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What the Current MCU Can Learn from Transformers: The Movie (1986)

By  · Published on September 15th, 2016

The Avengers should be made of sterner metal.

As someone who was unfortunately born midway through the 80s, it’s hard to imagine the excitement simmering in the youngster seated in his/her local multiplex to watch the first ever big screen adventure of The Transformers. These are characters they loved, that they watched every Saturday morning, and that they collected in action figure form. From moment one, the opening hard rock version of the theme song and Star-Wars-like text crawl set up one fantastic theatrical experience!

And then those bright-eyed children watched as all their favorite characters were brutally murdered for 84 minutes.

Even for a movie featuring interstellar robots who transform into vehicles, weapons, bugs and dinosaurs…1986’s Transformers: The Movie is an oddity. It was produced by questionable film titan Dino De Laurentiis and was intended to be a filmic bridge between the second and third seasons of the popular cartoon series. It also served as a showcase for a whole slew of new characters who would then inevitably arrive in toy stores in time for Christmas.

This marketing-first style of film production is unremarkable; standard practice really with many children’s properties that make their way into cinemas. What makes Transformers: The Movie so unusual is the fact that the path for these new characters into the toy stores was paved with the broken, bloodied corpses of their robotic predecessors. Dino De Laurentiis wasn’t satisfied just selling new toys to children, he first had to kick down their doors and break their current toys right in front of their eyes.

For the longest time, the Transformers television series existed in a comfortable realm of consequence-free violence. That meant that they could equip all their heavies with blasters and provide lots of action to keep young minds engaged, but didn’t have to worry about parents getting too up-in-arms. That made it all the more shocking when the movie was released and nearly the entire roster of Autobots (and some popular Decepticons) wear being shot in the face, melted alive, and/or thrown wounded into the vacuum of space. Horrified tykes had to watch helplessly as the light slowly faded out of previously-invincible Opitmus Prime’s eyes. Apparently that shelf space for new characters was being cleared with extreme prejudice.

What many people forget about Transformers: The Movie, apart from its apparent agenda to scar the children of the 80s for life, is that it was a co-production of Hasbro, Toei Animation, and Marvel Productions. That’s right, this was technically an early Marvel movie. As silly as one might find this animated flick, the current Marvel Cinematic Universe would actually do well to cast its glance toward Cybertron. You know…before it gets horrifically devoured by Unicron.

Marvel Films has done very well for itself and continues to lap competitor DC/Warner Brothers several times over. It therefore bears noting that indeed they need no advice from me. However, the one baffling thing about Marvel movies is that while they are bursting at the seams with characters, they are apparently petrified of the idea of killing any of them off. It seems highly appropriate that since the end of Phase 1, the MCU has kept Thanos (a character who is literally enamored of death) sitting in a recliner in deep space far from having any real impact; practically trantrically teasing his involvement.

If you look at the various phases of the MCU as seasons of a television series, Marvel is about to wrap up season 3! Yet the biggest non-villain death we’ve experienced on screen is that of Agent Coulson (who was immediately revealed to be alive on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) and Peggy Carter…of old age. Now of course, grosses and multi-picture deals preclude the idea of sending major characters to their doom, but the more these caped and cowled heroes walk away from Earth-shattering events, the less those events seem, well, Earth-shattering. To Marvel’s ever-growing lineup of protagonists, the violence is again consequence-free.

Can you image how the stakes of the next Avengers battle would be amplified if, let’s say, Hawkeye dies? Perhaps that wouldn’t break too many hearts, but at least it would solidify the idea that there is risk involved in saving the world. And that’s one measly Hawkeye! They haven’t even shown the fortitude to do that! If Infinity Wars is anything like Transformers: The Movie, which is worth their consideration, the first ten minutes would feature the demise of Cap, Hulk, AND Thor!

Do not misunderstand, I’m not arguing for that amount of bloodletting. Marvel movies succeed because they avoid falling into the impossibly bleak dour trap that plagues the Snyder-helmed DC cinematic universe. But if the MCU doesn’t get comfortable with concept of death really soon, with all these new characters being introduced, they are going to have an overpopulation issue on their hands. In other words, they too are running out of room on that shelf.

And besides, much like the subsequent deaths and resurrections of Opitmus prove, just because some one dies in a Marvel film, doesn’t at all mean they are gone for good. So why not allow your MCU to have a little more edge? Why not let the sacrifices resonate and the heroics be all that more heroic for even just a year or two? The MCU has done a great job building an emotional bond between audiences and heroes, we’re ready to feel at least as much heartache as we did watching Opitmus hand over The Matrix of Leadership and power down for the “last” time.

This week on the Junkfood Cinema podcast, we invited special guest Jeff Schuessler from to help us break down all the circuits and gears of Transformers: The Movie. Give it a listen down below and be sure to visit Jeff’s site for hilarious videogame play-throughs!

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episode covering an additional movie from the summer of 1986, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.