Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Of G.I. Joe and James Bond

Watching 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I was, of course, struck by the ways in which the film was derivative of the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me--in its undersea fortress and stolen missile scheme, and to some extent, even its tossing in an affair between Duke and Baroness.

While noting this in my book (shameless plug time) James Bond's Evolution, I didn't give the matter all that much thought. As is the case with most of the other cartoons of the 1980s I haven't seen since, I remembered little more than opening credits sequences and theme songs, a few character designs and quirks, the essential pattern of the public service announcements ("Knowing is half the battle!"), at most a small shred of a scene or two.

Still, more recently running into reruns of the old mid-'80s Sunbow-produced series (to go by what I see on fan sites, still the canonical, "real" Joe to most), I have had occasion to think again about the influences and resemblances, above and beyond the broad way in which the Bond film series was a model for later action-adventure (cinematic pacing and structure, the subject matter, scaling, photography and editing of action sequences) in general--and which seems less surprising the more I learn about the series' history.1

Larry Hama's creation of G.I. Joe is, after all, an outgrowth of an attempt to spin off Marvel's Nick Fury--Marvel's answer to the '60s era spy craze James Bond did so much to explode (however much the conception diverged in later years). And it shows in the similarity of the conception. Like James Bond, Joe takes a popular genre of globe-trotting action-adventure devoted to an over-the-top version of intelligence, covert operations and low-intensity warfare in the contemporary "real world" (as it was the '80s, paramilitary/techno-thriller action rather than spies) and turns down its usual political charge to the end of appealing to the widest possible audience. A certain amount of flag-waving remained part of the package, G.I. Joe highlighting its heroes' nationality, the subtitle in the Sunbow-Dic era "A Real American Hero," appearing on the screen as the main cast stands pumping its fists in front of a giant American flag at the end of the opening titles. However, as in the early movies about 007 the G.I. Joe series eschewed overt demonization of other governments and countries, in large part by centering the adventures on an imaginary villain carefully crafted to be acceptable as a villain to all--again, in much the same fashion as the early Bond films.

Just like the SPECTRE of the early films (which replaced the Soviet Union's SMERSH in Dr. No), Cobra is an international criminal organization with an agenda of pure and naked power-seeking, even the pretension of a higher cause or ideology absent. As the means by which it pursued this goal frequently called for the physical destruction of a large part of the world Cobra, like many a Bond villain, was a threat not just to a narrow "national interest," but the whole planet, with both superpowers pointedly included, and in cases, forced to cooperate (the Joes working with their Soviet counterparts in the October Guard on more than one occasion).

One might add that Cobra, like SPECTRE, is led by a villain whose face is kept carefully hidden (Cobra Commander), and whose organization, apart from his colorful senior staff (metal-faced Destro, the bad Bond girl-ish Baroness) and a few similarly colorful henchmen (the mercenary Zartan and his Dreadnoks), rests atop a foundation of vast numbers of faceless foot soldiers whose principal role is that of inexplicably willing cannon fodder. And of course, Cobra also shares the Bond villains' penchant for elaborate fortress-bases (at times, under the sea or in space), and for the wacky in their high-tech schemes for world domination.

That same imperative of toning things down also led G.I. Joe, like the later installments of the Bond films, to replace bloody violence with over-the-top gadgetry. (The Joes and Cobras fire laser bolts instead of bullets from their guns--and in the second season the Joes are apt to be firing them not at other people, but androids.)

Indeed, it is worth remembering that a conspicuously James Bondian agent "guest stars" in a Sunbow series episode, specifically "Matthew Burke" in the allusively titled "The Spy Who Rooked Me," which mixes up with the Joes a tuxedo-wearing British superspy who first appears outside a Vegas nightclub, subsequently drives a gadget-packed car (complete with ejector seat) and, while having to keep it G-rated, still manages to put enough moves on Lady Jaye to get (Our Man?) Flint jealous. In the end Burke/Bond does not come off so favorably as he might, but still accomplishes his mission handily, in the process getting the better of his allies as well as his enemies--so that in the end, it still seems fair to call the episode an homage to a crucial predecessor.

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