OPINION: Summertime And The Toy Aisle
Articulation Is Not The Point...
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By C.J. Stunkard
When I was a kid in the late 80ís and mid 90ís, I loved the summer movie season. I can think of few things that made me more excited. But my enthusiasm was always split between dual interests. Yes, I was excited about the films themselves; I bought into the hype machine like American consumers are trained to do, but my main focus was that a big season also at the movies meant a huge season in the toy aisle (and my birthday fell right at the front of June).
I used to love the late spring months, with the first big summer opener on the horizon and the toy aisle serving as its best commercial. I saw the TV spots and magazine covers, but they only hinted at someone elseís story. The toy aisle brought the world of that movie right into my hands and provided a tangible tool for creating narratives of characters I loved (or thought I would love once I saw the flic). I would spend all the time I was allowed hunting the pegs, reading the cardbacks, and trying to decide which repaint of Batman spoke to me as a person (it seemed like every film from Returns forward had a color design intended just for me). I would read the dossiers on the blister and get a sense of the world I would soon see in the theater and engage with my figures thereafter.
Sometimes, most times, I was disappointed in the films for whatever reasons - not enough fistfights; one car chase too many; this, that, or the other twist that I didnít understand. But strangely, I never felt duped by the toys (not even in the case of 89ís Bob, the Jokerís goon, who I thought would be a main character in the movie but I didnít recognize in it until high school). If anything, the versatility of the toy lines made up for the lackluster stories onscreen. Sure, Dick Tracy left much to be desired for an 8 year-old, but for years I loved those gangster toys - first for Tracy to fight, then later to battle against the Ninja Turtles or Spider-man or whoever. And, of course, while Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves hit on all cylinders for my 9 year-old self, the movie paled in comparison to my outlawís adventures at home (plus he had a soft goods clothing and Green Arrowís Body from the 80ís! How cool was that!). And donít get me started on all of Batmanís outings. For all the faults of the Schumacher films, I got plenty of bang for my buck out of that í95 Two-Face with rocket launcher accessory.
As I go down the toy aisles now, I donít have that same experience. Some might say itís because Iím in my thirties, but I think that misses the point. The fact is that this summerís lines are about as lackluster as any in recent memory.
The 2013 summer movie season should be huge in the toy department: Iron Man is coming off his epic alliance with the Avengers, The Man of Steel is going to fill the void left by The Dark Knight, Wolverine is going to make up for his last abysmal outing, and The Lone Ranger and Pixar monsters are returning to pop culture with a bang.
But in the action figure aisle, things looked grim and uninteresting. Based on Hasbroís Iron Man 3 toys, there are two important characters in the picture -Mark 42 and Iron Patriot (and War Machine, kinda). Thatís it, everyone else, including the humans inside those suits, are window dressing. Not a single other human being plays a part in that story (but at least Iron Man gets to drive a race car, right?) Then, of course, thereís the Man of Steel run. At least he fights General Zod and Namek, the giant; but I guess heís not also Clark Kent in this movie, not as much as the toys are concerned, anyway. Luckily, the Students of Monsters U are out in full force, but the Lone Ranger is nowhere to be seen.
That is, of course, until I see the Lego aisle, which paints a very different picture. Disneyís upcoming Lone Ranger sets hint at big action set-pieces and a variety of colorful characters. In fact, according to the boxes of bricks, Iron Man 3 actually has humans in it and the Man of Steel will feature those spaceships from the trailers, plus Lois Lane. Thatís reassuring for the films, while simultaneously indicting to other toy companies.
Letís face it, on the figure front, the big two dropped the ball.
Fans of the 3 ĺ scale have been in forums decrying Hasbroís move to the 5 points of articulation model for this yearís Iron Man 3 and Wolverine mainline offerings, and at first I wanted to jump into various forums and join the call against Hasbro for their supposed discarding of the older fanbase that arguably built their success. However, the more I considered the shift, the more I agreed with it in concept. I am not adverse to major toy companies reducing their costs, expanding their distribution chains, and lowering the price on their figures, especially for 6-8 month movie toy-in linesóprovided, of course, that the entire tie-in line itself is good. And thatís my point: I donít think that reduced articulation is the problem (and itís never been a problem, for kids, really, Kennerís beloved and successful product lines for Star Wars and Batman Forever lines attest to this).
The problem is overall execution.
I donít know what changed this year. Even as recently as 2011, Thor, Captain America, and Green Lantern all had relatively strong tie-in lines featuring a handful of characters as well as roleplay items and a legitimate and useful vehicle or two (Thor, withstanding), plus assorted retailer exclusives. Did each of those lines fail so drastically that summer movie tie-ins just donít matter anymore?
Of course they do. Last year, Mattel knew it would make a fortune on Dark Knight Rises toys regardless of the product lineís quality; hence kids received endless Batman repaints in the same mold - not an issue in and of itself - but then they also got a single mold, 5-POA Bane in three color schemes, and a bunch of expanded universe vehicles with a non-removable Batman pilot inside them, and ďThe BatĒ with a flying Batman-missile-esque figure (an action feature they have re-tooled for the MOS line ,by the way). Catwoman and Bruce Wayne made an appearance as Target exclusives, and the camouflaged Tumbler could be found at Walmart if you were lucky, but Bane had no henchmen, and Commissioner Gordon and Officer John Blake were irrelevant for kids. Really? Was Tech-armor their best way to get children excited for Batman figures? Did it test well in their focus groups? Better than a police officer toy? At the same time, Hasbro ponied up for some excellent offerings in the 3 ĺ line for Avengers, and that line still had some legs up until the spring. What happened this year to make this summerís outings so poor?
My guess is that the timeframes for film releases are simply too short to develop a solid toy line for them. Which is a real bummer, because that dynamic will hurt the consumer: the child. And itís him, about whom I care. I care because of the 7-9 year-old boys who run down the toy aisle to find that the only way to get Iron Patriot is to get one with interchangeable armor (mandating the purchase of another deluxe figure to make the feature worthwhile) or who wants his ďTransforming Clark Kent to SupermanĒ figure that doesnít exist, or who wants the cool mega Samurai from the Wolverine trailer but only has the option of getting a strange looking 3 ĺ one.
Maybe the industryís just too different now than it was 2 years ago, but I find these realities a bummer for the kid who is like I was 20 years-ago. I want him to have that excitement when he enters the toy aisle. I want him to feel the rush of a blister card boasting colorful characters and hinting at big action and deep storytelling. I want him to excitedly mow the extra lawns so that he can afford to buy not only the hero but a cool vehicle with a usable bonus character. I want him to experience the world of the movie in his local toy aisle and in his self-entertaining adventures of his imagination thereafter. This summer, I guess he (and I) will have to make our way to the Lego aisle.
- C.J. Stunkard
Last edited by JeffSaylor; 06-28-2013 at 08:03 PM.