Artwork by Cap Blackard (Buy Prints + More!)
Action figures are more than little pieces of plastic. For some, they’re relics of a time when the bedroom floor was a personal sandbox, a place where Gotham City, Endor, or LV-426 might come to life with just a few books, a piece of cardboard, or an elaborate play set. For others, they’re badges of honor, a collection of rare finds that only few ever care to possess.
I love ’em. As a kid, they fueled my imagination for countless afternoons by carrying out the story in ways that went beyond the credits or the last panel of a comic book. There was something exciting in knowing that all of my heroes and villains were within my reach and that the possibilities were endless. This feeling became so powerful that I’d seek out figures for any franchise that caught my eye.
Today, that obsession continues, albeit a tad more controlled. Don’t get the net; I’m not sitting here playing with figures all night. Or any night, for that matter. My interest, instead, has become more of a celebration. I’ll buy a Marty McFly figure because, well, I still love the movie and want to relish that passion. It’s comforting for me.
That’s why I thought that I’d come clean, admit my obsession, and start talking about the various movie-related figures of the past, present, and beyond in a new column for 2015 called: Well, That Figures. As a preview, I spent the past few weeks waxing nostalgic alongside senior staff writers Dan Caffrey and Cap Blackard. With the holidays upon us — a time once reserved for toy-driven wish lists — it made sense.
What we came up with is a list of the worst and best action figure lines based strictly on movies. That means you won’t find any praise for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dino-Riders, The “Real” Ghostbusters, or any of the exceptional DC or Marvel collections based on the cartoons or comic books.
We also decided to nix any reboot or commemorative figures that have popped up decades later. Most of these jaw dropping collections — thank you, Movie Maniacs — were created by fans heavily invested in crafting the perfect figures for franchises that either didn’t have a chance or weren’t brought to justice.
So, instead, these are the figures that were born for the aisles of TRU or KB or Lionel Playworld or FAO Schwartz or any other toy store that dates me. It’s heavy in nostalgia, sure, but there’s also some things to take away from each analysis. Just know, this is only the tip of the Lego iceberg because, come next year, we’ll be neck high in plastic.
5. Batman (1989)
When Tim Burton resurrected the Batman franchise with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, Warner Bros. was blindsided by a new generation of fans demanding action figures based on the film. So, they quickly supplied theaters with mail-in brochures, which featured a gluttony of Batman-related merchandise (see above). To their credit, Toy Biz managed to whip up an iconic Batman figure, featuring a cloth cape and a repelling grappling hook, in addition to a credible Batmobile and Batwing. However, they also recycled and repainted the majority of their past work, specifically the Joker, the Batcave, and a number of vehicles that weren’t even in the film. This cheap shortcut would continue to plague the franchise, even after Kenner took over, spawning a strange dichotomy of quality vs. absolute crap. For instance, this looks like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, but does this look anything like Danny DeVito to you? Even as a nine-year-old, it was frustrating.
WTF Figure: Granted, the original 1989 film doesn’t have too many iconic characters outside of its titular hero and the clown, but why Bob the Goon? Yes, he’s Joker’s ::squeezes shoulder, breathes heavily:: “NUMBER ONE GUY,” but he also doesn’t make for a very action-oriented figure. Regardless, the lovable Tracey Walter walked home with his own piece of plastic…
MIA: …while Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, Michael Gough’s Alfred, and Keaton’s own Bruce Wayne (well, until Batman Returns) were without goody bags. The lack of a female presence, however, is something that would plague most action figure lines of the ’80s and ’90s — a grating vacancy that destroyed many playground recreations.
4. Men in Black
By all accounts, Barry Sonnenfeld’s iconic 1997 comedy deserved a stellar action figure line. On paper, the entire story reads like a blueprint to sell merchandise, considering the unique artillery, eccentric aliens, and the mysterious Ray Ban-wearing heroes. Instead, Galoob released an uninspired lineup of toys that were borderline in-action figures. Both Jay and Kay were shaped in awkward running poses, while one of the film’s most memorable characters — Tony Shalhoub’s Jeebs — was confined behind a desk, forever condemned to explode and reassemble his own head. The paint jobs were weak, the accessories were non-existent, and the likenesses were beyond pitiful. The tragedy is that future toy lines for the later sequels would rectify most of these problems, but c’mon, have you seen Men in Black II? Yikes.
WTF Figure: Vincent D’Onofrio’s Edgar is unrecognizable, a lurching green shape that holds a shotgun. This is a character that transforms throughout the entire film, and the designers apparently attempted to catch all that with a figure that appears as if he’s caught in the midst of being fast-forwarded — on VHS, no less.
MIA: The film’s accompanying bendable line cleaned house on some of the surrounding aliens, but how about Zed? Or Agent L? Or Frank the Dog? Nah, we’re good with this Rock Em Sock Em Jay-Alien thingy. Actually, I’d like to imagine that some fan out there still revisits that thing on rainy, boring days with their friends. “Hey guys, I got something we could do…” ::groans abound::
3. Superman Returns
Lots of folks hated on Bryan Singer’s 2006 sequel/reboot of the Superman series for its slow pace and somber tone. Fair enough. I actually loved the film for those very reasons — it had a cosmic dreaminess about it that suited Clark Kent’s existential crisis — but no such seriousness was found in DC’s action figure line. Where as Brandon Routh’s muscles were realistic and subtle in the same vein as Christopher Reeve’s, the toys made him comically ripped. His shoulders are so disproportionate and bulky, it’s as if the arms came from an entirely separate mold than the rest of the figure. Maybe DC was trying to save face with their fans, making up for the film’s lack of campiness and fun.
WTF Figure: If we’re being honest, Lex Luthor has never been the most physically imposing character, not to mention his repeated appearances had made him a tired villain by the time Superman Returns was released. But Kevin Spacey brought palpable snark, charisma, and menace to the role, all of which went out the window with an action figure that looked like Uncle Fester.
MIA: Other than Superman and Luthor, pretty much everyone. Okay, it’s not like we need a Jimmy Olsen figure or anything, but what about Lois Lane or, better yet, Parker Posey’s demented turn as Luthor’s parasitic henchwoman, Kitty Kowalski? Neither of them are to be found, with DC opting instead for a laughable number of Superman figures in different boring scenarios: changing out of his Clark-Kent clothes, lifting up a broken statue, lifting up building wreckage of The Daily Planet, lifting up a delivery truck of The Daily Planet, and more lifting up of things.
2. Demolition Man
Nobody was demanding an action figure lineup for Sylvester Stallone’s sci-fi action vehicle Demolition Man. (In hindsight, the SEGA and SNES games were more than enough; a fun afternoon side-scroller that captured the film’s thrills.) But hey, Warner Bros. wanted to capitalize where the similarly R-rated Terminator franchise bankrolled on, and so, Mattel re-painted their old He-Man sculpts and delivered six-inch copies of John Spartan, Simon Phoenix, and Edgar Friendly. To nobody’s surprise, the figure line flopped, but for good reason: Unlike Kenner’s flawed yet successful T2 figure line, Mattel didn’t capture anything that made Demolition Man exciting. They ignored the future set pieces, the cryogenic tubes, and all of the future cars. And sadly, they left it up to Planet Hollywood to produce a proper naked Sly Stallone to behold.
WTF Figure: Edgar Friendly. Could you imagine seeing this interpretation of Denis Leary doing the entire No Cure for Cancer special? Someone with clever skills in stop-motion animation has a new hurdle to jump.
MIA: Sandra Bullock’s Lenina Huxley would have been far more vital than having a figure of Edgar, but you know, she’s a girl and all, so yuck, right? Let’s just say she avoided a catastrophe, though this one remains a mystery…
1. Mission: Impossible
Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible proved to be exactly that for whoever handled the film’s merchandising back in 1996. Not only did its companion video game shit the bed — quickly becoming one of the worst titles to ever hit the N64, which was pretty hard given the sea of awfulness at the time — but the action figure line failed in every possible way, too. To be fair, the post-Cold War spy thriller didn’t exactly scream for plastic — that is, unless you walked out dying for a Vanessa Redgrave figure — but never has a line actually admitted such defeat. Tradewinds Toys commissioned three separate Ethan Hunt figures, all over-muscled, oversized, and over-joyed, and literally nothing else, which leads to the question: What the hell were kids supposed to do with these? Outside of treating a spare Egon Spengler figure as Jim Phelps or maybe a Mondo Gecko as Job, there’s little else anyone can do with these. Well, that’s not true; the accompanying rubber masks provided quite the resource for those looking to make custom Michael Myers figures. This writer included.
WTF Figure: The entire line. That’s not hyperbolic. Look above again.
MIA: Everyone not named Ethan Hunt. The missions, too.
Thanks to Mike Mignola’s evocatively angular artwork, toy companies started putting out Hellboy merchandise almost as soon as the first story arc, Seed of Destruction, was finished — I’ve had a bust of the titular hero on my desk since I was a kid. So when the film was announced, I was a little skeptical of its inevitable figurines. There had already been killer Hellboy toys based on the comic series for years. Would a more realistic, cinematic take look any good?
Mezco, who had been been putting out the stylized comic figures all along, answered with a resounding “yes.” The first film saw a highly detailed rendition of everyone’s favorite cat-loving, pancake-eating, doom-handed superhero, a textured sculpt that combined the shadows and sharp lines of Mignola’s art with the cement-truck presence of Ron Perlman. But Mezco’s true masterpiece came with the second film, as they gave equally meticulous treatments to the supporting cast, including Goblin, Johann Krauss, and an 18-inch Abe Sabien.
Essential Figure: Sometimes, the protagonist of a film makes for the most boring action figure of the line. But no collection would be complete without a toy of Red himself, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army’s “Wounded” seven-inch is the best one of the bunch. The flexible trench coat, pained smirk, and big-ass gun are all hallmarks of the character. The way Perlman’s red right hand hangs at his side tells us that, as tired as he is, he still has one more monster fight left in him.
The Rare Grab: It’s no surprise that “Battle-Damaged Hellboy” (aka the one with full horns) is so hard to find. The evil version of the hero only makes a brief appearance in the first film and is already a variant on the series’ most popular character, making it an action figure prime for up-selling. And up-sell it did — the 18-inch version (a Tower Records exclusive back in 2007) goes for over $300 these days.
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Sadly, Professor Jones has always lived in the shadow of his galactic brethren, Star Wars. However, you can’t fault Lucasfilm for trying back in 1981. Upon the release of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kenner supplied the swashbuckling hero with an impressive line of action figures, and while it could never be as expansive as the Star Wars universe, the company went deep into the cast. In addition to the obvious choices like Indy, Belloq, and Sallah, sculptors also carved out Marion Ravenwood, Toht, the Cairo Swordsman, the German Mechanic, and even Indy disguised as German officer. There was also an impressive series of play sets — from the Well of Souls to the Map Room — and a couple of vehicles to expand on the film’s adventures. The problem was always this: What would you rather have, a horse or the Millennium Falcon? Exactly.
Essential Figure: Nobody walked out of the aisle without at least looking at Indiana Jones. Fans could exchange between a quick draw revolver and a crackling whip! Still, that Map Room, featuring a robed Indy, was quite a grab, too.
The Rare Grab: Marion Ravenwood, of course. Outside of Princess Leia, she might be one of the earliest examples of a female character surfacing as an action figure. She even came with the monkey — pre-bad dates.
3. The Lord of the Rings
Aside from a quirky one-off series as well as a sparse (and admittedly pretty silly) line of toys based on the 1978 animated adaptation, there had never really been any Lord of the Rings action figures. Not until 2001, that is. Part of the excitement of Peter Jackson’s trilogy was seeing J.R.R. Tolkien’s world expanded beyond the written page, fleshed out into kick-ass films, kick-ass video games, and, of course, kick-ass toys. The latter task initially fell to Toy Biz (now Marvel Toys), who distributed faithful six-inch versions of pretty much the entire cast. These ranged from major players such as Frodo and Aragorn to that one orc who looks like Mason Verger.
Like any successful action figure franchise, the success came from the high amount of creative detail. The generously oversized Gollum came with two different heads — a smiling one for Smeagol and a snarling one for the evil that had overtaken him — and the Nazgul had an extra piece of plastic lining the hood, ensuring that it would never fold in on the wraith’s non-existent head. That’s dedication, folks.
Essential Figure: For my money, the first Sauron was the biggest, baddest, and most accurate figure in the ToyBiz line. Best of all, his voice had the same rasp and hellfire as it did in the film, and his eyes lit up when he talked!
The Rare Grab: The one major character never produced by Toy Biz was the fiery Balrog. Luckily, NECA was there to pick up the slack, crafting a whopping four-and-a-half-foot-tall flame demon that accurately towered over Toy Biz’s six-inch Gandalf (as in the movie, the wizard came up to the beast’s knees). Unluckily, it sold out quicker than you can say “Mellon,” and now runs for $349.95 (used!) on eBay.
Bottom line: Nobody was ever going to make figures based on Alien 3. David Fincher’s dreary sequel avoided the adventurous hope of James Cameron’s blockbuster sequel, Aliens, and revisited the dark malaise of Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film. But 20th Century Fox still had a franchise on their hands, one that was curiously popular with young kids despite the hard R-rating (clearly an attribute of ’90s kids), and so they hit up Kenner to produce a line that would keep the Alien brand alive, even if backpedaled from the 1992 sequel to its 1986 predecessor. Thank god.
The result was one of the most exciting collections of action figures to ever flood the pegs, all led by a punky looking Ripley, who fashioned a shooting flame thrower and kept fresh by an endless supply of intriguing xenomorphs. Sure, the Bishop figure looked nothing like Lance Henrickson, but that didn’t matter when you had acceptable renditions of Hicks, Apone, and Drake. Fans who stuck around long enough were able to eventually find Hudson, O’Malley, and the lovely Vasquez. Thanks to a few sensible vehicles — ahem, a power loader — kids across the nation were screaming, “Game over, man” every afternoon.
Essential Figure: It depends. Ripley was probably everyone’s first figure from this line (this writer included), but the Queen Alien was quite elusive earlier on. It was also technically the truest figure to the film, outside of maybe the Warrior Alien.
The Rare Grab: Vasquez. They were always going to make a Ripley figure; no way around that. But the fact that they made another female character just goes to show how expansive and honest this series was to the source material.
1. Star Wars
The one that started it all! Of course, action figures were around long before Luke Skywalker stared off into the twin suns of Tatooine, but never to this capacity. Back in 1977, the demand for Star Wars merchandise was unprecedented; so much so that Kenner had to sell empty boxes that Christmas to offset the millions of requests. Since then, however, the appeal has evolved into a religion of sorts, from outrageous collectors to die-hard fans to newcomers who weren’t even born when the prequels hit theaters over a decade ago. One might argue the term “action figure” is synonymous with Star Wars. They’d be right.
But there’s a reason for all of this: It’s a self-aware toy line. Even back in the ’70s, when it was only the original film, Kenner issued every character, vehicle, and play set that kids could dream up. By the time The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi hit theaters years later, it was next to impossible to own every figure. These days? It would take a… yeah, actually, it can’t happen. It’s too expansive. Naturally, this has been a source of parody for many critics — after all, they made a figure of George Lucas for Christ’s sake — but they’re the only ones laughing. At this point, the fans are either retired or still hungry.
I stopped long ago, but I still find myself drawn to the aisles, marveling at the to-scale Millennium Falcoln or the way Hasbro has since found a perfect bridge to recreate the novelty of the original lineups with the likenesses of its more modern sculpts. With Episode VII a year away, I’m terrified to think of how many times I’ll be visiting Target, Wal-Mart, or even CVS to find an elder Han Solo, a scruffy Luke Skywalker, or whoever Oscar Isaac is playing. Star Wars is the reason I obsessed (or obsess) over toys, and it’s probably the only reason we’re even talking about any of these other lines.
Think of it this way: The franchise outlived its creator, Kenner.
Essential Figure: Talk about a Sophie’s Choice for toy collectors. The truth is there is no essential figure, but if you had to go with one item, it would have to be the Early Bird Certificate Package. This set included Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca — no doubt essentials to any collection. Personally, however, I would have to go for Bespin Han Solo or Jedi Knight Outfit Luke Skywalker, but to each their own.
The Rare Grab: Boba Fett. He’s an obvious choice now, but back in the ’80s, he was the diciest villain to own. He couldn’t be found on the pegs either and required five proofs of purchase to be mailed in. Needless to say, owners of the Fett were the cool kids on the block.