I Was Once a Man!

In October of 2003, when I was employed as a writer for Toyfare magazine, I was tasked with writing an article pitting the two iconic toy lines against each other in a battle for overall supremacy. Hey, it’s the sort of things we did back then. I went into the article with some degree of personal bias. My Transformers collection was OK, but GI Joe is where all my time and money went — partly because there was so much more you could buy, and partly because GI Joe figures were a lot easier to buy on a lawn-mowing allowance. I’d set up epic-scale battles, using the entirety of our property: the bushes and yard in front, the unmaintained wooded area to the side, the wild woods in the back. The trees. The roof. They were repelling off the deck, digging trenches in the garden, setting up ambushes in the trees. The garage became a hangar for Ace and his Skystriker F-14, while the pile of gravel at the end of the driveway was where Cobra would launch their Rattler. Cutter and his hovercraft floated majestically but uselessly in the inflatable kiddie pool, confident in their control of this watery domain since Copperhead’s Sting Raider didn’t actually float. Plus, even if, say, Zartan hopped on his lame little water scooter and tried to take on the hover craft, Deep Six and the SHARC were always waiting at the bottom of the pool to swoop up in a surprise attack.

GI Joe had been reintroduced to the market in 1982 after a long hiatus. The venerable toy’s make-over for a new generation was radical. For starters, GI Joe wasn’t a guy; it was the codename for an entire team. The figures were scaled down from the original 12 inches to 3.75, a size made familiar by the wildly popular Star Wars toys. The figures were well-articulated, much more so than their Star Wars counterparts. Any kid with an allowance could afford GI Joe figures. In a way, the endless variety, small size, and affordability made this new line less like the original GI Joe and more like Hot Wheels.

The first wave of new Joes was modest. Much of the outlandish character design that would become the defining feature of the product was absent from that first series, where most of the guys were just dudes in olive drab fatigues. Only three of the figures really stood out as somewhat outlandish: Flash, the guy who fired a laser cannon, which for some reason required him to wear bright red umpire pads; Scarlett, the lady in blue and beige aerobics wear (or something); and Snake Eyes, clad entirely in black because Hasbro was too cheap to paint another figure. This conservative, reality-based (relatively speaking) approach to character design lasted for the initial wave and was quickly abandoned in favor of increasingly cool and/or ludicrous figures. Snake Eyes proved immediately the most popular, while poor guys like Grunt, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Zap, and Short Fuse were almost entirely forgotten in favor of a military unit that soon looked like it shopped at the same stores as the Village People.

In 1985, Hasbro launched both a cartoon series and a comic book in support of their increasingly popular new GI Joe line. The comic book, in particular, was surprisingly complex given its origin as a toy line promotional vehicle. Head writer Larry Hama treated the series with the same care as he would any other series. The results made the GI Joe comic book one of the most popular of the 1980s. Hama refused to be constrained by the toy tie-in origin, and the characters became increasingly complex, just as the world they inhabited continued to be fleshed out. Matching this multi-pronged strategy was Hasbro’s other big toy line, the Transformers.

The article, which evaluated each side based on things like best hero, best villain, most episodes, best comic story, and coolest base ended up being a testament to my journalistic integrity, or at least to the intervening hand of my editor, as the Transformers narrowly edged out out the Joes 11 to 9. It stung me, as a lifetime Joe fan, but I salved my feelings with the fact that the Joes won in all the best categories. They had the best lady (Baroness), the coolest hero (Snake Eyes), the best play set, the best comic book storyline (that Snake Eyes – Storm Shadow thing), and the best cartoon storyline (the two-parter “There’s No Place Like Springfield,” where Shipwreck goes home). Transformers succeeded largely on the merits of Starscream and the fact that the British made like 50 billion issues of the comic while the Japanese made something close to seventy-five trillion different versions of the cartoon.

I watched the GI Joe cartoon and bought the comic book. My friends and I would gather and eagerly discuss the unfolding adventures of Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, the Hard and Soft Masters, Zartan, and the mysterious ties that bound them together (and somehow Firefly and, like, was it Halo? Wait, was his name Halo, or was he just a HALO jumper?). And who could forget the issue where Destro and Cobra Commander had to go undercover and so remove their usual disguises in favor of slightly more mundane disguises, prompting Destro to criticize Cobra Commander’s taste in attire (which was very 1970s, complete with a drooping mustache) only to be rebuked by Cobra Commander with the line, “I’m not taking fashion advice from someone who wears and open shirt and gold medallion.”

It was obvious as soon as I got the Toyfare assignment that I was favoring GI Joe. Heck, other than the movie and something about Jazz breakdancing at some point (didn’t Gung-Ho breakdance, too?), I could hardly even remember any episodes of the Transformers cartoon, and I’d never read the Transformers comic book at all, even when Spider-Man showed up in it to boost sales. Conversely, I read GI Joe from issue one through much of the 1980s and could still remember most everything that happened in the cartoon. OK, I do remember a Transformers episode where…did Soundwave open a disco?

On the other hand, I also remembered the Joes’ cartoon movie.

Oh, Joe…

Reaction to the Transformers movie was mixed but generally enthusiastic. The decision to kill off everyone’s favorite robots and replace them with Judd Nelson was controversial, but folks rolled with it, more or less. At least it was still transforming robots hollerin’ and shooting lasers at each other. Plus, it featured the voice talents of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles (AND JUDD NELSON!) These days, the movie enjoys a modicum of respect, even if most of that respect comes as a result of nostalgia. GI Joe: The Movie, on the other hand, was reviled when it first came out, and nostalgia has not softened opinions of it, though it does enjoy a more dubious honor that places it in the realm of “so terrible it’s great.” When working on my article for Toyfare, I went back and revisited both movies. Transformers: The Movie played like a really good music video. GI Joe: The Movie played like.. well, a terrible cartoon movie.

After a pretty great opening battle full of jet packs that affords the Joes an opportunity to pose majestically on the top of the Statue of Liberty, the action proper picks up with Cobra Commander and a guy named Serpentor screaming at each other. As was established in the comic book, Serpentor was engineered from the DNA of history’s greatest conquerors to be the ultimate warrior. Cobra Commander should have known better than to trust the work of a genetic researcher who walks around shirtless and wearing a billowing purple cape, because it turns out Dr. Mindbender didn’t take into account how many of history’s greatest conquerors were insane. Thus, Serpentor emerged as something of a mixed bag. Everyone should have been clued in as soon as he started insisting on wearing a hilarious snake costume 24 hours a day. Where the hell did Serpentor even get that outfit? Did Cobra just have it lying around, like the mascot outfit at a fast food restaurant? Before Serpentor claimed it as his own, it was probably worn by a new recruit whose job it was to stand on the sidewalk, handing out flyers and coupons.

For some reason, though, Cobra bigwigs Destro and the Baroness seem happy to throw their lot in with Serpentor. Smarting from their failure to blow up the Statue of Liberty (which, to be honest, seems like a petty mission for an organization that has spent much of its time trying to conquer the entire world), Serpentor is left to brood in his throne room when Cobra headquarters is infiltrated by a mysterious spy. She reveals herself to Serpentor as Pythona, and if nothing else, she’s as committed to the illogical extremes of the snake motif as he is. Even though they’ve never met, Serpentor pronounces her “somehow familiar” and so decides to follow her order to attack GI Joe and retrieve something called BET, which he would already have if he just got basic cable.

As with all Cobra offensives, this one ends with Cobra Commander shrieking “Cobra! Retreat!!!” He also manages to manipulate the situation so that a wounded Serpentor is abandoned on the battle field and captured by GI Joe, although Destro and Baroness register lukewarm protests. Rather than hopping into a bunch of gyrocopters and whizzing off like they usually do, Cobra Commander says he knows of a secret place they can go to regroup. And this is where the movie completely unhinges itself from everything established by the comic books and the TV series, dashing headlong into the arena of the batshit insane.

It turns out Pythona is a representative of an ancient race that makes its home in a tropical paradise above the Arctic Circle, called Cobra-la. Cobra Commander knows about it because, surprise! He’s not a used-car salesman with a grudge after all (that was in the comics, right?). He’s actually a thousands-of-years old member of a secret race sent by their poorly-named leader, Golobulus (voiced by The Story of GI Joe star Burgess Meredith, who I guess figured if Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles could do Transformers: The Movie…), to reconnoiter the outside world and lay the foundations for Cobra-la’s re-emergence upon the global scene. Their plan for world domination? Apparently, Golobulus doesn’t get BET, but he does get TBS, because he basically decides to use the plot from Moonraker, releasing spores that will devolve humans into their basest, reptilian state. In order to launch the spores into space, though, he needs GI Joe’s new BET energy generator. He also needs to express his disappointment with Cobra Commander by blowing some spores into the hapless Cobra founder’s face, causing the commander to begin his regression to a shrieky snakelike form.

So right here the movie starts to go wildly off the rails. Cobra isn’t really a terrorist organization; it’s an ancient race of creatures who didn’t quite understand the concept of a play on words when they named their Shangri-la, Cobra-la? Seriously? And Cobra Commander is an ancient warrior member of this race? For their part in things, Destro and Baroness seem pretty laid back about the whole thing. Fans, even ones coming to the movie long after the fact and when we were far too old, were willing to accept some tinkering with the formula. After all, there had never been much continuity between the comic book and TV show anyway. But this whole Cobra-la thing? That came completely out of left field, and no one watching thought it was a very good idea. But it was hardly the last awful idea screenwriter Ron Friedman would throw into the mix.

After effectively eliminating most of Cobra’s popular characters in favor of a bunch of goofy monsters with names like Golobulus and Nemesis Enforcer (the hell???), the movie decided to do the same with the Joes. Where you might have been hoping for lots of action involving Snake Eyes and Scarlett, or hell, even Shipwreck and Stalker and Snowjob, everyone with whom you are familiar is relegated to little more than a cameo (except for Roadblock, who’s always welcome, and Duke, but honestly — did anyone ever really like Duke? He was just a dude in green pants) in favor of an entirely new bunch of characters, including a ninja named Jinx, a Latino guy, a Brooklyn dude named Tunnel Rat, a tall black guy whose special commando skill seems to be that he likes basketball (seriously?), and a guy named Chuckles who wears a Hawaiian shirt and has no other notable personality or professional traits.

Then there’s Falcon, who is basically just the character Flint, but voiced by Don Johnson. Falcon is supposed to be the lovable rascal, but mostly he’s just awful and annoying. Lazy, incompetent, horny, and worst of all, he gets to be a Joe because Duke is his half-brother. Oh yeah, he also comes across as a borderline rapist when he corners Jinx in a dark garage and does the ol’ “come on baby, you know you want it” routine, which was supposed to be, I don’t know. Funny, I guess, or rakishly charming? Even when his dereliction of duty results in Cobra rescuing Serpentor and wounding a bunch of Joes you wish were the main character instead of Falcon, the guy is let off the hook with barely a slap on the wrist. As far as I can tell, his offenses at this point would have justified a death sentence. But instead, Falcon is sent to “the Slaughterhouse,” and any fan of GI Joe knows that means we’re about to suffer through twenty minutes of ’80s icon Sgt. Slaughter yelling at stuff. Slaughter even has his own crack squadron of troublemakers, none of whom you will care about. Falcon’s “scared straight” experience is interrupted, however, when Cobra attacks, wounds Duke, and captures the BET. It’s now up to Flacon to rise to the occasion, become a hero, and lead a ragtag bunch of new recruits to rescue all the characters you wish the movie was focusing on.

If the whole “relegate all the old characters to the background to make way for new ones” shtick sounds familiar, and if the “introduce a cocky young screw-up who eventually becomes the hero” thing sound familiar, it’s because you probably saw it all in the previous year’s Transformers: The Movie, which was also written by Ron Friedman. It’s basically the same movie, only GI Joe didn’t have the heart to actually kill anyone — though it does turn Cobra Commander into a snake/salamander thing that squeals, “I was once a man…a man!” But everything else is pretty much the same. Shuffle off the established characters to make way for new characters no one is all that interested in. Get rid of the main villain everyone loved and replace him with a bunch of new guys (seriously — what does Chuckles do? At least Transformers got Galvatron). Hell, most of this I could have accepted, but the endless mucking with and undoing of everything that came before the movie irritated the few people still watching GI Joe by the time the movie came out. No one wanted Cobra to be a bunch of gooey snake people. We wanted them to be incompetent terrorists! And I really don’t think it was wise to replace the old “Cobra!!!” battle cry with Serpentor yelling “Cobra-lalalalalalala!”

Also, I assume that after the big battle with Cobra-La wraps up, Falcon had to stand some sort of trial. Right? Right??? I mean, jeez. If you set a building on fire, you don’t get to be a hero just because you grab a hose once the fire department shows up.

As the new villain, Golobulus is ludicrous and bland, which is a bad combination. Cobra’s stock in trade was to be ludicrous and interesting. Burgess Meredith collects a check for voicing Golobulus, and he does a decent job, though he sounds a bit too old to match the character. But then, I guess I can’t really say what a part-man, part-spider, part-crab, part-spore-guy would sound like. All the pre-existing players are shuffled to the background in favor of this new bunch of alien monster things. The Transformers killed off a bunch of Transformers, but you know what they replaced them with? Other Transformers. Imagine if, instead, Optimus Prime and Megatron had been written out of the story and replaced by sass-talking chipmunks or gaseous clouds of vapor that speak in monotone. For anyone who came into GI Joe: The Movie as a fan of the comic book or the cartoon — and I can’t imagine anyone but those people would bother to watch — this misfire is unsalvageable as anything other than an embarrassing, ill-conceived disaster that entertains sheerly by dint of its own wrongness.

Even though Transformers: The Movie is ostensibly better, GI Joe: The Movie is the one I love. The screenwriter must have had so much booze and amphetamines that the whole thing veered off into the outer limits of madness, and there’s a lot of fun that can be extracted from listening to a voice actor earnestly trying to make “Cobra-lalalalalalala!” sound like a menacing battle cry. The best parts include Serpentor trying to mint that new “Cobra-lalalalalala” war cry and a scene where Joe member Beachhead is saddled with training the new recruits, who are standing in front of him and designed in such a hilariously sloppy fashion that they look like a bunch of kids who won a special visit to GI Joe headquarters. All they lack is a talking dog, and they’d be ready to become Hanna-Barbera’s latest gang of crime-solving teenagers. I also like that when the Joes are finally confronted with Cobra Commander in his snakelike form, no one is all that fazed by it. The dude’s been shrieking at them for years and constantly trying to blow up the world. You’d think that his arrival amongst the Joes, transformed into a meekly whimpering “I was once a man” snake thing would raise some eyebrows, but the reaction is mostly, “Huh.”

There’s really no point at which the movie engages the viewer. Maybe the part where Duke gets wounded, but compare the sort of ho-hum quality of that to the final battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, Say what you will about the Transformers movie as a whole, but that scene was well planned and executed so that fans had an actual emotional response to it other than, “Oh, brother!” GI Joe: The Movie never focuses on anything in particular, and that means even when the action is goofy enough to be entertaining, it’s still kind of not that entertaining. But it does have a lot of action, and for someone without any investment in the Joes as a long-standing property, its weirdness will just be silly instead of a bizarre slap in the face.

Which, I suppose, might be how fans of the original line of Joe dolls felt when they saw the wacky 1980s incarnation.

2 replies »

  1. To be fair, the cartoon was a LOT more pulpy/wacky sci-fi than a lot of people remember, so the whole Cobra-La thing was only a little bit of a stretch. I enjoyed it, but then, back then I enjoyed anything that gave some backstory and forced some continuity into the episodic shows we generally got.


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