The 1986 Transformers movie vs. the original GI Joe movie
I was reflecting today on the original reaction to the 2007 Transformers movie. Frequenting some pop culture websites that had a working knowledge of, say, Marvel and DC superheroes and little knowledge of Transformers, there was an immediate dismissal of an idea about a movie based on toys. Or even a cheesy cartoon series that was put on the same retro-80’s pedestal as Thundercats or He-Man. I imagine the reaction is akin to what the general public thought of the Battleship movie.
There’s nothing there but little plastic men to build a movie around… how could this not be a flop? They, along with many other websites, were caught off guard when the 2007 Transformers movie not only became it hit, it spawned a hugely popular global franchise.
The big difference here, I think, is the 1986 Transformers movie. It’s easy enough to overlook: the movie was a flop on release, and was derided by parents for the language (Spike famously drops an s-bomb in the movie) and the violence. Even hard-core fans were a little disappointed that the movie seemed to be simply an excuse for clearing the decks for an all new toy line. (Which it was, let’s be honest.)
Yet now the movie has ascended to iconic cult status among Transformers fans. It is THE Transformers movie, one that even the Bay movies couldn’t help but homage. The movie was released in an era where animated movies aimed toward ages older than 10 were rare. Heck, even these days animated films aimed at an older audience tend to sputter at the box office. The Transformers, though, scratch the itch of those of a certain age looking for a more narratively driven animated story. Favorite characters died, horrible Lovecraftian villains menaced our heroes, and even the villains were decimated by a force that they could not fully comprehend.
The story doesn’t completely hang together. The last act is rushed to a ridiculous degree — I think there’s maybe 10 minutes between the “Dare To Be Stupid” scene and Unicron blowing up. But man… so many iconic moments. Moments that live on in every single iteration of Transformers since. Optimus dying. An unprepared, unwilling successor. Races of other techno-organic beings that exist beyond the Autobots and Decepticons. The Matrix of Leadership. Unicron’s floating head. They’re memorable because, for the first time, it didn’t feel like a silly cartoon adventure. It felt like a brutal war.
You know what doesn’t quite roll off the tongue? Cobra-lalalalalala. While the Transformers movie is mined endlessly in the past 30 years for material, GI Joe fans are happy to ignore the GI Joe movie. Well, other than the fantastic opener. Now, while I’m a big Transformers fan, I have to say that I think that the GI Joe cartoon was better than the Transformers one. I’ve watched both recently, and I think Joe holds up a lot better. There was one episode where the Cobras, specifically Zartan and crew, were running a machine that screwed with people’s emotions. On the flipside, though, was a story where a Joe (Lifeline) had to reconcile with his pacifist preacher dad about his decision to join the military. And I was all, “Holy crap, this is deep stuff for a kid.” And let’s not forget that when Joe needed to get funny, it got funny. The “Viper Is Coming” episode is rightfully remembered as one of the funniest things to happen in the 80’s.
I ain’t buying their playsets and toys, though. Little plastic sailors can’t turn into amphibious vehicles, and thus lies the conundrum.
When you get to the movie though… it is just so weird. Cobra is really a front for an age old race of monsters that live in the North Pole? Whhhaaaaaa—-? Somehow, I can accept a genetically advanced superhuman who flies around on a snake themed chariot. Somehow I can accept that Destro has a tentacle monster living in his ancestral home in Scotland. But Cobra Commander, under that mask, was a snake man? In this instance, every single future Joe installment has tried to immediately retcon this revelation. Oh, Cobra Commander is a used car dealer! Or… he’s Duke’s friend, and Baroness is his sister! But he’s NOT a SNAKE MAN! He was ALWAYS A MAN!
It’s weird that both movies try to integrate some sort of Lovecraftian horror in their movies. It works much better for Transformers, where the characters are larger than life and the new villians are simply just robots with more tentacles. It really, really doesn’t work for GI Joe. I think that, with GI Joe, the Cobras actually felt like characters you could relate to. Their ambitions may be ridiculous, but their bickering and enthusiasm was down-to-earth. So to introduce new villains that were characterized by being an unknowable alien force from ages past? That felt like a huge betrayal.