Why Has G.I. Joe Failed to Capture Younger Generations?

Thomas Fuller
TV Movies
TV Movies Comics Marvel

People who grew up in the 2000s and 2010s tend to have little attachment to Hasbro’s long-running multimedia property G.I. Joe, about a colorful American special forces unit of the same name. G.I. Joe isn’t nearly as mainstream or popular today as it was in the 1980s, and most of its 21st Century output has targeted adults who grew up with it. Good business strategy dictates that long-running fiction should adapt to appeal to younger generations, so how did Hasbro let G.I. Joe get into this situation?

The ’80s

None of these characters is named Joe. Joe Colton, the founder of the organization, rarely appears.

Hasbro created the G.I. Joe concept in 1982, although the brand as a whole dates back to 1964. The franchise is known for stories about quirky, specialized American soldiers fighting a cartoonishly evil fictional terrorist organization called Cobra.

To Reagan-era kids, G.I. Joe was a strong, appealing premise. The brand benefited from using two different modes of storytelling – Marvel comics and animated TV. Both were able to promote the toys and tell entertaining stories in their own right. But, in the 1990s, the popularity of the brand waned. G. I. Joe Extreme, the Joe show of the decade, was widely considered a failure.

Modern G.I. Joe

Duke and Scarlett, two of the most prominent Joes, in Resolute.

IDW and Devil’s Due’s 21st Century G.I. Joe comics have mostly been either continuations of the Marvel series or set in a darker-and-edgier universe created for adult readers.

In addition to comics and a pair of theatrical films, there was also the Warren Ellis/Joaquim Dos Santos animated film G.I. Joe Resolute that was clearly aimed at long-term fans, a pair of direct-to-video CGI films (Spy Troops and Valor vs. Venom), and a pair of short-lived animated TV shows: G.I. Joe: Sigma 6 and  G.I. Joe: Renegades. Neither show made it past 26 episodes, and neither show had much impact on popular culture.

Scarlett and Hi-Tech in Sigma 6

Sigma 6 was a full-blown anime made by the Japanese studio, Gonzo. It was meant to revitalize G.I. Joe, but younger viewers mostly ignored it while older audiences complained about how different it was from the ’80s show.

Renegades was ostensibly the G.I. Joe counterpart to Transformers Prime – a Hub-airing series with sophisticated writing, appeal across multiple demographics, and positioning to take advantage of the first live-action film’s release. But its premise’s similarity to The A-Team again prompted criticism from fans of the ’80s show, and again, younger viewers mostly stayed away.

Why It Happened

80s kids.

There’s nothing wrong with retaining long-term fans, but common sense would indicate that it’s good business to attract new ones as well. Hasbro understands this – look at how G.I. Joe’s siblings Transformers and My Little Pony have succeeded in the 21st Century. So why has Hasbro failed to attract a new fanbase for G.I. Joe?

One reason could be due to the way that the “War on Terror” has made G.I. Joe’s premise uncomfortable. In the ’80s, critics were already accusing G.I. Joe of both glamourizing and sugar-coating war. A war franchise for children is automatically going to be filled with inherent contradictions, especially if it’s set in some semblance of the real world with real countries. Any kid today can tell that Cobra is nothing like ISIS or Al Qaeda, just like any kid in the ’80s could tell that Cobra was nothing like the Soviet Union or the Viet Cong. Similarly, anyone can tell that the US military has little in common with G.I. Joe.

The Hurt Locker. Not pictured: a bomb sloppily planted inside a dead boy's body.

From the late ’90s onward, thanks to movies like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan, it’s become an unwritten rule that contemporary war media should only be aimed at adults (think Generation KillAmerican Sniper, The Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty). The disturbing nature of the real-life “War on Terror” has only strengthened this rule. G.I. Joe, even in its darkest incarnations, cannot be like this.

G.I. Joe’s Modern Counterpart

The game that put Call of Duty on the map.

Today’s contemporary equivalent of G.I. Joe-loving ’80s kids are the preteens and young teenagers who play Call of Duty games. They’re enjoying patriotic, over-the-top, popular war fiction on a platform for shared play built around that fiction. And, just like G.I. Joe, it’s also opening up the companies that produce the fiction to all kinds of criticism about promoting war to young people. So, in case you’re wondering, it’s a bad thing that Hasbro isn’t receiving this kind of criticism anymore, at least from Hasbro’s perspective, because it means no one is even noticing.

The Films

Villains, in The Rise of Cobra.

Despite doing decent business, the two live action G.I. Joe films have had about as much impact on popular culture as Sigma 6 and Renegades did. The first film, The Rise of Cobra, was tonally a throwback to the ’80s, although it was much more violent than the G.I. Joe media of the 80s. The film upset some fans when it tried to downplay the America-centric nature of the franchise. On the other hand, the second film, Retaliation, embraced it.

Heroes, in Retaliation.

Retaliation was more in line with Resolute and IDW’s comics – willing to keep the over-the-top elements of G.I. Joe storytelling while combining darker, more modern concepts without drastically altering the characters. In the US, the film was popular among G.I. Joe fans but failed to connect with wider audiences.

Lady Jaye, in Retaliation

Fifty percent of The Rise of Cobra‘s opening weekend audience were people under 25 years old. However, only 41 percent of under 25s caught Retaliation in its opening weekend. Both films were savaged by critics.

Probably the biggest evidence that the films failed to create a new fanbase is the failure of the Renegades TV show. Renegades launched a year after the release of The Rise of Cobra and was meant to take advantage of the film in drawing younger viewers to the G.I. Joe concept. This is a standard marketing practice for multimedia properties (think of how Batman: The Animated Series took advantage of Batman Returns release in 1992). If The Rise of Cobra had left thousands or millions of preteens and young teenagers hungry for more G.I. Joe, Renegades would have been a hit.

Jinx and Snake Eyes, in Retaliation

The Rise of Cobra made roughly half of its money overseas, and Retaliation made roughly two-thirds of its money overseas, with South Korea, Australia, Russia, China, and the United Kingdom providing the bulk of the viewers. This left the film series in the same boat as blockbusters like Pacific Rim, Warcraft or Terminator: Genysis – internationally profitable, but far from beloved in the US and constantly having to deal with accusations of poor quality. This is why Paramount has been slow to keep making these films.

What a Hasbro shared universe looks like.

Hasbro understands. Their current strategy for reviving the brand is to reboot the film series, taking a “Millennial approach” with “different characters” and using that reboot to start a shared cinematic universe with other Hasbro properties like Visionaries, Micronauts, M.A.S.K.. and ROM. Hasbro is almost certainly going to do their best to make this work, but the record so far must leave audiences with big doubts as to whether they can succeed.

Born in Nigeria, lives in Canada.
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