Why I Like "G.I. Joe" Over "The Transformers"
On the surface, G.I. Joe and The Transformers are pretty similar. They were both released at the same time to capitalize on the relaxing of regulations that prohibited TV shows based on toys, both were produced by Marvel and Sunbow, both shared a lot of the same staffers and voice actors, and both shows were objectively pretty bad for a lot of the same reasons.
So how come I like G.I. Joe and not The Transformers? This has been true ever since both shows premiered when I was a young, impressionable teenager, and it’s something I still can’t quite figure out. However, after applying my usual amount of overthinking everything, I’ve got a few ideas on why.
For the Transformers fans: please don’t take this as an invitation to look at this list and say about each element, “But Transformers TOTALLY does that, too, so YOU SUCK man your DUMB and I HATE you.” This is just me. If you’re going to do anything, make up a comparable list for why Transformers does it for you. I am serious in seeking a answer to the question I ask in the title of my Transformers review.
- G.I. Joe is the iconic image of what Americans want our military interventions to be. We want to believe that our fighting forces, more than any other in the world, will “fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble,” and that we’ll “never give up” and “stay ’till the fight’s won.” This mythic image of the American military really took root after World War II, even if it hits the rocks almost immediately with outcome of the Korean War. However, it’s a pretty powerful patriotic image, and happened to be perfectly in-tune with the prevailing attitudes of the Reagan 80′s.
- Related to the above, I think it’s also part of the ideal American military intervention that nobody is ever hurt or killed. At least on our side.
- All the set-up you need for G.I. Joe is right in the opening credits. A new cast member never needs an origin story unless the writers wanted to tell one, and lots of Joes and Cobras just show up and jump in the deep end. In contrast, The Transformers spent its first 3 episodes essentially on set-up, and then had to waste great chunks of episodes to explain where the Dinobots, the Constructicons, and the Insecticons came from. That’s time that could have been better spent doing just about anything else. Most origin stories are BORING, and unless they greatly inform a character’s future actions, it’s a lot more important to define a character by what they’re doing instead of where they came from.
- Speaking of those opening credits, I love the G.I. Joe opening credits sequences, especially the one that was used starting with “The Pyramid of Darkness:”
I always liked that it tells an exciting one-minute story while also introducing all the major good guys and bad guys. Batman the Animated Series is the only show I can think of offhand that did that better.
- Those credits also give a hint about why Joe wins: the Joes work as a team and Cobra doesn’t. Nobody in Cobra would sacrifice himself to save his buddies the way Snake Eyes does in “The MASS Device” or Roadblock does in “The Revenge of Cobra.” Cobra is a bunch of self-interested individuals who happen to be working together for common goals, at least until they aren’t, and that’s why they keep losing. If you’re going to embed a message into a toy commercial disguised as entertainment, that’s not a bad one to have.
- Last thing about the credits: that theme song is made of awesome. It still gives me a patriotic little charge in my brain when I hear it. In general, I think G.I. Joe uses music better than Transformers. I can remember lots of Joe leitmotifs, but I can’t remember anything in Transformers beyond the theme song.
- I think Megatron is a moron and that alone makes the Decepticons lamer as antagonists go. Cobra Commander is a moron, too, but the difference is that we’re supposed to think he’s a moron. Everybody around him clearly thinks Cobra Commander is a moron, and the entire plot of “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!” hinges on the fact that everyone thinks Cobra Commander is a moron. It’s not an accident that the late Chris Latta played Cobra Commander and Transformers‘ Starscream nearly identically, since they share the same combination of over-inflated self-worth and gross incompetence. Cobra Commander just has lots of cash and competent, if selfish, lieutenants to bail him out.
- Larry Hama is the father of G.I. Joe. He wrote the original toy “file card” dossiers, and had a long run on the comics. The characters he created, many based on his Army buddies and other people he knew, formed a solid foundation for Ron Friedman to write the mini-series. Friedman added enough stuff that he can claim to be the second father of the Joes. Pretty much everything that followed is rooted in the contributions of one of these two guys.
The documentary that comes with the Transformers season 1 set shows that the franchise was cobbled together from multiple, unrelated lines of Japanese toys, none of which had any storyline or characterization, and presents about 4 or 5 candidates who could be the Larry Hama figure for Transformers. It feels to me like the crew was trying their best to stick together all these disparate elements as they went along in the first season of Transformers, while G.I. Joe had its fundamentals solidly and coherently established right from the start.
- G.I. Joe seems to have more of a sense of humor. I end up laughing more at the bad jokes the Joes tell each other. There are also lots of little throwaway winks to the audience in both the comics and the show that make me think Hama and Friedman knew exactly how silly it all was, and that makes the sillier aspects of the franchise a bit easier to take. Most of the jokes in Transformers fall flat for me, and I don’t detect any sense of humor or irony in the writing on Transformers.
- The gear on G.I. Joe was just flat-out cool. I still want a real-life G.I. Joe Sky Hawk.
- I think G.I. Joe does a better job of balancing its cast. Transformers has 2 or 3 major players per side, and everyone else is window-dressing. After Megatron, Starscream, and Soundwave & co, the only other Decepticon I can name is Thundercracker and that’s only because Starscream makes a point of totally screwing him over in one episode. The Autobots get better, more memorable names, but after Optimus Prime and Jazz, I get the vaguely vain sports cars Sunstreaker and Sideswipe, but then everyone else just blends together. Even if it’s something as small as the New England accents for Cutter and Snow Job, G.I. Joe does a better job of making the characters distinctive from each other and generally finds better excuses to give them something meaningful to do.
- G.I. Joe had women in it. When I was 13, the hormones were kicking in full-force and, to paraphrase Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “looking at linoleum would make me think of sex.” Not necessarily something to be proud of, but there it is.
As an adult, I appreciate that characters like Scarlett, Lady Jaye, and the Baroness are never just pretty faces, and could more than hold their own with the boys. Larry Hama has said he got fan letters from a number of stay-at-home moms who watched the show with their kids and then started reading the comics because they liked the way the women were written.
There are no women anywhere in Transformers. Arcee totally doesn’t count.
- In addition to women, G.I. Joe, the “Real American Heroes,” had a broad cross-section of people in it — black, Latino, Asian, male, female, and any personality type you can think of. No matter who you are, there’s someone on G.I. Joe you can identify with. Snake Eyes is the ultimate audience identification character because he’s a bad-ass, he’s covered head-to-toe (barring the “gloveless” look he had in the first mini-series), and he never says a word. He can be anybody under there, and I think that’s a significant reason for his appeal. The subtle message being sent is that Anybody Can Be a Real American Hero. It’s the ne plus ultra of E Pluribus Unum at work, and again — if you’re going to embed a message into a toy commercial disguised as entertainment, that’s not a bad one to have. That meant a lot to me as one of the only Asian kids in a sea of white kids, many of whom made sure I never forgot that I was Different from them.
- Extending on that last point, a kid might fantasize about hanging out with the Autobots or dream about what it would be like to be one, but with enough hard work and eating your Wheaties, a kid could grow up to BE G.I. Joe. That’s gotta count for something.
So, now you know. And knowing…ah, you know.