A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1986: A Ton of Bricks


And here’s another one that I’m not really about to call a great movie, or even a good movie.* ** But, to me at least, there are some ways that The Transformers: The Movie is an interesting movie. And if I’m reading my own concept for this project to indicate that I should be talking about movies that were important to me in their year (and I don’t always read it this way, but I definitely do sometimes), well this one couldn’t be more relevant; I think Return of the Jedi is the only other movie that came out within the timeframe covered so far that Young Me was as hyped about in advance as this one.

*And even if Transformers ’86 isn’t really a good movie, it’s far, far better than the Bay Transformers movies, or even its peer in late-80s animated toy commercialdom, the GI Joe movie.

**OK, but also: how hard must Jack Kirby have sighed whenever he heard that the big bad in this new movie was a godlike planet-eating space monster? Like, I know the Transformers movie and the comics were completely different things (and Kirby of course had no direct connection with either of them), but still, it’s all adjacent enough that he had to have heard about it at some point.

And I don’t think I’m alone in that; in fact, I think part of what does give Transformers ’86 a little bit of interesting heft in 2024 is that this fucker hit a lot of Gen X like a ton of bricks, and this was the cohort that would go on a few years later to start early-adopting the internet. One of my very first online experiences—aside from endlessly looking up people’s guesses at R.E.M. lyrics—was reading an extended, heartfelt post on some message board about how Optimus Prime and Megatron were archetypal figures while Rodimus Prime and Galvatron were flawed and “realistic” and this shift indicated a move from DC-style storytelling to Marvel-style and, well, I’m not saying this particular line of analysis is one that I’ve spent a lot of time on, but this type of analysis is going on more or less constantly in my head all the time and I think this goddamned post on Usenet or wherever is what kicked it all off. A bunch of us spent the 90s using this cool new interconnected web toy thing-o teaching ourselves to collaboratively dig through the semiotics of pop culture.

D-d-d-dad? Robot Dad? Are you ok?

OK, but about this movie hitting a chunk of Gen X like a ton of bricks: it’s really hard to overstate how fucking hard this movie goes in its first half hour or so, and how psychologically unprepared everyone was (especially in the spoiler-reduced pre-internet era under discussion, double especially when you consider that the intended audience for this thing was children). Hasbro wanted to sell an entirely new line of Transformers toys (and to be clear: the cartoon that we were all so into was very literally just a big, very successful toy commercial that occasionally managed to rise above its mercenary origins), so a core part of the creative brief of the movie was kill off all the old characters to make room for new ones. Maybe it mattered here that these were robots getting killed instead of people, so it was seen as OK to show them getting mowed down like it was the Western Front in 1915. But, speaking from experience, that robots-people distinction wasn’t as clean a line in the minds of some of the audience.

The first half-hour-to-40 minutes of Transformers ’86 is corny (it’s an elevated commercial aimed at kids, c’mon), but it’s also pretty propulsive and gripping as the robot-on-robot combat you’re used to watching suddenly gets a lot more lethal and tons of beloved characters get blown to pieces onscreen in fights that all the sudden have consequences that never existed before. Robot Dad dies onscreen. No wonder everybody was transfixed.

And yeah, there’s a point (specifically, for me it’s the end of the Starscream coronation scene, which includes one of Leonard Nimoy’s best line-readings in what’s really a pretty great overall vocal performance) where the propulsive energy suddenly dissipates and the movie gets flabby and episodic and sort of scoots back down to the level you’d expect from something like this. Whatever arguments there are to make in favor of the start of the movie, they dissipate. Maybe it’s significant that the decline happens not long after the standard length of a cartoon episode; this is, after all, a screenplay written by a guy whose business is writing episodic cartoons. But that first act, it branded itself on some people’s brains for a reason.

Credit where credit’s due, Megatron is a great character design and Frank Welker always did a great job making him sound menacing.

And maybe another thing about Transformers ’86 as an artifact of its moment: the cartoon that it sprang from was animated in Japan and certainly looked like it; the movie was animated by the same studio but with a much higher budget, and was probably an entry point for a whole lot of born-in-the-70s-and-80s American kids to the world of reasonably-well-produced Anime. There are some throwaway shots and reused footage here and there, but big chunks of this movie look pretty great as examples of a particular type of analog animation. And, much like I said earlier about kids who watched this movie growing up to be early users of the internet, I think this cohort also went on to be early adopters in the slow but steady mainstreaming of Japanese pop culture in America. Spike Witwicky walked so that a million dudes with anime-girl avatars on their twitter accounts could run.

And after all of that, I’ll put some cards on the table: I guess my current nostalgic relationship with the big toy-based 80s franchises that I loved as a kid is complicated. I don’t think I’d spend a dollar in pursuit of a nostalgic fix, and this essay is almost certainly going to be the only writing about Transformers that I do for the next several years. But it’s occasionally fun to let my mind wander over to looking at silly stuff from the old Transformers and GI Joe universes, and those mind-wanderings can be kind of fruitful; I sincerely believe that whatever career I’ve had as a guy who occasionally gets paid to write stuff all flows out of me wondering how COBRA funded its operations, writing a silly little story about it, and somehow convincing McSweeneys to run said silly story. And then much more recently, I did an entire second season of a narrative podcast that was basically a straightfaced riff on the GI Joe team fighting sea monsters.

And hell, maybe this is quietly the whole point of this piece. Because even if I just established that I find some value in thinking back over this stuff—and I’m certainly having fun researching and writing this piece—overall I’m glad that all of this is just a fun backroom in my brain where I don’t spend a lot of time. Maybe this is partly me hitting the downslope of my 40s, but I’m less and less comfortable with the constant urge to live in the past, and in 2024 franchise nostalgia really seems to be one of the major gravitational fields looking to fix our heads into a resolutely backwards position. Companies find it easiest to raise shareholder value when they continue to monetize IPs that we fell in love with 40 years ago; I’m not saying that we have to absolutely turn our backs on old stuff we love—of course we don’t!—but I do think we have something close to a cultural obligation not to obsess over them exclusively.

One last thing real quick! If you’re enjoying these, and have some change rattling around in your pocket, I’ve got one of them thar ko-fi things set up. I’m also considering starting a Patreon with extra movie writeups for each year; let me know if that’s a thing you’d be interested in!


  1. “a core part of the creative brief of the movie was kill off all the old characters to make room for new ones.”

    Wow, I can’t believe that I never put that together until right now. Mind blown, and weirdly I am a bit saddened, because part of my childhood mythos has had the veil stripped away, if that makes sense. It’s like learning that Jesus hadn’t died for our sins, but as a marketing promotion for John the Baptist action figures except I’m not religious, and that actually sounds kind of awesome.

    1. It’s a total bummer revelation/realization! But then, looking at the bigger picture, the whole pattern fits.

      Also: for the John the Baptist figures, I want a whole line of them like the GI Joes, where all of these religious figures get their own specialties and code-names.

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