On October 10, 2010, Hasbro and Discovery Networks officially launched The Hub Network, with two crown jewels of Hasbro’s licensing crown getting animated TV shows soon afterwards: Transformers Prime rebooting the robots in disguise and G.I. Joe Renegades taking a fresh look at Hasbro’s Real American Heroes. However, while the Transformers are thriving on the network, G.I. Joe has languished, with Renegades getting canceled after one season and no new G.I. Joe shows on the horizon.
This fan is old enough to remember watching “The M.A.S.S. Device” when it was first aired and buying the Larry Hama comic books off the stands, so to tie in with the long-delayed release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation in theaters, I threw together a list of the Top 5 Things I’d want to see in any new G.I. Joe cartoon. Admittedly, I know up front that a lot of these things just aren’t going to work for a network aiming at kids to young teens, but a guy can hope, can’t he?
1. G.I. Joe Should Be an Ensemble Show
The original G.I. Joe action figure was supposed to be the iconic embodiment of the “American Fighting Man,” and the 1980’s relaunch of the toy line as “A Real American Hero” expressed and expanded on that concept by turning G.I. Joe into a team rather than a nickname for any single soldier. The team concept is the one with more potential for ongoing stories, and it’s one thing that I think the live-action movies have both gotten wrong in casting name-brand actors in some roles but not others.
I think a proper G.I. Joe show should be an ensemble show, where the focus is always on the team rather than any one member of it. If you’re going to do a military-themed show at all, I think you do the military an injustice by not making an ensemble show. All but the most elite special operations units function as teams, and even units like the Army Special Forces and the Navy SEALs tend to think of teams as the basic building block of operations.
In my dream G.I. Joe show, I’d go one better than the “five-team” approached by G.I. Joe Renegades, which had Duke as the Leader, Scarlett as the Brain, Roadblock as the Muscle, Tunnel Rat as the Heart, and Snake Eyes as the Wild Card (and thanks to Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims for giving the individuals better titles than TVTropes). I’d go back to the “daring, highly trained special missions force” concept, centering on a larger team loosely modeled after an Army Special Forces ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha, colloquially called an “A-Team”). An ODA is composed of 12 soldiers: a commanding officer and warrant officer, two command sergeants, and then 2 soldiers each specializing in weapons, engineering, communications, and medicine. Mix up five-team roles with each of those specialties (with the senior sergeants morphing to whatever role is needed at the time) and you get a lineup that can be broken down into a lot of different sub-teams of varying size, while ensuring that each sub-team has the specialization it needs to achieve its objectives and enough character conflict to make stories interesting.
The specific Joes I’d pick would be:
Captain/Warrant Officer: (New Character) and Flint
Team Sergeant/Intel Sergeant: Stalker and Scarlett
Weapons: Snake Eyes and Gung Ho
Engineering: Tunnel Rat and Shipwreck
Medical: Doc and Lifeline
Communications: Breaker and Dial-Tone
Yes, the team captain could be a promoted Lt. Falcon, but I always hated Lt. Falcon so he’s off my team. Breaker would be the version from the Rise of Cobra movie, while Dial-Tone would be the newer, female version from G.I. Joe: Resolute and the comics (though more of a frontline soldier than a rear-echelon fobbit). Feel free to swap characters out as you like (Duke fans are no doubt gnashing their teeth at his exclusion, and I’m disappointed I couldn’t get Roadblock and Lady Jaye in there). It’s not hard to line up individual members with roles on the Leader/Brain/Heart/Muscle/Wild Card bingo card, and if you make Shipwreck a Navy SEAL, and Lifeline an Air Force Pararescue Jumper or one of the commo guys an Air Force Combat Controller, you also get all 4 branches of the US military represented. This does make for a large cast, but the original G.I. Joe comics and cartoons made even larger casts work through distinctive designs, characterization, and code names that all jogged your memory on who was who. You can throw in other Joes as needed (Wild Bill for airlift or helicopter close-air support, Ace for fixed-wing close-air support, Torpedo and Deep Six for underwater ops, Steeler and Grand Slam for well-placed steel rain, etc), which would also emphasize the idea that even soldiers at the tip of the spear need a lot of forces arrayed behind them to succeed.
2. G.I. Joe Should be American
For a variety of reasons, it was a lot more acceptable for a kids TV show to be overtly rah-rah America in the Reagan 80’s than it is today. Even so, lately it seems that the franchise’s roots in America are viewed as a liability by the powers that be at Hasbro. G.I. Joe has become an international fighting force, even as early as the second series from the 90’s and most visibly in The Rise of Cobra. However, Hasbro seems to want to eat its cake and have it too, premiering The Rise of Cobra on tour of American military bases rather than a traditional Hollywood gala and using the “renegade soldiers” plot to neatly dodge the question of nationality. Seeing the latter plot point appear in the new comics, the G.I. Joe Renegades cartoon, and the G.I. Joe: Retaliation live-action movie seems to be too much of a coincidence to credit to a “great minds think alike” explanation.
I can understand why one might think that being too rah-rah America isn’t a workable strategy in today’s globalized entertainment industry. International markets are more important than ever, and too much overt flag waving will make the final product unpalatable to those markets while inviting sharp critiques over American hypocrisies (real or imagined). America’s recent international military entanglements have also garnered much criticism, which is probably another rationale behind backing away from the militaristic flag-waving of the original series. But if I ran the zoo, I’d return G.I. Joe to its American roots, renewing and revising the initial promise that the team depicts “America’s Fighting Men and Women.”
Key to this strategy is separating “America” as an Ideal vs. “America” as a Nation-State, whose interests can and do conflict with its own Ideals. Criticism over America’s hypocrisies center on that conflict between American Ideals and American Interests, but my orders would be to charge that machine gun nest rather than tiptoe around it. Make G.I. Joe an embodiment of American Ideals, with equal opportunity for all and many voices and viewpoints uniting behind a common belief that there are inalienable rights of freedom and liberty due to all people, and these rights are worth fighting for whenever and wherever they are denied. Then exploit the friction between American Ideals and American Interests for more interesting, sophisticated storytelling, because it’s easy to talk about fighting for freedom and liberty in the abstract but immeasurably harder to actually do it when confronted with hard, tactical realities. Present the Joes with hard, ugly ethical dilemmas that pit those Ideals against those Interests, and show the consequences — good and bad — when you pick one over the other. Take the perceived weakness and turn it into a strength and a selling point.
My selection of Joes above ties into this wish list item as well. It was always important to me as a kid that the 1980’s G.I. Joe showed men and women of all races united under the G.I. Joe banner. Despite the occasional egregious stereotype, the message sent was “anyone can be a Real American Hero,” regardless of race, gender, or other background element. The only thing that mattered was what a soldier, sailor, Marine, or aviator brought to the fight against Cobra (which, I must note, seems largely composed of identical-looking white dudes). That was a powerful message to me at the time, and it still resonates powerfully today. Given today’s increasingly fractured ideological landscape, I think that’s a message worth repeating more than ever. It’s also why I made Stalker is top kick over Duke: it is not an accident that I’m placing a black man and a woman in the lynchpin positions of an ODA.
The offering I’d make to the international markets wouldn’t be to de-Americanize G.I. Joe, but to offer up the Joes’ international equivalents. The former Soviet Union’s Oktober Guard have showed up often enough in different G.I. Joe products, but why stop there? Let’s see some joint operations between G.I. Joe and the United Kingdom’s Spitfire Squadron, France’s Les Enfants de la Patrie commandos, Japan’s Shadow Battalion ninjas, China’s Great Wall armored division, and so on. Kicking Cobra’s ass is an equal opportunity exercise, and that applies to country of origin as well.
3. To Hell with Backstory
It’s a pet peeve of mine that a lot of modern action movies and TV shows feel the need to explain everything to us. We get backstory out the wazoo to explain every little thing whether it’s necessary or not, and I find 9 times out of 10, it isn’t. It might be something valuable to include in a series bible, but doesn’t have to end up on screen.
The original G.I. Joe cartoon and comics didn’t give a stereotypical origin story for anybody at first, and nobody was any worse for it. We got bits and pieces of cast members’ backstories in episodes like “Captives of Cobra” or “The Traitor,” or in throwaway references in the comics, but the only major character who ever got a real origin story was Snake Eyes. As much as I like Snake Eyes, I don’t think his origin story adds anything to his character, especially when his entire gimmick is that he’s got no face, no voice, and no name.
G.I. Joe is also a property that’s resistant to needing backstory for its characters. If they’re a military unit, then there’s a built-in reason to add or remove cast members at any time, and I always think you define character better by present-tense storytelling over past-tense origin story woolgathering.
Screw the origin stories. You don’t need them. I think that’s true generally, but it’s especially true for G.I. Joe. If you are going to spend time on origin stories, I’d focus on the origins and ideology of Cobra. Again, a basic principle of counter-insurgency warfare is to know who your enemies are and why they are fighting against you, with the implicit assumption that understanding their ideology doesn’t necessarily validate it. I don’t expect Cobra to be sympathetic villains akin to Magneto of the X-Men, but I also don’t think they need to be as broadly and shallowly caricatured as they normally are.
4. Ensure Violence Has Consequences
Any show dealing with the military is going to have to grapple with violence, violent action, and the consequences of that violence, or criticism that the show is trivializing or glorifying war will be 100% accurate. I’m not asking for total realism in a G.I. Joe show (especially if that would mean we’d lose the science fiction elements and preposterous stuff that made the 80’s show so much fun). I get that its primary purpose is to sell toys, and depicting dismembered limbs, burned-beyond-recognition corpses, and post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t fit in with that mission statement. But I can’t help but remember how we’d constantly make fun of G.I. Joe in the schoolyard for the way that everyone parachuted out of the planes or tanks right before they crashed or exploded, and how the sky could fill with red and blue laser fire but nobody ever got hit. If anything, I think it’s even more important for a show like G.I. Joe to show that violence has consequences; that war is an activity whose primary purpose is to destroy the enemy, and that you can’t take violent action without a price. I know that the original show crew tried as hard as they could to show real consequences to the cartoon violence, and one of the episodes that sticks with adult fans is “An Eye for an Eye,” which turned wartime “collateral damage” into something real and personal. While I’m sure even the more lenient BS&P guidelines today won’t allow much of what was shown in G.I. Joe: Resolute, I’m also sure that you can and should do a lot more than what’s commonly done.
In addition to making violence something real and substantial, a G.I. Joe show ought to show military projections of “soft” power over the “hard” power of kicking down doors and shooting bad guys. It’s a basic principle of counter-insurgency warfare in general and Special Forces in particular that winning over hearts and minds of the civilian populace is even more important than whacking bad guys, and indiscriminate use of force can be one of the most counter-productive things you can do on a battlefield. The Special Forces engineering and medical specializations have as much or more value outside of combat when used to improve quality of life for indigenous populations. The violent, overtly military solution isn’t always the best one, and I think episodes working with that idea would make for interesting viewing.
5. Hire Some Veterans
I’m just an Armchair Ranger, but G.I. Joe was one reason why I began exploring military history more thoroughly. Even though I never served in the military, I still get a twinge of discomfort at the obvious mistakes in G.I. Joe Renegades, like referring to Flint as a warrant officer in the opening credits but promoting him to “lieutenant” in the series, or the way that Flint’s MP’s would act as civilian police authority when they’re explicitly not supposed to do that without a whole lot of paperwork justifying it. I’m not even going to touch something like the hostage rescue scene in G.I. Joe: Resolute.
Reportedly, one reason why Steve Gerber signed Buzz Dixon onto the original series was because Dixon had served in the military, and I don’t think the G.I. Joe comics would have had their staying power if writer Larry Hama couldn’t bring his experience as a veteran to the table. For better or worse, the two recent long-running military engagements mean there are a lot more veterans around now who have seen combat. I’ll bet there’s a non-trivial number of them who were fans of the original G.I. Joe TV show or comics and would leap at the chance to be a consultant or a writer for a new G.I. Joe cartoon. Hire some of them. Even if you end up listening to what they have to say and then rejecting it for story or BS&P reasons, it’s better to know than not to (since “knowing is half the battle,” after all) and some of their information might make it to air in unexpected ways.
Even if you don’t hire veterans directly, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been extraordinarily well-documented by those on the front lines fighting them. Even secretive Special Operations units have found their way into print in books like Eric Haney’s Inside Delta Force, Pete Blaber’s The Mission, the Men, and Me, Eric Greitens’ The Heart and the Fist, the late Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, and Mark Owens’ No Easy Day. Those memoirs can provide plenty of grist for the storytelling mill, even if you have to tone down the more graphic elements for an audience of kids 9-14.
Like I said, I’m not expecting many (if any) of these things to happen in the next G.I. Joe cartoon, whenever it happens to be. But wouldn’t it be nice…