The Appeal of Masters of the Universe
By Ibentmyman-thing, on November 3rd, 2009 |
are almost a full year into the release of Masters of the Universe
Classics and Faithful Fwoosh Staffer Ibentmyman-thing has taken a
moment to reflect on just why this is one of the coolest action figure
lines to come along in a long time.The Appeal
What is the appeal of this strange line with weird designs, literal names and garish colors?
Those who didn’t collect it as a kid, who don’t have the warm glow
of nostalgia, or have only a surface knowledge of Masters of the
Universe may not get quite why it resonates with so many of us. Trying
to condense the appeal of Masters of the Universe to those who may be
unfamiliar with the line is difficult. It’s a “kitchen sink” line, with
a little bit of everything: barbarians, sword and sorcery, futuristic
technology, robots, cyborgs, aliens, monsters, demons, cosmic powers,
pirates, bounty hunters, cowboys, evil overlords, powerful underdogs,
ninjas, anthromorphs…even superheroes, in a sense. And I’m sure I’m
leaving out a lot. But mostly it’s a property where imagination is the
main ingredient. And imagination begins with one phrase:
And if there was any line where “why not” worked, it’s this one.
Want a guy who seems to only have one skill, and that skill is
slamming his noggin into things? Why not? Want a guy who Looks like a
robotic elephant who puts out fires? Why not? How about a guy whose
only power is stinking? A guy whose only power is having giant spikes
protruding from his body?
From a surface view, it’s easy to see how the property could be
unappealing. As previously stated, it has corny names, weird designs,
it lacks the character of comic properties, or the mass appeal of Star
Wars. Plus it’s just a silly toyline. It’s not a work of great
literature. There couldn’t be any depth in something like that. The
main character’s name is “He-man”. He rides a big cat. Just silly.
Plus there’s Orko!!!!!
It would be easy to draw parallels between Masters of the Universe
and other properties in order to explain the appeal. Conan, maybe. Or
even Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. There’s even Shakespearean elements.
Gasp! I can hear you saying. But what else would you call the brother
of the King becoming the biggest threat to the royal kingdom, whose
traitorous ambition sets him against the King’s son, his own nephew,
but Shakespearean in nature? Strip the elements down to their
components and take an overview, and there’s nothing silly about the
line except the prejudices brought to it because of the toyline origins.
But lofty parallels aside, MotU’s mythology takes it from “just a
toyline” into a richer concept than the original designers probably
ever considered. “Let’s make a figure with real smell and name him
Stinkor” seems like such a low concept on the surface, but when it gets
folded into the blitzkrieg assault on the senses that the forces of
evil represent, and it’s not so silly after all.
And then there’s Orko…
It’s easy to dismiss Orko. I’ve done it plenty of times. I just
never got into him. He was The Jar Jar Binks of the line. The running
joke. The useless floating guy that filmation scooted into the cartoon
to give the kids somebody to identify with, because tv executives
seemed to never have been kids themselves. The bungler. The lame one.
The blight on the line.
Maybe that “screw up” routine was just that…a routine. An act. Maybe
there was a reason for Orko all along. Maybe the Sorceress or Goddess
wanted the protector to have a protector. Maybe Orko was there to
quietly assist the most powerful man in the universe just in case he
ever got into scrapes bigger than he could deal with. Magic is shifty
and tricky after all. Who would suspect the bungling floating towel
with the big “O” and floppy hat of being anything but comic relief?
That works for me. Something different may work for you.Discovering the line
Toys not only facilitate stories, they have stories of their own.
Everybody passionate about MotU has a story of how they got into the
line. Mine starts way way back at the genesis in 1981. I got my first
figure of the line, He-man, not for He-man himself, but as a generic,
buff, axe-wielding dude that my Die Cast Mego Hulk could fight. I knew
nothing about the property, it would be later when I was exposed to the
DC limited series, and there was no cartoon. But I bought the figure,
and I read the little mini-comic that came with him. And something
about the character, the story, the world, struck me. Suddenly He-man
wasn’t “generic buff dude” but a powerful barbarian-type hero that
fought a guy with a Skull for a face! When you’re in single
digits…that’s just cool.
One of the more brilliant marketing decisions that toys ever came up
with was the mini-comic, with original stories you could only read if
you bought the figure. Sure, they weren’t the greatest stories, a
handful of pages that were only produced to make you want to buy other
figures with the sparsest of story elements to hold it together. But it
was a great way to introduce you to the world the toys lived in, and
it’s a shame that idea seems to be lost to time.
So through this little mini-comic (that I still have along with all
the others) I learned about Skeletor, Teela, Man-At-Arms, Stratos,
Mer-Man…this whole world of brand new characters I had never seen in a
movie or read in a comic. And I saw the fully painted art of toys that
were available at a store near me…and I had to have more. And I had to
have somebody in his own continuity to fight, and people to fight with
him. I knew right away I had to have the mace wielding, tech-covered
guy with the armor next.
And back then when you could actually find toys in stores, it only
took one trip to find him: Man-At-Arms. So now I had this new, wholly
original figure to accompany He-Man. Their bodies were exactly the
same, but back then as kids we didn’t fret over re-use, or want to get
our money’s worth with individually sculpted muscles or whatever we
find to worry about now…it was a new toy. A brand new, virtually
untapped character. And with little to no story on him…he was orange
and green potential. He could be whatever and whomever I wanted him to
be. Why not?
So now I had two good guys…I needed someone for them to fight. And
so it spiraled. I was hooked. My interests shifted over few years that
MotU was around, but I never gave up on the line. Even if the appeal
dwindled in the face of GI Joe or Transformers, someone refreshing new
concept like the Evil Horde popped up, and a character like Modulok
would come along, and I’d be hooked all over again.
Soon I was able to have a bee man fight a man whose body was
comprised of snakes while a gun-laden cowboy was shooting at a cyborg
with a swappable arm. While a guy with a huge metal fist was punching a
big monsterous creature with a rubbery tail. And it all made perfect
Speaking of people’s introductions to the line, Mattel’s Associate
Brand Manager Scott Neitlich, who is more than a little integral to the
revival of MotU, also has a story of his inauguration into MotU:
On my 5th or 6th birthday I was incredibly sick and my
parents had to cancel my party. Now for a 5 year old that is
devastating! To cheer me up, my parents bought me a treasure trove of
Masters figures, He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, Stratos and Castle
Grayskull. Needless to say it was love at first sight and these new
toys really got me through some difficult times. I used to lug that
Castle around everywhere I went.
When I finally had my party a few weeks later, friends and relatives
added Ram-Man, Teela and Zoar, Trap Jaw and Tri Klops to my ongoing
I went on to collect Masters for years and this birthday became the
heart of my childhood collection. Some personal favorites as the line
expanded included Buzz Off, Roboto, Spikor, Scare Glow and Battle Armor
Skeletor/He-Man. I loved all the flying characters and since I never
had Mer-Man, Zodac or Beastman, I always scooped those up first to play
with at my friend Shaun’s house (he had a lot of figs I never got-
lucky!) To help bring these characters back today into the Classics
line is more then a dream come true!
That level of enthusiasm and fond memories has led Mattel, in
association with the Four Horsemen, to produce some kick-ass, fully
articulated versions of the squat little guys from the 80’s.Spinning off
To extend the shelf-life of the property, and broaden the appeal to
girls, He-man was given a sister, who was given her own cartoon and
toyline. She-ra and her supporting characters suffer from a “girl’s
toys” stigma, with the real rooted hair and fluffy names. I can
understand the stigma, having passed on She-ra due to those exact
aspects. Stylistically, her toy didn’t fit in. But I always wished
there had been a version of her produced that fit more aesthetically in
with the regular line. Luckily it looks like I’ll be getting my wish
with the new line.
But is She-ra a “girl’s property”? With no comic, the mythology only
has the cartoon to draw its backstory from, but it’s not a bad
backstory, if a little derivative of a certain galaxy far far away:
twins split up, one serving the forces of evil until forming a
rebellion…heir to a great power. Hm. A little derivative…but that’s ok,
because that’s where the similarities begin and end. it’s easy to have
prejudices about She-ra, but it’s also easy to see how full the
property is also, with the same level of great characters and great
Plus it has one more thing going to it: on Etheria…the bad guys won.
It’s not like Skeletor trying to rule Eternia with one scheme after
another. Hordak won. She-ra and her fellow warriors are in the
minority, fighting somebody who was smart enough, capable enough and
powerful enough to acquire his goals. Plus with so many female
characters, the diversity it adds to the MotU universe helps to flesh
out a musclebound property with some more curves, which never hurts.
Then there’s the New Adventures of He-man, with the two main
characters, He-man and Skeletor, displaced from Eternia and taking up
their war on a distant planet. I only have the most basic knowledge of
this version of He-man, having never watched the cartoon and never
having gotten into the toyline…and I can see purists rejecting it, but
it’s a valid enough continuation of the concept…why not? That is what’s
great about taking properties into the future, because it can exist
while not devaluing what came before, and can only add to this huge
timeline that grows with each version.
With each version of He-man, the property gets a little thicker, the
characters get a little richer. The Horsemen are finding ways to draw
from each version of the storyline, like including Zodak and Zodac in
the same line while not kicking either aside. There’s room for both.
There’s room for a lot. That’s what is so great about it.
I even like the live action movie. A bit. It has appeal. Blade would make a great figure.The Characters, the toys, the fascination
I’ve drawn some parallels, I’ve tried to dig into the sense of
wonder, the myth, but none of this really peels back why the property
has so many rabid, fervent, eager fans who are hanging on the end of
the Horsemen’s wax pens to see what new figure they’re going to
produce. Because let’s face it: we already know what they’re going to
look like. We’ve seen the basic body, (the dreaded “reuse” many
complain about) we know the designs, we know the characters, so we can
guess what the new MotU classics figures are going to roughly look like.
If that’s so, why was I so eager to see Trap Jaw, who is was and
will always be my favorite character? I could probably predict what he
was going to look like. And in some ways, he fit what I had in my
head…but it’s something more than that. Part of it is nostalgia, of
course. But moreso is that toynology nowadays means there are no
concessions. He looks like I want…but I know he’ll move like I want
also. I’ll be able to pull off poses I was never able to put my
original figure in. Just seeing it, knowing that there’s people that
love the characters as much as I do, knowing that they are doing a
great job translating this decades old property into something new and
fresh and current…that’s very satisfying. Outside of customs, it’s rare
that toys are produced exactly how you’d want them, and so far the
MotUC line has been delivering.
So I start wondering how Whiplash is going
to look. And Clawful. And Fisto and Jitsu (who went to the same
manicurist, obviously) and Mantennae and Modulok…and all these
characters that have such great, unique, weird, bizarre distinctive
looks, and I can’t wait to see even the hint of preview pictures. The
4H are doing a fantastic job on this latest revival of the property,
somehow making the recognizable fresh and new even as they’re being
faithful to a core collection of designs.
Way back at the beginning of the article, I asked what the appeal of
these toys was. I don’t think there’s any one perfect answer. Whether
it’s the designs, the surprising depth of the story, the multifaceted
play value, the pure imagination behind the characters, or just the
nostalgic value, the appeal is different for everyone. For me it’s
summed up in those two simple words I mentioned at the beginning of the
article, that explain everything I need to know about the Masters of
the Universe, and, in my opinion, why they could appeal to anybody who
gives them more than a cursory glance.