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Points of Articulation

Rustin Parr

In many ways the 1980s were truly the golden years of action figure-dom. They might not have had the massive hype or the "Gen-X" expendable cash of the '90s, but they were definitely the decade when toys were finally becoming something a bit more than just kiddie things. Sculpts were improving, product categories were wide and varied - hell, toylines launched cartoon shows back then, not the other way around. One such franchise was Mattel's own Masters of the Universe, universally better known as "He-Man" after its lead protagonist.

MotU combines pretty much every element boys are interested in (swords, laser guns, monsters, space ships, medieval times, monsters, action, humor, monsters - basically if Luke Skywalker and Conan had a horribly grotesque love affair their bastard discharge would be He-Man) and was hugely popular for its time. However, such a concept can get dated very easily and its appeal did not carry over to younger generations, leaving the franchise kaput before the end of the decade. However, the kids that loved He-Man grew up and fostered the nostalgia boom of aught-zero, making the return of the Man that is "He-" imminent.

2002 brought the relaunch of MotU, spurred mostly by the now-industry-renowned Four Horsemen Design Group. (That line we covered fairly extensively here on the site, but if there are any questions be sure to hit up the forum and pester yo and Poe, the resident Eterni-nuts) That line is still in the back of many collectors' minds, as it stands firmly in the upper echelons of Worst-Managed Toyline Ever. The designs and sculpts (i.e. what the Four Horsemen directly handled) were, and still are, amazing - but the execution of the figures, under-painted and way under-articulated, mixed with the insane case packs (five He-Men and one other character in a six-figure case?) rendered the line impotent. Many of us contend that Mattel was actively trying to kill the line, that they went out their way to make such horrible decisions. Demand for product remained strong among fans though, and once the figure line ended Mattel allowed the Horsemen to make mini-statues done in the same scale as the action figures of additional MotU characters. These statues were completely managed by the Four Horsemen, released by NECA, and put into perfect contrast what the figures/line could have been had the sculpts been treated with respect. Sadly, though, the statue line ran out of steam and ended, but Mattel had something up their sleeve.

Mattel was the first major toy company to jump onto the Convention Exclusive bandwagon, and the horrendous handling of exclusives forced me to coin a new term for exceptional aggression and frustration: "getting Matteled." [why not tell them what it really means? --ed.] They have gotten somewhat more capable over the years at disseminating their exclusives, with 2008 being the most tolerable yet, but they've had no real reason to. Their exclusives are usually pretty cool and therefore hotly desired meaning people will buy them no matter what, and in the world of limited editions - the harder it is to get, the more the collector desires it. In a lot of ways Mattel learned right away that this new-fangled "collector market" (yes, to them [as most big companies] the collector market is "new" as they didn't acknowledge its existence 'til 2002, really) was a great way to pump in tons of revenue: all they had to do was pop on a new head (Keldor, Unmasked Batman, effectively Lobo) or new paint ('03 He-Man, Silver Age Batman, Albino Man-Bat [though the mass version of the figure ultimately got placed on indefinite hold]) and suddenly they could get two or three times the SRP from people. It is was lesson taken strongly to heart and the impetus in creating the "shocking new revelation" that is Mattel's direct sales site. A concept so revolutionary McFarlane Toys was doing it in the '90s.

To inaugurate in the site, they posted the remainder of the 2008 SDCC exclusives as the first items for purchase and used the opportunity to launch their all new He-Man line: Masters of the Universe Classics. A response to the continued fan interest in new MotU product and the tremendous success that appears to be DC Universe Classics, MotUC was touted as the long-requested line that delivers He-Man figures in the 6" scale with more articulation and better paint. "Huzzah and hurray" we cried in anticipation! And to kick it all off: SDCC exclusive King Grayskull!

Nostalgia is a fickle mistress, as we remember through the proverbial rose-tinted glasses. We seek to garner that warm fuzzy feeling for ourselves by reintroducing ourselves to that which pleased us in our youth. The problem is perception: as we age, so do our opinions and what was once fun or neat rarely maintains that same sensibility years later. For nostalgia to really flourish, that which we remember needs to be reinvented to a certain degree, to maintain what was engaging but to rework it into a new package so that it is at once old and new. That is where NECA has succeeded with their comicbook TMNT toyline and where Mattel fails miserably with MotUC. It's not the muscular/cartoony aesthetic that made He-Man popular, but its imaginative designs and gimmicks for its characters. What Mattel/Horsemen has done here is try to bring the '80s-ness to the forefront, sacrificing the uniqueness that characters could have.

'80s versus '00s is the quintessential battle in the He-Man collecting community. There are camps that are fervently impassioned about one aesthetic while loathing the other. The "classic" look is a-proportional, overtly muscle-bound and designed with the character's play-gimmick as the first thought and general aesthetic as the second. The "modern" look is slender, very techno oriented/detailed and designed with overall aesthetic first in mind and the play gimmick second. Suffice to say, your author is admittedly a fan of the modern look over the classic. But the real issue when it comes to MotUC is: how many fans are there of the classic aesthetic?

Mattel took a big gamble with this line, and not in the fashion that they're thinking. The gamble to them is, "can we do an online/collector line that's successful?" when in reality it's the style of figures that will undoubtedly be the biggest risk. Responding to criticism of the Modern Aesthetic, "they" kicked it back old school, when I think most of us were expecting and hoping for more of a hybrid between the two lines. I understand the intrinsic value of going "classic" in that, much like the original line, it will allow for the reuse and lots of body parts, keeping production costs low - but also lowering the perceived value of these $20 figures, which will effectively just be repaints and kitbashes on the whole. On top of all that, they've ended up with a look that simply fails to capture the enthusiasm or desire that such a line needs in order to be fully successful.

Even if one didn't like the modern aesthetic everyone was still pretty interested in seeing how the Horsemen re-envisioned many of the characters and often grew to like them on their own merits. However, by effectively taking a step backward in overall design, Mattel has crafted a line that will only cater to the fans of the original toys, the ones who value those over all else. Effectively, MotU Classics has no crossover appeal. There is nothing to it that will bring in new buyers, like the '02 reboot did (it brought in me, after all).

Therefore, the real challenge Mattel has set for itself is generating interest in figures that are effectively nothing but pure nostalgia, with no real new influence or freshness mixed in, and they are about to find that they have grossly overestimated how many "classic" MotU fans there are. Especially when they are banking entirely on people interested in buying the toys finding the website and being willing to spend $20 plus shipping per figure. Brick-and-mortar sales still outdo (read: dwarf) online sales, so when Mattel is already complaining about the cost of low-run variant figures for their DCU Classics, do they really expect this small market of pure-blood He-Man-ites to meet the quantities necessary to keep the line afloat?

Effectively, Mattel has really set an incredible uphill battle for themselves, and not in a plucky underdog Mr. Smith Goes to Washington way. High pricepoints, limited distribution and howlingly dull sculpts all conspire to make this a very underwhelming entry in the world of action figures. But then again, perhaps it's all part of the general management plan to keep Masters of the Universe a poorly managed property.

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