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Movie Masters Joker

The Dark Knight
by yo go re

Is it possible that Mattel is actually learning from their mistakes? In 2005, their Batman Begins figures were the failure of the summer: undersized, underarticulated and over-ordered, they clogged shelves and presaged the even bigger cock-up that was 2006's Superman Returns. Seriously, the phrase "colossal blunder" springs to mind. And now they're doing gimmicky 5" figures again, for The Dark Knight. So how does that translate as them learning their lesson? Because they're releasing a collector-friendly line right alongside those pieces of crap.

­The line is called Movie Masters - honestly, what is it with Mattel and terrible names for thier toylines? First it was DC Universe Classics, then DC Infinite Heroes, and now Movie Masters? Every one of them an unpleasant mouthful. Marvel Legends, DC Superheroes... those are names that roll off the tongue! Whoever's naming these things either needs to be fired, or reassigned somewhere he can't do any more harm.

The Movie Masters figures are distinctly different than the "real" movie line, going so far as to even have their own packaging. This isn't a case like Hasbro's Star Wars figures, where the Thirtieth Anniversary Collection and the Saga Legends look the same and share identical packaging, so that the only actual division of product that exists is in Hasbro's internal bookkeeping (while retailers and fans alike continue to treat the two as interchangeable) - the Movie Masters are a full inch larger, better detailed, have different accessories and even different packaging. While the kiddie figures are sold on standard boring blister cards, the nice six-inchers have blocky purple packages with a 3D chunk taken out of the top. It's not the most amazing packaging ever, but it does look nice and show off the figure well. There's a big picture of the figure on the back, but no bio text.

There are three figures in the line: Batman, a goon, and the current king of rarity, the Joker. We don't know yet what the Joker's origin is going to be in the movie (or if they're going to show it at all), but we do know that the make-up is incredibly creepy and has been freaking us all out since it was first revealed in May of 2007. The Dark Knight has used an aggressive (and successful) viral marketing campaign, much of it focused on the Joker's own brand of madness, so that twisted visage has already become an iconic bit of cinema.

Movie Masters Joker Joker's costume is classic: he's wearing a purple coat and gloves, pin-striped purple pants, and a green vest and tie. Really, this wouldn't even look out of place on Cesar Romero's tame version of the Joker. Apparently there was some discussion, early in pre-production, of making Joker look grungy and homeless, but obviously they decided to restrict the ugliness to his head - the better to create visual contrast, of course.

The Four Horsemen handled the sculpt, so Joker's clothes all look great. Check out the fine detail on his shoes, for instance - the laces even get a separate paint app! His vest bunches up around the buttons, and he's even got a fully sculpted chain at his waist - probably for a pocket watch (unless he keeps his wallet on a chain with all those thugs around). The buttons on his coat are soft and indistinct, but that's just nitpicking: this is another great 4H sculpt.

Joker's likeness is good, but not spectacular. If you have him standing directly under a strong light, all the shapes and wrinkles are apparent, but under normal lighting conditions, that white makeup just flattens everything out. Personally, I would have liked to see the jagged texture of his lips and cheeks be pushed a bit further, to really sell how disgusting and unnatural it is. It really needed to be more exaggerated so that the detail doesn't get lost at this small size - or maybe more complex paint apps, but that would create an all-new batch of problems.

The figure's biggest flaw is the paint apps. Below the neck, it's mostly fine: there, the only noteworthy problem is that the lavender lining of his coat spills onto the front a little too much. Oh noes, what will we do with ourselves?! They even remembered the bronze panels in the back of the coat, an app that would have been easy to skip. His pinstripes are crisp, and the unique silver of his chain hasn't transferred onto anything else. There are a few subtle brown apps on the outside of his coat to make it look lived-in, and the patterns on his shirt and tie are nice, as well.

Above the neck, however, things go to pot. As we said above, the face is flat white, with no kind of wash to help the sculpt "pop." The grey around his eyes doesn't exactly have a harsh edge, but it is fairly conservative. His side-swept hair is a nice muddled green and yellow, but his ear is delineated with a simple orange squiggle. His mouth is red only right on the actual slit, rather than spreading out onto the lips, as it should. A line of paint that should be short and hazy, leading up his cheek toward his nose, is instead a solid red line. Meanwhile, there's a huge red smudge on the left side of his face that doesn't seem to relate to the sculpt at all.

Now, obviously we don't expect the production figure to look like the prototype shown on the back, but after seeing how nice that looked, you can only dream of what this one might have been. Still, it beats the hell out of the 5" version, which doesn't even have room to sculpt the scars: it's really simplified, and counts on paint and haircut to get its point across. This one is much better.

Joker stands an even 6" tall, which is good (Heath Ledger was 6'1"), but ends up looking undersized since DCSH are always about ½" too tall. Unless you just stand your figures next to each other in a lineup, though, you'll never notice. What you will notice, however, is that he could use more articulation. He's got a balljointed head, balljointed shoulders, hinge elbows, swivel wrists, swivel waist, post-balljoint hips, swivel thighs, hinge knees and hinged ankles - no rockers. The waist is mostly restricted by the vest, and some of the leg joints were stuck, but at least that's not a design issue. As always, Mattel only gives their figures single hinges at the elbows and knees: that's fine for big characters, but on a normal human-sized guy, double joints are always better. And why aren't there any sort of biceps? If a plain swivel is good enough for the legs, it's good enough for the arms.

What's really weird, though, is the head. In an effort to capture that "looking at you through his brows" thing, Joker is sculpted with a bit of a hunch. And just like Azrael, he can't look up. Even with his had tilted back as far as it will go, his face is still pointed at the ground. On top of that, his neck has a bit of a twist, so if you position the head level, it will still be cocked off to the side; in order to capture the figure's "natural" pose, you have to have his head tilted and pointed down. I get what they were going for, and it does look nice in that position, but doesn't that defeat the point of having a balljointed head? Put it on straight, and let us move it to that pose ourselves.

Joker has three accessories: or rather, one accessory and two extras. The only bit he can use is a small knife, which he clutches gingerly in his left hand. It's actually about ¾" long, and rubberbanded to his hand in the package, so it shouldn't get lost before you get to it. Each of the Movie Masters figures also comes with "crime scene evidence" - basically, some piece of junk and a ziplock bag. Joker's evidence is the best in the series: it's the joker card Lieutenant Gordon showed Batman at the end of the first film. The baggie has a red Gotham PD evidence tag on it, but if it's supposed to seal the bag, shouldn't it cover the zipper? Since the card and bag are sized for human beings, not the toy, expect to see a lot of low-rent Jokers carrying them when they're cosplaying at the conventions this summer.

Right now, the Joker is the hardest Movie Master to find (ignoring the Batman variant for the moment). If you buy the hype, the figure either sold out within minutes or cancelled outright (though that second option is just the result of confusion). Yeah, this one's tough to find, but it's also incredibly shortpacked: add to that the short-term rise in interest any dead celebrity action figures undergo, and you have a recipe for rarity. Hopefully things will even out soon.

Reading through this review, we have a lot of complaints about the figure: articulation isn't good enough, the paint is unreliable, the sculpt is soft, the pack-ins are stupid... you'd think this was the worst toy released this year. But quite the contrary! If you can find this Joker, you shouldn't hesitate to pick him up. Yes, there are problems with the figure, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a very good representation of Heath Ledger's Joker, and makes me hope that the Movie Masters line might go back and re-do some of the villains from the first movie. Some of the civilians, too. If they're as good as this, we'll have a great collection. We often wonder what it takes for a company to start recognizing its mistakes and taking steps to correct them. In Mattel's case, it seems the answer is "two big failures."

-- 05/14/08

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