Bizarro Back Issues Cartoon Edition: G.I. Joe Battles Serpent Man, The Cobra Superhero (1990)
I think we can all agree that Paramount’s decision to delay the opening of of G.I. Joe: Retaliation by nine months is the single worst thing that has ever happened in human history. To deny us the joy of seeing the Rock and Bruce Willis team up to battle Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world? It’s unforgivable. But then, it could be worse. Instead of “converting it to 3D” and shooting more scenes with Duke now that Channing Tatum’s a star, they could’ve decided that the success of the Avengers movie meant it was time to go back to Serpent-Man, the costumed hero that the team fought way back in 1990.
And that would not be a good thing.It happened during the first season of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero Series 2, which, if you’re not familiar with it, was pretty consistently terrible. See, while the original run of the Joe cartoon was produced by Sunbow, it switched to DiC Entertainment in 1989 after DiC cut Hasbro a deal that was a lot cheaper — and brother, does it ever show. Seriously, check out this theme song:
I think all the money they saved was spent on that opening synthesizer riff.
Of course, those limitations didn’t really stop me from being pretty excited when it was finally released on DVD a few months back, especially when my collaborator Chad Bowers (who is to G.I. Joe what I am to Batman) told me about “Injustice and the Cobra Way.” Featuring a script by long-time G.I. Joe writer Flint Dillie and Meg McLaughlin, this episode would mark the first and, mercifully, only appearance of Serpent-Man.
In addition to the lower production values, Joe Series 2 was also marked by an emphasis on a completely different cast of characters than the ones who appeared on the original show. Rather than Duke, Roadbloack, Shipwreck, or anyone else who even looked kind of like they were actually in the military, Series 2 focused on the more toyetic characters. And by that, I mostly mean that there is a lot of Captain Grid-Iron in this thing.
Now, far be it from me to tell these guys how to do their job 22 years after the fact, but let’s be real here: If they wanted to put a football-themed Joe in the spotlight, then why didn’t they go with William “The Refrigerator” Perry?
Seriously, the dude has a football mace.
Sadly, this episode remains entirely Fridge-free. Instead, we get Grid-Iron, Heavy Duty and a couple of other scrubs hanging out at the National Archives, because they’ve gotten a tip that Cobra’s planning to steal the Constitution. The motivation for this is never really explained by the Joes, but at this point, it doesn’t really need to be. Cobra Commander once used his massive criminal terrorist organization to steal a cup that would give him legal control of Alaska. Swinging by DC to ransack our nation’s priceless history is pretty much just a regular Tuesday night for those guys.
To that end, the Night Creepers and a couple of dudes with laser backpacks show up, and Grid-Iron & Co. completely fail to stop them from just walking right in and blowing up statuary.
This is our first clue that the Joes in this episode are genuinely terrible at their jobs, but don’t worry: It won’t be the last. Thanks to their ineptitude, Night Creeper Leader is able to just cold walk out with one of our founding documents.
Incidentally, did you guys know the Constitution was written on a slab of grey copy paper?
It’s true: You saw it on GI. Joe!
Fortunately for the Joes, America and the future film career of Nicolas Cage, the forces of Cobra don’t actually manage to get away. They’re stopped cold when a dashing figure soars through the night, takes out the Cobra helicopter with a blast from a wrist-mounted laser, and recovers the Constitution.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Serpent-Man!
Okay, three amazing things about this scene.
First, nobody seems surprised at all that there is a super-hero operating in their world all the sudden. In fact, the only reaction anyone gives comes from Heavy Duty, who gets downright grumpy about it and asks if Serpent-Man is “just another mysterious masked avenger.” Admittedly, they have seen some weird stuff in their time, but you’d think someone might mention it.
Second, when asked about his costume, Serpent-Man explains that he was inspired by the famous “Don’t Tread On Me” imagery of the Gadsden Flag. Let’s see here…
…Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call that one a miss.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, NO ONE IN THIS ENTIRE SCENE MAKES THE CONNECTION TO COBRA. Look, I get it, okay? We need to fill up 22 minutes and sell some toys. But when you live in a world that’s constantly on the brink of being dominated by an evil army that’s so obsessed with snakes that they refer to themselves as Vipers, named their cloned emperor “Serpentor,” and ride around in vehicles they call “HISS Tanks,” and then a mysterious guy shows up in a snake costume and starts causing trouble for you, maybe you could start to put things together. I mean, these guys once traveled across the world shutting down terror cells because they got a phone call announcing that “The Viper is coming,” and that dude just wanted to vipe the vindows. Serpent-Man shows up to steal their thunder and get ’em shut down? Nothin‘.
The only solution is that all of the good guys on this show are complete and utter idiots, a theory that’s actually confirmed by the rest of the show.
Sure enough, Serpent-Man is quick to grab headlines, with insinuation from yellow journalist Jose Riviera being that G.I. Joe has now become obsolete. He even meets with the President at a press conference where she gives him a commendation, and while he did recover the Constitution, he’s still a weird dude in a snake costume that just showed up five minutes ago. Maybe they want to run a background check before he starts hangin’ in the Oval Office.
He suggests that they throw a big ceremony to honor G.I. Joe’s contributions to the press, and President Mason, who seems obsessed with photo opportunities, agrees. So naturally, Cobra shows up and kidnaps her. Must be Wednesday. After a truly inexplicable bit where Heavy Duty throws a fake grenade at the bad guys and then causes an explosion with is weird chest-mounted laser cannon, the Joes go after Cobra, only to be shown up once again when Serpent-Man rides by on his snake chariot.
Seriously. Nobody thinks this might be a Cobra plot at this point.
Serpent-Man recovers the President, and she immediately decides that G.I. Joe sucks and needs to be decommissioned. This, I think, is supposed to be a sign that something’s up, but considering their track record in this episode, it seems like a pretty logical choice to me. When she starts calling auction houses to see about selling off Thomas Jefferson’s silverware, that might be a bit too far.
Of course, she really crosses the line when she sends a pretty offensive walking stereotype over to Joe HQ in order to redecorate and turn it into a “designer tennis shoe store.”
Rather than suffer the indignities of haute couture, the Joes decide to go ahead and lay siege to the White House, grabbing the president and tearing off her face to reveal that she’s actually Zarana, Cobra’s resident Mistress of Disguise. And just in case you forgot that the budget for this show was somewhere around three bucks an episode, they completely forget to color Zarana’s hair purple in about half the shots, so that it looks like she has an endless supply of President Mason masks that she’s pulling on every time it cuts to a different shot.
Eventually, Serpent-Man shows up and gets his face ripped off too, for the moment that we all knew was coming:
All right. I’ve been trying to avoid this for the entire column, but at this point, there’s no getting around it: Serpent-Man’s head totally looks like a ding-dang. And the only way this disguise — a mask worn over a giant metal helmet — is even remotely plausible is that Cobra Commander’s head also looks like a ding-dang. I almost have to give ’em credit for that.
Thus, America is saved from a secret takeover, and the Joes all go back to huffing ether.
I have to say, though, I’m glad episodes like this exist. The next nine months might seem like a long wait before we finally get to see G.I. Joe return to action on the big screen, but at least we can look at stuff like Serpent-Man and realize that maybe we’re actually better off not seeing it.