Ever since Paramount/Hasbro announced that the new G.I. Joe film wouldn’t screen in advance for critics, the movie has been faced with a heap of overwhelmingly negative publicity; if the critics aren’t being allowed to see it, well then odds are it can’t be that good, can it? Who keeps a quick pony in the stable? Yet setting aside the film’s absolute goodness or badness as a legitimate cinematic endeavor, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra does make a compelling case for just how the recent trend for franchise “reboots” is governed.
For the past twenty years or so of Hollywood’s relatively abbreviated history, film sequels functioned more or less like classic rock albums: append a Roman numeral to the original title, and the packaging could remain static even if the content, quality, or principal cast came out entirely different. Apparently, past a certain point, this process no longer became profitable, and worse (for the cultural imagination, if not the studio execs) outright laughable. When Halloween: H2O was released in 1998, it was only the seventh film in the series, but it very well could have been the twentieth. If we can measure the depth of a trend by the sheer volume of parodies it provokes, the ironic titling of films like Hot Shots: Part Deux and Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult pretty much tells the whole story.
You can almost blame George Lucas for launching the “new origin story” mania, but his latter day trilogy doesn’t try to redefine or recapitulate the boundaries of his characters; they just fill in what we already know (Anakin will, at some point, become Darth Vader) while connecting the dots surrounding later events that are never entirely explained (why Luke winds up in one place and Leia in another). But it’s hard to deny the glut of films which manage to still offer America the characters she loves by presenting an entirely new take on where it is those characters came from. Casino Royale (2006) gives us a James Bond who is not suave, who is not dapper, who is more likely to crash through a wall than to climb it, and maybe in the process exposes us to just a hint of the emotional trauma that, some day, gives up the womanizing alcoholic an early generation came to love. The new Batman movies accomplish much the same thing. This year’s Star Trek (2009), with its dramatically abbreviated title and noticeable lack of any numerals whatsoever imagines the original captain of the Enterprise as…well, not the original captain of the Enterprise, and gives us a “parallel worlds” storyline to both appease the purists, and to provide an actual formal excuse for crafting Gene Roddenberry’s universe anew. Although an exhaustive list of all of the permutations of this philosophy would be tiresome, one can even make room for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), which attempts to blot out the rather dreadful shadow of III and IV by simply predating them (and not, thank God, calling itself Superman 2.5).
The Rise of Cobra makes an exceptional case study for this process, however, because it lays its architecture bare even in attempting to plot a narrative in the first place. Although it would eventually spawn a (gallingly amazing) television show and comic book series, G.I. Joe is based, originally, on a line of toys manufactured by Hasbro in the early eighties (and first built in the ‘60s). These plastic soldiers with names like Snake-Eyes and Scarlett (both members of the original toy line) exist as characters completely independent of their eventual backstories. As a consequence, even those intimately familiar with the general character types of G.I. Joe have absolutely no investment in the origins of the characters themselves, and even though 95 episodes of the television series were produced (over the course of just two seasons), I’d hazard that what most people have an easier time remembering the infamous “Now you know – and knowing is half the battle!” sequences than they do recalling, say, just how Snake-Eyes is related to an insanely obvious villain.
But that maxim – “knowing is half the battle” – is crucial, because it is around such catch phrases that The Rise of Cobra (and, I argue, other films of the “reboot” genre) must necessarily be assembled. The dialogue in the G.I. Joe franchise (as accidentally noted by this Slate feature) is so borderline absurdist that almost none of it could ever be recalled verbatim (think, carefully, about most film staples, and you wind up not just with the movie’s most often-cited lines – “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” – but with quieter moments of almost casual brilliance – “I know it was you, Fredo”). What endures, however, are the taglines which comprehensively decorated every incarnation of the Joe franchise from the 1980s onward, and which were actually recorded to be played by some of the action figures with the push of a button. “Yo Joe!” an action figure might arbitrarily exclaim. “Knowing is half the battle,” again, is likewise wedded to the public imagination. And then there’s the descriptor for the entire franchise in the first place – “A Real American Hero.”
It should not be at all surprising that The Rise of Cobra rotates through each of these phrases in turn. Yet where the film does surprise is in its half-casual treatment of such moments; there are no sly winks, no reaction shots, and most significant of all, no pauses in the dialogue. Lines are dropped which of course even a halfhearted fan can pick up on, but the narrative just keeps rolling along without drawing attention to itself. Perhaps because, as mentioned before, the characters that populate it are such relative blank slates, The Rise of Cobra is a film without the burden of establishing its own continuity. Generally when characters issue their catch phrases, be it Scotty’s first “I’m givin’ her all she’s got!” in J.J. Abrams’ newest Star Trek, or Bond finally dropping his trademark “The name’s Bond” at the precise end of Casino Royale (a by now permissible spoiler, I’d imagine), we envision the characters hearing their own words, chewing on them, realizing that they like the way they sounds, and storing them away for later; we too do this in our own right, finding certain idiosyncrasies that lodge with us, that we fancy reflect our deeper personae, but whether or not self-conscious sloganeering existed prior to Hollywood’s intervention is anyone’s guess. The Rise of Cobra, on the other hand, deploys the absurdist “Yo Joe!” with such casual abandon that it actually becomes standard practice by the film’s end; past a certain point, the film stops treating the slogan as a slogan, or no more of a slogan than “Semper Fi” might represent mere words for the US Marine Corps. The Rise of Cobra is at once Casino Royale and Moonraker, The Dark Knight and Batman and Robin. Like a microcosm of a Star Trek plot, the G.I. Joe film becomes, at once, its own past and future.
That The Rise of Cobra does this, and does so with minimal fuss, tells us something about how similar films operate. In Casino Royale, that Bond doesn’t utter his most famous line until the closing credits, that the words themselves actually seem to cue the original orchestral theme, and in so doing awakens the audience to the fact of its very absence, approaches a kind of revelation in its fiercest biblical sense, as a bridge between one kingdom and the next. But that’s the whole story. Daniel Craig’s James Bond might very well say “The name’s Bond” in the subsequent Quantum of Solace, but if he does, I certainly don’t recall it: the phrase, now reduced to the commonplace, has been sapped of all its recently restored potency. The trick then is to balance these revelations, to play them against one another, to have the characters slip and sputter over them (as in the new Bond’s refusal to order his classic martini shaken, not stirred), or else, like The Rise of Cobra, to neuter the phrases in advance, to render them already commonplace, to truly acknowledge that it’s the catchphrases and not the characters that have allowed the series to endure.* To do so is its own kind of wonder, an honest attempt, in effect, to convince us that “Yo Joe!” is already such a normal part of the American vernacular that we should be saying it ourselves even as we leave the theater.
* A sentiment made especially true when one considers the somewhat marginal state of the films immediately preceding some of these franchise reboots. Were it not for the drink orders, Die Another Day could have been a movie starring any other generic spy, and perhaps it should have been: at the very least, it would have proved more merciful towards poor Bond’s integrity.