Ask any kid of the 80s what was the most traumatic thing they saw on the big or little screen, and you’re likely to hear about Optimus Prime’s death. There are others, of course, like the shoe and the dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit or The Land Before Time with Littlefoot’s mother dying. But for me, the worst scene I remember seeing has always been Ironhide’s death.
Before I get to Ironhide’s, how shall we say, departure, I want to talk about the other scenes and why they fall short for me. For me, Optimus Prime had a good death. Yeah, Megatron got in the fatal blow, but Optimus still kicked his ass. If any competent Autobot medics were there, they could have saved him. Ratchet would have just said, “Get me this part,” and Wheeljack would say, “Hey, I got that right here,” and – Boom! – Optimus is back on his feet. His death scene is sad, but being surrounded by a bunch of characters we only just met makes it feel disassociated. Heck, the only one that we have seen him interact with before is Perceptor, and all he does is say Optimus is toast.
Judge Doom’s cartoon murder is a grizzly scene, that’s for sure. That this guy melts an innocent celluloid shoe without even the ability to talk brings to mind animal torture, which is worse since nobody watching him did anything to stop it. It’s a heartbreaking scene but gets lost in everything else going on, especially compared to the threat of dip later in the movie.
I never watched Land Before Time as a kid, so I can’t say what Littlefoot’s mother dying would have done to me, but I also remember little of Bambi’s mother dying, so maybe it wouldn’t have registered. I think for me, since the villains that killed them didn’t have much of a personality – I can’t remember if you even see the hunter in Bambi – it felt more random for the mothers to die than intentional like Megatron’s and Doom’s kills.
Unfortunately, most of the other deaths in children’s animation belong to the villains. Watching a bad guy like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast or Sykes in Oliver and Co is always something looked forward to and not really shocking. Even the goriest of them, such as the Horned King in the Black Cauldron, aren’t that traumatizing unless you’re squeamish. They certainly don’t make you feel bad for the bad guy.
Now, let’s talk about Ironhide. Going into the movie, you’re not expecting your favorite characters to kick the bucket (unless you saw a trailer that asked if Optimus survives). Even after seeing an entire planet of alien robots getting eaten, you still don’t suspect the Autobots or Decepticons would actually die. You’ve been watching the cartoon for a few years, and everyone survives getting shot in the chest or blown up. But then you get to the shuttle scene just a few minutes into the movie. The Decepticons break in, and suddenly, Brawn’s face down on the ground, a smoking crater in his shoulder. Prowl’s got smoke coming out of his mouth and his eyes go dim, and then Ironhide and Prowl get shot clean through. The battle is finished in just a few seconds, but the carnage isn’t over.
In probably the most brutal death the Transformers have seen – at least until the Bay films – Megatron blasts the wounded Ironhide in the face. The explosion leaves no question as to whether the Autobot survives. Until Optimus joins the Matrix, this is the last death you see on screen, even though other Autobot corpses are shown in the turret. Strangely, not a single Decepticon dies in this movie, no matter what damage they take. Kickback gets his head crushed but lives long enough to be transformed into a Sweep or something. I think some Seekers blow up in Unicron’s mouth, but it happens so fast, who knows if they actually died or not?
The shuttle massacre scene messed with my little 8-year-old heart something fierce. I remember getting up in the morning, slamming my fist down on my dresser, tears running down my face, and thinking, Why did Ironhide have to die? I wasn’t even that big of a fan of Ironhide – I never had his toy or enjoyed his scenes more than any other Autobot. Still, seeing him get straight-up executed on the screen was such an injustice. I mean, none of the Decepticons even got a scratch on them during the fight, yet Ironhide gets his head blown off? Not to mention Megatron’s probably most famous line, “Such heroic nonsense,” made Ironhide’s resistance that much more meaningless.
Nowadays, seeing Transformers die left and right doesn’t mean a lot. The Michael Bay films made it commonplace for the Autobots lay waste to nameless Decepticon bruisers and turned Optimus into a psychopath, ripping faces off, decapitating robots, and screaming about killing humans. In the last of his movies, Quintessa controls to kill Bumblebee, but with his progression into brutal insanity over the previous films, I would have believed he just went crazy and wanted everyone dead. With Rise of the Beasts coming out soon and Michael Bay nowhere in sight, we’ll have to wait and see how high the body count will be.
Back in the 80s, though, Ironhide’s death is one of the first ever in Transformers animation. It was a shock for kids to see their heroes die all in the name of new toys. I remember hearing when I was younger that all the deaths were allowed on screen because they were robots and not humans. But the outcry from a generation of kids at seeing Prime die even affected Duke’s death in GI Joe: The Movie, with him going into an ADR’d coma.
The shuttle scene affected me so much, I made it a plot point in my book Old School Evil. Finally able to watch the movie as an adult and seeing Megatron and the Decepticons butcher the Autobots on the shuttle, Jayce realizes that his father Max Malice isn’t the cartoonish bad guy he thought he was. It opened his eyes to the true depravity Max was capable of when, after watching the movie, he learns Max had killed in the past as well. It changes Jayce, who goes from suspicious but willing to help Max, to deciding to take Max down.
The deaths don’t end with Max though – Old School Evil: The Rejects features the vicious Department of Domestic Threats and Balances, originally tasked with rounding up the various villains in the 80s, hunting down the world’s remaining bad guys with deadly intent. Jayce and his team of Legacies need to save the surviving villains before the DDTB can finish them. Because once the old generation is out of the way, Jayce and the Rejects might be next!