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

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

The fate of 'The Rise of Cobra' (both the toys and the movie) might depend on something completely out of Hasbro’s control: nostalgia.

“I couldn't help but be amused over the past 6 months as I watched many folks in the fandom bemoan all of the ‘unrealistic’ behavior of the upcoming film, while at the same exact time, they expressed frustration that Hasbro hadn't yet produced a Dr. Mindbender action figure.

People want realism, yet they're also clamoring for a shirtless, monocled former orthodontist who is now a master of mind control and expert mad scientist with a specialty in genetic engineering. And folks think The Rise of Cobra looks ridiculous?” -- Justin Bell

One of the most cruelly dismissive headlines from the Onion archives is

“Hanes, Fruit of the Loom Locked in Bitter Struggle No One Else Aware Of”, which calls to mind G.I. Joe fans and the alternately manic and hostile anticipation they felt for The Rise of Cobra. G.I. Joe apologists spent the entire summer proactively defending the film as mindless popcorn fun that should not be taken too seriously (nor, by clear implication, judged too harshly); whereas more critical Joe enthusiasts like Topless Robot’s Rob Bricken decided months in advance that the movie would be an unsalvageable mess. (Bricken even hosted a contest wherein readers were encouraged to predict the worst moment in the film.)

As loyal, geeky G.I. Joe fans chose sides and pitched their inevitable, escalating series of tantrums across the internet in the days leading up to the film’s August release date, most “normal” Americans planned to either avoid The Rise of Cobra altogether or treat it as a fun but forgettable afternoon distraction, never realizing that in certain circles, the movie was the pop cultural event of 2009, even before its release.

Or maybe they did realize. Or at least, maybe the men realized. Consider: throughout late July and the first days of August, I visited my local Target, Fred Meyer, K-Mart and Wal-Mart stores nearly every day in search of Rise of Cobra action figures, and I saw something during those visits that I’d never seen in my (many) previous toy aisle loitering shifts: grown men, who did not appear to be typical toy enthusiasts, digging excitedly through rows of action figures. These were not frail milquetoasts or anxious asthmatics like myself and my nerdy toy-hoarding brethren, but actual, honest-to-god men, dirty from a day’s (real) work.

Clearly, these fellows had seen the Rise of Cobra trailer, and it had apparently sparked a wee flame of nostalgia in their hearts. This may indicate that the live-action movie will ultimately return G.I. Joe to the position of toy aisle dominance it enjoyed in the ‘80s (and the late ‘60s and early ‘70s), but of course that will depend on how well the new toys are received once they are purchased. The figures seem to have been selling reasonably briskly for the past several weeks (though obviously my casual study of a few retail centers in southern Idaho doesn’t qualify as a scientific financial analysis), but more telling by far will be the rate at which G.I. Joe action figures are moving from shelves a year from now.

Commercial performance aside, there is also the toy line’s artistic success or failure to consider. I speculated about the creative future of the G.I. Joe property as recently as December 2007 ( Lowbrow Literati: How Far Will A Man Go for G.I. Joe?), daring to hope that “Hasbro chooses to go forward” after they’d canceled their brilliant, ahead-of-its-time Sigma 6 series. Sigma 6 was superior on many levels to its more popular A Real American Hero predecessor, but it was also different, which is the ultimate no-no where nostalgic properties are concerned.

More recently, I purchased 20 or so action figures from Hasbro’s new Rise of Cobra series. The sculpting in this series is mostly attractive and occasionally even stellar, and each figure boasts some pretty impressive articulation, and Hasbro certainly hasn’t skimped on the accessories.

That said, many of the figures are little more than repainted re-releases of figures from the uneven 25th Anniversary collection. I would suggest that it is difficult to “go forward” with yesterday’s tools, but I also concede that any casual collector who comes to the Rise of Cobra toy line by way of the movie is not likely to care (nor even necessarily notice) that some of these figures have been released before, just as most moviegoers don’t care what critics think of Transformers 2 or The Rise of Cobra.

For those who do care about such things, the Rise of Cobra toys have thus far been a critical triumph. Even collectors who made clear their (preemptive) disdain for the movie have admitted that the toys are cool. Michael Crawford, who is so respected and imitated and cited in the toy world that I wouldn’t hesitate to call him the Roger Ebert of action figure criticism, rated the Rise of Cobra Shipwreck figure 3.5 stars out of a possible 4, and Articulated Discussion and Infinite Hollywood both made week-long events of their Rise of Cobra toy coverage; most of the reviews from both sites ranged from positive to glowing.

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