Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: The negative reaction to the death of Optimus Prime in the Transformers movie saved Duke from dying in the G.I. Joe movie.
A recurring rumor in the months leading up to the release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation this past March suggested that the stated reason for the film being delayed in May of 2012 from the original release date of June 29, 2012 to the actual release date of March 28, 2013 was not just because of their stated reason, which was to convert the film into an additional 3-D version of the film (which was not originally filmed in 3-D) but also to change the original plot of the film so that Channing Tatum’s character of Duke did not die, as he was rumored to have been killed in the first version of the movie.
The fact that they did, in fact, shoot new scenes for the film with Tatum seemed to bear out the rumor that after they saw Tatum’s star status explode in early 2012 (with the hit films The Vow and 21 Jump Street coming out before they scrapped the 2012 release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation and the hit film Magic Mike following later in June 2012, as well) that they figured that they better change the film so that Tatum’s character, Duke, survives the film for possible use in future G.I. Joe movies. The film is new enough that I won’t spoil whether that actually happened, but it is fascinating to note that if they did do that, it would be the second time that Duke’s character had been saved from death after a G.I. Joe movie had been made! Read on to see how it happened last time and how the 1986 animated Transformers movie actually caused the reversal!
Amusingly enough, the death of Optimus Prime in the original Transformers movie was directly influenced by the planned death of Duke in the G.I. Joe movie. Both movies were done by Sunbow Productions (the animation studio that did both the Transformers and the G.I. Joe TV series during the 1980s) and originally each movie was planned to be released in 1986, along with a My Little Pony movie (also a TV series produced by Sunbow). Some distribution issues (as well as the relative lack of success for the Transformers and My Little Pony films) delayed the release of the G.I. Joe film until 1987 and even then it was just a direct-to-video release, but the important thing to note is that all three films were in production at the same time.
The writers of the G.I. Joe film figured that since the film (like the Transformers movie) was shooting for a PG rating rather than a G, they would include a death in the movie (something that they had never done in the TV series). Since part of the idea behind the movie was to introduce brand-new G.I. Joe characters for the newest release of G.I. Joe toys, they theorized that they should be able to kill off one of the earlier characters, someone who was no longer going to be part of the toy line. The character of Duke was chosen and Hasbro not only agreed to the idea, they liked the idea so much that they told the writers of the Transformers movie that they wanted them to do the same thing with that film, which was also intended to introduce new characters to coincide with a new release of Transformers toys.
The Transformers writers took the idea and ran with it, and in the first scene of the film they had a battle where nearly all the original line of Transformer toys were killed off. Autobots (the good guy robots, for those of you unfamiliar with Transformers) Brawn, Ironhide, Prowl, Ratchet, Windcharger and Wheeljack were all killed off in the film’s opening battle. Most notably, though, the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, was killed.
As I’m sure anyone who saw the Transformers movie as a kid could tell you, this was a pretty traumatic event for young viewers. People still talk about the death of Bambi’s mother as being traumatic, but imagine if you watched Bambi’s mother in an ongoing television series every day for a year or so before you then saw her and a bunch of her friends all get slaughtered in Bambi? No amount of Eric Idle comedic riffs would keep you from freaking out. So not only did the Transformers film not do particularly well at the box office, but Hasbro was also dealing with a major negative response from parents over the death of so many good guys (including the main good guy) so the now-delayed G.I. Joe film was forced to make changes. The film was already finished, but now they dubbed in a few lines to state that when Duke dies (after being stabbed in the heart with a spear by Serpentor)
he didn’t actually die but instead went into a coma and then at the end of the film, a character reports that Duke (off-screen, of course, since they didn’t have a separate scene made with him alive since he was, you know, dead) came out of the coma and was okay and the film thus had a death-free happy ending.
And all because of Optimus Prime. What a hero, saving other people’s lives even in his death!
The legend is…
Thanks to the great G.I. Joe writer Buzz Dixon and the Ultimate G.I. Joe Cartoon Website for the information. Dixon is always a valuable source of fascinating information! It is also worth noting that another factor in Duke’s “resurrection” was that production delays pushed G.I. Joe back from its original release date, which would have been before the Transformers movie. Had that been he case, obviously Duke would have died for real.
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