“The Revenge of Cobra” was the second mini series spotlighting the new GI Joe toy line (along with this cartoon and the Marvel Comics series). Airing over five weekdays, from September 10-14, 1984 these episodes along with the previous year’s MASS Device story, were huge successes and led to 85 more episodes of the series. (Plus 39 of the follow up, but we’ll get to that.)
Revisiting this in one sitting as a movie and as a 41 year old worried me. What if the story seems too stupid as an adult? What if, much like what was supposed to happen to Duke in GI Joe the Movie, I couldn’t go home again? For any other child of the 80’s reading these words I am happy to say do not worry. This is one of the best things I’ve watched all year. Not only because of a little thing called nostalgia. But because Hasbro, Sunbow, and Marvel did a crazy thing. They wrote and animated a quality series that holds up 35 years later.
We start the show with the GI Joe team transporting the laser core McGuffin across a barren terrain. Much like midwest United States. The new toys, I mean the new characters, are all referenced by name and given something unique to stand apart. Meanwhile, Cobra appears from just over the horizon (why the Joe team didn’t send a scout party ahead of them is beyond me). Cobra is shown as a legitimate and intelligent enemy over the episode. They outsmart the Joe team, and steal the laser core. Meanwhile, it appears to be a split victory because Cobra Commander is captured. Don’t celebrate too fast though because he is immediately broken out of jail by the disguised Baroness and the debuting Zartan and the Dreadnocks. Metal, punk, anarchy, and twisted humor has arrived.
Cobra attaches the laser core to their new Weather Dominator machine. Destro and Cobra Commander argue over how to use the Dominator to cause the most immediate destruction. As they squabble the machine is overloaded and explodes into three separate pieces that coincidentally land in three remote and dangerous locations across the globe. We got ourselves a good old fashioned race against time across the world. A thing GI Joe is still known and beloved for.
Over the next two episodes, teams spotlighting the new characters travel around the world to retrieve the pieces. Duke and Snake Eyes (from the previous line) are trapped inside Cobra’s headquarters. Flint, Mutt (with Junkyard), and Roadblock survive plane crashes, snake vines, Cobra run towns and rails, sandstorms, and Honda Lou.
Lady Jaye takes charge as higher ranking officers are taken out. Spirit comes damn close to becoming a cooler character than Snake Eyes and the moral code of the series is a major plot point. Shipwreck fits in perfectly as the Han Solo of the team. Even Cutter gets a good amount of screen time!
Finally, the Joes have one piece. Cobra has one. The final piece goes to … with a turn the Dreadnoks go into business for themselves and steal the third and final piece! Cobra’s biggest flaw in the entire series is the Act 2 turning point of this mini. The Joes can argue and disagree, but in the end, they will always work together for the side of good. Meanwhile, Cobra has no shortage of players who will turn on each other to get just a bit ahead: Cobra Commander, Destro, Zartan, and later Serpentor, Tomax, and Xamot. Even the Dreadnoks aren’t above selling out Zartan.
The penultimate battle takes place at Zartan’s tricked out abandoned amusement park. So many twists and turns take place I can’t believe these were half-hour episodes. Cobra now has two pieces, but no they have all three! Storm Shadow has sneaked into Joe HQ and stolen their piece. Cobra will no doubt win!
But there’s Duke and Snake Eyes still inside. By fate, Roadblock and his new friend have also arrived inside as part of a Cobra convoy. This team manages to get a message out and the GI Joe team lead an all out assault on the Cobra Temple. The Joe team wins, Cobra is defeated, and in one more year the new toys, I mean new members, will debut in the epic Pyramid of Darkness.
It is amazing to see only ten episodes total for GI Joe at this point, yet so much of what made the show iconic is already here. Character development from the start. Duke is different than Flint. Spirit, Snake Eyes, and Storm Shadow are all unique. Something in a character will resonate with a child who now needs that guy’s toy. GI Joe also moves faster than the old movie serials. In addition to the main conflict, there were smaller ones involving vines, mountain lions, electric snakes, rising water, and more. All in just under two hours (minus the commercials). All with arguably the best animation in any 1980’s cartoon. Transformers has multiple issues. Thundercats has the best opening but the episodes fall short. GI Joe starts with a song over an epic battle featuring every character and not a second of it is from the episode. Nothing appears repurposed, nothing but fresh cels for every second.
The best part though is the limitless adventurous possibilities. Exotic locales all around the world, creatures of myth, natural disasters, military weapons, and if I keep going I’m going to watch it again tonight. He-Man figures were always in Eternia. Transformers really needed at least one flat surface to double as a road. But GI Joe toys? The cartoon taught us that the only limits were our own imaginations. Joe toys came outside in all weather. They battled across every room of the house. What’s the expansive Cobra Temple got on a coffee table with shelves and drawers?
Sure, things could be broken apart in some joyless episode. How did they build a little helicopter out of jet parts? How does Cobra build a temple and no one notices? Hey, how anything in this show? How does Destro have a metal mask with moving lips? GI Joe is not meant to be science fact. It is meant to be the best adventure and sci-fi property of the decade and it succeeded.