I’ve delved into collector debates surrounding Mattel’s new Masters of the Universe Classics (see here and here). I intend to write up my own thoughts on MOTUC on whether the style was a good business decision, and so forth. But I like the style and concept, so if you don’t, be aware of that when you read the following review.
Due to some manufacturing delays, the inaugural sale of Masters of the Universe Classics (MOTUC) began with not one but two figures. The first is He-Man, the Most Powerful Man in the Universe and an icon of the 1980s on par with Optimus Prime, Cobra Commander and Mr. T. The other is Beast Man, Skeletor’s “savage henchman” and probably one of the best-known bad guys from the line. Available only via Mattycollector.com, the figures cost $20 each, with approximately another $10 for shipping.
For those of you who aren’t interested in MOTU and haven’t been following along, the franchise has had a few revivals since its immensely popular debut in the early 1980s. Mattel attempted the first revival in the late 1980s with The New Adventures of He-Man, updating the figures with more articulation and making the franchise even more science fiction-oriented. The line and cartoon failed to capture kids’ interest during the age of the Ninja Turtles, and He-Man retired to Castle Grayskull for a decade.
Then, in 2000, the Four Horsemen–a group of artists who, as sculptors for McFarlane Toys, had helped transform the action figure industry from kid stuff to collector hobby in the nineties–were contracted by Mattel to revamp MOTU for a new generation. With a strong anime influence and highly detailed sculpting, the new line proved popular with collectors when it hit stores in 2002. Unfortunately, problems with distribution and case packs, as well as a lack of kid interest, brought the line to a close after less than two years. But like the original MOTU before it, MOTU2K (as it’s called by some) won its own group of fans. It lived on in the form of “Stactions”–figure-scale statues–produced by NECA.
After MOTU2K’s end, most fans assumed we wouldn’t see new MOTU figures anytime soon (unless Mattel decided to let NECA actually articulate the Stactions). But in 2007, a curious “custom” figure popped up in Mattel’s convention displays. It looked like the original, classic He-Man, but in a style and with articulation more like Mattel’s 6″ DC figures than the shorter, less articulated, and anime-influenced MOTU2K. Buoyed by collector interest, the Horsemen (who had created the “custom”) and Mattel’s brand managers were able to convince The Powers That Be to give He-Man another shot at figure fame. The figures would be closer to the style of the original figures of the early 1980s, but with updated articulation and better accessories. Thus was Masters of the Universe Classics born. The first figure was King Grayskull, who I’ve reviewed already.
Packaging: First off, I think Captain Marvel and He-Man need to have a talk, since CM is supposed to be the World’s Mightiest Mortal–oh wait, I guess that’s only Earth. Doesn’t say anything about Eternia–or Krypton, for that matter. (They could both take Superman, though, because he’s vulnerable to magic. In one early DC comic, Skeletor cast a spell on Superman to make him fight He-Man.)
The “MOTUverse” has gone through a few incarnations. The earliest version was the universe established in the mini-comics that came with the original toys in the years before the cartoon. The mythos in these early comics established He-Man as a barbarian living in the jungle who ventures out into Eternia and meets the Goddess, who gives him his armor and weapons–not including the Power Sword, which has been split into two halves that Skeletor is trying to unite. The armor gives him his immense strength and generates a force field to protect him.
This is all very different from the Filmation cartoon, which established He-Man as being the alter ego of Prince Adam, the goofy son of King Randor, and ignored the “two halves of the Power Sword” thing entirely, giving it solely to He-Man. (Question: is Prince Adam more a rip-off of Clark Kent or Billy Batson?)
The 2002 cartoon by Mike Young Productions (MYP) muddied the waters further, making the Power Sword a crazy technological-looking device straight out of Jack Kirby’s New Gods sketchbook. Originally, the techno-sword was intended by the toy makers (i.e., the Four Horsemen) to represent a techno-magical replacement, created by Man-At-Arms and the Sorceress, for the actual Power Sword, whose twin halves had been captured by Skeletor. But history repeated itself and, just as the Filmation cartoon ignored the mythos established by the initial mini-comics and toys, the 2002 cartoon neglected the Horsemen’s ideas and just made the techno-sword the “real” Power Sword, leaving Skeletor with an awesome but unexplained sword that could split in two.
With MOTUC, Mattel appears to be trying to unite all three universes–the original mini-comics, the 1980s cartoon and the 2000s cartoon. The “techno vest” and the twin halves of the Power Sword are straight out of the early comics, while the Prince Adam identity is from the Filmation cartoon. King Grayskull, of course, was an invention of the 2002 cartoon. This is a nice nod toward the collectors, but if Mattel ever commissions a new cartoon or comic book, it will be interesting to see if they follow through on the blended universe they’ve created here.
MOTUC is strongly geared toward fans of the original Masters of the Universe line, and that’s very evident in the packaging. However, rather than draw on the “red explosion” style of packaging from the original single-carded figures (as the 2002 figures did), the packaging art seems to be more inspired by the boxes of the vehicles and playsets, which featured painted scenes of battle and tended to be more gray and brown in tone. The image of He-Man in the bio is from the back of his very first package in 1981. As the Horsemen have stated in interviews, there’s definitely a desire here to evoke the style and art of the pre-cartoon era of Masters of the Universe. The other figures are displayed on the back, just like the early days, and include the inevitable dictum to “Collect Them All!”
While action figure packaging is usually just a brief annoyance between me and the opened figure, I like what Mattel has done here, and I’ll be holding on to the card backs for this series.
Sculpt: Masters of the Universe Classics are meant to represent a twenty-first century update of the original 1980s figures. MOTUC He-Man looks very much like the original He-Man, but with (somewhat) more realistic musculature, a much more normal pose (no squatting here, unless you pose him that way), and updated articulation.
In the post-McFarlane era of action figures, sculpts are often judged by either how detailed they are or by how closely they resemble the “source material.” Unlike MOTU2K, the goal of the Horsemen with MOTUC was not to create extremely detailed updates of the original characters, but rather, to create figures that were inspired by the early packaging art and mini-comics. To that end, they’ve achieved. Masters of the Universe Classics, as the name suggests, is essentially a MOTU version of DC Universe Classics.
He-Man’s sculpt isn’t flashy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well done. This is the Horsemen, after all–they know what they’re doing. They’ve taken the original He-Man design and made it into a figure who would look good in a Frank Frazetta painting. The facial sculpt is particularly good–unlike the 2002 figure, it looks like the face of an adult, and is reminiscent of the original He-Man’s looks while hinting at the 1983 cartoon version as well. However, the eyes seem a little small and narrow.
I should note that He-Man’s body is mostly the same as that of King Grayskull, except Grayskull’s boots are different (the cuffs are higher), making him a bit taller than He-Man.
Plastic & Paint: While these are collector’s items, they’re not intended to be the super-realistic, semi-statue sort of figures like McFarlane’s Military. They’re meant to evoke memories of the original toys, and the way they’ve been produced reflects that.
He-Man’s body is molded primarily in brown and flesh tones, giving the figure a somewhat toyish look and feel. However, the paint washes prevent it from looking too much like a young child’s toy. It feels like a solid action figure, much like the original toys.
The paint work, as I mentioned, is for the most part well done. The wash on the flesh-toned body parts is well applied (it even impressed Rustin Parr when he saw the figure in person). Most of the applied paint has a simple matte look to it, giving the figure a more toyish, cartoonish look than a more detailed application might have done.
Oddly, it seems that much of the figure was molded in brown plastic which was then painted, including the head and the harness. There are a few dots on my figure’s harness where the gray paint has flecked away, but it’s hardly noticeable. The iron cross and the red squares on the harness have an insignificant amount of slop.
Articulation: He-Man is articulated similarly to DCUC figures. He has a ball jointed neck, ball jointed shoulders, swivels at the biceps, wrists, waist and the top of his boots, and hinges at the elbows, knees, ankles and torso. Unlike DCUC, however, the hips are more traditional ball joints (or rather, ball and hinge joints) with a swivel at the top of the thigh. Ball joints can be used because they’re partially hidden by the loincloth, but the loincloth, which is fairly stiff plastic, limits the range of motion–for instance, He-Man can’t sit normally, though he can affect a kind of lounging pose.
Accessories: The 1981 He-Man figure came with an axe, a shield, a removable harness, and–in keeping with the “two halves of the Power Sword” story from the original comics–half of a sword. His gray half-sword could be combined with Skeletor’s purple half-sword to make a regular sword. Of course, combining the swords was always kind of disappointing. The colors didn’t match and the resulting sword just looked silly, not to mention the fact that the blades rarely sat flush against one another.
For the very first time (well, aside from King Grayskull), He-Fans get a full Power Sword based on the original design. I find it a certain satisfaction in finally owning a complete version of this iconic weapon–and it’s actually pointy, too. He also comes with the aforementioned axe and shield, as well as a removable harness. The harness can be removable via detachable clasp in back, which also has a strap for the Power Sword’s blade. To holster the axe, you have to slide it between the clasp and He-Man’s back, unless you want to risk stretching the strap.
Mattel has done the fans one better, though, and included a half-sword. Yes, Skeletor will come with both a full purple sword and a purple half-sword, so if you want you’ll be able to combine them. Again, though, the results look a little odd. Still, it’s a great bonus for fans, and reveals the depth of Mattel’s commitment to paying tribute to the original toys.
The design of the weapons is very simplistic, perhaps even a bit more so than the style calls for. They’re molded in gray plastic, although the sword and axe finally get some silver accents on the blades and the shield has the red markings from the original version. But they feel very toyish, even more than the figure itself.
Quality Control: From a perusal of the He-Man.org forums, there appear to have been a good number of problems with these figures–sloppy paint, loose joints, and doubled limbs (such as two right biceps, etc.). I seem to have lucked out, since my He-Man has stood up to fairly frequent posing and re-posing. But I’m not going to go yanking on his every joint to see if anything breaks off, so if you tend to be rough with your toys, then caveat emptor.
I had one problem with my weapons–the half-sword had been slightly bent at the hilt by its placement in the package. It wasn’t a big problem, but I it could have been more severe, resulting in a broken half-sword.
Mattel seems to have been good about issuing replacements, but I think you may still have to pay to ship the replacement figure.
Value: Since you can only get these online–and thus, have to have them shipped–the minimum price you’re going to pay is about $28. That’s about a third what you’d pay for a high-end Sideshow 12″ figure, and more than twice what you would pay for DCUC figure at retail.
This is not a $20 figure. Mattel should be selling these for $15 at most, with a better deal on shipping. That said, if you’re a true-blue MOTU fan like me and like the style, $30 for one figure a month is expensive, but not impossible. (I think of 12″ collectors of Sideshow and Hot Toys figures and feel a little better.)
This figure isn’t my perfect He-Man–but it’s damned close.
There are a couple of things I would have liked to see done differently. I would have made the figures in scale with DCUC; as it stands, they’re taller and more muscular, and look to be in more of a 6.5″-7″ scale. I would have made He-Man’s weapons more detailed, and made the half-sword the 2002 version rather than the original one.
Aside from those issues, this is the He-Man figure I wanted in 2002. It’s an excellent start to Masters of the Universe Classics, and I look forward to the rest of the line.