It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair that the brow level of source material for movies has dropped this precipitously low. To be fair, trash (escapist or just plain trashy trash) has existed since the very first days of the medium. But cinema’s early conception as a theatrical presentation made before a paid seated audience associated it with plays, and many early narrative silent filmmakers looked to plays and literature for source material.
Over 100 years later, no amount of original material, adaptation of great works, or repeated remaking of other movies could be enough to feed movies’ hunger for story. It took almost 80 years for Hollywood to draw upon comic books for anything beyond cheap serials. The success of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) reverberated for years, leading directly into other seriously budgets prestige productions as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990).
At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, something has changed. Drunk on the proceeds of a second wave of comics movies (particularly Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2: X-Men United and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Batman: The Dark Knight), Hollywood burned hundreds of millions of dollars on failed projects based on comics properties that even many comics fans might not be terribly familiar with, including Tank Girl (1995), Elektra (2005), and Jonah Hex (2010). With popular comic books exhausted for now, Hollywood is quickly turning to toys and even from board games (Peter Berg’s Battleship and Ridley Scott’s Monopoly are coming soon to a theater near you).
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is based on the eponymous line of plastic action figures and accessories marketed to boys in the early 1980s by toy company Hasbro. No doubt it was rushed into production after the massively lucrative success of Michael Bay’s two Transformers films, which were based on a contemporaneous toy line. The Rise of Cobra’s critical reception was all but assured as soon as it was announced; it was of course widely and justly panned. But I happened to see it in quick succession with Transformers: Rise of the Fallen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In such company, it is a masterpiece, if for no other reason than its logic is internally consistent (if stupidly implausible).
Although possessed of a certain degree of deliberate camp not seen since Burton and Beatty’s comics-based films, the movie seems bizarrely unaware of spoofs that came before it. Echoing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song, a title card announces the story is set in the “Not too distant future” — which, as any MST3K fan knows, promises little but cinematic crimes against humanity. The futuristic settling weakly explains away the advanced weapons and transport technology readily available to G.I. Joe, an elite transnational military force with seemingly unlimited funding, and its nemesis Cobra, a terrorist organization enamored of teleconferencing. Traditional ballistics are deprecated in favor of cheesy laser blasters that provide for lots of death, all of it bloodless. To be fair, this is relatively more realistic than the comics and cartoons, where every shot simply missed and nobody was maimed, disfigured, or killed despite a constant state of war. The other major head-slapping moment of cultural deafness comes when a major action set piece is staged in Paris, as Cobra disintegrates the Eiffel Tower. Does no one involved remember Team America: World Police?
Its structure is a strange and confident gamble; rather than start the story in the middle, with its heroes and villains established and locked in perpetual battle as in the source material, we start before Cobra even rises. The movie makes plain its intentions to set up a franchise, not even giving birth to two of its most iconic characters until the final moments.
The entire movie is designed as one giant origin story hobbled with numerous flashbacks. First off, a prologue set in 1641 France features an ancestor to Scottish weapons dealer James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), with little benefit beyond providing a framing device. Other flashbacks tell us more about the rivalry between dueling ninjas Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), and the relationship between Duke (Channing Tatum), The Baroness (Sienna Miller), and her brother The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hilariously full of himself in promotional interviews, citing the art of kabuki as his inspiration for acting much of the film behind a mask). The Baroness and The Doctor (not to be confused with Eccleston’s most famous role) are siblings, Duke dated The Baroness, and was once responsible for protecting the young Doctor. Got all that?
None of these tangled family ties figure into the original mythos established in the 1980s comic books and animated television series, which existed in service of promoting the toy line. The ancillary media provided characters and scenarios for play, all with the aim of inspiring kids to want to collect the whole set and stage epic battles in their parents’ basements. The stories provided by marketers arguably reduced the element of imagination in children’s play. But looked at another way, the entire G.I. Joe package could be seen as a large-scale multimedia act of world-building. Over time, the brand accumulated an epic story with a giant cast, and may have helped set the stage for later ambitious serialized popular fiction of the 21st century, like Lost.
The story ultimately centers around Duke and his pal Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), implying the filmmakers failed to poll fans to find out what exactly it was they found appealing about G.I. Joe as kids. Ask anyone who actually read the comics, watched the cartoons, or played with the toys, and they will tell you Snake Eyes was always the most popular character. His unrequited love for the Joes’ sole female operative Scarlett and complex relationship with “brother” Storm Shadow provided most of the longest-running storylines. Sommers’ movie minimizes the disfigured, mute ninja commando (despite the perfect casting of Park, famous as Darth Maul), and inexplicably costumed with a mask incorporating a mouth. Scarlett’s affections are here transferred to Ripcord, and Storm Shadow is more overtly evil, whereas I recall his loyalties being more interestingly ambiguous in the comics. His apparent death is an obvious homage to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, as is an underwater submarine battle lifted from any number of other George Lucas space battles. In the exact inverse to Storm Shadow, the purely villainous Baroness is here transformed into a fixer-upper.
One flaw the movie retained from the comics and cartoons: while each “Joe” has a distinct codename and personality, most of Cobra’s forces are nameless and faceless drones. Indeed, their stormtrooper brains have been surgically modified to turn them into obedient zombies. Some meager drama is derived from The Baroness’ potential rehabilitation, but her villainy is defused by making her another victim of mind control. Leaders Destro and Cobra Commander are classic examples of the grotesque figure in literature — like Gollum and Richard III — where physical deformity is an outward expression of evil.
Following the overt racial caricatures in Transformers: Rise of the Fallen, I feared the worst for Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. Indeed, the trailer made a point of highlighting his clowning around. Surprisingly, one of the few areas in which the film managed to outperform expectations was its treatment of its non-white characters. Wayans was given the opportunity to be often genuinely funny and not nearly as annoying as I suspected he might have been. Ripcord gets real chances to prove himself, succeeds, and even gets the girl in the end. Further proving The Rise of Cobra’s bona fides as a surprising source of affirmative action is seen in Saïd Taghmaoui as the heroic Breaker, finally breaking out of his terminal stereotyping as a generic Middle Eastern terrorist / enemy combatant (q.v. Three Kings, Vantage Point, and Traitor). Now if we could just do something about Cobra being made up of evil Brits, Scots, Japanese, and Eastern Europeans.