Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

GI Joe: A Real American Hero - The Complete Series (2009)
Shout Factory | Buy at Amazon | Review by Sinferno

Every once in awhile, even the most stodgy, prissy famous food critic orders McDonald's just to see if tastes he once loved as a kid still holds their delight decades later, when experienced through the discerning, skeptical palate of a grownup, or in my case, a man who has digested thousands of cinematic meals that were spicy cinema fare indeed. Could my VERY adult preferences and tastes still take delight in something as sweet, stupid and as delightful as a deep fat fried cherry pie from my youth? The answer in either case is yes, but it still made my insides burn at times.

Enter GI JOE, the boxed set: a hard cardboard metal capped footlocker containing all 95 episodes by the popular toy line and comic books of the early eighties. If you were a boy who grew up then as I did, the fictitious characters of this universe were as close to your heart as any sports hero, motion picture star or pro-wrestler. Loosely based on the four branches of the American Military, the Joe's had various code names, uniforms and personalities all depicted in detail with a file card on every box that further dictate their "specialty". And just to make sure the Joe's didn't just sit around and collect their pensions, Hasbro quickly released "Cobra: the Enemy" figures. A series of nameless, faceless terrorist guys in blue uniforms, each with non removable helmets to conceal their race, ethnic origin or identity. By contrast, even though they belonged to no actual known country, the bad guys tended to come with tiny Ak-47's, Dragonov sniper rifles and other Warsaw Pact small arms. You see, all this occurred during the Cold War and it seems even toy designers were preparing our youth for the eventual invasion of Moscow by American forces which many felt were coming in our lifetime. Needless to say this was the perfect toy for the Reagan era, and even most Christian kids who couldn't own toy guns were allowed to have several shelves of the red white and blue boxes of freedom and fancy. Hasbro is slick like that. They were the first company to sell a doll to boys in the sixties by calling it an action figure. That Doll? GI Joe!

With this preamble aside, does the original cartoon series that spawned the cartoon series hold up after twenty-some years and a shifting world reality? Yes, but as always, it isn't a simple question. Is it ever?

Sign of the times aside, there are cultural reasons why they would not broadcast these today. First of all there is a lot of ethnic stereotyping, which would never make it past modern day censors especially in the case of Asians. For example, if you were an Asian member of the GI JOE team, you had to be some sort of Martial Arts expert. An American Indian? Well then you could command the loyalty of animals. Aside from the strange but obviously forced attempt at multiculturalism, something the casual viewer will notice immediately is how idealistic American ideals are with no shades of grey. The good guys are all attractive, robust and honorable, and the GI Joe leader Duke looks as positively Aryan with his rigid jaw, blond hair and blue eyes as any Hitler youth poster. The bad guys all quarrel with themselves, wear scary all-concealing masks, and essentially are so selfish and self absorbed that most times they screw themselves over, long before the Joe's lock onto their location with their Univac style Bat-computer that takes up the whole wall and could only run on vacuum tubes. This is behavior propaganda at it's finest, but of course not uncommon in most every cartoon ever made. But it's easy to understand that, due to the unpopular war in Iraq, most modern day parents and children wouldn't tune in for more colorful posturing about how becoming part of a team, never leaving a man behind, and believing in freedom for all peoples in the world will always result in complete total victory over an opponent with zero casualties. I know an Army Ranger who recently got back from the current campaign overseas early and if I played this boxed set for him, he would be liable to put his remaining arm through my flat screen at once because it would insult his entire being in ways that the I.E.D. that took his limb could never touch him. Making war fun for kids gives neither the respect they deserve, especially in these tense times where the nameless, faceless terrorist organizations aren't just the fictitious factions, the Stormtroopers and the Decepticons, of the 1980's toy aisle anymore. Case in point, the original GI JOE was a 12" military doll inspired by World War Two fighting men. When Vietnam came around, sales were so poor that Hasbro retrofitted the line to an adventure theme where he was packaged with monsters and questing equipment instead of the obligatory military munitions and gear.

Still, if one can get by all the incongruence of the eighties and American military bravado that never will be/never actually was, those who remembered the cartoon will find all their favorite GI JOE plot devices that have delighted children/inspired comedians for decades now. All the classic gambits are there. They have the planes shot out of the sky, only to see the pilot ALWAYS eject to safety. They have people shooting guns out of of other peoples hands so they can capture them (only so they can escape later). And they have Joe and Cobra fighting over crucial devices which could free/enslave the entire world. And while most of you who remember the series will probably never invest the thought and introspection into it that I have done here, you too will feel kind of weird when you see Destro (Cobra's terrorist arms dealer) level an attack beam at New York City's most famous monument: The Empire State building. When I saw this I had a feeling of sickness inside, a palpable moral twitch that all the porn, gore and effluvium I review for Dantesnet could never equal. Not a bad trick for a G rated Toy commercial lasting 36.5 hours. I salute you GI Joe, as well as the continual slickness of the marketers behind Hasbro.

As with any 17 disk boxed set, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the special features. Aside from the fact that the whole hard cased "footlocker" boxed set is sturdy enough to support a bookshelf holding every other boxed set you own, included are original toy commercials, the infamous, awesomely stupid "Now I know" PSAs, and an interview with much of the voice talent. Other extras include a full color booklet prefaced by Robot Chicken's Seth Green that synopsizes the plot for every episode, a 1GB USB dogtag preloaded with Marvel GI Joe comics, and finally a sheet of GI Joe and Cobra Tattoos. It's very impressive, except for the fact that the episodes are kept in eight disk paper wallets which fell apart under their own weight; the plastic trays separating from the industrial scotch tape-infused cardboard spine which held them together. Moreover even as the two disk wallets were left in the hanging display folio that the open box forms upon opening, they tended to rip the cardboard liner of the otherwise solid state box from the inside by their sheer weight. I got this thing six months ago on release, opened it less than ten times, treated it like glass, and already there are numerous tiny rips in the superstructure which destroys it's very nature as a "mint collectible item" for the very audience of comic nuts it was geared for. Moreover, the disks were so set into the DVD wallets it required a survival knife (not included) to pry it loose. Every possible material was included that you might expect except for the original animated movie starring Sgt. Slaughter which is a glaring error to anyone who waited for this thing to come out as long as I have.

Sinferno Says...
Yucko/Neato Factor: Just G rated fluff, with a few scenarios that will never be seen again in mass market cartoon form. Hasbro recently removed all references to terrorism on all of their classic figure reissues from the eighties. This makes this something really cool to discuss and show to your kids, thus increasing its Neato factor to a product that ranks right up there with all those racist cartoons from a former, less egalitarian era. Three times as fun as the recent crummy live action film that the cartoons in this box inspired.
Production Values: Animation is average. Voice talent work by Frank Welker (multiple characters) in his prime. Some bonus feature extras such as free tattoos delight and demean buyers at the same time. Packaging is attractive but falls apart before it can be used. I suspect sabotage by Cobra agents!
Realism: Yo Joe? God No!
Value for Price: One hundred and forty five dollars. Expensive for what it is and will only appreciate true appreciation by a Gen X audience who has seen it before and has half forgotten about it. However, these cartoons are the originals, seen back in the day as they were. Yet, if you have an interest I would get these now, as future renditions of Joe (which are always forthcoming) will surely be updated (edited) for modern kids, only making these more desirable and/or expensive. No GI Joe Animated Movie is included despite this is being billed as a "completionist package." Don't lie to me Shout Factory. Rhino did that with the last release of Joe on video (They never finished it) and I was hoping we could trust you better.
Plot: One thumbnail of one middle finger up. This is an uncertain era where America is no longer seen as the benevolent economic power and military hero by the rest of the world. Call it escapist fantasy, but after watching this again first the first time in 20 years I realize that sometimes junk food is comfort food, damn the cholesterol and trans-fats. And as GI: Joe would tell you himself, "knowing is half the battle."

 


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