G.I. Joe And The Potential For Future Live Action Adaptations

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Being part of the toy-related series that Hasbro cranked out in the 1980s, G.I. Joe is a staple of 80s pop culture. G.I. Joe is often remembered for its often parodied animated PSAs. There are the obvious toy tie-ins and the beloved screeches of Cobra Commander. Additionally, the G.I. Joe we know began as a much more serious comic to advertise the toys. And like many other Hasbro properties, G.I. Joe found itself with a fanbase enamored with its large cast of characters and an action-filled plot. Fall 2020 will feature a Snake Eyes origin movie, and fans are cautiously optimistic about what’s next in G.I. Joe‘s cinematic world.

Fully masked and suited Snake Eyes wielding a sword in the new live action G.I. Joe film.
Henry Golding Will Be Playing Snake Eyes In A New Movie. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Like The Transformers, G.I. Joe builds a unique world characterized by a central war conflict. Though G.I. Joe also has some sci-fi elements, it is much more grounded than other Hasbro storylines, and prominently features military elements. With the recent success of Transformers soft reboot Bumblebee, 2020’s Snake Eyes could be a similar success for the modern G.I. Joe franchise. The previous two G.I. Joe movies are generally regarded as mediocre and generic adaptations, but with a beloved cartoon series and several comic runs to tap into, G.I. Joe has a lot to offer the live-action world. Hopefully, 2020’s Snake Eyes will open the door to the big screen and the portrayal of some of the best features and fan-favorites from the world of G.I. Joe.

Battle Trauma and Camaraderie: G.I. Joe’s Strong Character Bonds

While Snake Eyes often flies solo, both the comics and the cartoons feature many of his important relationships. G.I. Joe is a military story focusing on a war between the Joes and Cobra. The series may be militant and action-packed, but the impact comes from the relationships that characters make with each other. Comic writer Larry Hama uses his experience as a veteran to portray the weight of battle. His writing in the A Real American Hero continuity highlights the past of Snake Eyes as a soldier and the bonds he built with Storm Shadow and Stalker during their time serving in the Vietnam War. The deep relationship that sprang from Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow serving together, and then training together as ninjas after the war, forever shaped the two characters.

From The G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero comic, a panel of Scarlett holding Snake Eyes comfortingly by the face, hiding his appearance. A plastic Surgeon is speaking to them.
Scarlett comforting disfigured Snake Eyes at a plastic surgeon’s office. Credit: Marvel Comics and Hasbro

Snake Eyes varies from continuity to continuity, but his relationship with Scarlett and Storm Shadow almost always intertwines with his backstory and motivation. As a mysterious loner character, the relationships Snake Eyes forms are significant in reflecting the silent character’s true self. Both Storm Shadow and Scarlett form a deep bond with Snake Eyes through tragedy and loss from wartime conflict. With Snake Eyes set to be the protagonist for the upcoming movie, there is plenty of room to expand on his relationships and vulnerability, particularly with Scarlett who did not get much time with Snake Eyes in previous live-action films.

Sunbow’s Contributions Should Not Go Unnoticed

Quick Kick, Lady Jaye, and Snake Eyes from the G.I. Joe Sunbow cartoon.
Quick Kick, Lady Jaye, and Snake eyes in the Sunbow cartoon. Credit: Hasbro

The 80s cartoon should not be discounted, as the writing did wonders for establishing some of the cast’s iconic characteristics. The Sunbow series surprisingly has some of the strongest depictions of the Joes being friends outside of their professional work.  Mixed with some dynamic voice acting, the Joes and Cobra crew are able to have strong characterizations and relationships. G.I. Joe has always been a large, diverse team with many backgrounds and relationships to explore.

Of course, this was in part to have all of the 80s kids remember what toys to buy and how to play with them, but positive relationships and healthy masculinity are an integral part of the G.I. Joe cartoons.  In a more serious world, the Joes can explore the weight of battle while fighting alongside your friends and loved ones.

Representation Is Half The Battle: The Women Of G.I. Joe

In the 1980s, G.I. Joe broke the action-animation mold by having multiple women in leadership roles without othering them.  The Joe team has Lady Jaye, Covergirl, Scarlett, and eventually Jinx. Cobra has the Commander’s second in command, the Baroness. The series establishes a rather gender-neutral fighting world by having women in leadership positions and not limiting the women to only fighting other women. 

Both teams have fully fleshed out unique female characters who were written and generally portrayed the same as the male characters. Ron Friedman of the Sunbow cartoon’s writing team made a note to be as inclusive as possible, especially regarding women, thus the cartoon took the toy characters and created some great women on both sides of the fight. G.I. Joe provides the opportunity for representation of women in the military in all of its continuities.

Fixing The Damage Left By G.I. Joe: Rise Of Cobra & G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The Baroness as she appears in the Sunbow cartoon.
Credit: Sunbow and Hasbro

Previous live-action movies, however, went backward and took damaging steps in their portrayal of action women. G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra limited Scarlett and the Baroness’s actions constantly pointed out their genders, and had them dressed and posted much more suggestively than their 1980s counterparts. Additionally, they were reduced to little more than romantic interests for the main players of the movie. Especially misrepresented was the Baroness, who wasn’t even in control of her own actions due to mind-control.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation then had Lady Jaye overly sexualized, and her plot contributions included two seduction tactics. Both movies undid a lot of G.I. Joe ‘s positive gender representation. G.I. Joe in both comics and animation features complex female characters, so it was disappointing that both films relied on stereotypes that hindered the actual characterizations of these women. Hopefully with the Snake Eyes movies including both the Baroness and Scarlett, we will get a more accurate portrayal of the women in G.I. Joe.

Springfield: G.I. Joe‘s Perfect Little Town

Springfield is a nice little town in middle America that appears in the A Real American Hero comics written primarily by Hama. Though full of citizens and having the appearance of an average small town, all of Springfield is a cover to hide Cobra’s troops and weapons. While disappearances of random citizens are common, the happy-go-lucky Springfield residents are eerily loyal to Cobra and its eccentric leader. Springfield’s uncanny-valley effect provides G.I. Joe with additional themes of hidden agendas and places that are too good to be true.

Springfield also features rebel groups and people who are suspicious of Cobra’s overbearing presence in their nice little town. Some of the rebels looking to take down Springfield are young teenagers, including Cobra Commander’s own son (but we will get to him). Cobra keeps rebellious behavior at bay with prison and torture. However, they don’t have to do much work as Springfield residents are known to turn on one another to prove their loyalty.

Springfield has popped up in other G.I. Joe continuities. The season 1 finale of the Sunbow cartoon featured Springfield as a fake town created to torture Shipwreck for information. G.I. Joe: Renegades plays with the idea of Springfield by portraying Cobra as a beloved, all-American company that the public blindly supports. Springfield is a flexible concept that embodies a lot of the uneasiness of outdated American values, and adds a public element for G.I. Joe to have to work around in taking down Cobra. If the live-action films are beginning to explore the background of G.I. Joe’s characters, Springfield is the perfect battleground to feature the formation of Cobra in America.

Zartan And The Dreadnoks

Zartan stands center surrounded by the Dreadnoks, all facing forward. From The G.I. Joe animated movie.
Cold Slither Reunion. Credit: Hasbro

Fan-favorite mercenary Zartan has it all. Archery skills, mastery of makeup effects, a cool crew of punk rockers and metalheads, and sometimes he even changes color for some reason. Weird quirks about the Zartan toy aside, Zartan and his Australian mercenary crew, the Dreadnoks, are a staple to any G.I. Joe universe. The Dreadnoks are hooligans of any continuity and wreak some enjoyable havoc while collecting Cobra Commander’s checks. Despite working for Cobra, they are not aligned with either side and serve as a different perspective to the Joe versus Cobra fight. With chaotic personalities and rag-tag designs, the Dreadnoks are an enjoyable contrast to the uptight militarism in the Joe world.

In the main comic series, Zartan was an assassin with appearance-changing technology. An early job working for Cobra Commander lead Zartan to the Arashikage clan, Storm Shadow’s family of ninja who also welcomed Snake Eyes. The previous live-action films briefly touch on the fact that Zartan and Snake Eyes are indirectly connected by Zartan killing the Arashikage’s hard master. But his character was underutilized and didn’t possess any of Zartan’s recognizable traits. Since Zartan is already established as part of Snake Eyes’s backstory, there is a possibility he will appear, and hopefully with his characteristic flair, cunning personality, and crew.

G.I. Joe’s Best Frenemies, The Oktober Guard, As Supporting Protagonists

The Oktober Guard is the Soviet Union’s version of G.I. Joe, or if you’re asking Comrade Colonel Brekov, G.I. Joe is the American version of the Oktober Guard.  Though they only appear in three episodes and have minor comic roles, they remain moderate fan favorites.

The Oktober Guard armed and riding in a jeep, from the Sunbow cartoon.
“Nu Pogodi!” Credit: Hasbro

Despite a 1980s Cold War setting, neither a comic nor a cartoon portrayed the Oktober Guard as villains. Their relationship to the Joes was a little more prickly in the comics, but they fight against Cobra and are protagonists at the end of the day.  In the Sunbow cartoon, they reluctantly team up with the Joes against their common enemy Cobra, and can best be described as G.I. Joe’s extremely sassy frienemies. Their characters have continued to appear in modern-day, having returned to the A Real American Hero current storyline. Also in a more recent cartoon, G.I. Joe: Renegades, the Oktober Guard are Russian rebels against the Baroness’s oppressive aristocratic family.    

Whatever The Era, The Oktober Guard Adds To G.I. Joe‘s World

Inclusion of the Guard has potential for exploring the state of the world outside of the Joes and Cobra. This adds an international realm of protagonists to G.I. Joe’s otherwise extremely American-centric heroes, and provides another point of view on Cobra as a worldwide threat. The individual Oktober Guard members are also enjoyable to follow when they are in the spotlight, as they are a lot less “perfect” than the all American good boys that a lot of the Joes end up being. They are snarky, a bit rougher, and tease each other a lot more than the Joes seem to do.

Additionally, they are great for the Joes to bounce off of with their love/hate relationship (best shown between Horrorshow and Gung Ho’s impassioned bickering). Pettiness and trash talk between the rivals always inevitably leads to a team-up.

Cobra Commander’s Oddly Normal Backstory In The G.I. Joe Comic Continuity

Cobra Commander has had a lot of incarnations. Sometimes he is a used car salesman gone terrorist, other times he is an alien scientist who slowly turns into a feral snake creature (he got better).  In other continuities, “Cobra Commander” is a title that has been passed down throughout several different people. Then, the previous two movies took an odd route in Cobra Commander’s backstory that combined many characters together. But the film’s storyline is still vague enough to work with and add to, should future movies decide to explore (or even fully reboot) the formation of Cobra.

While most animated continuities of Cobra Commander shroud him in mystery, the A Real American Hero comic continuity dives into the past of Cobra Commander. Cobra Commander began as a used car salesman with a wife, son, and troubled war-veteran brother. He conducts a pyramid scheme that eventually becomes the international terrorist group, Cobra. His past as a small-time conman demonstrates the character’s ability to manipulate and rally followers. The formation of Cobra and its agenda always reflects on Cobra Commander’s ideals and motivation, which varies from continuity to continuity.

Like Zartan, Cobra Commander’s backstory is linked to Snake Eyes’s past tragedies.  Cobra Commander’s past overlaps with Snake Eye’s losing his family in a fatal car crash, an incident that sets off the underlying strings of fate that connect the main cast of G.I. Joe together. As there are many different plots to pick and choose from when it comes to depicting the Commander, whatever the direction the new Snake Eyes Movies takes G.I. Joe should determine what is next for the popular villain’s live-action depiction.

The Son Of Cobra Commander, Billy Kessler

And speaking of Cobra Commander’s oddly average past, his son Billy has appeared in several G.I. Joe comic runs.  Often portrayed as a young rebel against Cobra, Billy provides friction and tests his estranged father’s morality. Despite imprisonment and torture for his rebellious nature, Billy strives to undo the cultish damage that Cobra inflicted on Springfield. And while every continuity gives Billy a very rough time, even by comic book standards, his character values kindness and tenacity, an interesting contrast to his father.

A series of comic panels depicting Billy and Cobra Commander sword fighting.
Billy and Cobra Commander as they appear in “Transformers v.s. G.I. Joe.” Credits: IDW and Tom Scioli.

The backstory varies, but generally, Billy was kidnapped as a toddler by his own father and grew up alongside the formation of Cobra. Though growing up fully influenced by Cobra Commander, Billy rejects Cobra’s ideals and fights as a young teenager to save Springfield from Cobra’s influence. Imprisoned by his own father, Billy is eventually rescued by Storm Shadow, and the two abandon Cobra. Storm Shadow takes on Billy as a ninja apprentice, beginning a relationship that shapes both of their arcs outside of Cobra.

Billy & The Arashikage

As Storm Shadow’s pupil, Billy helps show the true nature of Storm Shadow as they both escape Cobra. The two have a touching bond, with Storm filling in as a father-figure to Billy. This begins Storm Shadow’s path back towards healing a broken bond with his war friend and ninja brother, Snake Eyes. And like Snake Eyes, Billy uses this ninja training to cope with loss. Billy fits right in with themes of healing and finding bonds through the Arashikage.

Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, and Billy kneeling and revealing their Arashikage tattoos on their forearms. They are all in civilian clothing.
Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, and an older Billy with Arashikage tattoos. Credit: IDW and Hasbro

Though it is doubtful that this comic-only character will appear in any live-action films, his story is worth continuing to explore. As the well-meaning son of the main villain, Billy shows Cobra Commander’s human side and moral dilemma. Billy’s journey from being a Cobra captive to instead finding his place in the Arashikage clan echoes found-family tropes that are emotionally cathartic in a series so full of war and loss. Most importantly, Billy fleshes out Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow by putting them both into a teaching position and letting them reclaim the brotherly bond they created and subsequently welcomed Billy into.

Comedic Potential In G.I. Joe

Lastly, something occasionally overlooked about G.I. Joe is its comedic aspect. The comic has moments of humor but is overall quite serious. The Sunbow cartoon, however, mixes comedy and action. The comedic spotlight is often on Cobra, as the series loves to balance their absurdity with limitations of the real world (such as Cobra’s ever-dwindling budget). And despite a few sinister moments, Cobra Commander, Destro, and the Baroness are intentionally comedic and characteristic. This is only enhanced by over-the-top voice acting, especially stand-up comedian Chris Latta’s manic portrayal of Cobra Commander as a temperamental drama king. The villain’s dynamic as a dysfunctional trio work against the Joes who act as a collective straight man.

On a similar note, Snake Eyes in both the comics and the cartoon isn’t constantly serious. There also seems to be a tendency to put hats, wigs, and other accessories on the fully-suited up Snake Eyes, giving him a bit of a Deadpool effect. Since 2018’s Bumblebee had successful lighthearted and comedic moments, G.I. Joe is the perfect world to balance self-aware comedy, camp, and action with a character like Snake Eyes. And although many continuities go a grittier route, the Sunbow cartoon and a few humorous comics demonstrate that the use of comedy with action can be a strong characteristic in G.I. Joe.

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