More Than Meets the Eye: How The Transformers Fandom Was Transformed

Thirty years ago, before Michael Bay took the helm for the live action films, The Transformers: The Movie was released for a limited number of theatres. While today the animated film is treated as a nostalgia piece, it is the best out of all the movies, and served as a pivotal milestone for the direction both the franchise and its fandom would go in. Treated merely as a marketable toyline by its creators at Hasbro, they did not realise the impact the film would have on their customers and their relationship with them. In this article, we’ll take a look back on the history of the franchise, particularly around its 1980s origins, and how the fanbase has “transformed” over the years.

Transformers origins was in the form of a Japanese toylines called “Microman” and “Diaclone” (you know how Japan love their giant robots). Hasbro representatives discovered the toylines and adapted them for a western audience. During Ronald Reagan’s time in office, laws that prevented promotional content in children’s television were retracted, allowing for a smorgasbord of easy-to-make, commercial-based cartoons to be greenlit and revolutionised children’s entertainment. The Transformers, premiering in 1984, proved to be the most popular and successful. The toyline’s world and characters were fleshed out in the cartoon and Marvel’s comic books thanks to Bob Budiansky.

The showrunners such as voice director Wally Burr and story consultant Flint Dille did not realise the value and love that the viewers had for the Autobots and Decepticons. So, when it came to making the movie, Hasbro had no idea just how iconic Optimus Prime and co. had become. For Hasbro, the movie was just a means to promote the next line of Transformers toys and thus the then current cast of the series had to be eliminated. According to Dille, the Autobots would go on one massive “charge of the Light Brigade” against the Decepticons and most characters would be killed.

During the film, Brawn, Prowl, Ironhide, Ratchet, Wheeljack, Windcharger, Starscream, and Optimus are killed, while Megatron and a couple of other wounded Decepticons are reformatted by Unicorn into new characters. Only a few 1984 characters survived the film, and most were quietly removed from the series, aside from save the Dinobots amongst other. The death of Optimus Prime was definitely the most shocking moment in the film for the young fans. The decision to kill Optimus came from a similar writing decision to kill the character Duke in G.I. Joe: The Movie. In the film, Optimus and Megatron have their final climatic battle, that left Optimus on his death bed, leading to his tearjerker of an end.

No one suspected how children would react to the death of such an icon. Judging from tales of children crying in the theatres, locking themselves in their rooms, and the angry letters from parents, it was new ground for a toy company. To the children, it was like watching their entire toy collection being melted down before their eyes. For Hasbro, it was simply replacing their products with new ones. Thankfully, long-term damage was minimal, and it allowed for a better, more understanding relationship between the creators and the fans. Optimus was eventually resurrected in the cartoon, but this death averted the same happening to Duke (who was put in a coma instead). The film wasn’t a box office success but is still highly regarded amongst Transformers fans.

The fanbase flourished and evolved during the years after the film’s release and the end of the “Generation One” series. The birth of the internet allowed for early groups and forums to rise, allowing the fans to communicate, but also express their opinions too. And like all fanbases, they developed more fiery debates and opinions. During the airing of Beast Wars, not every fan like the concept of the Autobots and Decepticons being replaced by new characters with beast modes. As one fan put it: “Trukk not munky!” Though it became a meme amongst Transformers fans, the cry for changing the franchise in any way would become a small recurring reaction everything that came after the first two years of the 1980s cartoon.

On the positive side, Beast Wars’ development was handled through a close bond of trust between the show’s writers Larry DiTillio and Bob Forward and fans of the original series. They even recruited a couple of fans as story consultants, and made numerous references to the fanbase and early forums via easter eggs. While Beast Wars was hugely popular, its sequel series Beast Machines had initial mixed reactions, mainly based on how it treated certain characters and changes to the Generation One lore. Unfortunately, Beast Machines’ negative reviews led to the end of the original cartoon’s continuity in favour of translating Japanese cartoons for English audiences. And less said about the nicknamed “Unicron Trilogy”, the better.

Unfortunately, it is common belief that all fanbases are rabid, whiny, and entitled to what they want goes. And sometimes, the sceptics can be true. Trekkers were up in arms at the idea of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and over ten years, the Sonic the Hedgehog fanbase deteriorated into an angry mob who couldn’t be pleased in any shape or form. And as for Transformers fans, they have shown the occasional, but increasingly frequent whininess associated with fan communities. When the first poster of Transformers Animated was revealed, fans were immediately up in arms and dismissed the series as a babyish kiddies’ show before any footage had even been released. Animated turned out to be pretty good and favourably embraced by most fans. Whenever things go wrong, most fans immediately turn to this:

Ruined Forever

But it was the live action films that have riled the fanbase the most. Not only was Michael Bay heavily despised for the direction and visual designs in the 2007 film, his very name is often enough to cause negative reactions to whatever project he is associated with, including the more recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films. Though Peter Cullen returned to voice Optimus Prime nearly twenty years since his last performance as the character, the biggest complaints came from the overcomplicated designs of the Transformers. The final straw came when Optimus’ truck mode was painted with red flames. Though the filmmakers explained the flames were necessary for colour/lighting reasons, fans were not pleased; claiming Bay was “raping [their] childhoods” and even had the nerve to send him death threats.

Nevertheless, Transformers was a box office smash and led to three more sequels, each received with distaste by some sections of the fanbase. Yes, indeed, the films are plagued by poorly written scripts, rubbish characters, too many humans, Bay’s distinctive influence, military fetishism, and humping dogs, but with the plans to expand the series into a cinematic universe, perhaps at last fans can become satisfied with the movies. Optimus Prime has also died countless times in numerous iterations of the franchise, to the point where it has become an expected, standard plot element.

Nowadays, Transformers remains one of the most successful franchises in the world, evolving over the years without fading into obscurity. The early success of the 1980s cartoon and its subsequent movie were the biggest contributors to the franchise’s survival and recognition. And while the name is more associated with the divisive live action films, it was The Transformers: The Movie that cemented the relationship between the creators and their loyal fans.

How big of an impact do you believe an audience’s reaction should have on the direction of a franchise? Do fanbases often come across as whiny and self-entitled? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell