The time when Hasbro wanted to kill Optimus Prime in 1986
When parents took their kids to see Transformers: The Movie in 1986, they probably weren’t expecting quite as much death and mayhem. But in the feature-length spin-off from the hit Hasbro toy-line and accompanying TV show, the spectre of death was everywhere; one early scene alone saw the evil Decepticons hijack an Autobot space shuttle and execute all the heroes inside.I may have seen some of that crummy cartoon movie years before (I even once owned a 3-issue miniseries based on it, from the time Marvel held the license, which wasn't very good), and I do recall seeing some clips more recently on Youtube where conniving Starscream was demolished by Megatron-turned-Galvatron, in revenge for dumping him out of a spaceship while they were retreating back to Cybertron. As a product featuring robo-deaths (and, IIRC, one human death too, as Spike Witwicky gets devoured by Unicron), it was certainly very alarming, and as crappy as the movie was, I'm wondering why they could show death in a film but not a TV show.
It’s worth bearing in mind, first of all, that the Transformers TV series, which had been running for two years by that point, had never killed off any of its characters - even though they often engaged in protracted brawls and laser battles. In Transformers: The Movie, a number of much-loved characters were not only shot and killed, but occasionally died in surprisingly graphic fashion.
And this was a cartoon film known back then for "killing off" Optimus Prime. All so that Hot Rod could be turned into...Rodimus Prime. And take his place. Here's why they thought this was a brilliant idea:
From toy maker Hasbro’s standpoint, killing off all these characters came down to simple economics: Prime, Ratchet, Prowl and their compatriots were all part of the original 1984 Generation One line, and Hasbro wanted to replace them with shiny new toys like Kup, Blurr and Rodimus Prime. What better way to do it than in the Transformers’ big, expensive debut movie?If they want to introduce new toy models, that's fine. What I want to know is why they thought they had to put any particular robots into the mechanical afterlife in order to do that. On the plus side, Optimus Prime's death in the movie was via heroic circumstances; he died a brave fighter, valiantly combating Megatron. Even the co-stars who died went to mecha-heaven without being turned into villains and other awful ideas a la DC's subsequent Emerald Twilight. But it's idiotic to think they have to depict the robots of their toy lines dying in order to introduce new characters. All they had to do was quietly drop the older models and sure didn't have to go out of their way to depict the older line getting killed in a cartoon in order to reach that point. And one of the animators involved actually was opposed to the idea of putting the robots to mecha-death:
For kids who loved Optimus Prime, however, the Transformers robot massacre was akin to, say, Walt Disney shooting Mickey Mouse to death in the middle of Fantasia. In fact, Hasbro had completely failed to predict how kids - not to mention their exhausted parents - would react to Prime’s shock death. In a brief documentary on Transformers: The Movie’s 20th anniversary DVD, story consultant Flint Dille expresses his surprise at the level of grief the event provoked.
“We didn’t know that he was an icon,” Dille says, still seemingly baffled by the response. “It was a toy show. We just thought we were killing off the old product line to replace it with new products.”
There was, however, one person working on Transformers: The Movie who apparently tried to avert Prime’s death: screenwriter Ron Friedman. Already the writer of GI Joe and the Transformers TV episodes, he was given the task of writing the Transformers movie script. Realising that Prime was the heroic father figure in the Autobot family, he advised Hasbro against killing the character off.Be that as it may, like I said before, it's not like they had to kill the robots in the script in order to make way for the new line of toys. Anyway, I think they did later revive Optimus Prime toys for the stores, and thus got that little issue out of the way. Ultimately, the animated film was set at least 2 decades into the future, and that's how they got around the debacle they'd created with their fanbase back in the day. Since then, be it toys, or comics/cartoons based on them, they haven't exactly pulled the kind of idiotic stunts superhero publishers are now notorious for in the years since that otherwise uninspired cartoon movie was aired in theaters back in 1986.
“I recognised that I needed to assign family identities to characters in order to create the recognition factor that young people need," Friedman explained in a 2013 interview with Todd Matthy. “They cannot verbalise this; it’s beneath the surface. To remove Optimus Prime, to physically remove Daddy from the family, that wasn’t going to work. I told Hasbro and their lieutenants they would have to bring him back but they said no and had ‘great things planned.’ In other words they were going to create new more expensive toys.”