Character Integrity: Long-term Spark Investment

August 24, 2016

Versus The New Half Life 0.110

Note: This article is a follow-up to a previous piece on character integrity. Some of the themes and references brought up are elaborated upon in the previous article which you can read here: 0.101 – Character Integrity: When the Joke(r) Stops Being Funny

2016 is a big year for those of us in the Transformers fandom. We’re celebrating some substantial milestones, especially for those of us indoctrinated way back at the G1 launch in the 80’s.

It marks the 30th anniversary of Transformers:The Movie, the 20th anniversary of the Beast Wars line, and a decade removed from the excitement of the first live action film. This was the last year of Botcon, the annual fan convention that’s been a staple of Transformers fandom since the early 90’s, but several fan conventions (TFCon, TFNation in the UK, and our fingers are crossed for an official Hasbro convention in the near future) are continuing to carry the torch. It’s quite the collection of benchmarks for a fandom built around a toyline.

It’s a fandom that is alive, healthy, and has amassed a voluminous history.

Toys are currently on the shelves in the big box stores, shipping across the planet from online vendors, and being bartered over at the dealer’s table throughout all the major conventions.

Podcasts specifically about Transformers are numerous, various, and consistent.

There are cartoons in production for adults (Machinima’s Prime Wars Trilogy), small children (Transformers Rescue Bots), and the crucial 12 and under crowd (Transformers: Robots in Disguise).

The comics are possibly the most essential component of current fiction for long time fans and are successful enough that Hasbro is using it to prop up its other properties (GI Joe, MASK, Micronauts, etc.) in IDW’s Revolution event this fall.

Things are good right now. Mostly.

The highest profile corner of the Transformers universe over the past decade has been the live action film franchise. Clearly, it’s been profitable despite the blasphemous portrayal of nearly all of the characters.

Make no mistake; as fans, we know the deal. To the people making the decisions about what goes into this film franchise, the part about it being profitable is the part that matters most.

For us, the beauty comes when the characters are done right in spite of the brand’s commercial intent, but we’re hardly in denial of the essential retail component.

The Transformers franchise was a product concocted by a toy company (Hasbro), who inherited the rights to two Japanese toy lines (Diaclone and Microman) and put Marvel on the payroll to whip up some fiction to tie it all together.

In essence, consumer culture has been woven into the fabric of the franchise at a fundamental level from it’s inception. What was likely an unintended consequence of this business arrangement was the profound emotional impact the fiction would have on the target market.

The G1 cartoon was a vital gateway into the Transformers world and is likely still the most beloved aspect of the fiction in spite of it’s (many(many(many))) flaws. The comics supplemented so many layers of depth to the fiction that these “products” blossomed into substantial characters, giving life to a landscape surpassing the bounds of the diecast transforming figures it was originally intended to sell.

There became more to these robots than just their disguise (something something meets the eye).

This created circumstances that would leave permanent emotional scars when major changes to the toyline occurred; i.e. killing off the face of the franchise (Optimus Prime) in the first animated feature film.

Note: I write more about this emotionally toxic relationship here: 1.10 The Ballad of Rodimus Prime

What this created was a fandom that has been involved and active for over 30 years now. There has been a solid core of fans through every generation of the franchise, from G2 to Beast Wars, through the Unicron Trilogy, Animated, Prime, and so on. It’s been a journey that enabled a lot of us to likely get away with laying claim to university level credit in Intellectual Property (IP) copyright law.

This constant reconciliation with the nature of IP has been somewhat turbulent for many of the characters that fans have grown a fondness towards. We learned in the Beast Wars era that Hasbro would seemingly arbitrarily give a new character a name they used for a previous character simply to maintain the copyright ownership. It set a precedent for the franchise, and made for some awkward maneuvering when it came to beloved characters with less distinct Transformery names.

Sometimes the fiction picked up the slack and gave us new characters that often outshone their namesake (Beast Wars Megatron for example. Yesss.).

It also resulted in getting amalgamated versions of characters, like Hotshot in the Armada series who was clearly a combination of Bumblebee and Hot Rod, thanks to unfavorable IP situations that prevented Hasbro from using a name that seemed more appropriate in context.

With 30+ plus years of give-and-take between the corporate entity that governs the Transformers product and the long time fans along for the ride, it would seem that character integrity should be one of the more galvanizing aspects of the franchise that keep us around. Especially for toy collectors, many of whom spend hundreds of dollars on boutique third-party figures that share the likeness of these beloved characters but have a different name altogether.

Priority of engagement for fans appears to generally lean towards the characters themselves rather than maintaining loyalty to the brand that technically “owns” them.

So if the makeup of a character is what’s guiding the “invisible hand” (in capitalist parlance) of the fandom, the question turns to the curious handling of the live action film franchise by Hasbro and Paramount Pictures. The dramatic departures from key elements of many of the characters suggests that these movies aren’t being made for Transformers fans at all.

There doesn’t feel as if there is any inclination towards making movies about these characters whatsoever outside of the minimal legal requirements to “protect” their IP. It’s all business, and we’re simply caught in the crossfire.

Case in point being the announcement of Hot Rod’s inclusion in the 5th installment of the movie franchise. On Aug 4th, an image of the “new” character popped up on the official Transformers twitter account, with the caption “This is no cartoon”.

The assumption with such a statement would be that we shouldn’t bring any of our character expectations to the new design, which is good because there is nothing about it that resembles Hot Rod at all beyond the name. Not one distinguishing visual character attribute made it’s way into the new model.

So, why use the name if we’re not supposed to bring any of our expectations of the Hot Rod character in with us?

Maybe it’s just a matter of using the name to “protect their IP”, which there is precedent for doing in the toyline, but why do that with such an integral character in the mythology on a stage so high-profile unless you had Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime plans for it? What good is all of the investment we have in the history of these characters if we’re supposed to ignore it based on the whims of creators we’re already hesitant to trust in the first place?

In fairness, the movie has yet to be released so it’s hard to say how much of this new character’s story resembles our Roddy, but it’s not like this particular film franchise has a glowing record of upholding any loyalty to the desires of the fanbase.

Murder Prime: Never forget.

They can’t even seem to demonstrate any logic with their own takes on characters. Drift, for example, is the Japanese stereotype character that loosely resembles some sort of samurai situation. Logic would dictate that a Japanese character would choose an alt-mode that was Japanese in origin, given the whole “robots in disguise” axiom.

This is the earth culture the alien seemingly adopted, right? There are certainly plenty of Japanese sports cars to choose from, with respect (again) to likeness rights from possible Japanese motor companies.

However, the Japanese character is curiously a German sports car. Historically, wouldn’t this be a dubious allusion for a character that’s supposed to be a good guy? These films are essentially war porn after all, but I guess not every war movie needs to be about WWII.

He also has the logo prominent on his chest in robot mode, which is probably great for Mercedes-Benz, but it illustrates a level of consumerism that doesn’t make a lot of sense for a samurai.

These are the type of decisions that (surprise!) result in actual Transformers fans loathing these films rather than supporting them. Sure, some fans can maintain a level of optimism that allows them to find something to enjoy about the movies.

We’re also well aware that the money brought into the web of the Transformers universe indirectly benefits us. There are mensans and PhD’s among the Transformers podcast realm alone, so we’re certainly not a “dumb” fandom that lacks any ability to think objectively about our beloved heroes. Again, we know the deal.

However, it leaves us feeling a bit betrayed and insulted when there have been plenty of opportunities throughout the franchise to not defy our expectations and they aren’t taken. It’s as if the things we love are being exploited, and the emotional investment we’ve made into this universe is totally disregarded.

So, I raised the question in the previous article about whether or not character integrity matters anymore. If the Transformers is any indication, there seems to be more than one answer.

Clearly, the corporate arm that drives the franchise doesn’t hold the same level of regard for these characters and their history as do those of us that consider ourselves fans rather than just casual consumers.

It may simply be a matter of abstract variables such as devotion that can’t be quantified and measured. Depth doesn’t translate as well as frequency, so bottomliners rarely seek anything beyond sales numbers to gauge the success of their product.

If their intent is to engage fans on any other level, it may be time to change strategy. Maybe considering that these things are more than just “products” to fans is a start.

Thankfully, the Transformers fiction exists in a far more encompassing fashion than solely what’s released to the masses on the big screen. It would be nice for the disconnect between the fans and the producers not to be so vast when it comes to portrayal on such a large scale.

The good thing about strong characters is that they can weather some pretty bad iterations when creators extend creative license beyond the parameters that make up a character. It’s certainly happened before, and we’re still here to talk about the times they got it right. We wouldn’t continue investing ourselves in the relationship 30 years later were it not the case.

Versus The New Half-life is a periodical feature series documenting the experience of modern geek life beyond the 18-34 demographic. Are we still simply nostalgia driven super-consumers refusing to embrace adulthood by indulging childhood fantasy or have the expectations of being an adult changed? Writer J. Aaron Poole explores lessons learned from a youth spent indulging geek culture from the veteran’s perspective as an indubitable adult under 40.

J. Aaron Poole is a 21st century writer, musician, and geek culture advocate. He is a member of the American Sociological Association with an academic interest in the relationship between media, technology, and modern culture. Aaron can be found making absurd comments on Twitter, PSN, and other social media platforms as @JAaronPoole.

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