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::