G.I. Joe has seen a lot of action over his 45 years. The soldier has been a toy, a comic book, a cartoon, another toy and several videogames. But on Aug. 7, G.I. Joe gets his most challenging mission yet: anchoring his own live-action film. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra hopes it can emulate Transformers and turn nostalgia for the 1980s toys and cartoons into success at the box office.
While toy company Mattel could barely keep up with demand for its Barbie dolls in the early 1960s, its competitor, Hasbro, realized the market had no analogue for boys. In 1963, Hasbro began development on a military-themed line of dolls that, like Barbie, could be accessorized with different outfits and equipment. The original strategy called for a different figure for each branch of the military, but seizing on a 1945 film called The Story of G.I. Joe, the toys were eventually genericized. (The term itself comes from World War II, where it was used as a shorthand symbol for the typical serviceman, or "Government-Issue Joe.")
G.I. Joe was initially a massive success and Hasbro expanded the line throughout the '60s, reimagining Joe as an astronaut, a deep-sea diver and a Green Beret. But outcry over American involvement in Vietnam dampened enthusiasm for a camo-clad action figure, so Hasbro gave Joe an honorable discharge. It redesigned the toys and relaunched them in 1970 as Adventures of G.I. Joe: the figure received lifelike hair, moveable eyes and a "kung-fu" grip, enabling him to hold onto objects for the first time. But the changes proved to be a gimmick, taken even further by Hasbro with the development of a space-traveling "Super Joe" in 1976. The reception was lukewarm, and by 1978, Joe was retired from service entirely.
In 1982, Joe had an unlikely savior in Star Wars. The sci-fi flick and the collectables it spawned rekindled America's appetite for action figures, so Hasbro reintroduced a scaled-down line of G.I. Joes to try and capitalize on the trend. Instead of a single character, there was an entire battalion of G.I. Joes, each given signature weapons, backstories and code names like Scarlett and Snake Eyes. Joe also got a new enemy, Cobra "a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world," as described in the intro to the 1980s TV cartoon G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. (Cobra operatives got action figures, too.) G.I. Joe was also made into video games for early Atari and Commodore game platforms and as a comic-book series published by Marvel from 1982 to 1994. This won't even be G.I. Joe's first film the animated flick G.I. Joe: The Movie went straight to video in 1987.
Though the action figure's popularity peaked in the late 1980s, Joe has been around in some form ever since. In the early 1990s, Hasbro reintroduced a line of larger, 12-in. G.I. Joes, and in 2004, the classic 1964 figures were rereleased to capitalize on Baby Boomer nostalgia. Some of the original, '60s-vintage G.I. Joes have fetched sizable prices. A rare and ill-fated G.I. Nurse from 1967 the earliest and least successful female G.I. Joe produced went for more than $6,000 at auction. Some of the earliest, rarest figures attract a similar price tag.
But what's perhaps most unique about G.I. Joe is his staying power. In an era when toy companies completely overhaul their product lines every few years, G.I. Joe has managed to avoid another hiatus. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra might not set any box-office records, but it's a fair bet the movie's namesake will still be a mainstay on toy-store shelves long after the movie is forgotten.