REVIEW: G.I. JOE COBRA BLACK DRAGON VTOL with COBRA AIR TROOPER
Throughout the entirety of its run and all through its various incarnations, I think it is abundantly fair to say that one thing the G.I. Joe action figure line has always managed to turn out are very interesting vehicles. Jeeps, motorcycles, tanks, planes, helicopters -- and a few things not all that easily categorized -- to say nothing of a seven-and-a-half-foot-long aircraft carrier and a massive space shuttle launch system. All very impressive, all immensely cool, all part of the G.I. Joe line.
In fact, it's rather interesting to consider how few action figure lines these days actually have vehicles. Arguably, the Transformers ARE vehicles. Star Wars and Power Rangers do a good job producing decent vehicles, and some of the super-hero movie tie-ins also turn out such merchandise. But there's also a lot that don't. G.I. Joe has always offered plenty of vehicles.
Certainly, many of these vehicles have been of flying craft. If you're going to engage an enemy on a modern battlefield, you'd better have some serious air power, and assuredly, both G.I. Joe and Cobra have this. SkyStrikers, FANGs, Rattlers, Dragonflys, Night Ravens, Conquests -- G.I. Joe and Cobra are abundantly capable of taking to the air.
Some of these aircraft have been based on real-life counterparts. The SkyStriker is extremely close to a real-life F-14. The Rattler is an extremely close cousin to an A-10, and the Night Raven takes most of its cues from the SR-71 Blackbird. Others -- not so much. I doubt that anything has soared through the skies that looked all that much like the Cobra Condor. That doesn't mean they're not cool aircraft.
The capability for turning out cool aircraft continued in 2011, as the G.I. Joe line prepared to celebrate its 30th Anniversary just a little early with some specially marked packaging and some impressive new product. Cobra has come up with a devastating new attack aircraft, versatile and dangerous, and it has been given the name -- BLACK DRAGON VTOL.
Generally speaking, Cobra tends to stick to reptilian names for its vehicles. Of course, a dragon, by most accounts, is a form of reptile, just a particularly large and generally mythological type. So the name still fits within Cobra's usual procedures.
The name "Black Dragon" has a somewhat more extensive history within G.I. Joe than just this vehicle, however. The name was first introduced into the line in 2003, as part of that year's Official Collectors' Convention Set. The set featured Cobra Commander, along with five of his Swamp-Vipers who guard the shores of Cobra Island, meeting an independent agent by the name of Black Dragon Leader, along with five of his Black Dragon Troopers, with the purpose of establishing an alliance.
Despite bearing a strong resemblance to a ninja, Black Dragon Leader categorically denied that he or his agents were ninjas. This would change in later years, as during the "newsculpt" run of the line, a figure was offered in general release that was clearly stated to be a Black Dragon Ninja. So either the Black Dragons changed their minds, or Hasbro changed it for him.
As for where the individual known as Black Dragon might be these days, when it comes to Cobra, some things are probably better left unknown. Cobra Island is a mysterious place, and it probably doesn't lack for large holes to drop people into.
So let's consider the new Black Dragon VTOL. It's an impressive-looking craft, although I suspect it's more fanciful than plausible. It has characteristics of both a helicopter and an airplane, and once I got it fully assembled, I realized that it vaguely reminded me of another Cobra aircraft from over 20 years ago. Although the Black Dragon VTOL is far larger, and honestly a much better-looking aircraft, there is a moderate resemblance, at least in some form and function aspects, to the FANG II, which was introduced in 1989.
The original FANG, which stood for Fully-Armed Negator Gyrocopter, was introduced in 1983, and became one of Cobra's most iconic vehicles. It was also a fairly straightforward one-man attack copter with an open cockpit. Bottom line, it looked entirely like a helicopter, albeit a small one. It has since, especially recently, seen multiple uses, particularly within the Collectors' Club.
The FANG II is another matter entirely. Although still a one-man flying machine with an open cockpit, it had wings on its sides with a pair of propellers that had a VTOL capability. The color scheme -- purple and black with bright red trim -- was a little hard to take seriously, and the thing didn't look especially aerodynamic, but it was at least an interesting successor to the name FANG.
And now we have the Black Dragon VTOL. Vastly larger, sleeker, and certainly more menacing than the FANG II could ever hope to be, there's still enough of a general resemblance that, within the G.I. Joe universe, it's not hard to imagine Cobra Commander having a conversation with Destro and saying, "Look, we know the basic principles of the FANG II are sound. What we need is a bigger aircraft, one that's better armed and looks a lot more terrifying!" And Destro saying, "I believe I can do that," and then turning out the Black Dragon.
The resemblance between the FANG II and the Black Dragon ends where the size and menace of the Black Dragon begins. Although certainly not the largest aircraft on record in the G.I. Joe line, it's surprisingly large for the box that it comes in. Of course, the snap-on wings and tail section helps. Fully assembled, the Black Dragon is an impressive 15-1/2 inches in length, with a wingspan -- not counting the propeller blades, of 14-1/2" at full extension. The tips of each wing have three-bladed propellers, and each propeller blade is 2-3/4" in length. For a vehicle made for a line of 4" action figures, that's pretty impressive size.
One of the first things one notices about the Black Dragon is the opaque canopy. It's black, just like the rest of the aircraft. Using a little imagination here, one must assume that either the canopy is not opaque when viewed from the inside somehow, and the opaqued appearance is designed to give the entire vehicle a psychological advantage, or that the canopy is in fact entirely opaque, and the pilot is highly trained in flying only by his cockpit instrumentation. Or maybe he's got a TV screen in there with him...
The Black Dragon is a very sleek looking craft, given the unusual design. The main body leans a lot more towards a helicopter appearance than an airplane, with a large front area, including the cockpit right at the front, tapering to a narrower tail section. The tail section itself isn't especially helicopter-like in appearance, as it lacks any sort of tail rotor, but instead has a series of horizontal and vertical stabilizing wings.
The resemblance to a helicopter ends with the pair of wings, that emerge from the top of the Black Dragon towards the rear of the main body section, behind the cockpit. The wings are strange-looking, in that they are curved, angling upwards very slightly before flattening out to their full length. They also taper somewhat along their respective wingspans.
At the ends of the wings are the propellers. These are mounted on distinct engine mounts, which can be rotated to allow the Black Dragon to perform its VTOL -- Vertical Take-Off and Landing -- function, so that the propellers can either face upward, or forward. The propeller blades alternate in two shades of gray, with red tips, and turn very easily.
To the sides of the Black Dragon near the base are two large and rather bulky-looking missile compartments. On the one hand, they tend to throw off the otherwise sleek lines of the aircraft. On the other hand, if you're going up against one of these things, you just know that whatever is in those seemingly incongruous side boxes is going to be nasty.
Technically speaking, the Black Dragon VTOL operates first and foremost not so much as a combat aircraft, although it certainly has that capability, but as a bombardier craft. There are two buttons on the top of the Black Dragon. Activating one of them accomplishes two things. It allows the lower part of the two side compartments to spring open, dropping its missiles, or I should say bombs, onto its designated target. The Black Dragon comes with eight such missiles, four for each side. I call them missiles because they look more like missiles than bombs, and I find myself thinking that perhaps they are missiles, with some propulsion capability of their own, and dropping them out of a compartment like this is just the easiest way to go.
The second thing activating this button does is allows a large gun to spring out of the mid-section of the Black Dragon, and rotate forward, no doubt allowing the pilot to defend himself against anybody who doesn't care for the fact that he's just dropped eight missiles on them. I mean, that is the sort of thing that can set some people off!
The Black Dragon VTOL also has a second forward-facing gun, no doubt for dogfights before he crops his missiles and the second gun springs forth, as well as rolling landing gear, non-retractable.
The second button on the top of the Black Dragon allows the wings to spring forward into proper formation. It is possible to gently bring the two wings back towards the rear of the craft and lock them in place. To be perfectly honest, my Black Dragon was a little less than cooperative with this procedure, and when it comes to action figures and their vehicles -- regardless of the line -- I tend to be a little jumpy about something breaking that I can't fix. I would have to say that the wings at full extension is the ideal setting for the Black Dragon, but having them folded back does take up a little less room. And the spring-forward function does work well.
Another fairly dramatic thing that one notices about the Black Dragon VTOL is that is has NO labels whatsoever. I cannot think of a single G.I. Joe vehicle over the years that has not had labels. Maybe there's been one or two, but I don't recall any offhand, certainly not one as major as this!
On the other hand, it's understandable, if one takes a look at the markings on the Black Dragon. Yes, the vehicle is mostly black. It also has a very impressive segmented red stripe running from the front of the canopy over the top of the vehicle, and partway down the tail section. There are angular stripes on the sides. Portions of the tail wings are highlighted in red. Many of these red detailed areas are across curved surfaces, such as the top of the vehicle, or very specific, precise areas, such as the tail wing ailerons.
Now, I can't even get the Cobra emblem to stay put all that well on the curved canopy of a Cobra "Trubble Bubble" Flight Pod. Labels printed on a flat sheet of vinyl, needing to be applied to precise, curved surfaces, is all too often not a very good combination. It's my opinion that the main reason it was decided to paint the colored details onto this vehicle was because it was realized somewhere along the way that label placement would've been an absolute nightmare.
For myself, while I usually don't mind at all putting the labels in place, in this particular instance, I agree with the probable assessment, and don't object in the least. The only unusual result in all of this is that there are six silver markings on the Black Dragon, that read "No Step" -- a fairly common label phrase that has turned up on multiple vehicles over the years -- and they're a fair bit bigger than one would expect them to be. On the other hand, they'd be hard for any careless Cobra trooper to miss. There's also a large silver Cobra emblem on one of the wings, very nicely done, just so there's no question as to the vehicle's allegiance.
Now, let's consider the pilot of the Black Dragon. He has the rather generic-sounding name of COBRA AIR TROOPER. This is an unusual name. Most Cobra trooper divisions end in the designation "Viper", and have some sort of descriptive term leading this suffix. "Cobra Air Trooper" sounds more like a description than a code name, and it's not as though there has been a lack of pilot divisions within Cobra over the years. Strato-Vipers, Gyro-Vipers, Aero-Vipers -- even Air-Vipers, although strangely, it took them quite a while to actually produce a figure named "Air-Viper", even though the name was first mentioned on the file card for the Strato-Viper. In fact, the first Air-Viper was actually another GIJCC Convention exclusive figure.
Why this Cobra Air Trooper doesn't have a more distinctive code-name, I really don't know. But let's consider the figure itself. It's an entirely new design, and to me, as much as anything, the Cobra Air Trooper looks like someone tried to come up with a more "real-world" version of a Strato-Viper.
There is a certain resemblance in the design of the helmet. The helmet is mostly gray, somewhat angular in appearance, and has a huge black visor up front. I find myself wondering if within this thick visor might be some sort of projected screen that allows the Air Trooper to pilot the Black Dragon through the opaque canopy. The lower face is covered by a gray section, and there's a black and red protrusion around the jaw -- perhaps a communications unit of some sort?
The rest of the Cobra Air Trooper's uniform is fairly ordinary-looking, perhaps intentionally so. He is dressed in a dark gray jumpsuit, with bands of red trim around the lower arms and lower legs. He has ridged knee pads, and is wearing a thick harness around his torso, that conceals the mid-torso articulation point. The vest is superbly detailed, and features several straps, what looks like a black flotation collar, assorted pouches, and a probable parachute pack.
The Cobra Air Trooper also has two ammo clips strapped to his upper left leg, and a small pouch on his right upper leg that, unless it's just a clasp, has one of the tiniest sculpted Cobra emblems I've ever seen. Nice detail work!
I find myself wondering just a bit if this Cobra Air Trooper intentionally looks a little on the basic side. Maybe, much like the Cobra Troopers on the infantry side of things, he has to work his way up to the fancier uniforms and code-names. But that's just speculation.
The figure is very nicely detailed, and neatly painted, including the red trim stripes. Of course, he is also very well articulated, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, legs, knees, and ankles.
Any complaints? Just one. The Cobra Air Trooper can't quite stand up straight. The knee pads, which also comprise the double knee joint, have been designed or molded in such a way that he can't quite straighted out his legs. I can see how it happened, and for someone sufficiently skilled in customizing, it might even be correctable. What I don't understand is why it was allowed to happen. Don't misunderstand me -- the Cobra Air Trooper can stand up -- but his legs must be somewhat bent for him to do so, giving him -- well, not the best posture in the world. He looks like he strained his lower back and is looking for a chiropractor to straighten him out -- literally.
I have to believe this was not intentional. But there's a how and why here that I don't expect will ever be known. It doesn't really ruin the figure, but I still feel it's something that shouldn't have happened.
Let's consider the file card. The 30th Anniversary series has new file cards, and although not as informative as the early years of the line, are nevertheless a very cool design, and are more informative than they've been in a couple of years. The card has a Cobra emblem in the upper left corner, a dark red stripe across the top, and the code name of the character in white on a black background directly below. The rest of the file card follows, with a portrait shot -- superb artwork -- of the Cobra Air Trooper on the lower right, with an ornate Cobra stamp imprinted over part of this. The file card reads as follows:
COBRA AIR TROOPER
Cobra Air Troopers specialize in air assaults and extractions from how battle zones. As ground forces keep the enemy busy below, these experienced air troopers sweep in from above. Cobra troopers who show exceptional aerial combat skills are selected for this elite force and given special training in airborne attack tactics. They also conduct scouting and reconnaissance missions and transport Cobra leaders.
So much for my theory that they were "air grunts", for lack of a better term. Anyway, knees notwithstanding, the Cobra Air Trooper is still a very cool figure, and a new addition to Cobra's ranks, as well.
So, what's my final word? This is an awesome and impressive vehicle. It is a superb addition to the air power of any G.I. Joe collection. The Cobra Air Trooper has its quirk, but it is nevertheless a nice new addition to the overall collection, as well. If you've enjoyed and appreciated the air power of the G.I. Joe and Cobra collection over the years, you'll certainly enjoy the Black Dragon VTOL.
The G.I. JOE 30th Anniversary BLACK DRAGON VTOL with COBRA AIR TROOPER definitely has my highest recommendation!