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Cartoon Intro Cavalcade: “G.I. Joe (1985)”

by on September 23, 2009

I’ve mentioned my love of the G.I. Joe opening credits sequence before. The opening credits in the video clip embedded below are the ones that started off the full TV series, but the reasons why I like it are present in all the versions that have existed.

I think these credits have a remarkable sense of economy and effectiveness, taking just over a minute to completely encapsulate what the series is about. G.I. Joe approaches the opening credits as an episode in miniature, and other than the lack of dialogue, it pretty much follows the same formula of the series: Cobra shows up to cause trouble, G.I. Joe pounds the stuffing out of them, cue fireworks and cheering. The little 2-sentence narrative in the middle (present in every version of the credits) is just extra insurance, but it’s also something all Joe fans can recite from memory. Finally, it really moves, playing up the action-emphasis of the series (even as it opens itself up to the valid criticism that it presents war as a giant, glorious, and fun game).

However, I’d go further and say that there are some basic American principles to be mined from these opening credits, which may be why it resonates so strongly with me after so many years. Specifically:

E Pluribus Unum

G.I. Joe is an ensemble show, and the opening credits make that clear up front. The only characters who show up prominently more than once are Flint and Cobra Commander, and I’ll have more to say about that later. The opening credits also visibly show two of the Joe’s greatest assets against Cobra: the specialization of each individual member and the fact that the Joes use those specialties together as a team, becoming more than the sum of their parts.

It’s obvious that the G.I. Joe team does not have standardized uniforms, weapons, or equipment. The Joes are all distinct individuals with unique talents, unified by their common purpose of kicking Cobra ass. Earlier versions of the credits would show more of the hordes of Cobra, who all looked the same and dressed the same, entirely stripped of individuality. This sets up Cobra as an instrument of totalitarian thought, while the Joes represent a group that places greater value on the individual. Sure, the REAL reason for their costumes was so Hasbro could make and sell more toys, but it also provided an quick, visual way to embody the ideological distinction between G.I. Joe (and by extension, America) and Cobra (and by extension, the Communist hordes and terrorist extremists they were subbing for).

The most prominent display of Joe teamwork starts at around the 17 second mark: Alpine helps boost Bazooka to unseat Destro from a laser cannon. Destro is then tossed like a human football from Bazooka to Ripcord to Roadblock, who then uses Destro to take down a crowd of Dreadnoks. It all works only if they all work together. Other smaller, less obvious examples of Joe teamwork are Quick Kick and Snake Eyes splitting up the Crimson Twins at the 13 second mark and Shipwreck guiding a Cobra Rattler right into Dusty’s surface-to-air missile (0:26 – 0:32). Even some of the moments of individual achievement are about teamwork, since all of this combat seems to be cover so Airtight can set a small but seriously powerful bomb (0:39).

As a side point, I always liked that Airtight, the designated pencil-necked geek of the unit, can still sock a Cobra soldier in the kisser like the best of them.

– Lead from the Front

Cobra Commander is shown as the leader of the enemy when he first appears at around the 8-second mark because he’s the one on the bridge barking orders. His active participation in the battle begins at 0:41, when he watches Airtight through binoculars and then takes aim at Lady Jaye with a rifle — both actions taken from the rear at a great distance from the battle.

Flint is shown as the leader of the Joes by leading the charge with a hearty “Yo Joe!” (OK, technically it’s Duke’s voice and Duke’s command, but you wouldn’t know that if these credits are your introduction to the show). His active participation in the battle is to interrupt Cobra Commander’s long-range shot by throwing him through a window, shattering his globe to figuratively shatter Cobra’s dreams of world-domination.

Leadership is best done at the front. Flint knows this. Cobra Commander doesn’t. One of them gets thrown through a window as a result.

– Cynicism Doesn’t Get You Anywhere

Starting with the opening brass blare and going all the way to its rousing finish, the theme song is pure, jingoistic, flag-waving hokum, but that’s also exactly why it works. The sentiments are unvarnished and genuine, delivered without a hint of irony or cynicism, and that’s the only way that they can get away with singing about “a Real American Hero” who “fights for freedom, wherever there’s trouble” and who “never gives up” and “stays ’till the fight’s won.” It’s the same trick that Christopher Reeve pulled off in the first Superman movie, when he declared in-character, “I’m here to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” and his success at making us believe it was one of the reasons why his career never achieved escape velocity from the character.

Critics might scoff and claim that the song (and the show) is foolishly unrealistic. They’re probably right, but the proper response would seem to be to bring reality more in line with our ideals rather than to denigrate the ideals. The G.I. Joe theme song gives voice to an idealized view of the military, and if the reality doesn’t live up to that idealized view, the right question to ask is, “Why not?” It should.

– Anyone Can Be a Real American Hero

Even the opening credits take the time to show that the G.I. Joe team is a broad cross-section of America: black, white, Asian, Native American, male and female. Each and every one of them can lay equal claim to being a Real American Hero. This has always been one of the most powerfully appealing aspects of the property to me, and I think it’s one reason why the property has endured as long as it has.

And all that in under a minute. Is it any wonder that I love these opening credits?
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