In 1986 a film known as Transformers: The Movie was released world wide. Part of the plot involved the then current Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, dying in combat and passing his job onto another Autobot; Ultra Magnus. Ultra Magnus’ performance as Autobot leader is often mocked and labelled as ineffective and full of mistakes. However, objective reflection reveals that Ultra Magnus did a better job than anyone realised.
On Earth, Autobot City falls under surprise attack from Megatron and his force of Decepticons; the early warning systems failing entirely thanks to the hi-jacking of an Autobot shuttle. Ultra Magnus gives standard, but effective, orders to set up the necessary defences including the transformation of Autobot City. The fortification defences are activated, Autobots commence fighting while a call is sent out for reinforcements – despite being badly outnumbered (as Perceptor specifically notes), the Autobots manage to hold out through the entire night.
Optimus Prime dies in combat against Megatron and passes the Autobot Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus, designating him the new Autobot Leader. Autobot City is in ruins, it’s defences rendered more or less non-existent. The surviving Autobots receive a distress call from Cybertron’s second Moon, which promptly gets devoured by Unicron – realising the proverbial has hit the fan, the Autobots ready for a trip back home to try to stop Unicron with the Matrix.
However, before they can board the two available shuttles, Galvatron and his newly constructed Sweeps attack the remnants of the Autobot forces where Ultra Magnus has to give his first order as overall Autobot commander. The order is for the Autobots to get on-board shuttles as fast as possible and leave Earth, fleeing from the Decepticon attack. Was this the right decision? At this point, the Autobots receive a distress call and know they have to get to Cybertron as quickly as possible, Autobot City is in ruins, and the Autobots are outnumbered and out-gunned. Therefore, it can be concluded that if the Autobots had stayed to fight then chances are that not only would they have been inevitably delayed, they would have also all been killed. Ultra Magnus gave the only sensible command available in the face of an overwhelming foe and no defence infrastructure.
On the journey back to Cybertron the two Autobot shuttles fall under attack once more; Galvatron’s forces (including a brand new, gargantuan Battleship) manage to critically damage Hot Rod and Kup’s ship forcing it to plummet to the planet Quintessa. Once that shuttle is out of commission, Galvatron turns his attention to the second shuttle (containing Ultra Magnus, Springer and others) and unleash a good old fashioned sci-fi missile swarm. It is at this point that Ultra Magnus says the oft-derided line “I can’t deal with that now” but that adequately describes the tactical situation. He is literally unable to aid Kup’s shuttle without presenting his own crew as an even easier target, while Autobot shuttles are clearly no match for Galvatron’s ship (especially combined with Cyclonus’ strafing runs). The only option left is to perform evasive manoeuvres and then trick Galvatron into believing that Ultra Magnus’ shuttle had also been destroyed – a ruse that works and lets Magnus and his colleagues escape that confrontation.
Ultra Magnus’ shuttle, however, is forced to crash land on the planet Junkion for repairs. As the crew starts their salvage operation, Galvatron once again attacks from the air. In an impossible tactical position, outnumbered and outgunned, the Autobots flee with the Decepticons in hot pursuit. Finally, Ultra Magnus seals his comrades in a cave (collapsing the entrance) and attempts to open the Autobot Matrix of Leadership (as per the Autobot prophecy ‘it would open in the Autobot’s darkest hour’). The Matrix fails to open and the Autobot Commander is blasted into pieces. So did Magnus do anything wrong? The combat situation was not winnable, few would argue on that point, so retreat was the only viable option. Yet the Decepticons had the advantage of greater speed and manoeuvrability due to their aerial nature so retreat could only buy a small amount of time. Magnus may have apparently died but if he had not sealed his comrades in the cave, then it was inevitable that the rest of the Autobots would have died as well. It would seem that Ultra Magnus had only one option available; save the lives of his comrades and attempt to play the only trump card he had left.
Ultra Magnus gets revived by the inhabitants of the planet Junkion soon enough and from that point the focus of the movie moves away from the Autobot warrior, he certainly makes no more combat decisions for the duration of the film. So how can Ultra Magnus’ actions as Autobot Commander be described? The situations he found himself in were often impossible with few to no viable options available but he was never-the-less able to hold his own ground, robbing the Decepticons of victory multiple times. In short, Ultra Magnus was not a Commander in the league of Optimus Prime (who is?) but his short reign was certainly not the failure many make it out to be. He was prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of those under his command, he kept them safe to the best of his abilities while setting the surviving Autobots on the path needed to achieve later victory. If you doubt this conclusion then compare his actions as leader to those of Rodimus Prime; a leader full of doubt and indecision, who lost the Matrix multiple times and who allowed the situation get so bad that the only way to fix things was to bring Optimus Prime back from the dead.
Note: An earlier version of this write-up was available on my (long since abandoned) personal blog.