Few recent action figure lines have divided fans so strongly–and bitterly–as Mattel’s new Masters of the Universe Classics. The first two figures, He-Man and Beast Man, go on sale today at 12 p.m. EST on Mattycollector.com, barring any major website problems.
First, some background: in the early 1980s, Masters of the Universe (MOTU) was one of the most popular action figure lines of the time. It essentially ruled the period between the Star Wars craze and the rise of Transformers and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero in the mid-eighties, and many kids (myself included) started with MOTU and later moved to one of those properties. Now we’re all grown up and have become nostalgic action figure collectors, and the toy companies have catered to us with a slew of reissues and revamps of toys from our childhood.
Mattel first tried to capitalize on MOTU nostalgia in 2002. After hiring former McFarlane toy designers the Four Horsemen to do the sculpting, Mattel created an updated line aimed at both kids and collectors, supported by a new cartoon and a comic book. The Horsemen took the original MOTU designs and amped them up, emphasizing the original features from the characters while minimizing their more goofy traits and making the anatomy a bit more realistic. This was arguably the first MOTU controversy, as some diehard fans of the original line were disappointed by the new designs, while more casual fans and collectors who had never owned a He-Man figure were impressed.
The 2002 line proved to be relatively popular with collectors (see my reviews for a glimpse of how obsessed I was), but failed to catch on with kids. Moreover, it was plagued by poor distribution and ill-considered case assortments that were light on the secondary characters and heavy on the boring repaints (Smash Blade He-Man figures are now used to build low-cost housing in New Mexico).
The kids weren’t interested, the collectors became frustrated and angry, and the line ended after about a year, though the Horsemen kept it alive with their NECA-produced “Stactions”–non-articulated statues in the same scale and style as the figures.
Fast-forward to 2008. Encouraged by fan response to a Horsemen-sculpted He-Man figure they sneaked into a convention display, Mattel announces Masters of the Universe Classics (MOTUC). This time around, the sculpts were much more faithful to the 1980s designs while offering even more articulation than the 2002 figures. Not surprisingly, this has once again divided fans and collectors alike.
Rob Bricken, writer and editor for Topless Robot and a former editor for ToyFare magazine, is among those disappointed by the new direction. “It absolutely breaks my heart that Mattel is making articulated versions of the old MOTU line when their recent MOTU line was so, so much better, and had so much more potential,” Bricken wrote to me in an email. “The updated characters in the 2002 [line] were uniformly awesome, plus the line was cut short so many characters never got made, or only got made as hard-to-find, totally-non-articulated statuettes. And the figures that did get made were hampered by the necessities of a mass [market] toy line–Beast-Man and Ram-Man were supposed to tower over their contemporaries–and I know the Four Horsemen had more detailed paint jobs in mind, because I saw their prototypes back in my ToyFare days (also, Zodac was originally an alien, which was awesome but too freaky for Mattel). That’s the line that would truly benefit from this new collector-centric [focus].”
On the other side of the issue are collectors like Paul Rudolph of Toy Bender. “Personally, I like the direction the line is going right now,” Rudolph wrote in an email. “I’m all about nostalgia. For example, I only cared about G.I. Joe again when they started making them look like (and packaging them like) the figures I had when I was a kid. The example that applies directly to He-Man is that before the 200x line came out, Mattel was doing re-issue figures. While I didn’t buy a lot of them, I picked up a few of my favorite figures and I was looking forward to more, but that all stopped with the 200x line came out–of which I purchased zero figures.”
Rudolph continued: “The reason I didn’t pick up a single 200x He-Man figure was due to the fact that the characters were too exaggerated for my tastes. The sculpts were awesome, but I didn’t like the anime-like flair they had. I preferred the repackaging of old figures over this “new” line back then. If this makes me lame, so be it. For me, collecting is tied much more to the past than having a cool new toy.”
Diehard fans of the original line, such as “Havoc” from the He-Man.org forums, are even more vocal in their support of the new direction. “As far as [I’m] concerned, ‘What controversy?’ I hated the 200X figures soon as I saw them, it took me a long time, and explanations from the Four Horsemen that they’d been dictated to by Mattel, for me to warm up to them. This new line [is] exactly what I was hoping for and expecting to see in 2002. My only dislike is the price tag, and the ‘Internet only’ nonsense. It should have been fully backed and in stores as assortments. I’m absolutely certain these new figures would have a much wider appeal than 200X if they made the effort to make them available to casual buyers.”
Other collectors, such as online community mainstay Scott Metzger, take a more pragmatic view of the why Mattel chose this direction for MOTUC. “From what we know, there was a small cadre of folks at Mattel who, along with the Horsemen, pitched the idea of a new Masters line to the powers that be. There’s good reason to think it was an uphill battle. There is no media support. The idea was to target the line to collectors, with no real way of falling back on mom and the kids with Technicolor repaints. Add the fact that the delivery of the line through a collector’s website has had mixed results for other companies (recall Hasbro’s floundering Direct-To-Consumer G.I. Joe line a few years ago), and I don’t think the term “easy sell” would have applied. Given this, they didn’t have much of a choice: base the new [action figure line] on a twenty-year-old line that was wildly successful or try to push a more recent line that was, kindly put, not. Much as many fans, including myself, loved the 2002 line, it was a retail failure (for reasons that have been explored ad nauseum, so I won’t go into that here). Had they pushed for a continuation of that line, I doubt the higher ups would have been very receptive. Taking them back to the glory days of the 80’s, when He-Man ruled the aisles, was far more likely to convince the decision makers to take a chance.”
Metzger concluded, “As a fan of the original line, I’m excited about these figures and can’t wait to get them. As a fan of the 2002 line, I regret we never quite got to finish it, with a number of characters that never had the chance to be updated. I also understand that some fans are only interested in the more recent line, with no interest in the 80’s figures. But, in the end, the choice Mattel made with the MOTUC line is really the only one they could have if they wanted to get the line made.”
However, collectors’ criticisms of the line go beyond style; the high prices are also an issue for many. As Bricken noted, “I have no problem paying $20 for a good He-Man figure, but to re-do the old classic versions-even going to far as to re-use the same legs and arms and loincloths like the original toys did-is just insane to me. This is like pimping out an ’82 Chevy, whose transmission is busted. Yes, it’ll look better, but the car still won’t run. Meanwhile, there’s a perfectly functioning 2002 Camry with runs great, and could seriously benefit from a new paint job and rims. For $20 per figure, I should be receiving the exquisitely sculpted 2002 figures, but with better paint and better articulation. That’s more than fair.”
Rudolph, though he likes the designs, is also bothered by the price. “Twenty bucks for a figure is too much money. I’ll probably break down and buy Skeletor and a She-Ra if they make her, but that’s about it.”
Of course, the real question is how well the figures will sell. “Now, I’m going to buy all of these figures-partially because I’m obsessed with He-Man, and partially because I don’t want the line to fail,” wrote Bricken. “If it keeps going on, that’s more time for Mattel to make a few new 2002-era figures, or switch over the line entirely. But I know what I want from Mattel, and it’s not this.”