Of the many (many!) complaints Transformers fans have about Michael Bay’s Transformers movie franchise, its narrative journey is probably one that sticks out the most. It’s challenging enough to try and follow the plot of a single Bayformers movie, but it’s nigh impossible to trace any sensible storyline from one movie to the next!
However, there is one arc that makes a lot of sense, when you think about it, and that’s how heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime ended up as the evil Nemesis Prime by the time we reach Transformers: The Last Knight.
Transformers fans have always looked up to Optimus as the quintessential hero of the franchise, but as the Michael Bay movie series progressed, his character seemed to take a dark turn. We’re not the only ones to notice this. ScreenCrush has previously traced how Bayformers’ Optimus Prime “has always been a jerk,” and we’re pretty swayed by Polygon’s theory that the movie series is actually a five-part tragedy that traces the villain origin story of Optimus Prime.
Optimus seemed to start off well in the first Michael Bay Transformers film in 2007. After thousands of years of civil war on their home planet, he arrived on earth heroically (to audience applause in cinema theaters). However, later in the movie, Optimus demonstrated some pretty dubious behavior: allowing Bumblebee to be captured and tortured by Sector 7, as well as half-heartedly eulogizing the recently-bisected Jazz before quickly moving on.
In the 2009 sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, Optimus seemed to be maniacally focused on hunting down Decepticons over everything else. He executed Demolisher with a point-blank headshot even after the Decepticon had already been disabled and posed no threat. In another scene, he withholds intelligence from his human allies in the U.S. government recognizing the “human capacity for war.” But then, toward the end of the movie, Optimus goes right on to rip The Fallen’s head apart demanding, “Give me your face!” and then declaring, “I rise, you fall.”
Optimus’ character took an even darker turn in the 2011 film, Dark of the Moon. He allowed Decepticons to stage an attack on Chicago that resulted in 1,300 deaths, just to show humans that the evil Transformers were indeed a threat to Earth. Then, when he led the counterattack, Optimus grimly declares, “We will kill them all.” And boy does he gruesomely do so! He hacks Shockwave to bits while saying, “You die!” He rips out Megatron’s head and spine with his axe. Then, he executes an already-downed Sentinel Prime by shooting him in the back, and once more in the head.
In the 2014 movie, Age of Extinction, humans turned on the Transformers and killed several Autobots (poor Ratchet!). Optimus even witnessed the corpses of his friends melted down into metal by humans to make their own Transformers for profit. The horror of realizing how humans would never view Transformers as fully sentient beings must have done something to Optimus. He begins to regret helping humans and questions, “How many more of my kind must be sacrificed to atone for your mistakes?” He plots revenge on humanity, saying, “They slaughtered Ratchet … I’m gonna tear them apart!”. And, finally, when recruiting the Dinobots, he smacks Grimlock around saying “We’re giving you freedom!” then threatens to decapitate Grimlock’s and growling, “You defend my family… or die!”
Up to now, Optimus has endured thousands of years of war on Cybertron, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that he suffers from some form of PTSD by the time he arrives on our planet. Then, on earth, he is betrayed by the humans he swore to protect and his mentor; and witnessed many of his friends killed and their bodies mutilated. By the time we reach The Last Knight, Optimus is… uh, primed to be brainwashed into becoming Nemesis Prime by Quintessa, the Transformers’ creator, whom he discovered to be malevolent.
It can thus be argued that Optimus’ time as Nemesis wasn’t necessarily the result of brainwashing alone, but was the culmination of five movies’ worth of trauma, hurt, anguish and rage. Each successive film chipped away at the goodness of Optimus until he was running on empty.
Despite Michael Bay’s contrivances, it turns out that the live-action film series can be properly understood as a cautionary tale that traces Optimus’ character arc from one of our greatest heroes who would defend “Freedom [as] the right of all sentient beings,” to the evil Nemesis Prime, the complete opposite of everything one stands for.