Megatron is not a good person, that much is clear. But what of his cause?
A long time ago, I waxed rhapsodic about my love of the recently-sort-of-revived Beast Wars Transformers franchise and how it dodges many tropes of its kind of story to rich results. Its protagonists are a research and exploration team pulled into a war they did not want to fight, and they spend much of the first season trying to achieve goals rather than stop their adversary Megatron from achieving his. In between their battles, they study the world on which they’ve become trapped, regarding learning as its own reward. Characters on both sides of the show’s central conflict are shown to have interpersonal clashes, competing goals, and different leadership styles, which occasionally bring even generally copacetic groups to blows. It is, at times, a far deeper and more emotional story than children’s media of its time was usually allowed to be, telling hard-hitting stories about disability, loyalty, growth, and giant shapeshifting robots stabbing each other in the heart with swords made of energized crystal. The untold sums I have spent completing a collection of associated merchandise speak for themselves.
But there are ways in which Beast Wars reflects the unwholesome DNA of its origins, patterns that permeate North American action storytelling and cast a pall over the entire genre. And those ways all meet in the person of Megatron himself.
Megatron Is Not a Good Person
Megatron, the leader of the Predacon faction that is Beast Wars’s primary antagonists and named after the more famous Decepticon leader from previous Transformers stories, establishes himself almost immediately as a love-to-hate villain, downright Vaudevillian in his mannerisms and expansive in his designs. He seems at first to be a would-be conqueror, seeking to acquire resources on prehistoric Earth to fuel a conquest of the planet Cybertron, from which both the Maximal and Predacon races hail. Such an act would rekindle a centuries-past conflict called the “Great War,” which otherwise ended in a treaty called the Pax Cybertronia. Whether this is irredentism or simply acquisitiveness, it seems straightforward enough. Similarly, Megatron’s faction is full of backstabbing, hidden agendas, wanton disregard for collateral damage, and many other unpleasant qualities, making them easy to oppose. Megatron himself obviously does not have the best interests of his team at heart, routinely subjecting them to bodily harm if it serves his strategic goals. He often leads through intimidation and likes to toy with and torment his foes rather than simply defeat them. When he reaches the height of his power, in the Beast Machines follow-up to Beast Wars that I’m here considering part of the same story, he does so with the robotic equivalent of a bioweapon and enslaves much of his home planet of Cybertron to his will in the process. He becomes a nigh-cosmic horror by the end of the series, switching between prepared bodies as suits him and subsisting on a diet of the literal souls of his fellow Cybertronians. To call Megatron “not a good person” is a miracle of understatement: he is literally and figuratively monstrous, a megalomaniacal sadist and burgeoning elder demon who tortures and enslaves not just his enemies, but his even his allies if they’re not compliant enough, and this monstrosity is clear even before Beast Wars’s characterizations properly solidify a few episodes into its run.
But these are not Megatron’s stated goals. Megatron does not recruit his initial followers with the pitch that he’ll torture them with energy weapons if they disobey him, or promise them a bright future as meals for his future ascension. What he tells them says a great deal about the status of Predacons in Cybertronian society and raises some difficult questions.
Pax for Thee, But Not for Me
One of the first things we hear from Megatron is that the Pax Cybertronia resulted in “peace on your side…but not on ours.” Later in the series, Predacons outside of Megatron’s faction are introduced, and they are pursuing essentially the same goals as Megatron despite regarding him as a dangerous renegade. Predacons all, it seems, resent the inferior social position that the Pax Cybertronia imposed on them, not least because the Predacons and Maximals are not even signatories to this treaty—their respective Decepticon and Autobot ancestors were. This plus Megatron’s initial plans were enough for him to recruit both his initial crew and a Predacon police officer sent to bring him into custody. Later still, Megatron describes the Maximals and their Autobot ancestors as “you who made us slaves!” When the show returns to Cybertron, the Maximals almost always use the words “Maximal” and “Cybertronian” interchangeably, scarcely acknowledging that Predacons ever lived there.
These signs all point to Predacons not being, and possibly never having been, more than a small fraction of Cybertron’s population, and to facing ongoing hostility from the Maximals even in the centuries of peace following the Great War. From there, it starts to look like the much larger population of Maximals hopes to keep the much smaller population of Predacons “in their place” and out of power. These possibilities would paint Optimus Primal and his Maximals into an awkward narrative corner, casting a pall over their supposed heroism…if anyone bothered to ask them.
Questions That Never Get Asked
Beast Wars isn’t interested in questions about what Cybertronian society is like. It is strongly focused on its characters rather than its setting and never actually shows us the society from which its characters hail. Like many action-oriented stories told in the North American tradition, the narrative does not care. The hints and suggestions that the Predacons are not a planet-scale invading army, but a put-upon minority, are background dressing, nods to the idea that a story is deeper if it makes sense why people would follow someone like Megatron. As far as the overall narrative of Beast Wars is concerned, it does not matter what story those tidbits of worldbuilding add up to tell.
So which is it? Why are the Predacons, as a population, so angry? Are they a put-upon minority, would-be conquerors, or both, or neither? Is Megatron dramatizing the state of Cybertronian society and merely annoyed that his “team” isn’t subjugating the whole planet? Is Megatron speaking truthfully about the status of his people, with his status as an utter garbage fire of a person being unrelated? Is Megatron a narcissist wielding legitimate grievances to his own advantage, or a narcissist inventing grievances to delude himself and his followers into a sense of righteousness?
Beast Wars will never answer these questions, not because the show ended in the 2000s, but because American-style stories find questions like these irrelevant and suspicious to even ask. The Predacons in general and Megatron’s faction in particular want to change things, and that’s enough, all by itself, to make them The Bad Guys. The narrative of Beast Wars presents Megatron’s opposition to “peace” as self-evidently wrong and worthy of enmity, with no interest in whether that peace is positive or negative. Megatron’s status as a would-be revolutionary is enough, in this storytelling tradition, to explain why he becomes a soul-devouring demon by the end of his story. After all, only bad people want to change things.