In some famous franchises, characters recur across timelines. Sometimes this is intentional, like with Black Adder and Baldric, and others it’s driven by popularity, such as Char Aznable from Gundam. In some cases, like Transformers, it’s both. There will always be an Optimus Prime, and as such, there will always be a Megatron. There have now been quite a few Megatrons, but two in particular stand out for me: the original Megatron (also known as G1 Megatron), and the Megatron of Transformers: Beast Wars.
G1 Megatron of the animated series was somewhat unusual for a villain of an 80’s cartoon. While he was certainly ruthless, since he was the perpetrator of a massive war of conquest which drained his own world of its natural resources, and was willing to do the same to Earth, he was not one-dimensionally evil. Megatron treated his men well for the most part, even the treacherous Starscream (in fact, I have always suspected that Megatron kept Starscream around to show the other Decepticons what the alternative to him was, and that it was not pretty). It could be argued that he did so to ensure their loyalty rather than out of actual respect or compassion, but even so, this shows that he is more of a thinker, a general, than a supervillain whose goal is to be evil 100% of the time. Megatron certainly wants to win the Cybertronian wars, and will use any tactic, no matter how treacherous, to defeat the Autobots, but in this he’s not very different from many conquerors in our own history, and as such, I find him much more believable . Some might say he follows a code of honor, but I would say he’s more of a rational being with a desire to win at all costs. I believe that if Megatron had won, his empire would have been a military dictatorship, one which relied upon endless conquest and expansion. He was both powerful and clever, and the fact that he lost as often as he did was due mainly to the fact that he underestimated humans, whom the Autobots were much more capable of befriending given their views on egalitarianism, and the fact that Optimus Prime was practically a religious figure where Megatron was simply a military dictator.
Megatron met his end in the first Transformers movie, crippled in a Pyrrhic stalemate with Optimus Prime and cast adrift into space by Starscream. There he met the demigod Unicron, who recreated him as Galvatron, a much more powerful robot, but one subservient to Unicron. Initially, Galvatron retained Megatron’s personality, remaining dangerously clever and ruthless (and finally willing to off Starscream!). He served Unicron only long enough to attempt to overthrow the monster and use him as a weapon, a plan which backfired and led to his defeat at the hands of Rodimus Prime. This defeat damaged Galvatron’s mind, and left him far more irrational and needlessly violent. Thus was the great general Megatron lost forever.
The Megatron of Beast Wars, who named himself after his predecessor, had many traits in common with the original, but was much more of the supervillain mindset. Chafing under the rule of the Maximals (descendents of the Autobots), Megatron broke from the rest of his Predacon (descendents of the Decepticons) brethren, hired a group of very dangerous criminals, and stole a powerful artifact to seize power quickly. This led to his group, as well as the Maximal team called on to stop them, being thrust backwards in time and marooned on what they eventually realized was Earth.
Beast Wars Megatron had none of the loyalty to or respect for his men the original did. He saw them as expendable resources and threw them into situations where they were as likely to die as not, and when they did fall, he rarely showed anything resembling concern, except perhaps in the form of sarcasm. He also did not have the loyalty of most of his team. From the initial betrayal of Dinobot, to the constant scheming of Tarantulas and Black Arachnia, down to dim-witted Waspinator’s “plans,” Megatron was constantly contending with his own minions just as much as the Maximals. Yet somehow, despite this, he managed not only to stay on top within his organization, but to defeat Optimus Primal fairly often. Part of this is probably due to the fact that television standards had changed somewhat by the 90’s, and bad guys were allowed to win once in awhile, but it nevertheless showed that this Megatron was a criminal mastermind, capable of playing the game of treachery on many levels.
Beast Wars Megatron also differed from his predecessor in that the original Megatron, while ruthless in the extreme, was never sadistic. He did what he had to in order to win, but had little interest in making his enemies suffer more than necessary. The new Megatron delighted in the pain and torment of his foes, and in defiling and corrupting them. His treatment of Rampage was particularly nasty. Rampage was a creature akin to Frankenstein’s monster, given to horrible violence, but only because he was created that way, and abandoned by the Maximals who made him. Megatron captured Rampage, cut out part of his spark (a Transformer’s soul) and used it to torture the creature into submission. In addition, he created an evil clone of the Maximal Dinobot in order to mock the latter’s death and heroic sacrifice.
If Beast Wars Megatron had a fatal flaw, it was his ever-growing sense of hubris and invulnerability. Through the course of the series, he grew in power, both as a robot as well as in his understanding of time. He came to enjoy making grandiose speeches about his own power and evil to himself, which suggested that he was slowly going mad, if not exactly losing his faculties (for what it’s worth, I did enjoy how hammy he could be in said speeches). This led him to take actions that were increasingly brazen and catastrophic to the space-time continuum, actions which cost him the tenuous loyalty of his soldiers, as well as their lives in several cases toward the end.
I enjoy both of these Megatrons because they are in many ways opposite sides of the coin from one another. One could argue which is better ad infinitum (and if I’m lucky, maybe one or two of you will comment and do so), but I don’t think it matters, as it is very enjoyable to watch both of them work for different reasons.