There are spoilers in this post for all three Transformers movies. I will also refer to them as T1, T2, T3.
So I don’t really like the Transformers movies. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, of course, but I think that I need to explain why. I’ve taken a long break from posting on this blog, and I’m coming back today, the day after seeing Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, because I have to, well, rant about the movie.
My main problem is with the nature of freedom and how Optimus Prime is a vehicle for that brand of freedom. Prime is the biggest proponent for neoliberalism that I have ever seen, and more than that, the Autobots are active protectors of the status quo of the neoliberal world.
Fundamentally, there is some kind of fear of the self at work in the Transformers films. The divide between the Decepticons and the Autobots is illustrative of that condition. The Decepticons are committed to a recreation of Cybertron, the planet that all Transformers come from, through solidarity and brotherhood most of all. On the other hand, the Autobots are Randian supermen (literally, all of them are men.) The Autobots seem to have a sense of commitment to their immediate grouping, but not to the Cybertronian race or culture; in fact, in the opening of T2, we learn that they hunt down and kill all Decepticons on Earth. There can be only one sect of Cybertronians, apparently, especially since the Decepticons are always doing strange and evil things.
Or are they really doing strange and evil things? Certainly we can accuse the Decepticons of believing themselves racially superior to human beings. As Sentinel Prime repeatedly says in T3, the Transformers “were gods once.” What that means, we don’t really know, but it certainly carries an ideology of superiority to all other creatures in the universe. Keep in mind that Sentinel Prime, a historically “good” Autobot, is espousing this opinion. Presumably, he’s always felt that way.
With this in mind, we can only think of Megatron as a character who is attempting to perform a collective action for the good of his species. Think of it this way: T1 is simply about Megatron coming back to life, a terror so compelling that the Autobots have to assemble and murder him again. T2’s plot is motivated by Megatron’s desire to harvest Sol in order to create Energon to bring his civilization back from the dead. T3 is the same story, essentially, with Megatron being demonized for attempting to recreate Cybertronian civilization.
Against all of this, the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, stand in the way. They say that they do it for numerous reasons, mostly espoused by Optimus after various fight scenes. Freedom seems to be the most important, and is referenced repeatedly across all three movies. What does freedom mean to the Autobots? And is it at odds with Megatron’s recreation of Cybertron?
On its face, the argument seems to be about humans. Optimus repeatedly states that the Autbots cannot kill humans, though we are never given a reason for this other than that it is some kind of ethical imperative for them. This is because human beings do not compete with the Autobots. From the robots’ perspective, the humans are simply insects that run around. The schemes and plans of the Cybertronians are never altered by the humans–this is painfully obvious during the spaceship liftoff in T3, confirming that human beings, no matter how smart they are, are always at the mercy of the robots’ desires. More than that, the Autbots kill the hell out of humans in T3, so the illusion of ethics disappears.
The real root of the problem is the Autobots’ desire to be the superbeings of their race. They, on some ideological level, cannot ever think of themselves as equals with the Decepticons. We get this in snippets throughout the films; Optimus always takes any chance that he has to one-up freedom, or ethics, or, as the trailer for T3 has constantly stated, the individual’s need to believe in him or herself.
And that’s neoliberalism, right? It’s a conservative economic politics that teaches to privilege the self and “freedom” while ignoring, or sublimating, the parts that are undesirable. This is super apparent in T1 when the All Spark brings various appliances to life. The newly-alive machines are, for lack of a better word, barbarians. They are born with weapons on their bodies, and they discharge they wildly, attacking anything in sight. This mirrors neoliberalism’s desire to mask the face of the human being with ideology and the market itself–the Autobots are the mask that the barbarians can put on in order to forget what they are.
So, in a lot of ways, we have to look at the Decepticons as the ethical center of the films. They embrace a brotherhood based not on superiority, but on a universal struggle to recreate their civilization. The means toward that end are, to say the least, painful for humanity, and we’re supposed to find that terrible. There is a reason that the Decepticons evoke a USSR vibe–we’re supposed to find Megatron completely evil while we see Optimus as incorruptibly good.
So that’s the story of the series. Witwicky, a viewer stand-in, has an ultimate trust in the governance of the Autobots. They manage the political economy of the films – saying what is right and wrong, punishing the offenders, and maintaining a balance, and we are supposed to think that it is fine and dandy. “What would you be without me?” Megatron asks at the conclusion of T3, and I wonder that, too. We will find out, since Optimus has executed Megatron by blowing his robot brains all over the ground.