by Tony Nigro
Let’s set a few house rules: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is not what I’m talking about here. When I refer to “G.I. Joe,” I do not mean “blockbuster actioner.” I do not indulge in the Internet chatter of production woes, nor do I care much about adaptations, accusations, recriminations or any of that fanboy nonsense. When I say “G.I. Joe” I’m taking the “fan” out of “fanboy” and time traveling to age 7 via DeLorean — to a galaxy far, far away. “Star Wars” meant very different things depending on your age, and Transformers flew under the adult radar except at toy stores, where they shared the shelves with fist-sized military action figures and very real-looking toy guns.
When I say “G.I. Joe,” I’m saying “nostalgia.” For me, that means the Joe of the 1980s, when the franchise reached a commercial peak with toys, TV shows, comic books and a bounty of merchandise. (Party napkin, anyone?)
The resurrection of America’s daring, highly trained special mission force to defend human freedom from a ruthless terrorist organization seems timely indeed, but it goes beyond the War on Terror and even the Cold War. Those who played with the toys in the 1960s may smile, much as they might have in the ’80s when their own children played with the smaller, more ridiculously colorful toys. It’s a windfall for the marketing department: Create a new Joe and you’ll stir up memories in thirtysomethings and some of their parents. Bonus: Children of the Reagan era might be pining for childhood just as they raise families of their own, so a whole new crop can get to know the new Joe.
By now it should be obvious that Hollywood is not new to nostalgia. Yet what we buy into with nostalgia products — be it G.I. Joe, Transformers, Spider-Man, Daniel Craig’s James Bond, or even the second three Star Wars films — is the same as any other product: comfort, only nostalgia can operate in a much more personal space.
A generation of boys who grew up playing innocent military games (that involved killing) are now settling into adulthood. Lives transform with marriage and child rearing, and vague high school acquaintances keep making Facebook “friends” even if no contact is made otherwise. A generation is in transition. What better coping mechanism than to reach back to simpler times, to forgotten school friends (at a digital distance, lest the reality be disappointing) and the sandbox days of action figures?
Can The Rise of Cobra live up to the 1980s Real American Hero cartoon? Do you really want it to? By now, thanks to DVD or YouTube or whatever, a number of folks my age must have revisited the show and discovered what I did — that it’s bad. Like, really horrible.
Nonetheless, the cartoon jingoism, fake techno-babble, condescending “Knowing Is Half the Battle” PSAs, and silted animation are now part of the fun. We laugh at it. We were kids then, what did we know? But there’s also a comfort in renewing the memory, as simple familiarity gives way to specific memories, some perhaps buried for many years. That connection can’t be broken.
The real question here is, can The Rise of Cobra touch that same nerve? And that, of course, will depend on the viewer.