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Review: "G.I. Joe Renegades" Complete First Season Blu-ray Easily Worth a Double-Dip

I must admit a non-trivial sense of ambivalence on the conclusion of the first and only season of G.I. Joe Renegades. The best compliment I can pay to the show is that I walked into the two-part season premiere as a skeptic and walked out of the two-part season finale as a convert. G.I. Joe Renegades was a very different show from many of its predecessors, but managed to hammer out a fine identity of its own and contributed some wonderful elements to the franchise. However, even though I ended up enjoying the back half of G.I. Joe Renegades, I’m also left a little disappointed by the series’ rushed ending and the fact that we won’t see any more of it. Whatever my disappointment in the fate of the show itself, I certainly can’t complain about the fine 3-disc series set on Blu-ray that Shout! Factory and Hasbro Studios have released (alongside the second half of the show on DVD).

Picking up from where my review of the first DVD set left off, the episode “Knockoffs” re-introduces Zartan and eventually explains his shape-shifting abilities and his unreliable alliance with Cobra. It’s an exciting and well-written episode, though I still can’t find myself very interested in Zartan or this show’s take on him. “White Out” marks the return of Storm Shadow, while also introducing this show’s version of the classic G.I. Joe character Snow Job. The Snow Job half ends up being a lot more compelling than the Storm Shadow half, especially since Storm Shadow’s plotline has no staying power. Despite the tremendous advantages it presented, neither Storm Shadow or Cobra exploit it again, making it feel more like a writer’s trick introduced just for easy plot complications. The subsequent episodes all build on each other in interesting ways, forming into a larger interlocked serial narrative that culminates in the two-part series finale. “Shipwrecked” plays out a classic movie monster plot and introduces fan-favorite character Shipwreck, pitting a Cobra beastie against the Joes in the close quarters of Shipwreck’s vessel Courtney (which is another throwaway reference to a second classic Joe). It’s a solid episode that sets up “Castle Destro,” which sends the Joes to Scotland and the castle of James McCullen, a.k.a. Destro, where they have to defeat a grand-scale Cobra scheme without functioning weapons. In addition to being another excellent thrill-ride, the episode advances the Destro/Baroness relationship and adds a bit of depth to Duke. However, the episode also underscores one of the show’s weaknesses in the conspiracy theory behind Cobra, since I’m left unconvinced that their evil shenanigans would yield much, if any, useful return. “Union of the Snake” does better in this regard, as the Joes find themselves at the Baroness’ ancestral home to disrupt a Cobra plot involving mind-control through personal electronics (and the help of the Crimson Twins, captured in the “Brothers of Light” episode that closed out the last DVD season set). Even though the plot ultimately involves psychic mind control, it ends up being much more credible as the kind of sinister plot that a world-wide corporation would hatch.

Disc three begins with “The Anaconda Strain,” which is another excellent episode with a plausible conspiracy theory and the introduction of another classic Joe (revealed only at the very end, unless you’re obsessive enough to recognize the character’s real name). Much of the show’s concepts of bio-terrorism have strayed far into science fiction with the semi-sentient humanoid Bio-Vipers, so the super-virus that anchors “The Anaconda Strain” feels much more plausible and is therefore more unsettling. One late-episode plot twist is also a fine instance of how the Joes tend towards near-suicidal selflessness, which carries over from the original 1980′s TV series and comic books and has figured in almost all of the episodes in the back-half of the series as well. Several hints and loose plot threads dropped in the past six episodes come to a head in “Prodigal,” yielding one of the show’s biggest plot twists in the identity of Cobra’s “Patient X,” while also adding an intriguing wrinkle to the mysteries surrounding Cobra Commander. Those revelations continue in “The Anomaly,” which is a personal favorite episode for focusing on Tunnel Rat (easily my favorite of the Joes in the show) and because it’s one of the few episodes of the show that leaves things unexplained. In this case, it’s the anomalous behavior of a lost Bio-Viper, and while we can figure out what’s happening a lot sooner than anyone else on screen does, I like the sense of mystery that results when the usual pat explanations are left out.

“Cutting Edge” is the culmination of the Snake Eyes origin story revealed in “Return of the Arashikage.” I think it might be the first time G.I. Joe has ever effectively mixed the ancient ninja warrior aspects with modern technology, and if nothing else it may be the best episode of the show for action junkies, with numerous high-octane ninja-on-ninja or ninja-on-robot fight scenes. I can’t say I was terribly impressed with the rather abrupt ending to the Arashikage plot line, which confused more than it illuminated, but it’s possible that the plot thread was greatly truncated to give it at least a little closure before the demise of the show. “Cousins” continues the show’s trend of character-centric episodes, throwing the spotlight on Roadblock while also introducing his cousin Hershel Dalton (a.k.a. Heavy Duty) and marking the return of the deadly mercenary Major Bludd (last seen way back in “The Package” at the very start of the series). It’s not a bad episode, but I ended up appreciating the reference/tribute to the Tuskeegee Airmen a bit more than the story itself. “Going Underground” is interesting mostly for revelations of how deep Cobra’s reach really is and for setting up Scarlett’s past, which forms the backbone of the two-part “Revelations” that closes out the series. The nods to past history come full-circle to the original G.I. Joe five-part mini-series, as these episodes introduce the MASS Device, a matter teleportation machine that is the lynchpin in Cobra’s plot of global subjugation. The finale brings the show to a reasonably satisfying conclusion, with the extended climactic sequence managing to communicate exactly how outgunned the Joes are while making their ultimate triumph believable. The show’s big wrap-up feels a little rushed and convenient, but like “Cutting Edge,” I’m hesitant to criticize the show too much for that since there’s no way to tell how much of that was a result of the show’s early cancellation.

I can’t say that G.I. Joe Renegades was the best action animation series in recent memory with long-running continuity, especially when up against competition like Green Lantern: The Animated Series or The Legend of Korra, let alone the high water marks of older shows like Justice League and Avatar: The Last Airbender. A lot of the individual episodes have some head-scratchers or leaps of logic that don’t quite add up, and I’m still a bit baffled why Cobra would spend so much time building up a veneer of corporate responsibility so they could execute slightly harebrained schemes for world domination that were all easily disrupted by a team of five soldiers with no resources to speak of. The show’s brilliance was in hiding Cobra in plain sight as a multi-national conglomerate, but this twist gets undermined because Cobra’s secret plots wouldn’t seem to yield as much success or influence as its above-ground activities. The idea of a conglomo-corp that’s genuinely, legitimately evil is rich in possibilities, but I don’t think G.I. Joe Renegades capitalized on them as successfully as it could have. However, the show still managed to grab and reward my attention more often than not, and had the same kind of ripping soap-opera addictiveness that marked the best of Larry Hama’s run on the Marvel tie-in comic in the 1980′s. The strong performances across the board also ensured that this take on G.I. Joe would have staying power, with Matthew Yang King’s Tunnel Rat continuing to be the breakout character of the series, although I also have great affection for Charlie Schlatter’s gleefully obnoxious Dr. Mindbender.

This Blu-ray set gives all 26 episodes a pristine high-definition presentation in both video and sound. The show looked good on DVD, but the added brightness and sharpness of high-definition really makes it look and sound outstanding. I was a little disappointed that the first DVD set of G.I. Joe Renegades had no bonus features, which this Blu-ray set neatly remedies. A number of key episodes get commentary tracks from an assortment of staff members, with surprisingly few repeat commentators. Disc 1 has commentaries for the two-part premiere “Descent,” the two-part Snake Eyes origin story “Return of the Arashikage,” and the surprisingly fun episode “Busted.” Disc 2 has commentaries for “Castle Destro” and “Union of the Snake,” while disc 3 has commentary for “Revelations, Part 2.” The commentary tracks are of varying quality. Some tracks, like those for the premiere and “Busted,” are chock-full of interesting observations and genial clowning among the show staff, but some of the others have more dead air and less interesting commentary on the episodes. I was also a little disappointed that only one commentary features voice actors, and that it was for “Revelations, Part 2″ rather than an earlier episode. In addition to missing out on commentary on what might have been and how plans were abridged or edited, most of the commentary was just adulation for the voice cast of the show. Even so, there’s generally something of interest in all the commentary tracks, and they’re all worth listening to at least once. In addition to the commentaries, disc 3 has two short featurettes: one pretty standard press-kit style “making of” featurette, and a short tribute to the late Clement Sauve, the show’s character designer, who passed away in 2011. I was rather disappointed that the end-credits gag that aired with the original broadcast of “Revelations, Part 2″ is nowhere to be found on these discs, unless it’s a too-well-hidden Easter egg. Fans who bought the first DVD set may be disappointed that they’ll have to double-dip for those episodes, but there’s enough new stuff in this Blu-ray set to take most of the edge off.

Since G.I. Joe Renegades has gone off the air, the fate of the franchise has been iffy, at best. A replacement show has not been announced as yet, and nobody thought it was good news when a last-minute announcement pushed back the second live-action movie from this past summer to this coming March (especially not all the retailers left with toys hanging on pegs for a movie that wasn’t coming to theaters for months). Still, G.I. Joe has proven to be a remarkably resilient property over its multi-decade lifespan, so I’m sure it’ll be back eventually. Despite its abrupt abridgement and any issues I might have had with individual episodes, I think G.I. Joe Renegades can take a proud and solid spot in that history.


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