|Percentage of vote:||34.0%|
I don't think it really counts as a spoiler if I tell you that Optimus Prime is going to appear as we climb higher up the list. But while the original dominated, a lot of different flavours of Optimus attracted a lot of votes. Each alternate version of the character from the last two decades got some love -- but none of them are here. Optimus Primal is.
So what exactly sets Primal apart from his various other post-G1 counterparts? Why is he so special? I think it has something to do with the company he keeps. Out of the previous twenty-two characters in our list five were members of the Beast Wars cast, and it's probably not going to come as much of a surprise if I tell you that there's more to come. On the other hand, while the Animated, Prime and live-action versions of Optimus are all interesting characters in their own right, their supporting casts simply aren't up to that same level -- which is why only one character from those three universes warranted their own article.
"A leader who struggles on despite bickering teammates, cunning adversaries, and an increasingly bad situation, yet remains calm and caring towards those in his care, is well deserving of praise."
--Zach Baringer (Icespark from TFW2005)
That's not to say that Optimus Primal isn't a deserving character, because he absolutely is. But I think he made the list as much for what he represents as who he is -- he's one out of a bunch of almost-equally-great Optimus characters, but he's the only one of them associated with a series that is almost universally beloved. I don't think that's necessarily a bad criteria, but I do have to admit that I was utterly gobsmacked when I saw how high up the list he landed.
Optimus Primal is, of course, the heroic leader of the Maximals from the late-90s Beast Wars and Beast Machines TV shows. But maybe more than any of the other characters from that era, Primal was a very different person on the two shows. In the first he was a badass action hero. In the second he was more contemplative and spiritual. And in spite of what fandom memes might have you think, both of them have a lot of fans.
In the original concept for Beast Wars, Optimus "Primal" was the same character as the original Optimus, leading a band of Autobots-renamed-Maximals in a stealth battle on modern Earth. But to say that didn't last long would be an understatement. By the time the toyline had been adapted into a TV series, the Maximals had been recast as the Autobots' descendants and Optimus was reimagined as a younger Transformer and the captain of the Axalon. Optimus Primal was much less experienced, much more raw and far, far less calm than his namesake. Considering the collection of wise-asses, head-cases and legitimate psychopaths that he commanded during the show's three year run, it should come as no surprise that his patience was tested more than once. It wasn't uncommon to see Primal dress down his subordinates, sometimes in anger but more often in a soft, fatherly tone of disappointment. His frequent bouts of frustration with Cheetor are quite memorable, but the scenes that define this facet of the character for me were the soft, sad lecture that he gave to Silverbolt after he discovered the younger Maximal's assignations with Blackarachnia and the towering rage that he dropped on Depth Charge when the latter couldn't be bothered to tell anyone what had happened to Cheetor in Feral Scream. I tried to imagine Optimus Prime in his place in both of those scenes, relating to his troops like that, and I just couldn't do it.
"Paternal but not omnipotent. Just a regular good guy who saved the universe."
--Patrick Anguirus Stinson
But Optimus Primal wasn't just abandoned on prehistoric Earth with his friends, no...
Early on, Primal learned that he had to take help where he can get it. And it came from the most unlikely of places -- the Predacon second-in-command Dinobot. Though Dinobot tried at first to seize command of the Maximals over Primal's dead body, he quickly fell into line behind the Maximal leader. Though there was always some latent mistrust and hostility between the two, Primal and the defector grew to mutually rely on and respect one another -- to the point where Primal eulogized Dinobot after the Predacon's heroic death. And in spite of some early reluctance, Primal was willing to extend the hand of friendship to Blackarachnia as well.
Primal's greatest foe, though, was one that he could never find common ground with -- the Predacon commander Megatron. The dynamic between those two was quite interesting, and very different from the relationship shared by the original iterations of Optimus and Megatron. G1 Prime had the manic, brutal G1 Megatron overmatched more or less all the time, and whenever they clashed in the 80s cartoons and comics there was really never any doubt that Prime would come out on top. Because while G1 Megatron was hugely powerful, he was as dumb as a pile of bricks and frequently unhinged to boot.
But Beast Wars Megatron was a different animal altogether. Like the original he was powerful, dangerously so -- the only time that Optimus was depicted as the more dangerous of the two in a fight was the brief window when Primal had upgraded to his new Season 3 body but Megatron had not. But what really made him dangerous was his mind. He was calm, frequently gripped by cold rage but rarely controlled by it. And he was as smart as a whip, thinking his plans through to all of their possible conclusions and coming up with multiple backup plans that he could put into play when the main one failed. His intellect made him a greater threat than any other Megatron in the history of the franchise, and Optimus Primal's ability to keep up with him every step of the way made him far more than a simple John Wayne caricature.
"No legend to hide behind or carry on his shoulders. Just a damn good captain."
But don't be fooled into thinking that Primal was strictly a cerebral hero, because he would totally kick your ass if you did. Though some of the original Maximal crew got overshadowed as time went on, Primal never seemed to be weak or powerless. The seasonal upgrades certainly helped in that regard, and by the time he was reformatted into Optimal Optimus in the third season he was incredibly formidable. He was never so overpoweringly strong that he could be relied on to show up and singlehandedly clear out the entire Predacon army, though, which added some drama to the show's fight scenes and made the other Maximals feel far more important than the lesser G1 Autobots did at times.
And then Beast Machines happened.
I have a confession to make here: though I've seen a few episodes here and there, I've really never properly watched the show. But I have heard other fans talking about it quite a bit. I've heard the complaints about the writers being instructed not to watch Beast Wars and the inconsistent characterization that resulted. I've heard the "Buddha monkey" jokes and the snarky comments about him being a hippy. And so it came as a really huge surprise to find that a lot of our voters actually had good things to say about him!
That said, though, Primal was so different in Beast Machines that he could almost be classified as a different character. The maturing Cheetor, having outgrown his Beast Wars child-identification role, stepped up to take the action hero role that Primal had so adeptly filled in the first series. That freed Optimus to take on a different role himself and he grew into a more spiritual leader. Fans have (rightfully) criticized the blind faith that he placed in the Oracle throughout the series, especially since he really didn't show any religious leanings throughout the whole run of Beast Wars. But if you ignore Beast Wars for a moment and just focus on the Beast Machines character, it's hard to deny that it is a refreshing change to have a leader who isn't the big, bold, brave hero of the show. Primal doubts. He can be withdrawn and sullen. He's not heroic at all. And you know...that's what I like about him! Beast Machines Primal was interesting because of his flaws, much like Rodimus Prime was.
"Another great leader, especially in Beast Machines."
Well...his flaws and his mistakes. Primal made a lot of those too. His generally weak leadership alienated his fellow Maximals at times, at one point even leading him to be relieved of command by Cheetor. His blind faith in the Oracle led to him opening the Plasma Energy Chamber, nearly causing a global catastrophe. And then he allowed Megatron to access the Oracle, which could have caused an even bigger catastrophe.
"For using Prime's spark and reformatting Cybertron into a hippy garden. Takes some big monkey balls to do that."
But you know what? No matter how much he got kicked around, how badly Megatron beat them, how monumental his screwups or how depressed he got (and he could get really depressed) Optimus never gave up. Even when his fellow Maximals lay defeated and Optimus was the last free being on the whole planet, he didn't give up. He stood his ground, he persevered, and in the end, against impossible odds, he won -- even if it cost him his life. And in spite of not being an especially heroic character for most of the series, Optimus Primal met his end as one of the greatest heroes that Cybertron had ever known.
Then he came back from the dead somehow for the Universe line, but I'm pretty sure nobody was thinking of that when they voted for him.
(Sweet toy, though.)
I still have a hard time reconciling the two versions of the character, but it's impossible to deny the impact the character had. He was the first truly flawed version of Optimus, and far more relateable and "human" than the G1 character. He was the main hero for an entire franchise and a figure that an entire generation of fans looks up to. His unconventional turn in Beast Machines only adds to his legacy, and in the end he stands head and shoulders above the competition as the second-best Optimus in the history of the franchise.