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Superman vs. Muhammad Ali

by yo go re

In 1978, DC Comics released a "Treasury Edition" comic pitting the Man of Tomorrow against the Greatest of All Time. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was 72 pages long and bigger than the average comic. It took so long to do that by the time it came out, Ali was no longer world champion (though when he regained the title a few months later, he used the opportunity to tell everyone to go out and buy his comic). The comic was viewed as something of a joke when it came out, but now it's such a classic that NECA has released a set of action figures based on the story.

In the red corner: wearing cape and blue tights, from the planet Krypton... Kal-El, fighting as - Superman!

Man, never underestimate NECA's ability to skirt legal obstacles. And also, never ask us to explain how they do it. They don't have the rights to make 7" toys based on DC properties, but they can get the rights to a videogame and, through some sort of dark necromancy, parlay that into a squeaking-through-the-loopholes movie version. That's simple enough. But this figure is directly and emphatically based on the comics. Well, a specific comic. And it's released by NECA, not by WB Home Entertainment or anything - so how, when the DC Comics license is already confusingly sliced up between Mattel and DC Direct, did NECA manage to make this? We don't know, but we're glad they did.

Unsurprisingly, this figure is based on their 2015 Christopher Reeve Superman - after all, if you already have the tooling for a 7" figure you could barely release in the first place, you don't go to the expense of tooling an almost-identical one the next time the opportunity presents itself. [Robocop and the Terminator would disagree with you --ed.] It's not a perfect choice, because Christopher Reeve was a scrawny little matchstick of a human being, while Neal Adams' art made Superman as muscular as he should be. But in a case like this, you take what you can get.

Like NECA's TMNT figures, Superman shows his comic origins via paint. Not only are his colors bolder than the movie toy's, he's got solid black shadows meant to evoke comicbook inking. This is really nice, as it not only helps suggest the robust physique that Christopher Reeve's wan and willowy body could not, it also makes this Superman toy look fully distinct from any other Superman toy you may already own - no double dipping!

Keeping this from being just a fancy repaint, the toy gets a new head. It's a comic-based look, with a broad, square jaw, high cheeks, and a little spit-curl on the forehead. Matching the body, the head has stylized paint, including blue highlights in his hair and solid black under his chin. But why, we must ask, are his eyes simply thin black slits?

The figure moves at the ankles, knees, thighs, hips, waist, wrists, elbows, shoulders and neck, so it's not as flexible as most comicbook toys, but it's decent - you can get him into most poses you'd want. The cape (which, according to the story, he was allowed to wear into the ring because otherwise the two fighters would have been too similar for the alien spectators to tell apart) is softgoods, with a yellow S in the middle. He has the same fists and flat hands as before, but in the package is wearing a pair of black boxing gloves. It would have been neat if NECA had included one of their display stands so he could fly, but then, for a lot of the story he didn't have his powers.

Okay, so that's nice and all. But let's get to the star of this show!

In the blue corner: wearing white trunks, from Louisville, Kentucky... a true genius of the ring and champion of the people - Muhammad Ali!

Born Cassius Clay Jr., Ali began training as a boxer at age 12, and at 18 won a gold medal at the Olympics. Four years later he defeated world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, despite 7-to-1 odds against him. In 1966, he refused to be drafted to Vietnam ("I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger."), so boxing's governing bodies stripped him of his title and suspended his boxing license, depriving him of his prime years as an athlete; in 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, and he spent the next three years working his way back to the championship. (As a side note, when Ali died in 2016, many of the same commentators who praised his bravery and conviction in refusing to go to war were the same ones tearing down Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, proving that some people just can't recognize the right side of history until it's well behind them.)

Ali is just as much of a reused figure as Superman is: below the neck, he uses the same body as Rocky, which means he has the same articulation; a balljointed head, swivel/hinge shoulders and elbows, balljointed wrists, balljointed torso, swivel/hinge hips, swivel thighs, swivel/hinge knees and ankles, and hinged toes. If you read the comic, there are several montages that show Ali in various boxing stances, and the toy can get into any of them with some work. It's still nearly impossible to get the hips moving, since they're concealed inside the trunks, and I don't want to force it because there's already a small rip appearing at the lower edge of one of the legs. There had to be a better way to do the hips.

It's weird to think of Sylvester Stallone as being "small," but it's clear the reason NECA chose this body for Ali rather than using Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, or Ivan Drago is because it's the most slender one available. It's definitely big enough to suit Ali, who stood 6'3" in real life and 6¾" as this toy. He gets the same comic-styled cel shading as Superman, though his underlying skintone seems too dark: it's very brown, more than Ali's skin in real life, and also more than his skin in the book. He's wearing his classic white trunks with black edging, and there are blue shadows painted alongside the thick black wrinkles.

The head is new, and it seems to have a fairly good likeness, though it's hard to tell the full accuracy thanks to the heavy shadows painted on it. Like Supes, he gets paler highlights along the front of his hairline, and tiny little eyes that are nothing more than slits. Is he sleepwalking through this fight? The shadows on his brow make him look very determined.

The champ gets no accessories, not even alternate hands. But honestly, what could they have possibly given him? What could he possibly need? This is a guy who, in real life, dodged 21 punches in 10 seconds - are we sure he needed a red sun to take on Superman? His skill is pure physicality, no extras required.

The figures are sold in a window box that has graphics designed to look like the famous cover of the comic, minus all the celebrity cameos. The original artist for the book was going to be Joe Kubert, but Ali's camp didn't like his "rough" style, so the job passed to Neal Adams. Adams kept the layout Kubert had created for the cover, but replaced the crowd of generic mobster-types with the biggest names the early '70s had to offer (so many that there was even an identification key inside). The backdrop features a starry expanse of space and the yellow ropes enclosing the ring - to make the figures look like they're in the ring, the ropes are also present on the clear front window.

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is a ridiculous premise, but it truly is an excellent comic, featuring possibly the best work Neal Adams has ever done. Just like Edge of Tomorrow is the perfect movie whether you love or hate Tom Cruise, this comic is perfect whether you love or hate Superman: if you're a fan, you get to see him doing amazing, heroic things that show off his incredible strength; if you're not a fan, you get to watch him get brutally pummeled. It's been almost 40 years since the book was published, but it's only risen in estimation since then. And now thanks to NECA, you can re-create it at home.

-- 03/22/17

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