Netflix and Rooster Teeth team up for a dark, compelling set of stories about everyone’s favorite robots in disguise.
Transformers exists to sell toys. This has been true since the beginnings of the long-lived science-fiction franchise. Barring something truly bizarre happening, it will continue to be true. However! Just because advertising is an inherent part of stories about the long-running war between the heroic Autobots and the wicked Decepticons does not mean that it is the whole of what those stories can be.
Over the decades of its existence, the creative folks who have worked in the Transformers universe have crafted some genuinely terrific pop culture. To write personally for a moment, I’m particularly fond of 2018’s thoroughly charming Bumblebee movie and the comic mini-series Last Stand of the Wreckers – a bots-on-a-mission story that pitted the titular band of semi-obscure anti-heroic Autobots against a planet-sized prison ruled by the Caligula-esque Decepticon Overlord.
And I’m pleased to say that, based on its first season, Netflix’s new Transformers animated series War for Cybertron Trilogy is shaping up to be a strong chapter in the series’ history.
Produced by Rooster Teeth (gen:LOCK), Polygon Pictures (Blame!) and Allspark Animation (Transformers: Prime), War for Cybertron Trilogy’s first season – subtitled Siege – traces the last days of the original Autobot/Decepticon war on their home planet. No one is in a good place. The Autobots, even their valiant leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Jake Foushee) are running on fumes and facing despair.
The Decepticons, especially their mighty leader Megatron (voiced by Jason Marnocha) are reveling in power and growing ever more vicious. And those Cybertronians who aren’t aligned with either faction, like the hardscrabble scavenger Bumblebee (voiced by Joe Zieja) will do whatever they must to get through one more day. Cybertron itself is all but a ruin. The center cannot hold. And indeed, it does not.
War for Cybertron Trilogy’s greatest strength is its character work. Writers Brandon M. Easton (Agent Carter), Gavin Hignight (Star Wars Resistance) and George Krstic (Megas XLR) use the desperate state of Cybertron and the war’s long shadow to craft developments both dramatic and subtle across Siege’s six episodes.
War for Cybertron Trilogy’s greatest strength is its character work.
Megatron’s arc in particular is extremely compelling. Once a heroic freedom fighter and brother-in-arms to Autobots Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus (voiced by Edward Bosco), Megatron has spent many cycles as a hardened commander by the time Siege begins. But as the war escalates and takes unexpected turns, the Decepticon leader finds himself at a series of moral crossroads. He has long believed himself to be an honorable warrior – a ruthless and brutal one yes, but not a sadistic or power-hungry one.
Siege’s events force Megatron to reevaluate that belief, to ask whether he values his self-proclaimed honor over his desire to rule over Cybertron – and by extension whether it is more important to rule Cybertron or crush Optimus Prime. There’s a bit of tragedy in the fact that, for all his introspection, Megatron may not fully understand just who he’s become. He’s an excellently-written villain, brought to life by Marnocha’s terrific vocal work (the way he coldly draws out his “Yesssss” is gloriously evil – and perhaps a fun nod to David Kaye’s Megatron) and the body language the animation team crafts for him.
Megatron’s actions during Siege do not affect him alone. Directly and indirectly, they shape the fate of Cybertron – as do the actions of the other players. Ratchet (voiced by Rafael Goldstein), an Autobot weapons designer who became a medic to right his wrongs, insists on giving aid to all who need it, regardless of their faction.
His compassion has consequences for both Mirage (voiced by Shawn Hawkins), an Autobot enraged by Decepticon war crimes and Impactor (voiced by Brook Chalmers), a Decepticon who has not forgotten the cruel classism and oppression that sparked the original rebellion. Jetfire (voiced by Keith Silverstein), one of Megatron’s lieutenants, finds himself questioning his values in response to Megatron’s own questioning. And Optimus Prime, pushed into a corner and pondering whether or not he’s doomed the Autobots, keeps searching for right action – in turn prompting the same search in his peers.
War for Cybertron Trilogy’s ensemble is a strong one, and between their history and their constantly evolving group dynamics, the prospect of their further adventures is promising.
Visually, War for Cybertron Trilogy makes the most of its sometimes-limited resources. Cybertron is a grey, inhospitable place. But, given that the planet has been rendered a ruin by a decades-possibly-centuries-long war, it fits. And when color does come into play, it is all the more striking for the contrast.
The bulkiness of the Transformers’ designs means that the fight choreography can be quite rough in places, but again, the tone makes this work. The Autobot/Decepticon war has dragged on for a long, long, long time. The Autobots are working with limited resources against a militarized foe who have them beaten in the numbers game hundreds of times over. Sometimes brawling is all that can be managed (even though the Decepticon Brawl is nowhere to be seen). And when Siege does go for spectacle, it works and works well.
Based on Siege, Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy is shaping up to be a fine installment of the long-running franchise. If cartoons are going to be made to sell toys, may they be made with the care and craft that War for Cybertron Trilogy deploys. Its character work is terrific. Its voice acting is quite good, as are the ways it deploys its animation and action. Let’s hope the upcoming second chapter, Earthrise, continues down this path.
Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy – Siege is currently rolling out on Netflix.