When I think back about my childhood in the eighties, several things stand out, including my introduction to Apple computers, Transformers and G.I. Joe. Growing up, I had a subscription to the monthly comic book and many G.I. Joe toys, as you can see in the photo to the right. Yes, that’s me back in 1987 with the dreaded Cobra Terror Drome toy set! I also watched the cartoon, but I much preferred the more realistic comic book, written by Japanese-American writer, Larry Hama. No one ever died in the cartoon and everyone always had a parachute in their back pocket when their plane or helicopter exploded. And, don’t get me started on the G.I. Joe animated movie with Cobra-La!
As I progressed through high school, my interest in the toys and comics naturally waned, but my love for G.I. Joe never really went away. I’ve always thought a G.I. Joe movie could be awesome, but only if it took its lead from the comic book and not the cartoon. When Michael Bay’s Transformers came out, I was very disappointed; it was all special effects and eye-candy; for instance, you couldn’t tell the Autobots from the Decepticons, as grey metaled robots beat up on similarly grey metaled robots. Transformers 2 was better, but not enough to improve my thoughts on the franchise. When the initial photos of Darth Maul/Ray Park dressed as Snake-Eyes came out, I thought, “Wow, this could be a really good and faithful adaptation of G.I. Joe!” Those initial thoughts turned to WTF after seeing the rest of the Joes dressed like Matrix/X-Men characters. The initial trailer — accelerator suits and all — only served to reinforce the potential trainwreck building in my mind. The kicker was the photo of Cobra Commander’s mask. The producers basically said f-you to 27 years of Cobra Commander canon, saying the hood was too KKK-like and would scare children. Ummm… isn’t that the point?
No Expectations, No Regrets?
Despite the nagging feeling in the back of my mind, my expectations were raised after some early positive reviews from AintItCoolNews. Of course, AICN has been accused of being paid Hollywood hacks, a feeling that only intensified after hearing that Paramount decided not to screen the movie for critics. Sure enough the high rating on the Tomatometer for G.I. Joe dropped like a stone on Friday and is currently at 42%.
Before heading out to see the movie, I asked myself, “Were these movie reviewers G.I. Joe fans growing up? Did they understand the mythology, did they know by heart nearly every issue of the comic book, did they know each character’s background and motivations, and did they ever play with the toys?” Who is the target audience for the film? Over the course of marketing our own documentary, AUTUMN GEM, Rae and I have had to answer that very question; show the film to your target demographic and audience, and they will love it.
And so, on Friday, I went with Dardy… and three of my G.I. Joe action figures in my pocket, hooded Cobra Commander, Snake-Eyes (1982 version, no swivel-arm battle grip) and Snake-Eyes (1985 – the definitive version), to the nearby Winchester movie theatre to see G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra.
Spoiler alerts to follow. If you’ve read this far, however, I think you’re hardcore enough that you’ve already seen the movie! This review is not so much a review but a free-flow of thoughts coming from 27+ years of being a G.I. Joe fanatic. You have been warned!
In short, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra represents an mixed-bag amalgamation between the comic book, cartoon, and toys.
Tragedy As The Primary Motivating Force
In the comic book, tragedy has always played a critical role in determining the motivations and actions of the major characters. The Baroness and Cobra Commander, for instance, use the tragedies in their lives to justify their megalomaniacal plans and ruthless deeds. Storm Shadow, on the other hand, seeks revenge as a form of personal redemption; anyone in the way of his quest to find his uncle’s murderer is just an obstacle to eliminate. Finally, the central character in the G.I. Joe comics, Snake-Eyes, never lets tragedy stop him from fulfilling his duty to his friends, teammates, and country.
Snake-Eyes versus Duke
G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra almost gets this right. It uses personal tragedy as a motivating factor for Destro, Baroness, Cobra Commander, Snake-Eyes, Duke, and Storm Shadow, but the movie ultimately disappoints because it shifts the focus from Snake-Eyes to Duke. In the comic book, it’s Snake-Eyes who’s the common center by which all the characters and plot revolve around. Changing the storyline and backgrounds of Cobra Commander, Baroness, Scarlett, Cobra, etc. to revolve around Duke is the single, biggest mistake of G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra.
This change didn’t come from left-field; the cartoon focused on Duke. Snake-Eyes is still a badass, but in Rise of Cobra, he’s just a side character in the greater storyline of Duke and the Baroness.
I have compiled a list of changes made to the backgrounds of characters in Rise of Cobra and the comic book. See how the movie adapted elements of other characters’ backstory into Duke, Baroness, and Cobra Commander? Don’t you agree that the comic book plot is far better than the movie?
|Movie||Comic (Real American Hero Continuity)|
|Duke is betrothed to Anna and promises to take care of her kid brother, Rex, during their upcoming deployment. During a mission in Africa, Duke sends Rex into a building which is summarily destroyed. Duke blames himself for Rex’s death and can’t bear to see Anna, leaving her at the altar/gravesite. Years later, Anna later turns up as the mysterious Baroness.||Snake-Eyes is in Vietnam when he stumbles upon the murder of a businessman. The killers are then shot dead by Snake-Eyes, shortly before the businessman’s kid sister walks into the scene. Seeing Snake-Eyes standing over her brother’s lifeless body, she blames him for his death and vows revenge. She becomes the terrorist known as the Baroness and later joins Cobra.|
|Duke is sad, but he stays in the army and soon forgets about Anna and Rex.||Snake-Eyes returns from Vietnam. Hours pass as he waits at the airport for his parents and twin sister to pick him up. Then Lieutenant Hawk finds and informs Snake-Eyes that his family was killed by a drunk driver — a former Vietnam Vet — on the way to the airport.|
|Rex, squadmate of Duke, is left for dead in the bunker, his body never found. Miraculously, he survived the blast, along with a slightly deranged scientist, Dr. Mindbender. Horribly disfigured, he blames Duke and the U.S. Government for leaving him behind. He learns the secrets of nanomites and eventually uses them to take control of MARS, his sister Anna, and countless others to form Cobra.||
In Issue #12 of G.I. Joe, Snake-Eyes is presumed dead after a bomb falls on the bunker he was in. He and the other occupants, Kwinn and Dr. Venom (the creator of the Brain Wave Scanner and precursor to Dr. Mindbender), however, miraculously survive the bomb blast.
Stalker, Snake-Eyes, Tommy (the future Storm Shadow), Wade Collins, Ramon Escobedo and Dickie Saperstein are on Long-Range Recon Patrol (LRRP) in Vietnam. They are caught in an ambush and Wade, Ramon and Dickie are presumed dead. Wade miraculously survives, though he spends many years as a POW. Following his release at the end of the war, Wade Collins returns to the States but has trouble finding a job and fitting in. He soon discovers and joins Cobra, which has given him meaning in life. He later becomes a Cobra Crimson Guardsmen and has plastic surgery to become Fred II.
The brother of the drunk driver who killed Snake-Eyes’ family blames Snake-Eyes and the U.S. Government for ruining his brother’s life. Traveling around the country, he amasses a fortune through shady pyramid schemes (ARBCO is an anagram of COBRA), ensaring thousands to join his cause. His organization soon becomes a ruthless terrorist organization bent on ruling the world, and he adopts the moniker Cobra Commander.
|Snake-Eyes is a kid living in Japan. Hungry, he breaks into a ninja temple to steal food. After a battle with young Storm Shadow, Snake-Eyes is adopted into the family by Storm Shadow’s uncle, the Hard Master. Snake-Eyes quickly becomes the favored student, angering Storm Shadow who feels he should be the alpha dog. Hard Master is mysteriously killed, and Storm Shadow is the prime suspect. He runs away, with the still-young Snake-Eyes sobbing over Hard Master’s dead body.||Snake-Eyes heeds the call from his Vietnam Vet friend Tommy to join the “family business.” He moves to Japan, where he learns to be a ninja under the tutelage of the family patriarch, the Hard Master. He quickly becomes the top student, angering Tommy who believes he’s the rightful heir to the Arashikage clan. One evening, the Hard Master is teaching Snake-Eyes the “Blind Sword” technique. While impersonating Snake-Eyes’ mannerisms and heartbeat, the Hard Master is assassinated by an arrow. Snake-Eyes rushes out and sees Storm Shadow running away from the compound. With his dying breaths, the Hard Master absolves Storm Shadow of guilt in his murder, but no one believes him. Only years later do we find out the truth.|
|The future Cobra Commander, Rex, is just a toddler or young boy when Snake-Eyes is a kid in Japan, learning the ways of the ninja.||Cobra Commander, still blaming Snake-Eyes for the death of his brother, hires a mercenary named Zartan to kill Snake-Eyes in Japan. Using a compound bow fitted with a sound amplifier, Zartan shoots at Snake-Eyes, only to kill the Hard Master who was impersonating Snake-Eyes.|
|Storm Shadow joins Cobra, but is still wracked with guilt over either killing the Hard Master or being unable to prevent his death.||Storm Shadow joins Cobra to find his uncle’s murderer. He’s willing to kill anyone necessary to discover the truth.|
|Following his near-failure to protect the nanomite warheads, Duke joins G.I. Joe. While in hand-to-hand combat training with Snake-Eyes, Duke is bested several times. Despite getting worked over by Snake-Eyes, Duke continues to try and try again. Finally, he is able to knock Snake-Eyes to the ground. The other Joes watching express surprise because Snake-Eyes never loses.||Snake-Eyes is recruited to G.I. Joe by Hawk and Stalker, who find him in a mountain retreat, hunting rabbits with only his bare hands. Scarlett is conducting hand-to-hand combat training with the Joe recruits. She handily beats all recruits, leaving Snake-Eyes as the only man left. She quickly realizes that Snake-Eyes is far more advanced than she is in martial arts, but is surprised when he allows her to beat him. She realizes that Snake-Eyes did that so she would not lose face in front of the other Joes. The two quickly strike up a romance.|
|Following the Hard Master’s death, Snake-Eyes takes a vow of silence.||The Joes are traveling in helicopters while on a rescue mission in the desert. The copters develop mechanical issues due to the swirling dust. While attempting to jump out of the helicopter, Scarlett’s uniform gets caught in the door. Snake-Eyes tries to free her, but not before the other helicopter explodes, spewing fire and glass right into his face. Their copter crashes, but miraculously they both survive. Snake-Eyes carries an unconscious Scarlett from the wreckage, his face still on fire. He attempts to talk to his Joe compatriots, but no sound is emitted, as his vocal chords were severed in the accident.|
|Duke joins G.I. Joe following the attempted theft of the nanomite warheads by the Baroness and the agents of MARS.||Following General Flagg’s death, Hawk is promoted and Duke is recruited to be the field captain of G.I. Joe. He and Roadblock (Heavy Duty is basically a clone of Roadblock) are introduced during General Flagg’s funeral.|
|The origins of Cobra, Cobra Commander, the Baroness, Duke, and Snake-Eyes are described in a two-hour movie.||The origins of Cobra, Cobra Commander, the Baroness, and Snake-Eyes are told over the course of 155 issues spanning 12 years.|
If there’s one thing that I dislike about movies based on comic books, it’s the origin installment. Because I know all about the comic book and characters, I’m less interested in seeing how Hollywood adapts the story to the big screen. Personally, I just want to get right into the action and plot; let the origin be told using some other method — flashbacks and exposition happening over several movies. It’s been reported that a sequel has been greenlit. Why couldn’t the producers and writers of G.I. Joe have spread the mystery and story across several movies?
As mentioned above, the backgrounds of the major characters was spread out over the course of 12 years. Most of what I noted above, however, occurred in the first five years of the comic book (minus the Baroness background and Firefly/Zartan switcheroo). These plot points could easily have been worked into three movies. Look at Harry Potter, for example. They didn’t write one Harry Potter movie to tell the story contained in all seven books. They made (or will make) 8 movies!
For me, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra is a mixed bag when it comes to the origins of the Joe team and Cobra. While the movie captured some things that I liked about the comic book, it made enough changes to the character backgrounds to dilute the greatness of the comic book. The movie did capture the experience I had of playing with the toys, as well as ridiculousness of the cartoon (the parachute when Ripcord ejected out of the Night Raven!) all in one movie. In that respect, I thought they did a serviceable job. Sadly, though, the movie could have been so much better!
Here are some quick thoughts regarding G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra:
I saw an interview with Steven Sommers where he said that this was only the Rise of Cobra, so Cobra Commander doesn’t necessarily need to be wearing the same mask in the next movie. That’s good to hear from him, because his Jason X mask was absolutely horrible!
Baroness and Cobra Commander being brother and sister was a stretch. I’d much rather have Cobra Commander be a pyramid scheming, two-timing, used car salesman pissed off at America than the teammate of Duke.
The great thing about Cobra Commander from the comic books is that he could have been anyone behind the hooded mask. The movie takes away from the mystery of Cobra Commander, something the movie could have developed slowly over several movies.
Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow
By having Hard Master killed while Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadows were still kids, the writers aren’t going to be able to follow the comic book thread in which Cobra Commander ordered the hit. So, if Storm Shadow didn’t kill the Hard Master, why did he flee, why did he join Cobra, and why is he an assassin? Again, Sommers hints that Storm Shadow might still be alive at the end of Rise of Cobra, so it’s a good guess that we’ll be seeing him in the next movie.
Snake-Eyes and Scarlett
Snake-Eyes is with Scarlett in the comics. Scarlett and Duke seem to have something going on in the cartoon (and in the Ballad of G.I. Joe too!). In the movie, it’s Scarlett and Ripcord. The girl sure does get around in the G.I. Joe Universe!
A lot of people are complaining about Snake-Eyes’ mouth in the movie. Look closely at the 1985 version of the Snake-Eyes action figure. This was the outfit they modeled the movie outfit on. Yup, it’s got a mouth. Get over it!
Apparently, Channing Tatum, who played Duke in Rise of Cobra, originally wanted the part of Snake-Eyes. Maybe that’s why Duke seems so pouty throughout the entire movie!
I’m fine with the accent getting chopped. Sienna Miller did a serviceable job as the Baroness. I’d rather have her background remain a mystery, however, instead of her being Duke’s fiancee.
A lot of unnamed Joes, U.S. soldiers, and Cobra Vipers were killed in this movie. About time! I was a little suprised they axed Cover Girl. It took the comic books a really long time before they killed off any of the main characters (Doc, Quick Kick, and Breaker!).
Homage to comics
Breaker chews bubble gum! Yeah! Ripcord’s Night Raven helmet looked a lot like Wild Weasel’s from the comic books and toys.
The action in the movie was similar to kids playing in the living room. I remember shooting rockets and having my action figures “avoid” the missles like Duke and Ripcord in the Delta Six Accelerator Suits. And yes, a lot of nameless Vipers died while all the main characters survived each battle.
Costumes and the Ballad of G.I. Joe
If you haven’t seen this great video, click on it now! Cold Slither is back! I only wish the Joe costumes looked like this in Rise of Cobra. Instead, we got rejects from the Matrix and X-Men. Come on, guys, you can do better than that!
Waiting for the next movie
Hardcore Joe fanatics — like myself or those that are attending the upcoming JOECON in Kansas City, will find enough in the movie to give it a lukewarm positive review. Regular moviegoers will probably think G.I. Joe is a waste of $170 million dollars, a sort of live action Team America World Police movie. Young boys aged 8-12 will love G.I. Joe and will be bugging their parents to buy them the toys.
Unless they reboot G.I. Joe the movie like they did with The Incredible Hulk, I doubt I’ll see the richness of Larry Hama’s comic book translated properly to the silver screen. That said, future sequels have the opportunity to be far better than Rise of Cobra. With Zartan firmly embedded as the President of the United States, the sequel has rich possibilities. We still don’t know why Snake-Eyes wears a mask, so the possibility exists of extending his backstory and moving him back into center stage. Cobra Commander and Destro have got to break out of their Magneto-like prison, and who better to break them out that either Tomax and Xamot or the Dreadnoks?!? I’m also crossing my fingers that we’ll see Cobra Commander sporting the hood or combat mask instead of the plastic bubble mask from Rise of Cobra.