"G.I. Joe DVD Battle Packs:" Return of the Real American Heroes
There aren’t going to be many American kids who grew up in the 1980’s who don’t remember G.I. Joe. My personal recollections of them (when I was but a young, impressionable lad of 14) mostly center on making fun of it with classmates for the characters’ astonishingly poor marksmanship and the bogus “Knowing is Half the Battle” moral lessons tacked on to the end of every episode. Even so, Hasbro must have done something right, since the small-scale army figures (vs. their larger, 12-inch brethren with the kung-fu grip) are celebrating their 25th Anniversary with an all-out assault on toy shelves throughout the nation. The newly released G.I. Joe DVD Battle Packs are part of this assault, and even though they’re recommended for age 5 and up, I suspect that the real target audience is about 30 years older. Each pack contains a variety of action figures and a DVD containing one of the G.I. Joe animated TV mini-series, plus a piece of a “build-a-figure.” The first two packs, “The M.A.S.S. Device” and “The Revenge of Cobra,” are out now, with three more on the way. Since the original G.I. Joe DVDs from Rhino are long out of print, these toy packs are currently the only legal way to get the 1980’s G.I. Joe cartoon on DVD.
G.I. Joe was often criticized as little more than a glorified toy commercial. Re-watching these shows now reveals that this criticism may be unfair to the average toy commercial, since many toy commercials show more narrative coherence. I’m not sure it’s much of a compliment to say that the show is exactly as bad as I remembered it — it’s not a show that managed to look better in the glow of nostalgia, but it’s also not a bitter disappointment watching it later in life. The show’s structure is pretty simple: the “ruthless terrorist organization” Cobra introduces a new technological terror, leading to three spirited battles between Cobra and the real American heroes on the G.I. Joe team. Everything wraps up in one last, giant confrontation where good triumphs and evil slinks away to strike again. The debut mini-series takes its name from the technological terror in question: the M.A.S.S. Device, capable of teleporting matter from anywhere around the globe. The second series, “The Revenge of Cobra” (also known as “The Weather Dominator”), does little more than add even more cast members to both sides and replace the teleportation device with one that controls the weather. The actual details of each episode are almost irrelevant because so few of them really make much sense.
This second mini-series may be technically more accomplished than “The M.A.S.S. Device,” but it also firmly establishes elements of the formula that would soon be laughed at in schoolyards everywhere. Machine-gun sound effects are entirely replaced by laser blasts, and while the massive volume of fire being sprayed by both sides takes its toll on the hardware, neither side seems able to hit a man-sized target, and parachutes deploy just in time to pull pilots out of exploding planes. These massive and curiously non-lethal battles would rapidly make “G.I. Joe” shorthand for a show shaped by BS&P directives that might have satisfied the networks, but didn’t fool anyone in the target audience for a second. The second series also adds the Native American soldier Spirit to the Joe lineup, burdening him with equal parts good intentions and bad stereotypes with his distinctive outfit and broken English pseudo-mystical blabber. The giant machine-gunner Roadblock nearly falls into the same trap, but thankfully the writers drop his Muhammad Ali poetry and pseudo-street dialogue fairly quickly.
As a cartoon, the best that can be said about G.I. Joe is that it was a little better than the He-Man cartoons that were its major toy-based competition. However, saying “it’s better animated than a Filmation cartoon” is virtually the definition of “damning with faint praise,” and G.I. Joe is almost laughably crude when compared to almost any action-oriented cartoon from the past 10 years. Anyone who watched any of the other Sunbow/Marvel cartoons of the era will recognize recycled sound effects and even occasional musical cues. The plotting and scripting are laughably bad, although the voice actors do their best to make up for it with gusto in their performances. While I don’t expect or demand a lot of accuracy from a cartoon based on a toy line, the military tactics and techniques on display in G.I. Joe are howlingly idiotic, even to this armchair Ranger’s untrained eye.
Still, there are a few redeeming grace notes here and there. I appreciate the fact that the show doesn’t require much more setup than the two sentences in the opening credits sequence. For that matter, the individual episodes are consistently more interested in finding something else to blow up instead of explaining anything, so one has to admit some respect for the purity of concept. There are also brief flashes when the writers hint that they know how ridiculous the show really is, such as when Destro hangs a lampshade on a Cobra hideout as a “ridiculously melodramatic location.” Even though some characters can get lost in the shuffle, it is remarkable to see how well the show manages its enormous cast, pulling a number of tricks in character traits and costuming to make all of them distinct from each other. Finally, the hardware is also undeniably cool, which is less surprising when one sees it credited to comic book veteran Russ Heath (and, in “The Revenge of Cobra,” to an additional team that includes a very young Bruce Timm).
Hasbro doesn’t seem to have done much to clean up these cartoons for these DVDs; the image quality is grainy and fuzzy and the colors are washed out, with sound that seems to be in a pretty pathetic 2-channel stereo. Indeed, the fourth episode of “The Revenge of Cobra” suffers from a very noticeable dip in video quality compared to the episodes before and after it. There are chapter breaks at the start of each episode, but not within them. Luckily, the opening and closing credits only play once each rather than at the start and end of each episode. There is absolutely nothing else on these DVDs other than the programming — no special features of any kind, but also no annoying and unskippable ads when you insert the disc, either. They’re about as bare-bones of a DVD release as you can get.
On the other hand, these DVDs do come packaged with action figures, which one could call better bonuses than the usual promotional materials that show up on DVD extras menus. The figures in each pack are taken from the companion DVD, and they all have the same strengths and weaknesses as the current line of 25th Anniversary G.I. Joe figures: excellent sculpts, articulation, and detailing that is slightly marred because the figures often have trouble keeping hold of their weapons and accessories and sometimes can’t be posed well due to odd features of the sculpt. Of the two packs, “The M.A.S.S. Device” definitely comes out ahead, since it comes with four figures (radioactive Snake Eyes, a Cobra trooper, scuba-diving Baroness, and a JUMP jet-pack equipped Sgt. Stalker), plus a bonus wolf figure for Snake Eyes and a large flatbed cart with the M.A.S.S. Device component elements. In contrast, the second pack only comes with three figures (Destro, Lady Jaye, and Roadblock), with an extra Weather Dominator toy and a tangle of killer vines. The street prices are around $20 per pack, which proves to be an exceptional value whether you consider the toys a bonus for the DVD or the DVD a bonus for the toys. (Check out my Flickr album for more toy photos, including comparisons between these figures and their counterparts in the 25th Anniversary G.I. Joe figure line.)
We all have guilty pleasures: those things that we know are bad for us, but that we indulge in anyway. G.I. Joe has taken up semi-permanent residence on my personal guilty pleasures list, and I still can’t quite figure out why. It’s probably not just nostalgia, since there are other shows I liked as much or more that I find unwatchable as an adult. It might just be a combination of my greater affection for the Marvel Comics series, the fact that G.I. Joe was a major factor in developing my interest in military history in general, the hardware fetish that the show indulges in, or the fact that the action figures were always a cut above the usual. It might just be that the theme song is one of the best in animation, and can still generate an emotional twinge today. It might be a love for the potential the show held rather than its actuality, in the same way that kids a generation earlier can have such rabid affection for Speed Racer. Yes, it’s a toy commercial, but it’s one where brave men and women lay down their lives (or would have been if anyone on the show had the fire discipline to put rounds in a man-sized target) in the name of freedom; where a character can trap himself in a mine filled with radioactive gases in an act of suicidal self-sacrifice to save his buddies; and where a character forces down her sense of loss over captured comrades because she’s next in the chain of command and there’s a war to be won out there. G.I. Joe may be a mediocrity in the history of animation, but there are the roots of a much better show here, and every now and then that much better show peeks out. I may not have many kind things to say about these two series, but that probably won’t stop me from getting my hands on the next 3 packs, even if I can’t say why.