G.I. Joe, Post-American Hero: The Long, Slow Death of American Triumphalism

The Prequel: In my childhood, I played endlessly with toy soldiers -- a crew of cowboys and bluecoats to defeat the Indians and win the West; a bag or two of tiny olive-green plastic Marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima. Alternately, I grabbed my toy six-guns, or simply picked up a suitable stick in the park, and with friends replayed scenes from the movies of World War II, my father's war. It was second nature to do so. No instruction was necessary. After all, a script involving a heady version of American triumphalism was already firmly in place not just in popular culture, but in the ether, as it had been long before my grandfather made it to this land in steerage in the 1890s.

My sunny fantasies of war play were intimately connected to the wars Americans had actually fought by an elaborate mythology of American goodness and ultimate victory. If my father tended to be silent about the war he had taken part in, it made no difference. I already knew what he had done. I had seen it at the movies, in comic books, and sooner or later in shows like Victory at Sea on that new entertainment medium, television.

And when, in the 1960s, countless demonstrators from my generation went into opposition to a brutal American war in Vietnam, they did so still garbed in cast-off "Good War" paraphernalia -- secondhand Army jackets and bombardier coats -- or they formed themselves into "tribes" and turned goodness and victory over to the former enemies in their childhood war stories. They transformed the V for Victory into a peace sign and made themselves into beings recognizable from thousands of westerns. They wore the Pancho Villa mustache, sombrero, and serape, or the Native American headband and moccasins. They painted their faces and grew long hair in the manner of the formerly "savage" foe, and smoked the peace (now, hash) pipe.

American mytho-history, even when turned upside down, was deeply embedded in their lives. How could they have known that they would be its undertakers, that their six-shooters would become eBayable relics?

You can bet on one thing today: in those streets, fields, parks, or rooms, children in significant numbers are not playing G.I. versus Sunni insurgent, or Special Op soldier versus Taliban fighter; and if those kids are wielding toy guns, they're not replicas from the current arsenal, but flashingly neon weaponry from some fantasy future.

As it happens, G.I. Joe -- then dubbed a "real American hero" -- proved to be my introduction to this new world of child's war play. I had, of course, grown up years too early for the original G.I. Joe (b. 1964), but one spring in the mid-1980s, during his second heyday, I paid a journalistic visit to the Toy Fair, a yearly industry bash for toy-store buyers held in New York City.

Hasbro, which produced the popular G.I. Joe action figures, was one of the Big Two in the toy business. Mattel, the maker of Joe's original inspiration and big sister, Barbie, was the other. Hasbro had its own building and, on arriving, I soon found myself being led by a company minder through a labyrinthine exhibit hall in the deeply gender segregated world of toys. Featured were blond models dressed in white holding baby dolls and fashion dolls of every imaginable sort, set against an environment done up in nothing but pink and robin's egg blue.

Here, the hum of the world seemed to lower to a selling hush, a baby-doll whisper, but somewhere off in the distance, you could faintly hear the high-pitched whistle of an incoming mortar round amid brief bursts of machine-gun fire. And then, suddenly, you stepped across a threshold and out of a world of pastels into a kingdom of darkness, of netting and camouflage, of blasting music and a soundtrack of destruction, as well-muscled male models in camo performed battle routines while displaying the upcoming line of little G.I. Joe action figures or their evil Cobra counterparts.

It was energizing. It was electric. If you were a toy buyer you wanted in. You wanted Joe, then the rage in the boy's world of war play, as well as on children's TV where an animated series of syndicated half-hour shows was nothing but a toy commercial. I was as riveted as any buyer and yet the world I had just been plunged into seemed alien. These figures bore no relation to my toy soldiers. On first sight, it was hard even to tell the good guys from the bad guys or to figure out who was fighting whom, where, and for what reason. And that, it turned out, was just the beginning.

The Sequel (August 2009): Nobody's mentioned it, but the most impressive thing about the new movie, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, comes last -- the eight minutes or so of credits which make it clear that, to produce a twenty-first century shoot-em-up, you need to mobilize a veritable army of experts. There may be more "compositors" than actors and more movie units (Prague Unit, Prague Second Unit, Paris Unit) than units of Joes.

As the movie theater empties, those credits still scroll inexorably onward, like a beachhead in eternity, the very eternity in American cultural life that G.I. Joe already seems to inhabit. The credits do, of course, finally end -- and on a note of gratitude that, almost uniquely in the film, evokes an actual history. "The producers also wish to thank the following," it says, and the list that follows is headed by the Department of Defense, which has been "advising" Hollywood on how to make war movies -- with generous loans of equipment, troops, consultants, and weaponry in return for script "supervision" -- since the silent era.

Undead Joe

Think of G.I. Joe as a modern American zombie. "He" may never have existed, but he just won't die. More on that later.

As a start, I'm sure you want to know about the new Joe movie which was meant, like Star Trek earlier in the summer, to reinvigorate a semi-comatose brand by retelling its ur-story. In the process, the hope is to create a prequel to endless sequels that, like the Transformers series (also from a toy that was an eighties hit), will prove to be Hollywood's Holy Grail of endless summer, bringing in global mega-profits forever after.

I caught G.I. Joe, the Rise of Cobra, one sunny afternoon in a multiplex theater empty of customers except for a few clusters of teenage boys. So where to start? How about with the Joes' futuristic military base, all flashing screens, hi-tech weaponry, and next generation surveillance equipment, built under the Egyptian desert. (How this most postmodern of bases got under Pharaonic sands or what kind of Status of Forces Agreement the Joes have with the government of Egypt are not questions this film considers.) But here's the thing: well-protected as the base is, spectacularly armed and trained as the Joes are, it turns out to be a snap to break into -- if you happen to be a dame in the black cat suit of a dominatrix and a ninja dressed in white.

And then there's that even spiffier ultra-evil base under the Arctic ice (a location only slightly less busy than Times Square in movies like this). It's the sort of set-up that would have made Captain Nemo salivate.

Oh, and don't let me forget the introductory scene about a Scottish arms dealer in seventeenth century France condemned to having a molten mask fitted over his face for selling weapons to all sides -- and his great-great-great-something-or-other who's doing the same thing in our world. Then there are those weaponized exoskeletons lifted from Iron Man (which also had its own two-faced arms dealer), the X-wing-fighter-style space battle from Star Wars but transposed under the ocean (a la James Bond in Thunderball), not to speak of the Bond-ish scene in which the evildoer, having captured the hero, introduces him to a fate so much worse than death and so time-consuming it can't possibly work.

And how can there not be a scene in which a famous landmark (in this case, the Eiffel Tower) is destroyed by the forces of evil, collapsing on panicked crowds below -- as in Independence Day or just about any disaster film you'd care to mention? Throw in the sort of car chase introduced a zillion years ago in Bullitt, but now pumped up beyond all recognition, and, oh yes, there's someone who wants to control the world and will do anything, including killing millions, to achieve his purpose (ha-ha-ha!).

Is that clear enough? If not, it doesn't matter in the least. Movies like this are Hollywood's version of recombinant DNA. They can be written in the dark or, as in the case of this film, in a terrible hurry because of an impending writers' strike. All that matters is that they deliver the chases and explosions, the fake blood and weird experiments, the wild weaponry and futuristic sets, the madmen and heroes at such a pace and decibel level that your nervous system is brought fully to life jangling like a fire alarm.

These, today, are the son et lumiere of American youthful screen life. Their sole raison d'etre is to deliver boys and young men -- and so the franchise -- to studios like Paramount (and, in cases like Joe, to the Department of Defense as well): the Batman franchise, the Bond franchise, the Terminator franchise, the X-Men franchise, the Bourne franchise, the Iron Man franchise, the Transformers franchise. And now -- if it works -- the G.I. Joe franchise.

After all, the first word that appears on screen without explanation in this latest junior epic is, appropriately enough, Hasbro. We're talking about the toy company that is G.I. Joe and, in a synergistic fury, is just now releasing an endless range of toys (G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra Night Raven with Air-Viper v1), action figures, video games, board games, Burger King give-aways, and who knows what else as synergistic accompaniments to this elaborate "advertainment."

Barbie's Little Brother

Hasbro first brought Joe to market in 1964. He was then 12 inches tall and essentially a Barbie for boys, a soldier doll you could dress in that "Ike" jacket with the red scarf or a "beachhead assault fatigue shirt," then undress, and take into that pup tent with you for the night.

Of course, nobody could say such a thing. Officially, the doll was declared a "poseable action figure for boys," and that phrase, "action figure," for a new boy toy, like Joe himself, never went away. He had no "backstory" (a word still to be invented), and no name. (G.I. -- for "Government Issue" -- Joe was a generic term for an American foot soldier, redolent of the last American war in which total victory had been possible.) Nor did he have an enemy, in part because young boys still knew a version of American history, of World War II and the Cold War. They still knew who the enemy was without a backstory or a guide book.

Though born on the cusp of the Vietnam War, Joe prospered for almost a decade until antiwar sentiment began to turn war toys into the personae non gratae of the toy world and, in 1973, the first oil crunch hit, making the 12-inch Joe far more expensive to produce. First, he shrank and then, like so many of his warring kin, he was (as Hasbro put it) "furloughed." He left the scene, in part a casualty, like much of war play then, of Vietnam distaste and of an American victory that never came.

Despite being in his grave for a number of years, as the undead of the toy world he would rise again. In 1977, paving the way for his return, George Lucas brought the war flick and war play back into the child's world via the surprise hit Star Wars and its accompanying 3 3/4-inch high action figures that landed on Earth with an enormous commercial bang. Between them, they introduced the child to a self-enclosed world of play (in a galaxy "far, far away") shorn of Vietnam's defeat.

In 1982, seeing an opening, Hasbro's planners tagged Joe "a real American hero" (which once wouldn't have had to be spelled out), and reintroduced him as a set of Star-Wars-sized action figures, each with its own little bio/backstory. Hundreds of millions of these would subsequently be sold. The Joe team now had an enemy as well, another team, of course, and in this case, though the Cold War was still going full blast in those early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, it wasn't the Russians.

As it happened, Hasbro's toymakers did a better job of predicting the direction of the Cold War than the CIA or the rest of our government. They sensed that the Russians wouldn't last and so chose a vaguer, more potentially long-lasting enemy -- and in this, too, they were prescient. That enemy was a bogeyman called "terrorism" embodied in Cobra, an organization of super-bad guys who lived not in Moscow, but in -- gasp -- Springfield, U.S.A. (Hasbro researchers had discovered that a Springfield existed in every state except Rhode Island, where the company was located.)

In story and style, the Joes and their enemies now left history and the battlefields of this planet behind for some alternate Earth. There, they disported themselves with bulked-up weaponry and a look that befitted not so much "real American heroes" as a set of superheroes and supervillains in any futuristic space epic. And so, catching the zeitgeist of their moment, at a child's level, the crew at Hasbro created the most successful boy's toy of that era by divorcing war play from war American-style.

The Next War, On-Screen and Off

Twenty-seven years later, Joe, who lost his luster a second time in the 1990s but never quite left the toy scene, is back yet again with his new movie and assorted products. Whether this iteration proves to be another lucrative round for the franchise depends not just on whether enough American boys turn out to see him, but on whether his version of explosive action, special effects, and up-muscled futuristic conflict is beloved by Saudis, Poles, Indians, and Japanese. Today, for Hollywood, when it comes to shoot-em-ups, the international market means everything.

Abroad, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobraopened smashingly in South Korea and, in its first week, hit number one in less-than-all-American China and Russia as well. It took in nearly $100 million overseas in its first 12 days, putting its U.S. take in the shade. Here, it started strong, but fell off quickly in a deluge of terrible reviews.

Whatever his fate, Joe, we know, can't die. On the other hand, that all-American tale of battle triumph shows little sign of revival. Admittedly, the new G.I. Joe movie does mention NATO in passing and one member of Joe's force is said, again in passing, to have been stationed in Afghanistan. In addition, the evil arms maker's company produces its super-weapons in that obscure but perfectly real former Soviet SSR, Kyrgyzstan, where the U.S. rents out a base to support its Afghan War activities. Otherwise, the film's only link with real world battlefields comes from those borrowed Pentagon Apache helicopters and Humvees -- and the fact that some of the military extras lent by the Pentagon have been unable to see the film because they're now stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And did I even mention that those missiles around which the movie's plot (such as it is) revolves are filled with "nanomites," supermicroscopic, potentially world destructive robots? Whether blasting into the Eiffel Tower or a bus, they produce a signature green fuzz that looks like a potentially useful replacement for Styrofoam. Anyway, nanomites, typically enough, are not yet on this Earth.

Soon after the film begins, a caption announces, Star Wars-style, that we're "in the not too distant future," and immediately you know that you're in Hollywood's comfort zone, a recognizable battle landscape that is no part of what once would have been the war movie. Also recognizable is that loaned Pentagon equipment and the fantasy weaponry mixed seamlessly in with it -- "That's a Night Raven!" -- that make the film "advertainment" as well for the techno-coolness of the U.S. military. The Pentagon, you might say, is perfectly willing to make do with post-historical battle space. It may be ever less all-American, but it's where the recruitable young are heading.

For Hollywood, deserting actual American battlefields isn't the liberal thing to do, it's the business thing to do. In fact, those planning out the film for Hasbro and Paramount reportedly wanted to transform the Joes into an international special ops force based in Belgium, where NATO is headquartered. However, fan grumbling at the early teasers Paramount released for the film (and evidently a Pentagon reluctance to help a less than American force) caused them to pull back somewhat.

Still, one thing is certain: if the American car has gone to hell, Hollywood's products still rule the globe. And yet, in that international arena, American-style war, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, is a complete turn-off and real-world all-American triumph just doesn't fly any more. That's certainly part of what's happened to the American war film, but far from all of it.

After all, how long has it been since all-American mythology and imagery -- the bluecoats' charge, the Marines' advance (as the Marine hymn wells up in the background) -- has brought a mass audience to a movie screen. The last such film, in 1998, was Saving Private Ryan, and it was already an anomaly. Today, as close as it gets is the parallel universe that passes for World War II in Quentin Tarantino's new hit Inglourious Basterds.

So here's something to contemplate in the moments of lame dialogue that lurk between Joe's explosions and chases: American audiences seem largely in accord with the international crowd. They may not want their Joe force stationed in Belgium, but they don't want to see real war American-style on a recognizable planet Earth either. They voted with their feet most recently on a bevy of Iraq films.

Given the couple of hundred years that made triumphalism a kind of American sacrament, it's nothing short of remarkable that the young are no longer willing to troop to movie theaters to see such films. If you think of Hollywood as a kind of crude commercial democracy, then consider this a popular measure of imperial overstretch or the decline of the globe's sole superpower. Only recently has a mainstream discussion of American decline begun in Washington and among the pundits. But at the movies it's been going on for a long, long time.

It's as if the grim reality of our seemingly never-ending wars seeped into the pores of a nation that no longer really believes victory is our due, or that American soldiers will triumph forever and a day. There may even be an unacknowledged element of shame in all this. At least there is now a consensus that we fight wars not fit for entertainment.

As a result, war as entertainment has been sent offshore -- like imprisonment and punishment. Hollywood has launched it into a netherworld of aliens, superheroes, and robots. Something indelibly American, close to a national religion, has gone through the wormhole and is unlikely to return.

Joe lives. So does war, American-style -- the brutal, real thing in Afghanistan and Iraq, at Guantanamo and Bagram, in the Predator and Reaper-filled skies over the Pakistani tribal borderlands, among Blackwater's mercenaries and the tens of thousands of private, Pentagon-hired military contractors who now outnumber U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But the two of them no longer have much to do with each other.

If the Chinese, and South Koreans, and Saudis, and enough American young men vote with their feet and their wallets, there will be another Joe film. And if Washington's national security managers have anything to say about it, there will be what's already regularly referred to as "the next war." Film and war, however, are likely to share little other than some snazzy weaponry, thanks to the generosity of the Department of Defense, and American kids who will pay good money to sit in the dark and then perhaps join up to fight in the all-too-real world.

Succeed or fail, the screen version of G.I. Joe is now the new normal. Succeed or fail, the war in Afghanistan is also the new normal.

In this way, an entertainment era ends. The curtain has come down and the children have gone off elsewhere to play; meanwhile, behind that curtain -- Americans would prefer not to know just where -- you can still faintly hear the whistle of incoming mortars, the rat-a-rat of machine guns, the sounds of actual war that go on and on and on.

© 2023 TomDispatch.com