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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Fishing in the Discount Bin - G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero

Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin.  I watch a movie, I blog about it, as is the Circle of Life.  Today, we get to a classic bit of 1980s animation, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.  I originally watched this and blogged this on December 31, 2017.  Happy new  year!

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero -- Original 1980s VHS Cover!

Over the Christmas break, I fell in love with this new documentary series on Netflix called The Toys That Made Us, which chronicles the history of some of the greatest toylines of the 1980s.  Needless to say, it's made me super-nostalgic for the toys of my youth, which caused me this Sunday morning to toss the mini-series G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero into my Blu-Ray player.

A Real American Hero, also known as The M.A.S.S. Device, is the five-episode mini-series that launched the G.I. Joe cartoon.  As they explained in The Toys That Made Us, one of the lasting lessons of Star Wars and its accompanying merchandise was that every toyline now needed a media franchise to help promote it.  When Hasbro decided to resurrect G.I. Joe, they decided that their media franchise would be...a comic book.  Since Marvel already had an in with Marvel Comics, they reached out to Hasbro to make the now-legendary G.I. Joe comic.

But a comic book would not be enough.  They needed to get something on TV.  Now, there were regulations in place at that time, and I'm pretty sure they still exist to this day, on how much animation you can put in a toy commercial.  But there were no such regulations for comic book commercials.  So, Hasbro produced these glorious, fully-animated commercials for the G.I. Joe comic, each one being essentially a 30-second short.

Now, you may be wondering, why didn't they just start with a cartoon fresh out of the gate?  Well, back in the 1960s, Mattel was looking to develop a cartoon based on their classic Hot Wheels toys.  Parents groups were up in arms, arguing that a cartoon based on a toy would amount to nothing but a 30-minute commercial for toys.  So, the American broadcasters actually banned cartoons based on toys.   However, thanks to Star Wars proving that you could still have a good media franchise be more than a toy commercial, and excessive lobbying from the toy industry, the ban was finally lifted in the early 1980s.  Thanks to Hasbro having already developed the pipeline to produce their 30-second commercials, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was officially the first cartoon based on a toy when it premiered in the fall of 1983. 

Hasbro still hedged their bets, though.  Out of the gate was just a five episode mini-series entitled G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.  It was popular enough that they did a sequel mini-series, G.I. Joe: The Revenge of Cobra in 1984.  The series proper premiered in 1985 and ran for two seasons, ending with straight-to-video animated movie G.I. Joe: The Movie.  When the series proper began, the initial five-episode mini-series was re-titled The M.A.S.S. Device.

And The M.A.S.S. Device is what I watched on this frosty Sunday morning.  It was very appropriate that I watched it on Sunday morning, because that's where it first premiered for me way back in 1983.  I think all three of Edmonton's TV stations took a turn showing The M.A.S.S. Device, and each time it aired, i only ever managed to catch episodes 2 and 3.  Thankfully, they started releasing them on VHS, and I was finally able to rent it and watch the entire thing when I was about 8 or 9 years old.  Back in the 1980s, all of these Hasbro cartoons were released on VHS by a company called Family Home Entertainment.  What made them notable was their box art.  Rather than the usual write-up on the back telling you what the movie was about, Family Home Entertainment would cover the box back with a comic strip depicting a scene from the cartoon.  Brilliant marketing strategy. 

Cobra, that ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world, has come into possession of the M.A.S.S. Device, a teleportation machine.  With it, Cobra can teleport their armies to any place on Earth, or beam any opposition back to their mountain lair, where they're immediately outfitted with a mind-control device and turned into a mindless slave.  To fight this, G.I. Joe tracks down the inventor of the M.A.S.S. device so they can build their own and fight Cobra on even footing.  The bulk of the mini-series has to do with G.I. Joe and Cobra doing battle over the rare elements that are used to power the M.A.S.S. Device

The first element is a rare radioactive crystal found only in an Arctic mine.

The second is an isotope of heavy water found only in a spring at the bottom of the deepest trench in the ocean.

The third is a fragment of a meteorite found floating in a pool of lava in a volcano. 

The obscurity of these elements reminds me of one of my favourite jokes from the Ninja Turtles comics when I was a kid.  In the future, Shredder steals a time portal, and is using it to strike at the Turtles across the timeline.  The future Turtles come back in time to help their present day selves.  Future Donatello explains that he was the one who invented the time portal.  The first one he built was powered by an experimental cold fusion reactor that went critical and self-destructed.  The second one -- the one that Shredder stole -- was powered by rare elements that had naturally high levels of power, such as G.I. Joe's radioactive crystals and meteorite fragments.  In order to go back in time and help the present day Turtles, Donatello built a third one. 

Present day Donatello:  So how are you powering this third one?

Future Donatello:  I just plugged it in to the wall.  I'm going to hate to see our power bill next month....

Anyway, back to G.I. Joe.  As I said, when it first aired, I only ever got to see episodes 2 and 3, so I was always haunted by the quest to get to the radioactive crystals.  The Joes arrive at the mine, but the mine is booby-trapped by Cobra.  And then, Cobra ambushes them!  Snake Eyes sacrifices himself to save the team, sealing up the mine with himself inside.  That happened in Episode 2.  The B-plot of Episode 3 is Snake Eyes and his quest to return to civilization.  Snake Eyes is freed when Cobra comes to collect some crystals.  Rather than blow Snake Eyes away when he emerges from the mine, Major Bludd decides to just late Snake Eyes go free, figuring if the cold doesn't kill Snake Eyes, the radiation poising will.  Seriously, Snake Eyes is drawn with a glowing pink aura to show how he received a lethal dose of radiation.  Snake Eyes is found and rescued by a blind old trapper, who's able to nurse Snake Eyes back to health.  Snake Eyes triumphantly returns to G.I. Joe HQ with a canister of the radioactive crystals!

But!  The cliffhanger that haunted me when i was six!  Turns out the canister was Cobra's last booby trap!  It emits a gas that knocks out the Joes, and it also has a bomb inside that'll go off and destroy their base!  How will G.I. Joe get out of this one?

Well, turns out G.I. Joe got out of this one thanks to their tank driver Cover Girl.  Yes, this is Cover Girl's big moment in the series.  She was able to protect herself from the gas by getting a soaked piece of cloth over her mouth and nose in time as an improvised gas mask.  She then got the bomb into the back of a Jeep, and quickly drove it out to a place where it could detonate without causing any damage. 

But I had to laugh again watching it today.  Cobra managed to build this top secret mountain lair, in which contains a gigantic arena to make slaves battle each other to the death.  I'm just watching it and going, "Who the hell is funding Cobra that they can build stuff like this?"  Apparently, it's question that long plagued showrunner Buzz Dixon, and he was always trying to figure that out himself. 

Anyway, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero truly was the 1980s descendant of the movie serials of old, as each episode was packed with high-flying adventure and death-defying cliffhanger endings.  No wonder it was so memorable to six year old me.

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