Ask someone to name the top three action figure lines of the 1980's, concepts that still have decent followings today, and the answers are likely to be, in some order or other, Transformers, G.I.Joe, and Masters of the Universe.
Of the three, although Masters was the most short-lived in its original incarnation, it still managed some impressive feats. It was, arguably, the most versatile of the lot. G.I. oe was more or less based on the military, although that focus tended to waver somewhat. It nevertheless remained true to the conflict between the G.I. Joe team and the forces of Cobra -- with a few other enemies turning up here and there. Transformers was robot-based, with the Autobots and the Decepticons continuing their millions of years of war on Earth.
Masters of the Universe, for starters, didn't take place on Earth. It took place on the planet Eternia, which one has to suspect would be an anthropologist's and zoologist's dream. You had humans, but also an insane range of humanoid life forms that also had characteristics of simians, amphibians, birds, reptiles, insects, even robots! One guy seemed to be a humanoid skunk. Another had attributes of plant life! Even rock-like beings turned up along the way. Eternia, it seemed, was a world where anything could happen.
If the indigenous life wasn't wild enough, you had a society that was at once primitive and advanced. Eternia was ruled by a monarchy, the people had some primitive aspects to their clothing (almost everybody, it seemed, owned a fur loincloth), He-Man looked more like Tarzan or Conan than he did Superman, and yet there was clearly advanced technology available in the form of fancy high-tech vehicles and the like. And Mattel took distinct advantage of every bit of this in the toy line.
Masters was also known as the first animated series to enter first-run syndication. After being turned down by the networks -- and this was in the days before widespread cable -- the series producers, Filmation, decided to try something different -- syndicate the show. Prior to this, syndicated animation was all reruns. Yogi Bear was stealing the same picnic basket for the hundredth time, while Wile E. Coyote was plummeting into the same canyon for the hundredth time.
G.I. Joe, Transformers, and a score of other shows -- Thundercats, MASK, Spiral Zone -- can all thank Masters of the Universe for opening the door of first-run syndicated animation. And for the next several seasons, kids and fans were treated to the adventures of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Along the way, there was an animated theatrically-released movie that introduced the world to She-Ra, Princess of Power, He-Man's sister, who would go on to star in her own animated series and line of toys, one of the few reasonably successful attempts to market a girl-oriented toy line as an action figure product.
Masters of the Universe started to run out of steam in 1987. It made a brief and in my opinion unmemorable return in a second, entirely different toy line and a horrible animated series called "The New Adventures of He-Man", which basically took He-Man and Skeletor and transplanted them to a new planet that was almost as bizarre as Eternia. As far as I'm concerned, the less said about it, the better.
Mattel brought back special editions of the original figures at the turn of the millennium, and then introduced an all-new Masters of the Universe line, with new likenesses to the classic characters, with a certain stylized anime touch, and a new animated series that wasn't afraid to kick some serious butt, where the original series had been a little more restrained. The concept lasted several healthy years, but various problems -- not the least of which was the overpacking of He-Man and Skeletor variations and short-packing everybody else -- led to the premature demise of this line.
But like the hero he is, He-Man just wouldn't stay down. The sculptors of the 2002-era line, the Four Horsemen, wanted to give He-Man one more chance. They designed and presented a new concept for He-Man to Mattel, which was shown off for general fan response at the San Diego Comic-Con a couple of years ago. This new He-Man took the classic, original style, and brought it into the modern day. The response was overwhelming, and the new Masters of the Universe line has become the foundation for Mattel's new online collectors' Web Site, the only place to purchase these new Masters figures.
I'll confess, I was reluctant to order the He-Man figure. Nothing against He-Man per se. I dislike buying ANY toys sight unseen if I can help it, unless it's the only way to get them. I admit I'm pretty particular about the look and construction of a toy. Some people are picky about packaging. I, for one, couldn't care less of the packaging looks like somebody dropped it off the top of a truck, as long as the figure is in good shape. I expect the figure to be properly assembled and free of paint problems.
And sure enough, the first one that showed up had a major problem. I didn't even need to open it. The rivet or peg or whatever you want to call it, that was inserted through the right knee to hold the lower leg in place but allow it to move, had been misfired somehow, so that the outer side of the right upper leg was bent horribly outwards. This should never have made it past quality control, assuming that such a thing even exists anymore.
I discovered there was a phone number on the receipt. I called them, and after determining a category for the figure's problem (we agreed on "Misassembled", no doubt a selection on the computer screen in front of the person I was speaking to), I was given some extensive instructions for returning the figure, including a form via e-mail to use in the process. While the person I spoke to was very helpful, very efficient, and very thorough, I couldn't quite dismiss the notion that the procedure was as complex as it was to discourage people from returning items in the first place.
It took the better part of a month, but I did receive a replacement He-Man, which, while not perfect (I'll detail that later), was at least considerably superior to the first one they'd sent me, and within my parameters for being acceptable. And now I can officially review Mattel's new He-Man.
So, just who is He-Man? Well, according to the package he came in -- and I have to say I'm impressed that these figures are now including background character information, something they've never done before (G.I. Joe really started that tradition), He-Man's background is as follows:
HE-MAN - Most Powerful Man in the Universe
A direct descendant of the legendary King Grayskull, Prince Adam of Eternia was chosen to protect his ancestor's Power Sword from evil. At first he used a techno-vest with a built-in force field to fight evil, but Adam has since learned to combine both halves of the Power Sword, using it to channel the energy of the Elders and become He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe. He guards the safety of all Eternia alongside the heroic Masters of the Universe.
What we have here, as much as anything, printed admittedly in some very ornate script on an image that looks like a scroll (all due credit to Mattel's art team), is a background that I suspect is closer to some of the earlier concepts of the character rather than what became better known when the animated series got rolling. I don't recall any previous references to a "techno vest", and that Power Sword being split in half in the first place is something very much out of the toy line and was never reflected in the animation.
He-Man's best known background is, in very basic summary, that he was granted the power of the Eternian Elders by the Sorceress, who dwells in Castle Grayskull, and that when he raises his sword and shouts, "By the power of Grayskull", Prince Adam is transformed into He-Man. That's been valid in both of the animated series.
In the illustrated books released with the first series of toys and drawn by Mark Texeira, He-Man is a barbarian from an Eternian tribe. The planet's inhabitants are dealing with the aftermath of the Great Wars, which devastated the civilizations that once ruled supreme over all lesser beings. The Wars left behind advanced machinery and weaponry known only to select people. An early incarnation of the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull gives He-Man some of these weapons, and he sets out to defend the secrets of Castle Grayskull from the evil villain Skeletor. He-Man possesses one half of the Power Sword; the second half is possessed by Skeletor, who uses it as his main weapon. When joined, the two halves of the Power Sword will provide the key to Castle Grayskull. This is why the two figures' swords could combine into one sword, when the action figures were initially released. In one early illustrated story, He-Man and Skeletor actually united their two Power Sword halves to form the true Power Sword in order to defeat a common enemy.
A lot of that is pretty far removed from anything established later, although it is consistent with some aspects of the toy, and I admit I sort of like it when the good guy and bad guy team up.
By the time the Filmation series was being developed, He-Man's origins had been revised as follows: his true identity is Prince Adam of Eternia, son of King Randor and Queen Marlena who live in the palace of Eternos along with Adam and the rest of their inner circle. Marlena was a lost astronaut from the planet Earth. The Sorceress of Castle Grayskull endows Prince Adam with the power to transform into He-Man, which Adam does by raising his Power Sword and proclaiming: "By the power of Grayskull...I have the power!"
Adam is friendly with the beautiful and strong-willed Teela, the adoptive daughter of his mentor Duncan. Adam and Teela grew up together and now, as Captain of the Guard, Teela is entrusted to protect the prince. She often sees Adam as lazy and cowardly because she is unaware of his alternate identity as He-Man. Teela is revealed to be the only daughter of the Sorceress and the future inheritor of Grayskull; the Sorceress gave her up for adoption after Teela's father died, when Teela was just a baby.
Duncan, also known as Man-At-Arms, is He-Man's closest companion and the Eternian royal family's innovator of technology and weapons. In many episodes, Man-At-Arms unveils new and fantastic weapons that help He-Man and his friends.
Castle Grayskull, which resembles a gigantic skull, is the source of He-Man's powers. Inside the Castle lives the Sorceress, who grants Prince Adam his transformative abilities, and communicates telepathically with He-Man. The episode "Evil-Lyn's Plot" reveals that she also created He-Man's harness from a rare Eternian mineral called Korodite, which adds to his physical strength.
To protect his family, He-Man keeps his double identity secret, sharing the knowledge only with Man-At-Arms, Orko, Cringer/Battle Cat, and the Sorceress.
Origins and backstories weren't a big part of the original Masters of the Universe toy line or animated series, to be perfectly honest. Fortunately, by the time of the 2002-2003 animated series, such things were more expected, and that series, while remaining very true to the original concept, also filled in some blanks:
He-Man's origin was told in a 3-part episode that began the series, in which the 16-year-old Prince Adam is summoned to Castle Grayskull by The Sorceress to take upon the identity of He-Man and the role of Eternia's defender. The portrayal of his character in this series was mostly consistent with Filmation's portrayal, although the character of Prince Adam was shown to be much more brash and youthfully energetic than his 1980s counterpart. The second season episode "The Power of Grayskull" also revealed He-Man to be a descendant of King Grayskull, an all-powerful barbarian hero from Eternia's ancient past, who sacrificed his life to save Eternia from Hordak and the Evil Horde and was the original wielder of the Sword of Power. He was the original owner of Castle Grayskull, and his sword was concealed in the castle for centuries before being given to Prince Adam, who inherits his ancestor's own power which is channeled through the sword (thus giving an alternate meaning for the phrase "By the Power of Grayskull").
So, what have we got in the new He-Man figure? We've got He-Man the way he always should have been. Let's face it, the original figures were a little goofy-looking. The muscular bodies were one thing, but those short, stumpy, bow-legs were another matter.
The animated series made the characters look a fair bit better because, like many of Filmation's efforts at the time, the series made use of a technique called rotoscoping. This involved filming a live actor performing a certain action -- walking, running, whatever -- and then basing the actual animation cels on that live-action footage, generally by tracing them as a drawing and adding in the necessary character features. While this resulted in a lot of "stock footage", which could border on the distracting, the result was smoother overall character movement, and, in the case of the Masters, more plausible bodily proportions. The Masters were still powerhouses of muscle, but at least they didn't look so stumpy-legged that one wondered if they were dragging the backs of their hands in the dirt.
It probably didn't help that the original Masters figures were pretty limited in their articulation -- head, arms, legs, and waist, this last more often than not connected to a spring-action feature.
When the 2002 line came along, the figures had better overall bodily proportions, if not much better articulation. They could rotate their wrists now, and the arms could move outward as well as back and forth, and there was certainly no denying the amazing detail in the sculpts. But there were those who felt that the design elements and style went a little too far afield on some of the characters, and a fair number of the figures had a little too much pre-posing in their basic structure.
The new Masters of the Universe Classics line is just what has been needed for He-Man and company all along. Well-proportioned, highly- articulated figures that capture the essence of the likeness of the original characters, with the greater level of detailing expected in a modern action figure.
The best way I can describe this figure is -- he looks like he stepped right out of the original cartoon. And that's a compliment. Actually, he looks better detailed than that, as one would expect. However, this figure has so much better overall proportions, especially with regard to the legs, as opposed to the original, something which was reflected in the original animated series, that he really does come across as a much better representation of the classic character. He also LOOKS more like the classic version of He-Man than his 2002 counterpart does.
The figure has an overall musculature that is appropriately powerful, maybe even to the point of mild exaggeration, as was certainly the case with the original line, but not quite as implausible. The Masters figures are, by comparison, distinctly bulkier in overall body mass and muscle than Mattel's other major action figure line, DC Universe Classics, which aren't exactly short on the muscle themselves. But He-Man's rather massive build wouldn't really look right if they tried to use this body for Superman or Batman. Conversely, using a DCUC body for He-Man would make him look too thin. The Masters concept requires big muscles. Really big muscles. He-Man certainly has this.
The headsculpt is superb, and is an excellent update of the classic character. He-Man has a rugged face and a determined heroic expression. The eyes are rather small, but well-painted and very well-detailed. I can see where something like this could be goofed in the factory, and maybe a few of them were here and there, but that's not something I can verify. The eyes of mine seem to be fine.
Interestingly, He-Man's hair is a separate piece, painted the proper shade of blonde. I'm not sure why Mattel did this as a separate part, but I'm not complaining. I've had several people who have seen this figure comment that by doing it as a separate piece, it somehow looks more "natural". For lack of a better way to describe it, I am inclined to agree. And it looks very much like his 80's style.
He-Man has a good tan color to his skin, with a few painted highlights here and there. Nothing like "weathering", just highlighting. I normally don't approve of this, but here, it's unobtrusive enough, and works surprisingly well. The overall detail on the body sculpt is considerable and impressive. Clearly the sculptors have a good understanding of human anatomy and how to apply it, if in a somewhat exaggerated sense, to an action figure. The hands are a bit small, but well-designed, and this in its own way is in keeping with the classic line, which had somewhat small hands, as memory serves.
The figure has updated renditions of the classic armbands, and He-Man is outfitted in his usual loincloth, primitive-looking boots, and belt. All of these, as with the figure itself, are updated versions of the classic components, invariably with more painted detail than in the 1980's. Of course, He-Man is wearing his classic grey harness (arguably the so- called "techno vest", although I'd never heard it referred to as such before), and they kept the insignia in the center correct, as well.
Then there's the ARTICULATION! And I put it in caps because that's something not even the 2002 line had, and sometimes I wonder if that actually hurt it a bit. I guess someone figured at that time that since the original He-Man didn't have much poseability, it would be something that could be carried over to the modern day. Fortunately, the new line is making up for that lack in spades.
He-Man is sully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, knees, and ankles. The articulation design works well with the design of the figure, even with regard to the mid-torso point, something that doesn't always look so good, depending on the figure it's implemented (or inflicted) on.
He-Man comes with several accessories. These include a shield, an axe, and -- one and a half swords. All are well-detailed and even painted, something that couldn't be said for most of the accessories from the original line. As to the swords, He-Man comes with a single complete Power Sword, as well as a half-sword, that no doubt can be combined with one that will come with Skeletor. Personally, since that gimmick was never played out in the animation, it's no big deal to me, but to collectors who do give that aspect of the original toy some regard, it's a nice touch. I'm glad that he has a complete sword of his own, though.
Any complaints? Apart from the quality problems I addressed at the start of this review requiring me to obtain a replacement, I have only two. As I said, this figure is much better than the first one I received, and I wish I could say he was perfect, but he has a couple of minor problems.
First off - the feet below the ankle are a little wobbly. I think they're supposed to have a certain side-to-side movement as well as the back-and-forth movement. There's no problem with the back-and-forth, but the side to side just isn't what it should be. I wish I could explain it a bit better, but I'd need to see an assembly diagram of these figures to determine exactly what's happening here. ONE of the feet of my Beast Man figure has this same problem. Someone I spoke to said his He-Man is the same way. Fortunately, it doesn't keep the figure from standing on his own two feet, so it's more of an annoyance than anything, but it's still a problem that should be dealt with.
Secondly, the gray harness. Apparently this thing was molded originally in dark brown and then painted -- and not especially well. There were several "chips" out of the paint, and all I had to do to make it worse was put my fingernail near any of these chips and just drag slightly. First off -- why wasn't this harness molded in gray in the first place? Secondly, what sort of cheap paint did Mattel use on this that I could just scratch it off like that? Fortunately, grey isn't an especially hard color of paint to mix together and match reasonably well, so I was able to remedy the problem.
These may seem like minor quibbles, but they are still quality control issues that Mattel needs to address, because they've been too frequent between this and the DC Universe Classics line, both of which have way too much potential and are way too cool in concept for them to be treated like this. I don't want to see these lines go down the tubes because the fans get fed up with how they're being manufactured by Mattel.
On the whole, though, I'm impressed. The articulation -- except for the wobble-foot issue -- is generally good and tight, the figure is superbly detailed, nicely designed, and really looks great. He-Man stands just shy of 7 inches in height, and any Masters of the Universe fan should be very pleased to bring him into their home, and set him up while watching the DVD compilations of the original animated series. I sincerely hope this line gets its act together as much as it needs to and continues for many years to come, because this is really what Masters of the Universe always should've been. These are the ultimate Masters.
I wish I could say you can head right over to MattyCollector.Com and pick him up, but he's marked as "Sold Out" -- which happened right about the same time they made ready to offer the next monthly figure in the line, Skeletor. Supposedly Mattel is saving a few for use at Conventions, but given the outcry after this happened, I think Mattel needs to consider a second production run. Maybe they can deal with the quality issues as well.
However, that only makes He-Man difficult to obtain, not impossible. And he is well worth obtaining. The quality problems should be minimal, and if you get a really good one, I guarantee you'll be pleased. The MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS HE-MAN definitely has my enthusiastic recommendation!