G.I. Joe's Future Hangs on the Unbalanced

by Monte Williams

26 August 2009

From G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra poster 

For Nostalgia-blinded Fanboys Everywhere

G.I. Joe Resolute

G.I. Joe Resolute

For Nostalgia-blinded Fanboys Everywhere

Are the Rise of Cobra toys bold harbingers of a third golden age for the G.I. Joe brand, or merely another limp glut of retreads, repaints and do-overs?

Ultimately, though, the fate of the Rise of Cobra toys, and to a lesser extent the fate of the movie, will depend on something completely out of Hasbro’s control: nostalgia, and the extent to which a given consumer allows it to cloud his judgment. The G.I. Joe property has always been filled to bursting with laughably ridiculous nonsense, such as Serpentor (a test-tube villain composed of the DNA of history’s greatest military leaders) and Sgt. Slaughter (a fat pro wrestler turned indestructible Übermensch drill sergeant) and Cobra-La, those weird plant people from 1987’s animated G.I. Joe The Movie. This long tradition of cheerful corniness calls to mind a scene from Josh Blaylock’s G.I. Joe Reloaded #1, during which Destro offers the following challenge to Cobra Commander: “You intend to take your ragtag militia of an army, merge with a glorified bike gang… and give them control over the most powerful weapon since the atom bomb?”

With his response (“This is the way Cobra was always run!”), Cobra Commander could almost be speaking for nostalgia-blinded fanboys everywhere, except that fanboys tend to forget how unrelentingly stupid their favorite cartoons really were, and so a good number of them feel inexplicably betrayed by any silliness in The Rise of Cobra. While the film, like Transformers 2, will presumably make an obscene amount of money in the long term despite the absurd sense of betrayal on the part of old school fans, toy sales could conceivably suffer.

Since nostalgia so often hinders objective discourse in geek culture in this manner, someone really needs to give the Autobotic Asphyxiation crowd some perspective by writing a definitive critical analysis of the entire history of the G.I. Joe property. I thought I’d discovered just such an analysis when I first read the back-cover summary of Lars Pearson’s Now You Know: The Unauthorized Guide to G.I. Joe TV & Comics:

The 1980s: a world of Cold War tensions, Reaganomics, Madonna and MTV. In the midst of this raucous setting, a team of modern-day, tank-driving Arthurian knights lock and load against a terrorist organization determined to take over the world—as well as rip apart our moral fabric with pyramid sales schemes and mind-numbing sitcoms.

Through every triumph and tragedy, each war wound and victory purchased with patriotic blood, Now You Know dissects the ways in which G.I. Joe—America’s elite fighting force—clashed with the forces of darkness… not to mention communists, ninjas and giant vegetables.

Judging by this giddy, knowing summary, I expected… well, more of the same. I had hoped to read some pretentious, ironic analysis of one of the most absurd and resonant children’s properties of all time, when really, Now You Know is just your average television/comic book guide, featuring nothing more revelatory or insightful than brief plot summaries and predictable lists of episode highlights and continuity gaffes and the like.

So for now, knee-jerk geeks are left to wallow in their tireless, defensive love of all things ‘80s; well before The Rise of Cobra hit theaters, the most casual of glances at the leading geek websites showed that the Trukk not munky! population was almost eagerly anticipating another brutal rape of the collective childhoods of the ‘80s. Indeed, some fans dismissed the film months in advance simply because they did not approve of the style of facemask Snake Eyes wears in the movie. Must everyone who grew up with G.I. Joe treat its most inconsequential minutiae with such stubborn, unforgiving reverence?

If anyone can be said to have guided or inspired my own dedication to the G.I. Joe toy series in the late-‘80s, it would be my buddy Poptart. He was only three years my senior, but a 12-year-old seems wise to one who is merely nine. Further, Poptart had playground credentials to spare; he never bathed or brushed his teeth, and he cursed even more often than my old man, plus he was the only kid in town to possess the USS Flagg, being a seven-foot-long aircraft carrier playset that retailed for over $100.
Is Poptart excited about The Rise of Cobra, I wonder? Will he take his kids to see it? Will he watch with an open mind or, like so many other ostensibly loyal longtime fans, will he criticize any scene that dares to venture from the narrow path set by the ‘80s cartoon or comic book? If he is impressed by the movie, will he seek out the toys? If so, what will he see when he stands in the toy aisle: pale imitations of the vintage figures from his youth? Bold harbingers of an unprecedented third golden age for the G.I. Joe brand? Or just another limp glut of retreads, repaints and do-overs?

And what if the new toys do fail? If the fanboys rise up and boycott the Rise of Cobra series out of a misguided dedication to G.I. Joe’s clumsy, xenophobic ‘80s heyday, and if the figures end up warming the clearance aisle pegs for the next year or two as a result, will Hasbro backpedal yet again and reintroduce G.I. Joe 25th Anniversary’s what’s-old-is-new-again aesthetic? Or might Hasbro dare, instead, to resurrect its visionary Sigma 6 series?

Only time and the inevitable Rise of Cobra sequel will tell.

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