Killing Cliffjumper: Transformers Goes Grim

Curator's Note

Throughout its history, the Transformers franchise has struggled with violence; toymaker Hasbro killed off Autobot leader Optimus Prime in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie and were reportedly shocked at the uproar from parents and children. More recently, parents (and even some adult fans) expressed dismay at the level of brutality in Michael Bay’s live-action film series.

The current iteration of the franchise, Transformers: Prime, continues in this ambivalent tradition - in this clip, Autobot good-guy Cliffjumper is captured and executed within the first three minutes of the pilot episode.  From a narrative standpoint, it is rather effective. It makes the consequences of the Transformers' conflict more serious, and it establishes Starscream as a legitimate threat.  From a business standpoint, the death certainly surprised adult fans, as it seems nonsensical to kill off a character who has multiple action figures available for sale. What child would want play with the guy who died in the first act? (Adult fans seem to have no problem with that question - a “Rust in Peace” version of the character was sold as an exclusive at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con.)

Prime airs on The Hub, a cable channel co-owned by Hasbro. Hasbro seems intent on grabbing the adult fans who grew up with the original series, as well as the current crop of younger children. The voice actors who portrayed Optimus Prime and the evil Megatron in the original 1980s cartoon returned to reprise those roles, and the cast of characters includes re-imagined versions of classic heroes and villains. The stylized action of the live-action films is paired with a heroic aesthetic reminiscent of the fan-favorite Transformers: Animated series. Since Hasbro has a stake in the network, they have relatively free reign as to what to show in their own programming. They even seem to have covered their bases on the matter of violent content, as The Hub is simultaneously airing Transformers: Rescue Bots, a traditional cel-animated show specifically aimed at younger audiences - which also has its own independent toy line, itself aimed at younger children. This time, Hasbro may get to have its oil cake and eat it too.


Cliffjumper was voiced, albeit briefly, by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a bit of stunt casting that helps strike the balance between "30 minute toy commercial for kids" and "action program for adults."  By coupling the character who dies quickly to a popular actor, Cliffjumper's demise is potentially mitigated among the adolescent "mom, buy me that" crowd - yeah, Cliffjumper died, but he was The Rock!  The Rock is cool!  (This also works among adult fans - discussions of the character are almost bound to include metatextual references to Johnson's wrestling career - "if you smell what Cliffjumper is cooking", etc.)

Thanks for your contribution to the week, Cenate!  I appreciate your attention here to the various levels of producing towards specific audiences within the same franchise.  I had no idea of Hasbro's ownership level with the Hub nor the second Transformers animated series.  I think you make some really great points about the vocal casting: both from the older series for nostalgia and of The Rock.  Do you think vocal casting is in itself a nod for older audiences as only adults would consider such vocal intertextuality? 

I think voice casting as a promotional tool depends on the project and the casting - the use of, say, Taylor Swift in a Dreamworks film targeted to adolescents is a hook to that audience, but it isn't necessarily intertextual, unless Swift is playing a character similar to the public persona of "Taylor Swift" (aw shucks country girl who is secretly pretty but the popular kids ignore, etc.).  Using the same guy who voiced Optimus Prime in the '80s to voice him today is a different sort of hook - back when the Michael Bay films were in pre-production, it was a huge, huge deal that Peter Cullen (the voice actor in question) was brought in as Optimus Prime.  This is a direct nostalgia grab, but I think it's also a reassurance for the adult fan - saying on some level that this is still YOUR Transformers.  It may look different, they may act different, but it SOUNDS right.  (Similarly, the way the films snuck in the classic "ch-ch-ch" transforming sound effect.)

On the other hand, I think Cliffjumper/The Rock was more of a stunt casting idea - it was made public during a conference call to investors in a "oh, we've got a big hollywood star lined up, this is really gonna put butts in seats" fashion.

Thanks for having me!  This has been fun!

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