Optimus Prime is a beloved hero and partriarch to the Autobot family. He started out as a humble toy tie in, from piloted diaclone mecha to free thinking american mythic icon, he rose up from humble beginnings and slowly grew into a generation defining hero of the 80’s, whose popularity shows no signs of slowing down. He’s starred in live action modern movies, a string of follow up animated shows to the original Transformers cartoon and more new toys of Optimus Prime are made every year. Optimus is not just a great toy, or product, but a great character.
A great character is only as good as the storyteller. In the right hands Prime is a compelling hero, leader and father figure to the Autobots. In the wrong hands he’s just a boring soldier in a mindless war. The Prime most fans love belongs to no specific continuity, he is the IDEA of Prime, the Archetype of Prime that transcends any one form or medium.
Prime is the morally strong political, military and spiritual leader of the Autobots, he never intended to be in that role, but fate put him there when he received The Matrix.
Prime has the toughness, bravery and resilience of a soldier fighting a civil war millions of years old tempered with the compassion of a wise spiritual leader. He is a humanitarian, but extends that care for life to all types of sentient species including robotic and organic life. Where the Decepticons care only for their own values and their own tribe, Prime is simultaneously an unwilling agent of war, and embassador of peace who stands in bold contrast to the dark agenda of the Decepticons.
If there is a way to end a conflict without violence, Prime will choose that option. The Decepticons in contrast will cling to their code of might makes right, that the strong CAN and SHOULD dominate the weak, take what they please and use the weak as slaves to suit their own end. This value system finds parallels in our own world history, and is not an uncommon value for self-righteous conquerors to hold.
LEADER AND MYTHIC CHAMPION
As an autobot, Optimus Prime can live and die like any other sentient automaton. But as an Idea, Prime’s story and the struggle of the Autobots vs the Decepticons is told over and over again.
Stories told over and over become myths and fables. And mythic characters can never truly die. They may die in any given version of a story such as in his most famous death scene in Transfromers: The Movie (1986) but as long as somebody, somewhere is telling their story, a mythic character lives on, they are immortal as long as even one person cares enough to tell that story.
As new generations of story tellers tell their own version, the mythic archetype grows stronger, Prime’s details may differ in one story to the next, but the core values of what he represents remain essentially the same, his tale is the basic story of all timeless Heroes. Mythic characters can experience death but seemingly only grow stronger from it, the death of the character is never the death of the parent IDEA, and so keeps being reborn in new forms for new generations to enjoy.
LEADERS ARE BORN, NOT MADE?
Are true leaders chosen by destiny rather than voted for? There are 101 maxims about Leaders and Leadership, and most of them are garbage designed to sell cheap paperback books on leadership that simply don’t reflect the real world. Whatever your view on leaders, Optimus Prime (formerly Orion Pax) never asked nor expected to be a leader.
Nobody could really expect Prime to live up to the presssures of leadership. Most leaders fulfill their role for only a short period of time, before stepping down. The Autobot / Decepticon war raged for millions of years, so every mistake to be made, every lesson to be learned in Leadership Prime embodies simply as he has no other real moral choice to make. As dutiful citizen of Cybertron, his compassion causes him to not only care for others, but along with his humility, question himself and his actions, rather than blindly making decisions in a dictatorial style such as the ruthless Megatron.
A former civil servant Orion Pax became Optimus Prime when the “Matrix of Leadership” was bestowed upon him. What other choice did he have when a wise mentor figure handed him a technological semi-msytical object with the “Matrix of LEADERSHIP” title attached to it? Prime didn’t receive the Matrix of Tacos or the Matrix of Horse Thievery – the lore laid down however clumsily in Transformers is that it was specifically the Matrix of LEADERSHIP. Whether it was fate, chance or just circumstance that thrust Prime into that role is debatable, but once embraced, he was clearly the right Bot for the job.
Optimus Prime, never chose nor expected to be leader of the Autobots. He never expected to leave his home planet of Cyberton and to crash land on planet Earth. But once the Matrix was part of him, at some point he had to say to himself, from the deepest part of his spark, “YES” to being the Autobot leader, to do any less would be to leave his compatriots rudderless in a war that would inevitably cost them their lives.
Thrust into the role of father figure, mentor, military and spiritual leader to the Autobots, Optimus Prime is the emotional and spiritual glue that holds the Autobots together. More than a faction, the Autobots are a family, and Prime their elder Patriarch. He is their leader, mentor and friend. More compassionate, level headed and capable of thriving under combat than most Transformers, Prime is uniquely qualified to lead. Prime respects all types of life, metal and organic, and unlike many other Transformers, is unwilling to let the Autobots war with the Decepticons take human or other sentient lives.
FROM THE ORDINARY TO THE EXTRAORDINARY
When Orion Pax became Optimus Prime, the bearer of the Autobot Matrix, inheritor to the “key” of Cybertron he left behind the world of the ordinary and mundane, and moved into the world of the extraordinary. fulfilling the part of his life’s journey that all true Hero’s must. Most classical Heroes start off fairly ordinary, (think of Luke Skywalker before Ben Kenobi came around, and Bruce Wayne before the death of his parents) before undergoing a process of inner and outer transformation from the every day being they were, to a semi-mythic champion, to one who acts on he behalf of and in service to others, as their voice, their will and their champion for the greater good.
Batman had his years of training, and deep psychological journey, and of course the wealth gadgets and costume. Spider-Man had his radioactive Spider-Bite, later the costume, and accepting the call to be a Hero, the dying words of his Uncle motivating him to action.
Superman was a regular baby on Krypton. Under earths sun, his powers manifested making him a living demi-god, he didn’t become a hero until he put on the costume, accepted the call and dedicated himself to the service of humanity.
We want our heroes to be infallible bastions of moral virtue.
So all good and true heroes must make their own choice. They must not only have the ability, the good fate and incredible circumstance to be a hero, a MacGuffin plot point of magical object – they must also accept internally the role they have to play in life for better or worse.
Optimus Prime’s outer transformation was from Orion Pax to Optimus Prime, but his inner transformation was perhaps slower, there were few opportunities for Optimus to sit down and study histories greatest Cybertronian leaders during the middle of a civil war. Prime was forced to learn most of life’s lessons the hard way, making plenty of mistakes along the way. He became a great leader through making mistakes, never giving up on his cause and his compatriots, and rising to whatever challenged in lief came his way.
Prime is not infallible – but his ethics, his values, charisma, and uncompromising vision and compassion for all Autobots, all Cybertronians and all Life elevate him to being a natural Leader, with or without the Matrix. Above all else, Optimus Prime is a bearer of Hope and Compassion, tempered with Humility and incredible Courage and Determination -it’s what elevates him above other Primes, other Cybertronian leaders.
Though he is a sentient alien robotic lifeform, his VALUES are what make him appealing to humans both in fiction and in the real world. Other robots in cartoons are a dime a dozen, but Prime is the bearer of the Matrix, the tireless champion of free will and the right of all sentient beings to live their own life free of tyranny. He’s the best parts of the great Heroes of myth and legend. And he also turns into a really cool truck.
Prime the Autobot may live and die, but Optimus Prime the heroic ideal and archetype lives on, having reached his own form of immortality through popular culture.