One of the things I like the most about Transformers is its vast gallery of characters, which is the result of its foundation being a long-running toy line. I once tried to list the most 100 iconic characters and posted the list, motivations, on the big online Transformers forum TFW2005, but despite the high number of entries, members were still dissatisfied that certain characters were not included! Having that said, there are obviously a number of characters more important than others, and yet others that can be called true popular culture icons. So let´s take a look at those, starting with the original line-up from 1984. Arguably, this is the year that still holds the largest number of iconic characters, possibly due to the impact of the novelty the Transformers concept was at the time. Here goes…
Where else could I start? The heroic leader of the Autobots is arguably THE most well-known Transformer outside of the fandom, and the most beloved one inside it. A bot of high moral standards, he believes that the strong should protect the weak and always prioritizes keeping innocents out of harms way. He is depicted as both immensely strong and immensely wise, both a powerhouse of a warrior and a skilled tactician. His original toy is also perhaps the most iconic in the brand. It transforms from a red White Freightliner truck, where its trailer becomes a battle base/repair bay, and the cab Optimus Prime himself.
A large part of Prime´s enduring popularity can be attributed to his original voice actor in the cartoon, Peter Cullen. When auditioning for the role as Prime, he let his personality be influenced by that of his brother and hero, a Vietnam War vet, making Optimus something of a calm, safe, but at the same time formidable father figure of a leader. In fact, Cullen´s delivery as Optimus has enjoyed such enduring popularity that he got to voice Prime in the Michael Bay movies, due to popular request! And rightfully so. In later years, Optimus has been given some moral ambiguity (not least in the Bay movies), but his foundation as a powerful but wise and just leader stands firmly.
Optimus Prime: The character, the toy
Bumblebee is, again thanks to the Bay movies, possibly the most famous Transformer next to Optimus Prime. In the movie he plays the same role as in the original cartoon and comic; that of an intermediary between Transformers and humans. His small size, youthfulness and generally cheerful attitude made him very likeable and easy to identify with for children. Within the Autobot ranks he is the perpetual youngster/rookie who seeks the larger/older bots´ approval. Interestingly though, in later years he has matured and even been given the role of Autobot leader at times. Way to go for a guy turning into a small, yellow Volkswagen Beetle!
Bonus fact: alongside Prime, Bumblebee is among the Transformers with most toys made in his image…
Bumblebee: As seen in the cartoon and original toy
Arguably, a bunch of 1984 Autobots could have filled this spot. I however choose to give it to Ratchet, given his interesting personality. Being the Autobot Chief Medic (and turning into an ambulance) he is not much of a warrior and thus he therefore has some self-doubt. He is however extremely intelligent, and when there´s a real crisis, exceptionally brave. In the original comic he manages to outmaneuver Megatron himself using only his wits! (and a little luck) Plus, his formidable medical skills is an indispensable asset for the Autobots, as wounded warriors return from the battlefield…
Bonus fact: Notice how Ratchet´s toy doesn´t have a head? It´s because in Diaclone, the toy line from which many of the Transformers were taken from (see previous post!), the robots are not sentient beings, but rather machines piloted by humans! Thus, the toy has a seat instead of a head, which was somehow compensated for by a face sticker for its release as a Transformer. He, as well as Ironhide, a red version of the same toy, however got proper heads designed for them in the comic and cartoon.
Ratchet, in the cartoon and original toy
Megatron is the leader of the Decepticons, and with his original toy turning into a Walter P-38 pistol he personifies danger, violence and evil. He is just as strong and intelligent as Optimus Prime, but extremely ruthless, as he believes that the strongest should rule the world, and he strives for universal domination. Megatron as well was voiced by an outstanding voice actor in the original Cartoon, Frank Welker, and like Cullen he got to reprise his role during many years to come.
Originally being an archetypical Evil Villain, Megatron has turned into something of a more complex character throughout the years. Nowadays (outside of the Bay movies) he is typically pictured as troubled rather than evil, having become the bot he his while fighting against the oppression of the ruling class on Cybertron, as in, starting out as a revolutionary with just motives, he eventually became corrupted by his use of violence for achieving his goals, as well as the lust for power. That however, makes him more interesting than the original, albeit at times comical, cardboard-cut bad guy from the original cartoon.
Megatron, character and toy
Starscream is one of Megatron´s lieutenants, and commander of the Seekers, the Decepticon Air Force, himself turning into an F-15 jet. He is a skilled fighter and a cunning strategist. He is also highly narcissistic, but at the same time something of a coward and extremely treacherous. He constantly mocks Megatron and regularly tries to overthrow him, but apart from handing out a correctional beating every now and then, Megatron somehow tolerates his deceitful lieutenant´s behavior. There are various interpretations as to why, the one I find most appealing is that Megatron keeps Starscream close to remind himself to trust no one and always be on his guard, but somewhere deep down he also expects Starscream to overthrow him one day, will he ever be cunning and powerful enough. And if that day comes, the Decepticon will have its rightful leader, as Megatron believes in rule by force and is true to his ideals. But Starscream has much to learn before he is able and worthy…
Starscream, character and toy
Soundwave is the diametrical opposite to Starscream, being 100% loyal and obedient towards his master Megatron. He is the master spy and communications expert of the Decepticons, using sound as his primary tool and weapon. For example, he has such acute sensory perception that he actually can read other bots minds (in a scientific manner) in some continuities. What is more, he has a veritable army of robotic minions stored in his chest, ready to do his biddings. His original toy turned into a cassette recorder, and the cassettes stored within it could in turn transform into his minions. If Optimus Prime´s toy is the most iconic one on the Autobot side, Soundwave´s must surely have the most iconic toy of the Decepticons. And that metallic, monotonous voice…
Soundwave… you get the idea
That´s all for this time! I´ll might present a few of the other hundreds of characters in coming posts, wait for it 😉