The PoP! Stars give their take on the latest and greatest in Action Figures and Toy Lines in eight (succinct) parts.
The ’80s were a time when every property conceivable received a toy line. The ’90s were marked by many short lived outings and a handful of unstoppable juggernauts. But the new millennium has brought us a renaissance within the toy world, and below are eight of the lines that have helped reshape the toy industry as we know it.
Star Wars (Hasbro)
The presence of Star Wars on this list may seem a bit dubious. The modern release of figures started in ’95, after all. But it was in ’99/’00 that Hasbro dropped the Kenner branding from the line and released the first wave of Phantom Menace toys. The body styles had been changed from the earlier offerings, and the line had found its footing. There really wasn’t anything radically unusual about this line, but Hasbro got a few key components right. First, they upped the articulation on these newer figures over previous offerings, and have continued to add articulation whenever and wherever possible. Second, they’ve utilized the strategy Kenner had applied to its original Power of the Force line by ensuring every character – no matter how insignificant to the overall story – gets featured in plastic eventually. Finally, the Star Wars line is one of the few action figure lines to feature vehicles. Lots and lots of vehicles. All taken together, it is a line that is both fun for kids while being perfectly suited to collectors. Troop builders, store exclusives, and limited release figures drive the secondary market while youngsters have access to more than enough Darth Vaders and R2-D2′s to keep them happy.
Speaking of youngsters, one of the decade’s most unique toy lines was geared almost directly at the kid market with the advent of Bionicles. When Lego decided to get into the action figure market, they turned the toy world on its ear. Here’s a Lego set you build like any other; once completed, however, you’re left with an action figure complete with weapons and built in play features. To fuel the hype even further, Bionicles have featured from the onset a degree of inter-connectivity (above and beyond that of simply being building blocks) allowing you to create new, more powerful creatures as you complete the line. Bionicles have followed a fairly simple formula, as well. By and large, each wave is six figures, each representing a different element, accompanied by one or two big box sets. Its marketing genius at its purest, and a couple of animated adventures and video games along the way haven’t hurt sales, either.
Marvel Legends (Toy Biz/Hasbro)
One of the few action figure lines to successfully navigate the ’90s was Toy Biz’s X-Men line. Based on the success of the comic and Fox cartoon, the line thrived early on. As sales started to slip, however, the powers that be turned to gimmick laden waves in an attempt to rejuvenate their former star performer. Eventually, Toy Biz was forced to give up the ghost on the X-Men line. It wouldn’t be long, however, till they were back in business – first with Spider-Man Classics and shortly thereafter with Marvel Legends – the line that would define the company for years. Marvel Legends offered intricate sculpts, detailed paint applications, and absurd amounts of articulation, all at a reasonable price, and all capped off with a comic book showcasing the figure you were getting and either a character specific stand or flight/jump base. Seriously, at roughly seven dollars apiece on average, these figures were amazing! The heightened articulation raised the bar for all toy lines, and when the company took a cue from Bionicles and started including BAF pieces with each individual figure, they started a new trend that would sweep across the action figure world. The line exists to this day, though it seems to be on its last far-less-articulated-leg, now helmed by Hasbro. Still… if you bought action figures within the last ten years, you more than likely bought at least one Marvel Legends figure.
Minimates (Art Asylum)
I’ve covered these precocious little playthings before, but they deserve to be revisited for this list. Minimates are two-inch tall figures that span across numerous comic book, movie, and pop-culture properties to offer enthusiasts a chance to display figures of some of the most unlikely characters side by side. What do Spider-Man, Speed Racer, and Madonna all have in common? They all know that size doesn’t matter, because they’ve each been made into plastic avatars at the two inch scale. Minimates are the only place you can buy Captain America and Batman figures from the same company since Toy Biz lost the DC license in the early ’90s. And, because Minimates come apart and fit together so easily, it’s no Herculean task to create Captain Batmerica or the Invisible Power Girl. What’s more, Minimates are priced to move and perfectly sized for even the most cramped display space! By uniting multiple brands under a single line with many appealing attributes, Art Asylum has ensured their Minimates a lasting place in the annuls of toydom. As long as there are properties to miniaturize, there’s a damn good chance there’ll be Minimates to be had.
Transformers Masterpiece (Takara/Hasbro)
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Minimates is the Takara/Hasbro joint, the Transformers Masterpiece line. Hyper articulated and detailed figures of some of the best loved Transformers, the Masterpiece figures are the first and only transformable toys to date that so perfectly capture the G1 stylings of Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream, and now Grimlock. Ranging from approximately 10″ – 12″ tall and loaded with character specific accessories, each of these massive figures is a paragon of action figure evolution. Priced between $60 and $150 and with only one to two releases a year, they’re not prohibitively expensive either. Takara and Hasbro have carried forward their policy of repainting and repackaging figures, as well, leading to the release of all three Seekers and Optimus Prime’s would-be successor, Ultra Magnus. Cheap money for the manufacturer’s, more figures for the fans. These figures have been so well received that an entire line of after-market upgrades has emerged, with offerings from Starscream’s crown and cape from the ’86 animated film to Prime’s venerable trailer. The Masterpiece line has redefined how far fans are willing to go for the perfect representations of their favorite characters.
Switching gears yet again, we move to future Figure 8er HeroClix. What’s that you say? These are pieces to a collectible table top game, not action figures!? I’ll cede that there’s no poseability or play features here, but that doesn’t mean there’s no action. The game of HeroClix involves internalizing the table top role playing experience by offering built in stat trackers with each figurine. Like Minimates, these beauties are small enough to have tons of them, they’re insanely detailed for their size, and they’re just plain fun. This is a toy that begs to be played with, and just like a good collectible card game like Pokemon, mystery boxed figures mean collecting and trading to build your army as you see fit. HeroClix spanned a number of unrelated properties and spawned the offshoot HorrorClix. Both the parent line and the HorrorClix are still going strong, now under the direction of NECA.
This entry is unique for a reason. Instead of focusing on a single line, I’m focusing on a corporate strategy from a major company. As I said in my intro, the ’80s and early ’90s saw toy lines based on just about every conceivable property, no matter how ludicrous. Lee Rodriguez has pointed out the insanity of Robocop and Aliens toys aimed at children. And while I may never have had a Clarence Bodecker figure as a child with push button activated “Leave bitches!” voice chip, I did have homicidal police bot ED-209 and a bevy of lay-eggs-in-your-stomach-via-pseudo-sexual-oral-rape face huggers. When the ’90s progressed and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers clogged most of 7C, these toy properties vanished. Sure, things like Toy Story and Small Soldiers would see articulated release, but they were short on shelf space and even shorter on shelf life.
McFarlane Toys took a chance, however, and began releasing figures of popular video games like Metal Gear Solid, popular movies like the Matrix, and even popular athletes from a plethora of different sports. It was this effort that reawakened the creative spirit in the toy industry and paved the way for similar themed toy lines emerging today. While McFarlane still leads this trend, NECA, SOTA, and others have all jumped on the bandwagon to brings us figures of everything imaginable, and it’s all thanks to the artists formerly known as Todd Toys.
DC Direct (DC Comics)
While this list is in no particular order, I’d argue that DC Direct deserves the number one spot. This is quite simply the most brilliant marketing maneuver in the action figure industry in years! As the action figure market slowed down and numerous companies took heavy hits at mass market retailers like Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, DC Direct carved itself a comfortable little niche in specialty stores. A blanket line to encompass countless subsets, DC Direct began by offering the characters no mother would recognize – Vertigo’s Sandman, the DCU proper’s Plastic Man, and Alan Moore’s pet project, Swamp Thing. Sure, these were released in ’99, but again, the line itself didn’t really pick up speed until the next year, as more notable DC mainstays began to appear. The releases were limited, the characters still fairly obscure, and every wave themed. Most notably, waves were often based either on team affiliations, or specific comic appearances. In 2003, the Kingdom Come line launched, specifically featuring figures based on Alex Ross’s iconic interpretations of DC’s extended family. Then it was Jim Lee’s Hush. Then Ed McGuiness’s Superman/Batman.
The line has continued on, showcasing both DC”s most beloved and most obscure characters, all in various artistic styles, all direct marketed. It was following this strategy that allowed so many of the lines which followed McFarlane’s lead to happen. The further fact that DC Direct is put out by DC fairly well ensures the ongoing success of the line through continued dedication to quality and proper distribution. The character selection and attention to detail mean there’s something here for almost everyone. The combination of all of the above elements means DC Direct has not only changed the game; it’s in it to win it.
There you have it… the eight toy lines that -over the past ten years – have both thrived and innovated along the way. We’ve already begun to witness the fall of Marvel Legends, though I maintain hope for its continuation in some form or another. The question then becomes, ten years from now, how different will this list look? What new players will have emerged, what old ones will be struck down, and how will it all change the way we look at toys? Stay tuned… I plan to be here to tell you about it.