Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Snake Eyes

So, since everybody else has said a few words on it, I thought I'd pitch in my two cents re: the G.I. Joe movie.

First, I hate G.I. Joe. By which I mean: I think it's a shameless piece of proto-fascist military propaganda masquerading as a childrens' toy. Now, I'm definitely hard left in political orientation but hardly anti-military: if we are going to have modern nation-states, standing armies are unavoidable, and I do believe that the vast majority of servicemen and women in the United States military are there because of good and even noble intentions (there is nothing more noble than trying to better ones' station by joining the volunteer services in search of a long-term career!), despite the seemingly unending litany of very bad ways that civilian commanders have manipulated these good intentions. So I am, if not staunchly pro-military, staunchly pro-soldier, pro-veteran, pro-service. Additionally, it follows that there have always been war toys - soldiers, tanks, guns, etc. I may find it personally distasteful, but kids love soldiers - it's as close to a universal constant as you can imagine across cultures. So no real surprises.

But the way in which the cartoon and toy created such a tight symbiosis between boosting an illusory ideal of military service and crass commercialism is what really defined the phenomenon. Army life for the Joes is nothing more than a series of fantastical adventures with little in the way of real consequence - at least when little kids play soldier in the back yard, kids get "shot" and fall down clutching their chests. In G.I. Joe all the guns did was make little laser-y "vorp" sounds, and no one on either side of the Joe / Cobra conflict could ever shoot worth a damn. Perhaps that by itself would by less damning if it weren't for the fact that this candy-coated war-as-super-hero-soap-opera fantasy wasn't wedded to a hard, mercenary commercial enterprise. War is awesome and all the little 3 3/4" plastic dudes are just the perfect size to be bought, collected en masse and traded on the schoolyard - I got an extra Destro from my aunt, I'll trade you Destro for your Scarlett. War as commerce, uncontrolled and unattached to any kind of moral purpose or guiding responsibility besides a blinding, hysterical patriotism: that fits the historical definition of fascism pretty well - or at least it did before corporatist apologists in the industrialized west erased the connection between belligerent nationalism and aggressive capitalism from the textbooks.

At least the old-school 12" Joe lived in a more context-free universe of open-ended play that didn't carry much in the way of political context, despite the toy's Vietnam-era origins. For kids too young to remember My Lai the idea of being a rough and tumble soldier never lost its appeal. You could do stuff with the original Joe. However, the 80s Joes had one purpose: to fight Cobra. And if there was ever any doubt as to where the property's political affiliation ultimately lay, the first issue of Marvel's enduring toy brochure series featured the Joes stumbling upon a pretty shocking replica of the My Lai village massacre - only this time it was Cobra's fault. It was time for the US military to mount up and put the defeatist 70s behind them, it was a new era and Ronald Reagan was in charge. And if you doubted the wisdom of military triumphalism in the face of a legitimate existential threat (in the form of the Cold War, however attenuated the conflict had actually become by the early 1980s), well, then you were a no-good Commie, probably one of those bleeding hearts who also doubted the wisdom of deregulating the Savings & Loan industry - greed is good, war is peace, better guns than butter, etc.

That said, I loved this movie. Why? Basically because it takes every small iota of dignity the franchise might have earned in the eyes of its hardcore fans and pisses it away over the course of an hour and a half. I mean, seriously, this thing is awesome in its bizarreness, and so far removed from the initial mandate of patriotic military counterterrorism propaganda that it is stunning.

Perhaps once the people behind Joe figured out, given the restrictions of their medium, that they really couldn't do anything resembling an actual honest-to-Gosh story concerning war or the armed forces, they decided to throw the whole thing in a blender and see what came out the other end. Because this? This is the best example of "concept creep" I've ever seen: what starts as one thing, clearly defined, slowly morphs into another as the creators come up against the limitations of their original idiom. What began with relatively mild sci-fi elements - I mean, the MASS device is sci-fi, and the whole cloning a God-emperor out of the genes of history's greatest kings is hokey but still not that far removed from, say, Michael Chrichton - eventually morphed into straight-up fantasy.

Revealing that the series' primary antagonists are secretly ruled by a long-forgotten race of pre-Ice Age non-homo sapiens serpent and insect themed perverts - well, I am almost certain that's pretty far removed from what they initially intended. But it's so damn weird that you can't help but appreciate it for its sheer oddity. You have to imagine that at some point there was a "creative" meeting at Hasbro where they said, "look, this whole Cobra thing, it's kind of passe, we need someone new and cool - how about real-life snake men who attack the Joes with those sand worms from Dune? It will be like printing money." Because they didn't think couldn't go any further with their original concept, they pushed it until it resembled something else entirely. (Like, say, Harry Harrison's West of Eden.)

This, this is fun. It's like, you can imagine at some point in the future someone making a big live-action blockbuster version of the G.I. Joe cartoon that tries to sell audiences on how cool and edgy it is that the US government has a group of elite paramilitary commandos who count among their number awesomely competent folks like Bazooka, Shipwreck and Wild Bill. They might try to gussy it up with hawt computer effects and a few semi-respectable actors spitting cornball dialogue between clenched teeth, but the world will know better: the sine qua non of G.I Joe is Sgt. Slaughter vs. Nemesis Enforcer in the heart of the Himalayas. The franchise exists to sell toys which in turn exist to exploit the worst instincts of Reagan-era jingoism. It is good to remember, however, that the leveling force of capitalism ultimately turns on even its most obedient servants - one minute you're fighting for freedom wherever there's trouble, the next you're playing patsy to Burgess Meredith with a snake tail. You go with whomever's paying the bills. Ultimately, G.I. Joe is less US Army than Halliburton. C'est la vie.

(Incidentally, Destro and the Baroness are assholes - they're perfectly content to help Cobra-La turn every man woman and child in the human race into shambling reptile monsters - but if everyone is a lizard man, who's he going to sell arms to? Isn't he an arms dealer who would like at some point in the future to turn a profit? Did he not think that far ahead? Basically, the entire upper echelon of Cobra is an accessory to attempted genocide of the entire species - that's OK how?)

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