Before toymaker Hasbro built a blockbuster in 2007 out of an action figure franchise that claims to be “more than meets the eye,” the highest-grossing film adapted from a toy brand was 1985’s The Care Bears Movie. Released to 1,003 theaters, The Care Bears Movie pulled in a box office gross of $22.9 million dollars. Compare that to what would happen with Transformers, released July 2007, which exploded onto 4,050 theaters and a took in a domestic haul of $319.2 million.
While movies have been adapting their screenplays from other forms of storytelling since cinema’s inception, the rise of films based on toys has become a new phenomenon as spurred by Hasbro, Inc., a toy company with its world headquarters in Rhode Island and with many reputable, multi-generational toys to its name.
Since Transformers‘ victory at the box office in 2007, Hasbro has made five more movies, using three total franchises. In 2009, Transformers was followed up by the sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and was joined that year by a film based on the G.I. Joe “A Real American Hero” franchise with the film G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra. In 2011, a third Transformers film was released (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and in the following year, the famous board game Battleship received its own action-heavy slick adaptation. Now, we’ve seen the release of a second G.I Joe movie, G.I Joe: Retaliation. With Retaliation making quite a mark on the box office, a third G.I. Joe film is already in the works.
Giggle as moviegoers (still) might at the brand’s logo inclusion in an action film’s opening credits, Hasbro has risen as a highly lucrative enterprise in the realm of action movies. They have achieved such by playing into material that taps Hollywood’s biggest demographic (teenage boys), but also by expanding the material to fit genre, making toy films into mega blockbuster events where the toys are not just more than meets the eye, but larger than the silver screen itself (and in 3D in some cases).
More directly, Hasbro has succeeded with audiences by tuning into patriotism and providing Americans with heroes they can easily root for: those who protect the world (and America) from evildoers, with missions or stories of warfare that are beyond any regular citizen’s reality (such as the Seal Team Six mission celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty or the work of troops honored in last year’s Act of Valor). In doing so, this toy company has become Hollywood storytelling’s biggest supporter of the military, while simultaneously marketing wartime to a wide demographic as a form of playtime.
Considering the combat-heavy brands that Hasbro has chosen to modernize and blockbuster-ize, Hasbro has gone beyond the idea of nostalgia for its toys and tapped into something more viable in the wartime contemporary action movie genre, telling stories of soldiers. With its six films so far, these films use toys as the primary inspiration to provide presentations of modern (or soon-to-be modern) warfare, while expressing first and foremost the effectiveness of the American soldier.
This began in 2007, with a new version of Transformers. Prior to 2007 there had only been one animated movie, which pulled a box office haul of $5.8 million in 1986. Titled Transformers: The Movie, it featured the voice talents of Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles, who described voicing Unicron as “I play a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys.”
Set in contemporary times, Transformers focuses on average high schooler Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who finds himself in the middle of a battle coming to Earth between good shape-shifting robots (Autobots) and bad ones (Decepticons). In this first of three films (a fourth is due in 2014), Witwicky helps the Autobots get to a secret mega energy force called the AllSpark.
If the Decepticons get to the AllSpark first, they will use it to turn everything into evil Transformers (including household electronics) and eventually wipe humans off the face of the Earth. With the help of soldiers William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), Robert Epps (Tyrese Gibson) and other military individuals, Witwicky helps the Autobots fight the Decepticons before they can end the world.
This version of Transformers was a bid from Hasbro to turn its animated story of shape-shifting fighting robots into a piece of American triumph, in which the robots would fight specifically in America, within the realms of a blockbuster.
With this goal in mind, the perfect director was chosen in Michael Bay, a man well versed in blockbuster spectacle, but a filmmaker directly concerned as well with the presentation of military and other governmental forces in his movies, as seen in The Rock and bits of Armageddon. Because of these projects, Bay was able to “‘borrow’ high end hardware not available elsewhere (according to MichaelBay.com), along with using the locations of Holloman, Kirtland and Edwards Air Force Bases. Along with this this film about “big toys fighting smaller toys” was the first film to shoot inside the Pentagon since 9/11.
The injection of a military element is specifically new to the Transformers franchise. The use of military imagery in this film and its sequels was a move by Hasbro to heighten the action content of the film, but also its patriotic potential. Sans the idea of robots, the film is about American soldiers teaming up to save America (and the universe).
Despite the newness of the presence of military in Transformers, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura provided this logical explanation for the high presence of military in the film (also found on MichaelBay.com): “The military is inevitably brought in when an outside threat to our country or to world peace becomes significant,” says di Bonaventura. “So even though this is not a military movie by definition, it’s difficult to conceive of a world in which 30-foot tall metal people begin destroying cities where the military wouldn’t become involved pretty quickly.”
Most important to the action are the film’s American heroes, the soldiers who provide the protection and firepower necessary to help the Autobots win. Unlike characters like LaBeouf’s Witwicky, they are not given their own arcs and they move in and out of the story only when they are needed. These soldiers do not have an active relationship with Witwicky, but seem to be always available when defense or offense is needed from armed human forces.
While Transformers has large robots like Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, Bay is certain to remind viewers that the real heroes in this toy adaptation are those who are not computer generated, the human American soldiers who respond and enter into battle.
Transformers laid down the groundwork for recurring themes and story elements for future Hasbro releases. Telling a story about a regular American male caught up in an intergalactic battle between good and evil robots, the film features imagery of top-secret military men fighting futuristic warfare, on American turf.
In August 2007, two months after Transformers became an instant success at the box office, Hasbro signed director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) to direct a long-gestating movie based on the franchise G.I Joe, which had formerly been a comic book, a cartoon and maybe most famously, a collection of action figures.
Released in 2009, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra featured another tale of strictly good characters vs. those who are entirely bad. Telling the story of a NATO soldier (Duke, played by Channing Tatum) who is hired by super secret fighting force G.I. Joe to stop evil group Cobra, the film touches on elements like terrorism, global warfare and the power of secret ops. G.I.Joe is a group of soldiers meant to be similar to forces like Zero Dark Thirty’s Seal Team Six.
G.I. Joe stands apart from Transformers and the future adaptation of Battleship by providing a more simplistic view of good soldiers fighting bad ones. This is not a film about America by title vs. a particular country or bonafide soldiers versus a space race of robots, even, but a fictitious group of elite soldiers against an even sillier named evil organization, both of them with nicknames.
Unlike the three Transformers film and later Battleship, this version of cinematic toy warfare does not use the U.S. Armed Forces and doesn’t have to deal with the same reality that the other two Hasbro franchises try to navigate at their own fantastical desire. That being said, without these types of immediate allegiances to real American armed forces, G.I. Joe certainly takes advantage of presenting itself as cartoonish, but also on a larger scale (as with the movie’s climactic scene, which is like a mix of Thunderball/Star Wars).
In terms of presenting warfare, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra featured technology Somers “almost 100%” thinks will be used in warfare in the “next 10-20 years.” In an interview with GIJOECLUB.com, Sommers even went on to say that he thinks a camouflage suit (such as the one worn by Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett) is “absolutely possible.” While discussing a film in which falling ice is used in water as a defense mechanism (ice doesn’t sink in such conditions, just look at your glass of ice water) and half of the Eiffel Tower is eaten by nanotechnology, Sommers insisted, “most of this stuff is not made up.”
After the success of three Transformers films and Rise of Cobra, Hasbro aimed to find its next military-heavy franchise in Battleship, based on one of the company’s most popular board games. This film would be like a combination of the two Hasbro films before it, offering scenes of intergalactic battle mixed with images of homeland terrorism. Battleship would also show itself to be director Peter Berg expressing his own pride in the US Armed Forces, especially those who have already served in war, whether they be soldiers or battleships.
With Battleship, released May 18, 2012, Berg tried to show he could produce what Hasbro liked from Michael Bay, which includes romantic shots of real artillery, alongside action sequences of battle with heavy special effects. Yet despite Berg’s efforts at providing what Hasbro wanted, this was the toy company’s least successful adaptation in their new movie strategy, as the film lost out to The Avengers at the box office.
Battleship is framed around the maturity of Sgt. Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) as he rises from shaggy-haired whippersnapper to wartime, clean-cut crew leader in the midst of strategic naval battle against alien forces that want to rule our planet. Battleship sticks to the board game concept, but presents simple acts of warfare through special effects-heavy sequences of human ships firing against leap-frogging alien ships, and vice versa.
In an effort to maintain product familiarity, the film not only maintains the title Battleship, but also uses the same artistic font for its publicity, not modernizing its appeal as Transformers and G.I. Joe had before it. At the same time, Battleship proves by Berg to be a more serious toy adaptation than Transformers or G.I. Joe, as the film has too much pride to utter its most anticipated line of dialogue, “You sunk my Battleship!”
In terms of thematic material and aesthetic content, Battleship repeats many elements that made Bay’s Transformers films a hit, including a battle against an alien menace and showing a ruffian, average American male take on responsibility for helping save the world. Battleship also features scenes of explicit terrorism, in which bridges loaded with civilian cars are destroyed by giant shredder balls and the Hong Kong skyline is destroyed by alien debris.
A strong difference between Berg’s and Bay’s films however, is that Berg doesn’t relegate the soldiers he wants to honor to side characters working alongside a non-recruited protagonist. Instead, Battleship stands out as a military action film exclusively led by members of the United States Armed Forces.
Berg took the responsibility of maintaining Hasbro’s mission of military patriotism farther than Bay ever did in his Transformers movies, with Battleship featuring direct scenes of reverence to veterans. For example, one of the movie’s crucial side heroes, Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales, is played by wounded veteran Gregory D. Gadson. Before Gadson is introduced, Berg takes a moment from his film to show other “real” veterans in a soldier’s hospital, their upbeat spirit accentuated by rock music.
However, Battleship‘s biggest moment of veteran appreciation appears in its climax, in which former crewmembers from the USS Missouri are recruited by Sgt. Hopper to defeat the alien enemy. In the film, Kitsch’s character is running out of active warships at his disposal, with only the USS Missouri, a “museum” that hasn’t been in wartime operation for decades, left. Almost instantly, in a piece of patriotic surrealism, a group of old men appear near Kitsch and offer their help in running the ship (“What do you need, son?”).
This is a scene that exemplifies the attitude Hasbro Inc. has been leaning towards with their films; to honor the power of the United States Armed Forces through fantastical heroism, this time in an old soul movie that is more likely to encourage recruitment than the two franchises before it. However, the failure of this film at the box office brings many aspects of Hasbro’s mission into question. Did Battleship fail with audiences because not enough people could take the idea of a board game adaptation seriously? Or were general audiences not able to identify enough with a story focused around the service, past and present, of the United States military?
In order to be taken more seriously with this board game adaptation, one can only imagine that perhaps Berg would have liked a better villain for his showcase. However, the success of Transformers must have defeated this concept. Berg was a fair choice for the heart of the film, but it turns out that Hasbro’s desire for another Bay-like toy adaptation did not mean an instant success. While G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra may have initially been introduced to the Hasbro, Inc. canon to provide a lighter side to their military filmography, during its release Battleship became the bombing joke of the toy company’s efforts. 1985’s board game adaptation Clue remains the most successful (if not the only) example of what audiences expect from a feature film adapted from a board game.
The newest addition to Hasbro Inc.’s cinematic canon is the first sequel to G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, titled G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Now in theaters, the film focuses on a new group of Joes (Dwayne Johnson’s Roadblock, D.J. Cotrona’s Flint and Adrianne Palicki’s Lady Jaye) as they seek to stop Cobra Commander from unleashing nuclear war, subsequently taking over the world. Planning to strike back at Cobra on American soil, the Joes receive help from the “original Joe,” General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis).
Like the Hasbro Inc. films before it, G.I. Joe: Retaliation features a plot that concerns the priority of protecting America from terrorist forces, who in this case have deeply infiltrated our government and are set to take over the world. Like with the destruction of the Eiffel Tower in Rise of Cobra, Cobra Commander does succeed in causing terrorism, as London is shown getting a nuclear facelift in the third act.
Whereas the original G.I. Joe film only featured a couple of sequences that take place in the United States, this movie brings home the idea that G.I. Joe soldiers are essentially elite American soldiers with a worldwide responsibility. Aside from their nicknames and international support group (including a Caucasian man trained to be a ninja), there are many scenes in this film in which the Joes register as regular (American) soldiers, with only the G.I. Joe button identifying them otherwise.
At the end of the film, in which their work is being celebrated by the president, they are called “Joes.” This moment reminds us of the historical definition of G.I. Joes, a name for infantrymen in World War II. With this sequel, the Joes are meant to honor those past soldiers, but with high-tech weaponry, single nicknames and personal conflicts between soldier and evil leader.
Following in the footsteps of Battleship, Retaliation also features a nod to older soldiers being brought back into battle to win the war. In Retaliation, a handful of older looking men (who aren’t in the physical shape of any younger soldier in the movie and have gray mustaches) are brought in with General Colton’s help and we are to assume that they play a part in at least getting Roadblock and others inside the base.
Successful with its attitude, G.I. Joe: Retaliation proves that this particular toy is meant to the comic relief of Hasbro’s filmography, treating its atmosphere much more with lack of self-seriousness as an expensive cartoon or a child’s imagination with action figures more so than the other movies. As flawed as the other Transformers films may be, they have a sense of urgency and life-or-death seriousness that is not shared by the two G.I. Joe films.
The episodic nature of the G.I. Joe and Transformers movies presents war as a concurrent, cartoonish affair. At the same time, the terrorist acts that incite the call for heroism are treated superfluously. And the inclusion of touted not-so-futuristic war technology makes for toys whose significance to real warfare is not far off.
While a film such as Retaliation is enjoyable for its brain dead action genre pleasures, it is this lighthearted nature that exposes the potentially troubling element of Hasbro’s desire to provide vivid live-action imagery inspired by its products, in which wartime is equated to playtime. As visually cued by ninja soldier Storm Shadow’s makeshift weapon seen in both G.I. Joe films, Hasbro has made the depiction of war a double-edged sword of ideology, especially considering how the toy company aims to incite the imagination of its target audience: teenage boys.
Does the presentation of war in a film like G.I. Joe present an understanding of violence in military action or pervert it? And what service are these films doing for the soldiers they seek to honor by having them most associated with plastic action figures, representing fantastical heroes?
A year after the successful manhunt for Osama bin Laden, 2012 was a special year of recognition in American mainstream film for the United States Armed Forces. There was Act of Valor, a bad movie with good intentions that used serving members of the armed forces as stars in their own action movie. Much later in the year came Zero Dark Thirty, a solid piece of cinematic journalism that informed many Americans of the truth behind “The Greatest Manhunt in History”.
The success of these films is but a validation of the spirit asserted years earlier by the billion-dollar filmography of Hasbro Inc. Before Zero Dark Thirty, there were the operations of Hasbro’s toy soldiers, which exposed Americans to stories about international battles that were “more than meets the eye,” as executed by “real American heroes”.
Providing multiplex audiences with packaged images of terrorism meeting action from armed forces, Hasbro Inc. has elevated itself from more than just a child’s enabler for playtime. With their goal of appealing to a wide audience through war-focused franchises, a toy company has become the largest proponent in American cinema for the power of the United States military.