Transform and Rise Up
The Rise of Cobra and the Future of the G.I. Joe Brand
By Monte Williams
Originally published by PopMatters; August 27, 2009
“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 throughout 2009; 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 tantrums across the internet in the days leading up to the film’s August 7 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 me 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 1980s (and the late 1960s and early 1970s), 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, 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.
I recently purchased twenty 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 Revenge of the Fallen 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.
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 hint of silliness in The Rise of Cobra. While the film, like Revenge of the Fallen, will presumably make an obscene amount of money in the long term despite this 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 show/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.
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 1980s. 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 1980s, it would be my buddy Poptart. He was only three years my senior, but a twelve-year-old seems wise indeed 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, 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.