Elite Force Glider and Paratrooper
G.I. Joe was the first action figure, a 12” hero introduced in 1964 and supplied with a staggering array of uniforms, weapons, vehicles, and playsets, each sold separately, of course. After over a decade of success, rising plastic costs and competition from smaller and wildly popular 8” superhero figures led to the demise of the 12” Joe figure, with a brief existence as an 8” figure before fizzling out entirely in the late 1970s. 12” G.I. Joe fans were left to their own devices to continue their hobby.
Time passed, and smaller scale figures became the norm. When the time was right, Hasbro brought G.I. Joe back to life in 1982 in the smaller 3 3/4” format, designed to compete with the increasingly successful action figures, vehicle, and playsets of the Kenner Star Wars line. Compete it did, and with the Star Wars movies ending in 1983, G.I. Joe flourished, with new lines released every year featuring bigger and more complex offerings, including, at the line’s peak, an aircraft carrier and a space shuttle launch complex. Joe was back on top and working to stay that way.
After dominating the action figure aisle throughout much of the 1980s, however, G.I. Joe began facing some serious competition in the 1990s from superhero toys (once again), inventive new properties like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the ever-growing juggernaut that is video games. In order to remain competitive, Hasbro stepped away from their traditional near-future military focus and explored a number of new ideas with the 3 3/4” Joe line. Joe tapped into the zeitgeist with concepts like environmental disasters, alien attacks, video game tie-ins, and the war on drugs. While many fans were chagrined by these colorful and ever more extreme departures, others embraced the imaginative and vividly-colored re-purposing of the G.I. Joe brand that represented the final days of the A Real American Hero 3 3/4” line in 1994. Hasbro next attempted to challenge the larger, more muscular superhero toys of their competitors by enlarging their popular 3 3/4” figures to 5” and introducing a new theme, Sgt. Savage, built around a World War II hero thawed from an icy grave to face modern day terrorist threats. When this line was dropped, in a final attempt to keep the Joe line afloat, Hasbro abandoned their beloved O-ring figure structure entirely and released G.I. Joe Extreme, a less-articulated and more muscular line created by their newly acquired Kenner designers. The competition proved to be too tough for these ideas, however, and the “little” Joes that had launched in 1982 finally closed up shop.
There was one other response, however, that Hasbro made to its growing competition. While all of the other ideas reached outward and forward, pulling popular culture into the Joe brand, one idea reached inward and backward, calling upon the toy that started the action figure concept in the first place, the 12” G.I. Joe figure. The movable fighting man.
Returning first as an enlargement of the 3 3/4” characters that ushered in the new Joe era in the 80s, 12” Joe soon expanded to include the more general approach of days past, incorporating generic soldiers whose identity was left to the imagination of the buyer, except that they were all “Joe”.
12” action figure fans that had been relying on the cottage industry to keep their hobby on life support for years were suddenly being catered to once again by Hasbro and G.I. Joe. 12” Joes were back, but, for many, the excitement soon wore off. The new Joes weren’t as well-articulated as the old ones, and the accessories and uniforms left a lot to be desired. The call for better accessories and uniforms was answered by companies like 21st Century Toys, BBI, and Dragon. Eventually they and others like them were producing new figures as well, all striving to offer the realism and detail that was lacking in the G.I. Joe line. This competition undoubtedly improved the G.I. Joe product as well, as the quality of the toys and their fidelity to the strengths of the original Joes enjoyed major improvements for many years.
Having become 12” powerhouses, Hasbro’s competitors looked to the 4” action figure sphere, a category all but abandoned by military toy manufacterers, as a means to expand their offerings, and to do things that couldn’t be attempted at 1/6 scale. In 2000, 21st Century Toys’ launched the new 1/18 scale The Ultimate Soldier Xtreme Detail or XD line. The company’s focus on nostalgia carried over from their 12” The Ultimate Soldier line. In addition to a wide range of figures, XD lone offerings included ground vehicles, tanks, helicopters, airplanes, and playsets, all from eras including World War II, The Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Eventually, XD grew to include modern military concepts alongside the nostalgia-driven historical themes. At the same time, BBI embraced the modern military with their 1/18 scale Elite Force line and produced well equipped figures, armor, and aircraft depicting military personnel and equipment in service at the time. BBI, too, grew beyond their initial focus, and later offered World War II sets as well. Both companies’ offerings, but XD’s in particular, blurred the line between toys and plastic models, with elaborate paint and wash applications, articulation methods designed to improve appearance, and sometimes fragile construction. Fans obsessed with realism embraced the larger and often more expensive vehicles, describing, sometimes derisively, the less-accurate proportions of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe vehicles as “Joe-Scale”.
By the end of the 2000s, both lines had run their course. Plastic costs, company difficulties, and pressure from competitors had relegated both realistic lines to store-exclusive status – XD to Wal-Mart and Elite Force to Target. G.I. Joe had returned to retail at 4” in several incarnations during the reign of XD and Elite Force, with the 25th Anniversary line and its successors offering familiar characters combining a much greater sense of realism with the sci-fi fun of Joe. By 2014, G.I. Joe itself had become a store exclusive with its 50th anniversary line carried only by Toys Я Us.
In 2014, BBI’s Elite Force line resumed as a Target store exclusive. Along with Lanard Toys’ highly stylized The Corps line at Walmart, they represent the only 4” military action figure lines carried by these, the 2 major US retailers.
The Elite Force line now on store shelves is a mere shadow of the line’s former incarnation, with reduced articulation, simplified paint ops, and, ironically, cheap and wildly out of proportion “Joe-Scaled” vehicles. Due to lapsed trademarks, some Elite Force figures now even bear Joe codenames like Duke, Grunt, Cutter, Stalker, Hawk, and the tragically misspelled Corba. As is often the case now, talented people are being constrained to churn out inferior product, leaving fans of 4” military figures without new product at retail. The good news about the current Elite Force line is that the sculpting quality of the new figures remains high, supplying customizers with new heads and gear to use in their projects.
The story of 4” military figures involves a balance between quality and cost, realism and imagination, and sophistication and playability. One of the oft-lamented segments in the G.I. Joe A Real American Hero line came in the form of the 1983 G.I. Joe Falcon and Cobra Viper gliders. Made of fragile foam, these gliders were purported to “Soar, Loop, and Fly” when flung. Reports of their aerobatic performance are all over the map, but their lack of durability is legendary and intact examples of these toys remain few and far between.
The one-two punch of internet reveals and reduced product offerings make it hard to be surprised by new toys on the shelf. It was therefore quite refreshing to learn of a new addition to the Elite Force line in the form of the Glider and Paratrooper – Army Ranger Air Assault. Quite a mouthful, but what that amounts to is a modern paratrooper, somewhat akin to a HALO jumper, which comes with a working fabric parachute AND a functioning foam glider with an elastic-powered launcher.
The packaging is similar to other Elite Force sets, and the toy is blister carded like the other 9.99 units. On the back of the card, cross-sell artwork shows the upcoming 2015 figures and a new boat set that could be useful for Joe fans. The large boat appears to include a drone launcher, as well as several gun turrets. Also included is a small inflatable-type boat with a motor and a machine gun.
The figure, with only 9 points of articulation, isn’t going to win any posing contests, but the sculpting is good, with a non-removable helmet and breathing apparatus. It also features a fairly innovative pair of molded-in parachute harness straps that can be folded and stored on the figure’s back.
The glider launcher shows some real enthusiasm from the designers, reproducing the look of a military parachute cord cutting tool with impressive detail. It feels very G.I. Joe. The attached elastic, used to shoot the glider, is sufficiently beefy to encourage impressive pulls and inspire images of figures lost in back yards several houses away.
The glider is comprised of 3 parts, the foam body, the plastic spine, and two folding clips. The body is a dark charcoal grey plastic foam whose thickness and foam material type inspire the kind of confidence of which Falcon and Viper owners could only dream. The green plastic spine folds around the foam body, held in place by a pair of prongs that engage openings on the other half of the piece. Two plastic clips, held by the spine, fold out to grab the figure around the waist and ankles. The combined assembly is sturdy enough to remain intact in all but the most spectacular of crash situations. The vehicle overall resembles an oversized wing suit or jet glider.
The vehicle and launcher do, for the most part, actually work. To use the term “glide” might strain credulity, but the Elite Force glider is capable of sustaining a rather smooth ballistic arc that perhaps approaches gliding. It can fall with style. The clips hold the figure securely and the foam construction resists tears successfully.
While the story of G.I. Joe and all of the other related action figure lines is full of ups and downs, with Spring upon us, it’s good to know that a fairly realistic and definitely fun toy is on shelves right now, waiting to be taken out in the yard and flung.