I can’t remember what prompted it, but for some reason my son asked if we could watch the Transformers movie. And to be clear, I am talking about the Transformers movie, the animated one with Unicron, not the abomination with Shia LeBeowulf. (It should go without saying that if you weren’t into the cartoon Transformers, you should go ahead and skip this post.)
I paused the movie to point out to my son some of the key messages the writers were sending, and I actually had noticed things on this viewing that had escaped me before. First though let me jog your memory with the following clip–one of my all-time favorites from movie history–by the end of which, Optimus Prime and Megatron are both critically wounded:
After this battle, the Autobots and Decepticons both need new leaders. Note the contrasts:
==> The Autobots try everything they can to save Prime. They are heartbroken that they can’t. In total contrast, were it not for the loyal Soundwave, the Decepticons would’ve left Megatron for dead on Earth. Later, when Astrotrain says they need to reduce weight, the stronger Decepticons gleefully jettison their injured comrades, including Megatron.
==> Prime picks his successor, and everybody respects his decision. The Decepticons “decide” their next leader based on physical might. At first it’s Starscream, but then when he gets blown away by Galvatron, they fall into line behind him.
==> Prime picks Ultra Magnus as his successor. Magnus actually declines, saying he is not worthy. But Prime insists, yet says an Autobot will rise from the ranks. Thus Prime is admitting that Ultra Magnus might not be the long-term leader, he’s just saying take the job for now until it becomes apparent who the new leader should be. As for the Decepticons, the entire group inside Astrotrain vies to replace Megatron, even the normally humble Soundwave.
==> The Autobot leader at any given time holds the Matrix of Leadership, which contains the accumulated wisdom of the previous Autobot commanders. (There is obviously nothing analogous for the Decepticons, who rule by force and not wisdom.) Notice though that when Prime goes to give it to Ultra Magnus, he actually drops it and it’s Hot Rod who catches it. This is of course very symbolic, because of what happens later in the movie (in yet another of my all-time favorite movie scenes–and note the YouTube commenters share my judgment).
==> Throughout the movie, they give hints that Ultra Magnus isn’t really up to the challenge of leading the Autobots. At one point Springer says, “It looks like Hot Rod and Kup just bought it!” (might not be exact quote) but Ultra Magnus says, “I can’t deal with that now!” Then Magnus swears when he can’t get the Matrix of Leadership to open (erroneously thinking he is facing the Autobots’ darkest hour). Can you possibly imagine Optimus Prime swearing or saying, “I can’t deal with that now” when someone reports that two Autobots are in serious trouble?
==> Finally, the most obvious theme: Hot Rod starts out as a cocky punk, whose recklessness gets Prime killed. (Even here, let’s pause to note that Prime only died because Megatron took a hostage; the obvious message is that Prime could take Megatron in a one-on-one fight, or even with Hot Rod’s bungling Prime could’ve won if he’d been willing to shoot Hot Rod too.) Yet by the end of the movie, Hot Rod matures into Rodimus Prime, the new Autobot leader. Knowing that that is coming, you can see several places between these two extremes when Hot Rod exhibits extreme courage and faith that good will win–even when everyone else doubts it. That’s why he is the one to replace Optimus, once he matures.