Entertainment

Review: The Toys That Made Us, Episode 4 “G.I. Joe”

Who knew? The most potentially lethal enemy G.I. Joe ever faced wasn’t Cobra… but Star Wars!

That’s just one of many revelations in the fourth episode and, until this weekend, the final one (four brand-new episodes drop this Friday, May 25) of Netflix’s “The Toys That Made Us.”

Like Mattel’s He-Man, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe – as most people know the line today – began life as an established but desperate toy manufacturer’s response to upstart Kenner’s toys from the Galaxy Far, Far Away.

But unlike the Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe had a not-so-secret weapon to bring to the fight: a track record of victory.

I’d long believed Kenner invented the term “action figure” to sell Star Wars toys. As this episode taught me, not so! Hasbro coined the phrase when introducing G.I. Joe in 1962.

Standing 11-1/2-inches tall and fully poseable (in contrast to his sister, Barbie), dressed in an accurate, soft goods U.S. Armed Forces uniform (one “G.I. Joe” each for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines), and equipped with remarkably detailed small plastic accessories, Joe was no “doll for boys.” Well, he was… but any Hasbro employee caught calling him one was fined.

Telling a Tale of Two Lives

It’s details like this that make this episode engrossing even to viewers like yours truly who’ve never played with a G.I. Joe action figure, read a G.I. Joe comic book, or watched a G.I. Joe cartoon. Episode 4 arguably features the series’ best storytelling yet.

I found myself fascinated by the original Joe’s rise and fall (1962-1978). For instance, I was shocked to learn that Stan Weston, who came up with the concept, turned down a $50,000 payment and 1% royalty – which would have eventually earned him millions – and sold his idea to Hasbro for a $100,000 lump sum.

And I was surprised to find out that, contrary to my expectations, America’s experience in Vietnam didn’t sour the toy-buying public on Joe. Thanks to Hasbro’s canny recasting of the toy as a five-man “adventure team” doing exotic things away from traditional battlefields, Joe’s sales soared in the ’70s – until rising oil prices finally brought his big plastic body down.

Reinventing A Real American Hero

When the episode starts covering G.I. Joe‘s second lease on life (1982-1994), it becomes even more entertaining.

Granted, some of the reenacted scenes in which an actor plays the late Stephen Hassenfeld – who inherited his father’s company and saved it from bankruptcy in 1978 with Hungry Hungry Hippos – are campy. But interviews with surviving members of the ’80s and ’90s creative team offer fantastic firsthand accounts of how Hasbro capitalized on Reagan-era patriotism to carve out a continued place for G.I. Joe. Product designer Kirk Bozigian, figure designer Ron Rudat, senior Boys Toys manager Steve D’Aguanno – they’re all on hand to regale viewers with stories about the reinvention of A Real American Hero.

Although the figure shrank to the 3-3 /4-inch scale, it retained multiple points of articulation. And G.I. Joe‘s story universe expanded to epic proportions. Going even bigger with the “adventure team” concept, the G.I Joe name now referred to an elite fighting squadron overflowing with 500+ colorful characters. (And one not-so-colorful character, Snake Eyes – a figure left undecorated in order to cut the line’s overall production costs, who ended up becoming one of its most popular figures just the same.)

Not Taking “No” for an Answer

If you’re looking for arguments about whether war toys are appropriate for children or in-depth analyses of how cartoon violence might affect kids (those Cobra pilots in the G.I. Joe animated series always wore parachutes for a reason), you won’t find much of those discussions in this episode. It acknowledges them and touches on them just enough to help put the toy and its marketing in an illuminating historical and cultural context.

But “The Toys That Made Us” is about having fun. And the G.I. Joe episode has plenty of it.

Seeing the line’s famous cast of characters and their often truly impressive accessories and vehicles (the 7 1/2-foot-long aircraft carrier Flagg playset is, by any standard, amazing) is half the fun. The other half is in discovering how the people who brought G.I. Joe to market in both its lives, successfully securing territory on store shelves and in kids’ imaginations, were – just like the characters they created – a team that never took “no” for an answer.

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