Christs in designer sunglasses and unisex clubwear. Because these days, the only real men left are giant robots.”
Just a toy? Purely nostalgia? WIRED certainly doesn’t think so, and neither do I. Truly, there is something going on here that is more than meets the eye.