Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Curious Case of Wallace Weems

In 2007, the first live action Transformers movie was released and made tons of money for toy company Hasbro. Hoping to duplicate this financial success, they fast tracked a live movie for arguably their next biggest boys toy franchise, G.I.Joe. While for the most part, Joe fans were quite excited for a live action movie, when news came out that actor Marlon Wayans was given a main role in the movie a good number started to genuinely wonder if the producers actually knew what they were doing.

Now to be fair, while there wasn’t specifically anything wrong with Marlon Wayans as an actor there were a couple of reasons why his inclusion in the G.I.Joe movie left fans scratching their heads.

First and foremost, Marlon Wayans wasn’t really known for being an action star. He was first and foremost a comedian starring in many low brow but entertaining movies such as White Chicks, Little Man & Scary Movie. Possibly the closest movie to an action/adventure genre he was in was the major commercial flop Dungeons & Dragons….and even there he played a comedic character named….Snails.

But what got more people confused was when it was announced that he would play the G.I.Joe character Rip Cord (respelled as Ripcord for the film). Before this announcement, fans naturally speculated that Wayans would be playing one of the more popular african american characters in the franchise such as ranger & original member Stalker, chief medic Doc or even heavy machine gunner Roadblock. Instead he was cast as Ripcord who was caucasian. And just to hammer down the point that he was indeed playing THAT Ripcord, he went by the real name of the original character which was probably one of the “whitest” of that names you could come up with….Wallace Weems.

To add even more to the confusion...Ripcord was at best a third string character, literally NO ONE was expecting him to be featured in the movie or cared if he was left out. There was a circulating rumor that the producers originally wanted Wayans to play Stalker, who was often times portrayed as Joe leader Duke’s right hand man, but they figured the name “Stalker” wouldn’t fly as the name of a good guy. Still, Stalker wasn't exactly known for being the "funny guy".  But as “Ripcord” Wayan’s did play the right hand man to Channing Tatum’s Duke and inexplicably the love interest to Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett!

As if that wasn’t enough, his primary specialty in the movie was also changed. As his name would suggest, the original Ripcord was a HALO jumper (paratrooper), but in the movie, his specialty was changed to being a pilot. So really it would’ve made more sense for him to play any of the numerous jet pilots in the Joe ranks such as Ace, Slipstream or Maverick (why not? Both Rise of Cobra & Top Gun were distributed by Paramount Pictures).

Anyway, to be fair to the original character, while hardly being featured in the original cartoon, Ripcord actually did have a memorable story arc early on in the original Marvel comic run. In one of the earlier issues of the series, Ripcord meets and gets into a relationship with a civilian named Candy Appel who worked as a children's birthday party mascot named Bongo the Bear (sorry...I know mentioning this particular detail is rather pointless...but I just had to do it).   Anyway, their relationship doesn’t last very long as Candy gets frustrated with Cobra agents constantly attacking her and Ripcord and he  is unfortunately unable to explain why (you know the whole ‘secret” American task force thing). It is later revealed though that she is actually the daughter of an undercover Cobra Crimson Guard agent, something she is not aware of and is taken into Joe custody because of it. She is broken out of custody by the Dreadnok Buzzer and so Ripcord sets off to rescue her.

He goes on an unauthorized mission to Cobra Island thinking Candy has been brought there and comes across Zartan in the jungle who ends up getting pretty much kicking his ass (mutant assassin trumps paratrooper every time). Being a master of disguise, Zartan switches identities with Ripcord in order to infiltrate G.I.Joe headquarters. Ironically, chalking up the physical differences to his “master of disguise” schtick, Cobra troops bring Ripcord to their super secret base located in the fabricated small town of Springfield thinking that HE is Zartan. So in the end, Ripcord manages to send the location of Cobra’s Springfield base and the cavalry comes in guns ablazing laying waste to the base and successfully rescuing Ripcord.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Ripcord, Candy suffers a crueler fate losing her life in an incident involving a drunk driver, a ninja master and a blood thirsty Cobra operative with a portable missile launcher.

Anyway, as a kid, I remember really getting involved with Ripcord’s story of being a Joe trapped behind enemy lines and so I for one was bothered that the character I knew was essentially and in my opinion needlessly changed and other more deserving african american characters such as the aforementioned Stalker, Doc & Roadblock were left out. But what was done was done, and to be fair Marlon Wayans wasn’t terrible as Ripcord and like the idea or not, moving forward, Ripcord in all cartoons and comics that followed the movie was now african american.

One notable “updated” version of Ripcord was featured in the G.I.Joe cartoon Renegades in 2010. The cartoon featured a new premise where the actual G.I.Joe team as we knew it didn’t formally exist yet. So the cartoon featured a handful of soldiers trying to expose the super secret organization of Cobra while at the same time being on the run from the US Military after they are framed for a crime that they didn’t commit. Sound familiar? Yeah, it was a new premise for the franchise but hardly very original. Anyway, one of the members of this “A-Team” was Ripcord who was surprisingly seemingly killed off in the first episode. It was later revealed towards the end of the series though that he actually survived and spent the whole time in a Cobra lab being experimented on and turned into a “Bio-viper” (think human crossed with an amoeba).

Anyway, moving onto the toy front, in an attempt to appease fans of both the original and new Ripcord, they ended up confusing collectors even more. Hasbro doubled down on the toys for the live movie. So little plastic Marlon Wayans/Ripcord action figures were everywhere. Curiously though at around the same time, as part of their 25th Anniversary toy line Hasbro released a special 7 pack of Joes which included a Joe that looked mysteriously like the original green camouflaged Ripcord figure that first came out in 1984.

Of course to avoid any confusion, Hasbro couldn’t straight out call this other guy Ripcord and instead used another name that just happened to belong to another Joe member, Altitude….and just as if that wasn’t confusing enough, his codename wasn’t the only thing changed. This new figure’s real name was changed to Philip Arndt, who was yet ANOTHER existing Joe HALO jumper named Freefall. But for all intents and purposes, this guy was definitely the original “white” Ripcord, Wallace Weems. Talk about a major identity crisis.

Nowadays it’s quite normal for many of our childhood heroes from comics, toys and cartoons to have their ethnicity changed in order to appeal to a more diverse audience, but back in 2007 it wasn’t that common, so the change to Ripcord was a definite headscratcher. And who knows? It could have very well been a case of Marlon Wayans just picking out the character cuz he thought the name sounded cool. But if there is anything positive gained out of all these changes is that Marlon Wayans managed to flesh out an otherwise plain character and and his inclusion in the movie made the name Ripcord more known with the fandom.