At the recent San Diego Comic-Con International, fans packed an upstairs room to get a glimpse at Mattel’s new Masters of the Universe Classics figures that would be made available for sale next year exclusively on Mattycollector.com. It was an unusually diverse mix of characters for the toy line, but one that really spoke to its mission to redo every corner of the He-Man world under one unified style: from the Princess of Power line, She-Ra’s pal Netossa; from the recently acquired Filmation cartoon rights, blue-skinned reptile Fang Man; from the classic characters, the long-awaited Ram Man; and from the box art of three obscure Revell model kits made in the ’80s, vehicle pilots called the Fighting Foe Men.
A week later, the mood had changed, as word came down that fan demand was drying up and the line could be at an end. So what happened?
Let’s back up for a moment, for the benefit of those of you who aren’t hardcore toy collectors. You probably know that there was a toyline in the ’80s called Masters of the Universe that fused sword-and-sorcery imagery with sci-fi. You almost certainly have heard of the He-Man cartoon that spun off from it, forever adding, “By the power of Grayskull!” to the pop-culture lexicon. Maybe you know of his sister She-Ra too. There’s more: a 1987 live-action movie starring Dolph Lundgren that was better than it had any right to be given that it came from Cannon Films, and a 1990 cartoon and new toy line called The New Adventures of He-Man that gave the hero a high-tech upgrade and sent him into outer space (without much success).
In 2002, Mattel rolled out a new toy line and a new cartoon in a more contemporary, anime-like style. Beloved by collectors old enough to remember the originals, both the toys and the toon went downhill fast, as the cartoon’s time-slot kept changing, and the toys clogged the shelves with unpopular He-Man and Skeletor repaints that left no room for new characters. Then, a few Comic-Cons ago, the toy sculptors known as the Four Horsemen created a new He-Man prototype just for fun – essentially giving the original ’80s design more modern articulation and detailed sculpting. Fan reactions were so positive that Masters of the Universe Classics came into being: an online-only collector’s series based on original toy designs from Masters of the Universe, Princess of Power, New Adventures and even concept sketches that had never been toys (those guys in the banner image under this article’s headline are Vikor and Demo-Man – original concepts for He-Man and Skeletor that only recently got immortalized in plastic). All that eluded them were the rights to the 1987 movie (save three characters who had been made before in toy form back in ’87) and characters created exclusively for the original and New Adventures cartoons – though they finally acquired those animation rights last year.
Over the past four years, Classics has become the most comprehensive and definitive He-Man toy line to date. The figures are popular, and nearly always sell out quickly. And yet the line is on the chopping block. So what went wrong?
The big hitch is that the way Mattel sells the figures is by annual subscription. You sign on for about $500 worth of figures (paid in installments as the monthly figures roll in), only knowing what 4-5 of those figures will actually be. Why can’t they tell you the whole line? It’s complicated, but more or less boils down to the fact that they’re not all ready soon enough to tell you, and the legal department won’t let them name stuff that isn’t made yet. Originally, Mattel’s stated goal was to have figures in stock for about 2-3 weeks; this changed rapidly to them insisting on instant sell-outs, to finally not making any extras available to people who didn’t buy annual subscriptions. For collectors who like the toys but don’t want to have to buy all of them, this was a deal-breaker.
Even for those who do, there have been other issues. There have been questions about customer service from the company that handles the transactions, Digital River. Some figures have had significant manufacturer defects, like incorrectly assembled shoulder joints. For the 30th anniversary of He-Man, new characters were designed by brand manager Scott “Toyguru” Neitlich and DC’s Geoff Johns, which seemed like a good idea until it became apparent they were based on childhood drawings and largely disliked by fans. Mattel corporate, meanwhile, sees relatively little profit compared to other lines, invests accordingly, and insists on guaranteed sales to maintain what is largely a goodwill gesture to fans. A price hike for next year, however, while realistic and in line with other toy price hikes, appears to have been the biggest hurdle to date. Yet even with these downsides, the actual figures are still (mostly) well-made and well-received.
Basically, however, subscriptions are currently on sale, and are falling way below the numbers needed to deliver next year’s line. If they have not hit that minimum by end-of-day August 6th, 2012, that’s it – the line may disappear altogether, or (best case) slow to a trickle of higher-priced figures with more recycled parts. (Note: There are also subscriptions available for DC and Watchmen figures. Those, too, are in danger of cancellation.) The Four Horsemen are begging fans to continue the line, and even the guy who played Saurod in the 1987 movie made a video to support the cause. (As the only character in that movie – besides faceless robotic drones – to actually die onscreen, he knows about premature endings.)
As a collector myself, I hope to see the line succeed, but believe Mattel erred by making the first few figures for next year such an eclectic mix. I don’t particularly want figures based on the Filmation cartoon, nor did I ever care for Princess of Power. However, I’d rather have them AND the ones I want than nothing. As an additional incentive, we’ve been promised that if the 2013 subscription makes it, 2014 will finish off all the remaining major characters. While it’s too late to change 2013’s mostly mystery lineup, apparently it contains some key characters too.
Never heard of this Classics line before and are interested? Mattycollector sells the main heroes and villains year-round: He-Man, She-Ra, Skeletor, Hordak and King Hiss are available to purchase right now. The subscription upon which the future of the line hinges, however, is only available until next Monday (August 6th).
If you’re a He-Fan (or She-Raver – yes, that’s what they’re called), please consider helping to keep the line alive. I have no financial interest here, but dammit, I want my MOTU toys. My collection will thank you, even if my wallet ultimately doesn’t, and the upcoming Power-Con in Los Angeles will be the celebration it ought to be, rather than a requiem for a toyline struck down prematurely.