G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: The M.A.S.S. Device (1983) – The first G.I. Joe animated miniseries from Sunbow/Marvel.
The G.I. JOE cartoon from the mid-1980s, along with the TRANSFORMERS, dominated my after school TV time, and this is where it all began.
THE M.A.S.S. DEVICE is a five-episode miniseries and it’s completely fantastic. These miniseries quickly devolved into campiness, but here at the start we’ve got a relatively straight-forward story about a terrorist organization, the U.S. military unit created to stop them, and billions and billions of dollars worth of toys. And no, I don’t mean all the toys Hasbro sold off these cartoons, I mean the billions and billions of dollars of resources it took for G.I. Joe and Cobra to build all of these weapons and vehicles they trot around the globe in. Each side has massive headquarters, planes, tanks, laser rifles, and weapons of mass destruction.
Cost is no object when you’re hand drawn.
The plot of M.A.S.S. DEVICE centers on a satellite that Cobra steals from the United States military with their, well, their M.A.S.S. Device. Duh. (It stands for Molecular Assembled Scrambler Sender. I think. Destroy says, “My invention will seize the molecules of the Relay Star satellite, assemble them for transportation, scramble them into a coherent beam of pure energy, and send them here to us!”) It’s a clever bit of espionage and ingenuity, as Cobra has the Baroness infiltrate the U.S. military installation by doing the whole Mission: Impossible rubber mask bit. The original plan is that the Baroness will get close enough to the satellite to have Destro use the MASS Device to teleport the satellite out, but when that fails, he teleports Cobra forces in.
And then teleports them and the satellite back out, with the added bonus of capturing Duke in the process.
I like that how no matter how ridiculous the plot gets – the Joes have to battle giant snake lizards and rescue a meteorite from an active volcano – the story plays it all mostly seriously. Even the Joes still largely look like military men at this stage in their development. Most of these outfits look like they could be military-issue, and most of these characters (Joes like Short-Fuze, Steeler, Clutch, and Zap) are only slightly distinguishable from one another. There’s all sorts of mini-missions that fill the action quotient for each episode and they all come with very real stakes.
After surviving a Cobra ambush and rescuing the original creator of the M.A.S.S. Device, the Joes have to go off on missions to gather each of the three elements needed to power the machine. Each of the missions is, of course, designed to show off different Joes and different equipment in order to make us want to buy different toys. First up, the Joes head to the Arctic to get some radioactive crystals and they fail to get them.
Yeah, they lose. At least temporarily, and that temporary setback is part of what makes all of this seem real. The Joes come out on the worse end of conflicts several times, and so when Snake Eyes has to sacrifice himself to save the Joes from radiation it feels like a real sacrifice.
He gets better, of course, and M.A.S.S. DEVICE does a great job creating several smaller subplots to support the main action. When Duke gets captured during Cobra’s theft of the Device he becomes Cobra’s slave and gets put in a Roman-style arena to fight for his life against a giant slave that might have a name but he doesn’t have an action figure. (I think. I never owned it, let alone saw it.) He’s a slave, too, and the brother of a female slave that has the hots for Duke. She helps him escape and he gives her a ring to remember him by until he returns.
Which he would do sooner if he didn’t get temporary amnesia.
Yeah, there’s plenty of small moments like this throughout M.A.S.S. DEVICE which happen because the story needs them to happen to have things play out like they do. If Duke remembers right away where Cobra’s headquarters are, then we miss two entire episodes. Of course, Cobra’s headquarters are a huge freaking castle built on a mountain, and everyone knows where they rescued him from, but still, they can’t find it.
Whatever, they’ve got giant deep sea tube worms to fight as they look for a pool of heavy water. The Joes and Cobra form a temporary alliance because the tube worms are that bad-ass, and they both leave with some of the heavy stuff. Then the Joes head home for a pleasant surprise:
Snake Eyes is alive. And he’s got a pet wolf. Everyone is happy about this, of course, except for Duke. Now, Duke doesn’t come out and say, “Dang, that silent jerk is back,” but while Scarlett runs to him with tears in his eyes and the other Joes gather around him, Duke stays with the scientist. You can definitely see the vaguest hint of a romantic triangle here as Scarlett shows an emotional attachment to both Duke and Snake here, a triangle that we see resolved in a similarly understated, but pointed, manner in RESOLUTE.
Things start to fall apart a bit in episode 4 when the Joes and Cobra go after the meteorite. They end up playing a game of keep away with the giant meteor – yeah, keep away with a giant meteor over a volcano with planes and nets and … ugh. It’s a bit silly. The sequence redeems itself when Cobra captures the meteor and the Joes mount a flying raid on Cobra’s massive aircraft carrier in the sky. Scarlett ends up taking on Destro and getting captured, but she’s no damsel in distress. The interplay between her and Destro on his getaway plane in some of the best in the entire series as she verbally attacks him even when tied up, even when they’re spiraling to what seems like their inevitable death.
M.A.S.S. DEVICE ends with a bang as the Joes raid the Cobra stronghold. It’s a great battle and a great ending to a really well-made, enjoyable action-packed miniseries.