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MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: The negative reaction to the death of Optimus Prime in the animated Transformers movie saved Duke from dying in the G.I. Joe movie.
A recurring rumor in the months leading up to the recent release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation suggested the delay in the film’s release from June 29, 2012, to March 28, 2013, wasn’t just for the stated reason, to allow time for 3D conversion, but also to change the plot so that Channing Tatum’s character Duke was killed off, as he was believed to be in the original version.
That director Jon M. Chu did, in fact, shoot new scenes with Tatum seems to bear out the rumor that, after Paramount Pictures saw the actor’s star status explode in early 2012 (with hits The Vow and 21 Jump Street coming out before G.I. Joe’s original release date was scrapped, and Magic Mike following later in June 2012) that executives figured they better change the film so Duke survives for possible use in future franchise installments. The film is new enough that I won’t spoil whether that actually happened, but it is fascinating to note that if the studio did do that, it would be the second time Duke has 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 Transformers: The Movie was directly influenced by the planned death of Duke in G.I. Joe: The Movie. Both were done by Sunbow Productions, the animation studio that produced the 1980s Transformers and G.I. Joe TV series), 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 G.I. Joe 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 G.I. Joe figured that because the film (like The Transformers) was shooting for a PG rating rather than a G, they would include a death (something they had never done in the TV series). Because part of the idea behind the movie was to introduce new G.I. Joe characters for the newest release of Hasbro action figures, the writers theorized 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. Duke was chosen, and Hasbro not only agreed to the idea, but executives liked it so much they told the writers of the Transformers movie they wanted them to do the same thing with that project, 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 Transformer toys were killed off: Autobots (the good guy robots, for those of you unfamiliar with Transformers) Brawn, Ironhide, Prowl, Ratchet, Windcharger and Wheeljack. Most notably, though, the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, died.
As I’m sure anyone who saw the Transformers movie as a kid could tell you, this was a pretty traumatic event. 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 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, which forced the now-delayed G.I. Joe film to make changes. It was already finished, but now producers 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, as they didn’t have a separate scene made with him alive because 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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Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!