Comics, Critique, Essays

Yet More Violence: Michael Bay’s Transformers Against IDW’s Transformers

This post contains spoilers for Transformers: Punishment; Age of Extinction; Windblade; Dark Cybertron; More than Meets the Eye; Robots in Disguise; and Last Stand of the Wreckers.

The Transformer movies, the best selling interpretation of the brand, are simultaneously the most ideologically opposed to the stories of the IDW comic book continuity and the most racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise non-inclusive. They are also celebratory of violence, unlike the IDW comics.

Optimus Prime, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Bayformers, Michael Bay, Warner Bros, 2013The version of Optimus Prime written by Ehren Kruger, directed by Michael Bay, and voiced by the first and most celebrated voice actor for the character, Peter Cullen, is a monster and a war criminal. He takes pleasure in killing his opponents, executing surrendered combatants, and perhaps infamously, slaying most of his foes with facial or cranial destruction.

One of Optimus Prime’s lines in Revenge of the Fallen is: “You picked the wrong planet! Give me your face!” After which he rips off the face of The Fallen and punches through the antagonist’s chest to destroy his spark. There is no context for the line. We aren’t, in this film, informed that faces are given veneration; that to deface one of the first Thirteen Transformers is divine desecration. We are not given a reason to understand why he would say such a thing or do such a deed. Earlier in the movie, Prime shoots a surrendered Decepticon in the face and rips another Decepticon’s head in half with battle hooks.

Bay’s Optimus Prime goes on to kill yet more surrendered combatants in Dark of the Moon. The two antagonists of the movie, Megatron and a treacherous ex-Autobot Sentinel Prime, ask Prime to consider peaceful methods for dealing with them. Optimus Prime murders them both in cold blood — both deaths involving cranial trauma. In Age of Extinction, all of the Autobots, barring perhaps Bumblebee, are aggressive haters of humanity, more than willing to kill humans, and Optimus yet again kills a prominent antagonist with facial destruction. Granted, a human organization killed many Autobots in the story because reasons, but it isn’t justice they want. It’s revenge.

In comparison, the IDW books abhor violence; utilize it to shock and disturb. The reader is generally not supposed to think that killing people is right. For example, Countless Autobot prison guards died during a raid on the prison Garrus-9 led by the sadistic ex-Decepticon Overlord, in miniseries Last Stand of the Wreckers.

(An Easter egg occurs during the initial scenes of the raid in the first issue: two of the Autobot guards painted in homage to the stereotypical Skids and Mudflap from Revenge of the Fallen. Perhaps referentially, the two guards toned like the twins were decapitated by the wings of a Decepticon flying through their necks. This was a gag by colorist Josh Burcham, and not written in by writer/artist Nick Roche.)

Last Stand of the Wreckers (available in trade paperback and digitally) is, on the whole, accusatory of violence. The Autobot named Impactor, leader of the titular violent subgroup the Wreckers, finally managed to capture the Transformers’ opposite number on the side of the Decepticons, Squadron X. When told that they were captured on a planet that the Autobots had a peace treaty with, and that they were to be let go, Impactor locked himself in a room with Squadron X and shot them all to death. After the fact, he was sentenced to aforementioned prison Garrus-9, thanks to the testimony of his protege Springer.

Springer himself suffers a fate reminiscent of many a character in the Michael Bay movies during the Wreckers’ attempt to reclaim the prison. He’s literally defaced by a swipe of Overlord’s hand. Overlord’s facial removal isn’t the only injury he personally caused in the miniseries; he killed two Decepticons who chased an Autobot guard for sport… because they were careless in the process. In addition, he killed the Wrecker Rotorstorm by shooting him directly in the face, splattering energon everywhere. Additionally, Overlord is portrayed as a Caligulan figure, his face literally designed after a Greco-Roman bust.

The Autobot Pyro, a sufferer of a condition that led him to worship Optimus Prime to the point of changing his body and personality to be more like him, wanted to die fighting a glorious sacrificial death. Instead, he died buying the rest of the Wreckers some time and was literally ripped apart by a horde of Decepticons.

The Warden of Garrus-9, Fortress Maximus, had his limbs removed, his eyes plucked out, and was turned into a living lockpick by Overlord in order to crack a code of a supercomputer hidden in Garrus-9’s complex. The supercomputer Aequitas was designed to calculate guilt and was used during Autobot war crime trials led by the judge Tyrest. Without the password, a willing sacrifice had to be made to turn the computer on and retrieve its data — the actual mission of the Wreckers, not the rescue of the prison guards.

The Autobot Topspin killed himself so that he could help his brother Twin Twist die — their sparks were linked together, and Twin Twist was in the midst of a torture session by the hands of the Decepticon Stalker. The adorable archivist of the Wreckers’ history and weapons engineer, Ironfist, died thanks to his own invention, a cerebro-centric bullet, slowly digging itself into his own head and finally reaching his brain module. It was revealed in the prose story Bullets that Ironfist’s invention was sabotaged by his presumed friend and rival engineer Skyfall, who stole credit for Ironfist’s creation of Optimus Prime’s ion cannon. Skyfall wanted Ironfist out of the picture so that he could achieve more fame, but ended up dead by his own hand at the end of Bullets.

The theme of Last Stand of the Wreckers is summed up in the closing scene of the miniseries by the human Verity Carlo, who fought with the Wreckers and saved a backup of the Aequitas data. As she put it, having written a datalog in the style of her friend Ironfist, the events that happened were about good people dying in stupid, pointless ways. Many of the deaths of the Wreckers — if not all of them — could have been avoided. Thankfully, not every Wrecker died. Impactor, Springer, Perceptor, Kup, and Guzzle all lived, the latter in spite of being ripped in half by Overlord.

Verity Carlo summing up the story in Last Stand of the Wreckers #5. Written by Nick Roche James Roberts, drawn by Nick Roche, colored by Josh Burcham, lettered by Chris Mowry.

Verity Carlo summing up the story in Last Stand of the Wreckers #5. Written by Nick Roche James Roberts, drawn by Nick Roche, colored by Josh Burcham, lettered by Chris Mowry.

Horrific violence is used as an example in the modern-era IDW ongoings, as well. For example, Megatron himself founded his politics around violence thanks to violence inflicted on him by the Autobot Whirl. Whirl, a former member of the Aerial Corps turned watchmaker, had empurata inflicted upon him. He could no longer make watches with claw hands, and lost his livelihood after it was destroyed by the Senate’s enforcers. He was made a catspaw of the Senate, used to deploy violence on dissidents. Unfortunately, this made the formerly peaceful Megatron see what he felt was the power of violence, so he started a violent rebellion when sent away to a mining facility off world. He would later state that he lost the war when he gave the order to fight.

In previous articles, I did not give John Barber’s Robots in Disguise its due. Barber showed the oppression that Autobots forced on Decepticons in the modern day just as the Senate oppressed the working classes in the past in the same way that Roberts wrote in his Transformers works. He showed Bumblebee trying to manage a group that wasn’t as morally pure as he wanted it to be. He showed the Decepticons forced into labor again, their altmodes shut down and the threat of death put upon them thanks to their inhibitor/deterrence chips. He showed the Decepticons rioting in the streets when Megatron returned with justification to back it up.

Starscream took command of the government, forcing both Autobots and Decepticons out. When Shockwave took over Cybertron by force and used seventy billion alien robots known as the Ammonites for his army, he also personally killed Bumblebee, the one bot who had convinced Megatron that he could turn away from his violent path. In response to Megatron declaring himself an Autobot, the illogic itself overwhelming him, Shockwave remembered what he once was before he had his personality changed by the Senate’s punishments, and sacrificed himself to restore things to their proper order. Metalhawk, the leader of the neutral faction who was killed by Starscream and restored to life by Shockwave’s ores, sacrificed himself in turn to stop the Ammonite army.

Orion Pax fought his predecessor Nova Prime in the Dead Universe during the Dark Cybertron event and killed him even when he surrendered. Although he declared himself Optimus Prime again in response to Rodimus giving him a pep talk where he called Orion Pax the only good Prime in the title’s entire dynasty, Optimus himself has a spotty record and intentionally so. Although in his early days, he formed the Autobots from Megatron’s early principles, he tried killing Megatron as a captive prisoner in response to Megatron needling him, saying he’d kill every Autobot in the universe, not for the cause but for pleasure. Omega Supreme stopped Optimus from electrocuting him to death. After Megatron announced himself an Autobot and stood trial, Optimus wrote a statement for Megatron to deliver, denouncing the Decepticon cause. Megatron himself pointed out the wrongness of his nemesis presiding over his trial, and it’s clear that Optimus is not intended to be purely a heroic character under the pen of the IDW writers, even if he claims to strive for peace and to reject the many war crimes of the Autobots during the Great War. Even with this in mind, this Optimus did manage to avoid killing his opposite number — much more than the cinematic Optimus can claim.

Violence imprinting itself on those who perpetrate violence and becoming the victims of violence is a major theme in the books. In addition to Megatron, Whirl, and Optimus experiencing issues related to that theme, Fortress Maximus killed a Decepticon in the same manner as Overlord attacking Guzzle, drawn in almost exactly the same pose. He became increasingly unstable, having nearly killed multiple Autobots on the good ship Lost Light. What is important is that he is not abandoned by the writers as “crazy” or “insane.” The psychologist Rung helps improve Fort Max’s condition after a period of time isolated from the rest of the crew. Therapy is shown to work.

Those who don’t receive it do not improve. Guzzle and Impactor take increasing amounts of pleasure in killing ‘Cons, even in the name of doing good and saving people. Impactor noticed Guzzle losing control following the Garrus-9 mission and discovered, to his horror, that he himself was doing the same thing. Whirl has given up on the idea of becoming normal, due to fear that he’s too far gone. He delights in killing ‘Cons, as do others, on an away mission on the planet of Temptoria.

Megatron and Impactor are quite possibly two halves of the same coin. The two were co-workers in the mines of Cybertron, and the very first line of Roberts’ first story without a co-writer is Impactor asking Megatron at a bar:

So. What am I looking at again? Not more poetry…

Megatron and Impactor. Scene from The Transformers #22. Written by James Roberts, drawn by Alex Milne, colored by Joana Lafuente, lettered by Shawn Lee

Megatron and Impactor. Scene from The Transformers #22. Written by James Roberts, drawn by Alex Milne, colored by Joana Lafuente, lettered by Shawn Lee

This line would be called back to in Shadowplay, the first line of which occurs within the proximity of the same bar;

What am I looking at again? Not more violence?

Impactor thought Megatron’s ideas of peaceful resistance were naïve, and fought toughs in the bar who were bullying the psychiatrist Rung. He ended up in prison, while Megatron ended up held in custody and beat up by Whirl. Though Orion Pax arrested Whirl, and told Megatron to keep writing his manifestos and samizdat, Megatron’s mind was influenced by the experience. Impactor, for his part, inflicted pain on Whirl when the two were jailed together.

The two former miners would end up fighting on opposite sides during the Great War. During a confrontation where Impactor was downed, he told Megatron, “Not more poetry…” confusing the Decepticon leader.
Admittedly, there are gags involving horrible deaths in the IDW universe, but the people making the jokes or doing the setup for the jokes within the fiction are portrayed as horrible people. Brainstorm makes light of a Duobot jammed inside a quantum generator, Whirl cracks jokes before executing a Decepticon with a voice reminiscent of Megatron’s, and poor Pipes is crushed literally underfoot by Overlord during a rampage on the Lost Light, after having experienced multiple near death experiences throughout the series.

Despite this, the importance of pacifism rings true throughout the universe. This holds true even in the recent miniseries Windblade. Though betrayed by someone close to her, and nearly killed by Starscream, she plays to his ego and defeats him through talking, revealing information that would allow him to continue to play himself up as Cybertron’s savior and keep Windblade alive to help him rebuild the damaged city of Metroplex. She refuses to kill, and abhors people killing. Though given a little naivete, she’s also portrayed as a valiant woman with strong morals who doesn’t back down, who meets challenges head on. She will fight to defend herself, but she does not slay her foes or kill to accomplish tasks, even if her friend Chromia thinks that doing so is appropriate.

In contrast to Windblade, the Decepticon Justice Division is the most violent group in IDW’s universe. They intentionally kill turncoats in horrific, over-the-top ways so as to scare other Decepticons straight, preventing them from leaving. This was demonstrated recently in MTMTE #32 and #33. When a duplicate of the Lost Light with its own copy of Overlord trapped in the basement comes across the D.J.D., the five ‘bot (and one pet) crew slaughters the entire crew of 200+ Transformers when they finish slaying the copy of Overlord. Megatron used the imagery as evidence for arguing the opposite of the DJD’s intent- Megatron asked the Decepticon Ravage if the feline Transformer was disgusted by the show of force, and if he wanted to change sides.

A discussion of violence isn’t complete without addressing Prowl, Galvatron, and Arcee from Robots in Disguise. Prowl was once a cop that investigated the Decepticon-linked murders of Senators, an innocent who had never been in a firefight. He tried to escape the war in a shuttle, but it was shot down. He became a sneaky, underhanded Autobot that will do anything for the cause and virulently hated defectors. He notably nearly crushed the valuable data of Aequitas when it was backed up into a memory slug so that the Decepticons couldn’t use it as propaganda, and never got around to telling Bumblebee that he had it. Prowl didn’t even ask Ultra Magnus if the Wreckers saved the prison guards of Garrus-9 during Operation: Retrieval. He ordered the assassination of the Decepticon leader Ratbat, and Arcee gleefully carried it out.

Arcee taking care of Ratbat. Scene from Robots in Disguise #2. Written by John Barber, drawn by Andrew Griffith, colored by Josh Perez, lettered by Shawn Lee.

Arcee taking care of Ratbat. Scene from Robots in Disguise #2. Written by John Barber, drawn by Andrew Griffith, colored by Josh Perez, lettered by Shawn Lee.

Although temporarily controlled mentally by Decepticon influences, Prowl was only made to do deeds that his fellow Autobots believed him capable of. This has driven him further towards zealotry, citing logic when he is quite driven by his emotions. He’s known for flipping tables out of anger.

The female Transformer Arcee became an Autobot eventually, but she enjoys hurting people. Having tortured the one who tortured her, the mad scientist Jhiaxus, over the course of several years, she felt it made her more sane. Her alleged path to sanity was killing the “immortal” Cybertronian countless times over the course of several years. She continued to kill Decepticons for fun and for the cause over the course of Robots in Disguise and revealed Prowl’s plot to kill Ratbat after their fellow Autobots believed that to have been part of the Decepticon plot all along.

The ex-barbarian Galvatron has had a long and convoluted history, even for the IDW Transformers universe. Once known for the ripping of other Transformers in half in the name of war and conquest, and killing Transformers with a death touch, he is now the co-leader of the remaining Decepticons with Soundwave. Very cause-driven himself, the sage Alpha Trion noted his taste for bloodshed and gave him something to use it for. With Trion gone, Galvatron joined Soundwave to give the Decepticons new purpose with Megatron having defected to the Autobots. Soundwave claims that he genuinely seeks peace, and that Megatron had lost his way. The Decepticons have joined Earth to give humans Cybertronian technology, and give the humans reason to believe that Megatron was the true cause of the destruction of many Earth cities. The fact that he’s joined the Autobots, and that connivers and killers are on their side, has made the ‘bots hard to trust.

Jazz, a special ops operative for the Autobots, wanted to be more than a killer. Jazz wanted to make up for killing a human that nearly killed Bumblebee during the war. Jazz wanted to play music with Sky-Byte, a poet that can turn into a shark. Jazz found himself killing again during the Decepticon riots on Cybertron, and joined Optimus Prime’s unit on Earth to look for Alpha Trion.

The question of whether or not someone can come back from committing violence is nearly as prominent of the themes of condemning violence and the depiction of violence leading to more violence. As the comics continue to tell their stories, we wait to hear their responses to those ideas raised. Whatever comes from them will assuredly be more mature than their PG-13 cinematic counterparts.