Thursday, February 24, 2011

Throwback Thursday - Justice League Unlimited: The Toy Line

At New York's annual Toy Fair a few weeks ago, Mattel announced that after eight years, the Justice League Unlimited toy line was ending. THANK GOD! I felt like I was finally being unchained from an enormous rock! As much as I loved the cartoon and enjoyed having toy versions of the HUGE cast, including a number of characters that have never been made as action figures before (or since), it was also one of the most frustrating lines I've ever gotten myself mixed up with. For starters, the first wave only included Superman, Batman, Flash and Green Lantern. At least Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman were scheduled for release in the second wave, but poor Hawkgirl wasn't set to be included AT ALL! Mattel, there are only SEVEN characters and you can't bother to include them all?! After fan outcry, Hawkgirl was added to the line's fourth wave, after most of the male characters had been re-issued two or three times!

The first figures featured very limited movement, with only shoulder, hip and neck joints. (The girls, because of their long locks, didn't even have neck joints.)

Later on, Mattel added knee joints, twisting waists and even resculpted a couple of them like The Flash, to make the figure sturdy enough for snap on accessories. (I prefer the original skinny Flash, as it more closely resembles the way he actually appears on the show.

Wonder Woman, while not given knee joints, did receive a twisting waist and her face was tweaked, making it rounder and given a more pronounced smile (see right). (The first one, to the left, appears more stoic.)

The same figures were repainted in various color schemes and given a plethora of different accessories and re-released over and over.

Guest stars Aquaman and Dr. Fate were also added to the line as well as villains Darkseid, The Ultra-Humanite and Lex Luthor.

When the show was rebranded as Justice League Unlimited, the team's roster was expanded to include dozens of additional character. The toy line followed suit and began issuing figures of many of these characters.

But in an infuriating move, in order to GET these new unique characters, you had to buy them in three-packs with re-releases of existing figures. I collected all the duplicate Supermen, Batmen, GLs, etc and handed them out at Halloween. It was especially annoying when you only got ONE new figure and two old ones! GAH!!! Occasionally, you'd get a pack with two new characters and only one old one, which was okay. RARELY, you'd get a three pack with THREE new characters. It happened, but not very often.
A common cost-cutting measure used by toy companies is the use of "bucks." Basically, they only make a few unique bodies and just paint them differently to turn them into various characters. Black Canary's body was reused as Zatanna's, since they both wear jackets. The hand-on-the hip thing makes sense, because when you raise that hand up, it cups the side of BC's mouth, to indicate she is using her "Canary Cry" power. I GUESS it works for Zatanna, the magician, who speaks mystical incantations... that's what I'm going with, anyway.
Occasionally, a character requires new sculpting, which costs more money, but companies do it to faithfully recreate the character. Usually if this was the case, as with Vigilante and Steel, they were issued individually as single-carded figures. This was fine. I certainly don't mind buying them individually. In fact, I PREFER it! But oddly, Mattel would also ship re-issues as single-carded figures, so case assortments included some all-new figures and some repeats! Which of course, NO ONE bought! So these reissues would linger on pegs and stores wouldn't reorder the newer assortments because they still had old stagnant product hanging around not selling.

Don't get me wrong, at times, Mattel clearly had fans in mind. They DID issue a ridiculous number of characters and as I said, many had NEVER been made as action figures before in any line.

After the cartoon series ended, the toy line continued on as a Target exclusive and whereas in the past the line was aimed at both adult collectors and children, the focus was shifted to almost entirely to adults. Also, the line expanded to include characters that weren't on the show.

They switched from insane repaints like this Wonder Woman to ones that paid homage to DC's history, like this Batman painted in the color scheme in which he appeared for decades, from the late 60s until the mid 90s.

They also made toys based on specific fan favorite episodes, for example "Wonder Pig" from the episode in which Wonder Woman was changed into... yep, a pig by the sorceress Circe.

But the repeats continued. Audaciously, they issued a three pack last fall with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman... three characters that collectors had bought over twenty times each!

On the show, Hawkgirl had abandoned her code name and costume and fans clamored for a toy that reflected this change. A three pack with this updated Hawkgirl (or rather Shayera Hol, her real name) as well as never-before-produced The Ray was announced and appeared on the backs of the toy line's packaging. But it didn't arrive... and didn't arrive... and didn't arrive... until finally over a year later, Mattel announced they would release this set as a ComiCon exclusive, meaning that the majority of fans were SOL or would have to vastly over-pay to get the set off eBay. (That's what I did!)

Like I said, they issued a number of characters that hadn't appeared on the show, including the above Super Friends-inspired three pack (one of those rare, all-original three packs, I mentioned) and upcoming releases of Firestorm and Blue Beetle.
Following the runaway success of it's online only Masters of the Universe Classics line, Mattel attempted to create online only additions to most of its other lines, including JLU. Unfortunately, sales were sluggish. I blame character selection. The first set featured four Batman villains, Scarecrow (mostly sculpted from scratch), Harley Quinn, Clock King and Bane. Sadly, these were some drab figures. Scarecrow is mostly gray. Bane is in black and Clock King is just some dude in a suit. At least there was Harley Quinn. But for the most part, these four characters made only minor appearances on the show.

This set sold sluggishly. Following it were four of the Legion of Super Heroes, a Shazam set (with only one character, Captain Marvel, that actually appeared on the show) and the Doom Patrol, who never appeared on it. All of these sets sold out... eventually, but compared to the Masters of the Universe Classics toys which sell out in minutes, they were a disappointment and Mattel discontinued these online offerings. The final set were members of the Justice Guild of America, who appeared in a fan-favorite episode from Season One.
The unveiled final releases from Toy Fair include a number of big name characters that have, surprisingly not been made already, including massive world-conqueror Mongul, immortal mastermind Vandal Savage and a second "futuristic" set featuring the Justice League from the Batman Beyond time, Static, Aquagirl and Micron.
Mattel WILL offer one additional online exclusive, S.T.R.I.P.E., the step-father of the already released Stargirl. (Their defunct comic was entitled Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E.) S.T.R.I.P.E. is an entirely new sculpt, requiring this type of release.
Also announced but not unveiled was a final boxed set that will allegedly complete the on-air team lineup. If so, this set should include Gypsy (above, far right) the only member of the Detroit-era Justice League yet un-produced. The other characters who appeared onscreen but have yet to be made are Crimson Avenger (an easy one to make, using The Question's suit-wearing body), The Creeper, Dr. Mid-Nite, Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt and possibly Speedy, a Teen Titans character who made an appearance in an episode which featured all of the characters that had, in the comics, been part of the Seven Soldiers of Victory.

There are a few other "gaps." The Shazam online set included the wizard Shazam, Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel and Black Adam, omitting the third member of the Marvel Family, Captain Marvel Jr. Likewise, the Justice Guild set doesn't include Catman. The futuristic Justice League from Batman Beyond still doesn't include Big Barda or Green Lantern. (The modern-day Big Barda is part of the line, however... but she uses the regular female body, so she isn't as BIG as she should be.) I doubt there's ANY chance of the rest of the Legion of Super Heroes popping up, but I could see a companion "finish up" set for the Legion of Doom. The last figures unveiled included Heatwave, Angle Man and (most notably) Killer Frost. There are still a handful that COULD be used, though.I guess ultimately, this line felt like a chore to collect. The distribution was terrible. I STILL don't get Target's toy stocking strategy. All I know is no store gets every single wave of every single toy line. I think it has to do with what I said before about lingering stock. If there are unsold quantities on-hand, they don't send more, even if it's just one or two figures still unsold. I probably had to eBay like... I dunno at least 35% and probably more of this line. Plus with the damn ComiCon exclusives, I probably paid like $40 for those. But, for the most part, I NEEDED them all. I mean, yeah, there are characters I think that DESERVE a figure in this line, whereas SO many of the ones that HAVE been produced never even had speaking parts!
Buuuuuut yeah, this line has been a pain to collect, but I AM pleased that there will be an attempt to complete at least the Justice League. Seriously, not having Gypsy drove me crazy! I can only hope for the others I mentioned. (Seriously, Catman! Make that happen!) Hope this pans out!

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