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The Real Reason Optimus Prime Was Killed Off In The Original Transformers Movie

When it comes to the 1980s' most recognizable IPs, few can measure up to the enduring popularity and cultural significance of the Transformers. These car-robot hybrids arrived on store shelves back in 1984, courtesy of Japanese company Takara Tomy and Hasbro of the United States, instantly popping up everywhere from playgrounds to playrooms around the world. As was the case with the decade's hottest toys, it didn't take long for a television series based on the "Robots in Disguise" to hit the airwaves — with a feature-length film, aptly titled The Transformers: The Movie, coming to the big screen in 1986.

While many fondly remember the feature as a staple of their childhood, some have come to realize truly how adult its contents were. Long gone were the light-hearted yet action-packed adventures from the TV series, and in their stead were dark undertones, an out-of-place soundtrack, and a plethora of gruesome deaths — something the cartoon show never depicted. The likes of Brawn (Corey Burton) and Starscream (Chris Latta), among others, met their demise graphically, with the most shocking of them all being Optimus Prime's (Peter Cullen) tragic defeat at the hands of his nemesis, Megatron (Frank Welker). 

As it turns out, this wasn't just a controversial creative decision from screenwriter Ron Friedman or director Nelson Shin, but actually a call that comes with a deeper story behind it.

Optimus Prime's death was purely a business decision

From a modern perspective, the idea of killing off Optimus Prime in his very first silver-screen appearance doesn't exactly sound like the best course of action. He's arguably the most famous Transformer of the bunch, something that Hasbro and those behind The Transformers: The Movie didn't realize during production. As reported by Den of Geek, in a commentary for the film's 20th anniversary DVD, story consultant Flint Dille touched on Optimus Prime's death and the shocking reaction to it.

"We didn't know that he was an icon," Dille said, admitting that he and Hasbro miscalculated how much fans of the Transformers toy line and media loved Optimus Prime. "It was a toy show. We just thought we were killing off the old product line to replace it with new products." 

This disconnect, in essence, is why they chose to move forward with his unexpected demise, alongside a host of his Transformer counterparts. It was a business decision Hasbro made, intending to make room for new toys at retail, pushing the old guard out of the way. They certainly didn't foresee putting the powerhouse leader of the Autobots on the chopping block eliciting such strong reactions, even from the youngest of moviegoers. "Kids were crying in the theaters," Dille mentioned, adding, "We heard about people leaving the movie. We were getting a lot of nasty notes about it."

Thankfully, for those who couldn't imagine a Transformers story without Optimus Prime, his resurrection came in the animated series, putting kids and parents alike at ease yet again. Hasbro's attempts to phase him out never took off either, so even in 2021, he remains a force to be reckoned with in toy aisles and cinemas everywhere.