After 20 years, Mattel Toys has decided to bring back their He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line. Despite being headlined by a hero with the cheesiest name of all time, the toys were one of the most popular lines of the '80s.
Part of the success of the original line was due to Mattel's ultra-cheapo production values. As anyone who owned the original figures can attest to, each figure was made from a limited number of torso, arm, and leg sculpts. With a few clever color changes, some accessories and a new head, kids had a "new" action figure. But this wasn't the only way Mattel built equity; it also reused molds from older lines, such as their 1970s "Big Jim" line, to make toys for MotU.
This time around, Mattel has opted to skip the cheapo methods. They hired four former sculptors from McFarlane Toys, home of some of the finest toy sculptors in America. Dubbing themselves The Four Horsemen, these sculptors set about redefining He-Man for a new age of action figure standards. The new figures are stunning, especially when compared to the cookie-cutter work of the originals.
This review focuses on Mer-Man, one of the henchmen of the evil Skeletor. Mer-Man (along with Beast Man, Evil-Lyn, Tri-Klops and Trap Jaw) was one of the regulars on the old cartoon as well as one of the first releases in the original '80s toy line, so it is fitting that he is one of the first three villain figures in the relaunch.
Who is Mer-Man? His packaging states that he is an "Ocean Warlord," though he's apparently still subservient to Skeletor. Mer-Man had various incarnations in the cartoon and comics and each time he was different. Sometimes he really was an ocean warlord, occasionally bossed around by Skeletor; on the cartoon, he was just another flunkey - albeit one who talked as if he was constantly gargling some Pepsodent.
First off, let's get the packaging out of the way for the MOC collectors. It's fairly simple: blister bubble on a cardboard backing. The graphics evoke the design of the original packaging, but I do wish there were drawings of the figures on the back, rather than photos. The bottom third of the figure is blocked by a plastic insert, making this slightly less MOC-collector-friendly than it might be.
In terms of design, the figure is outstanding. Though some have complained that his face looks too goofy, it is actually a very good representation of the original drawing of Mer-Man that was found on the '80s packaging. The '80s toy didn't look anything like that picture, which apparently peeved the Four Horsemen. When they had a chance to do their own Mer-Man, they went back to that original art and sculpted their figure accordingly.
While yes, it does look a bit goofy compared to the other figures, it also looks pretty fish-like - and let's face it, that's probably what you want with a Mer-Man, right? Other than the face, the sculpting is excellent. I can't emphasize enough how much I enjoy the sculpting of this entire line. It's exactly what you would expect from former McFarlane Toys sculptors - but without the lumpy-brown paint applications, the putrescent "Easy-Break" plastic, and the complete lack of articulation. I love this figure, from his yellow greaves and gauntlets to his webbed orange "skirt."
The paint applications here are also great. Some collectors have complained about the light colors and lack of washes, but that's exactly what I like about these - they're not the brown-washed lumps McFarlane and his ilk try to pawn off on us. The plastic is solid, the colors are bright, and the paint application, while stark, is also extremely detailed for the 6" scale.
Unlike most of the other figures in the line, Mer-Man does disappoint in one area: his accessories. The original Mer-Man's accessories, including his removable chest armor, were yellow. This figure has yellow greaves and gauntlets but his armor and weapons are made from bronze plastic. It doesn't fit the color scheme at all, particularly the armor. It should be yellow, period. As for the weapons - this guy's a Mer-Man, for pete's sake! He lives in the water! What use are bronze weapons? They'll oxidize and turn green and brittle in no time, especially in sea water. It's just illogical and pointless. Why not steel? That would make so much more sense. And the armor, as I said, should be yellow. Even the Four Horsemen designed it that way.
I should point out that the sculpting on these accessories is good, it's the color that bothers me. I especially like the trident, which has a little handle in the middle so he can hold it in the air, rather than simply leaning on it like a staff. Mer-Man is also the only figure in this line capable of holding one of his weapons (the trident) in two hands at the same time, allowing for a more realistic pose. The armor is loose but not removable, or at least, to remove it you'd have to wrench it over Mer-Man's head. A weapon can be slid into the back of the armor for storage.
In terms of articulation, Mer-Man has both a bit more and a bit less than his fellow figures. He has well-hidden ball joints at the hips and swivel joints at the wrists, neck, and waist. His right shoulder has a ball joint, but his left shoulder has a swivel joint as well as an unusual elbow joint in order to facilitate his action feature. As I've said in previous reviews, this amount of articulation, hidden as well as it is, is to me one of the finest compromises between sculpt and articulation I've ever seen.
Mer-Man has my favorite action feature from the line: when you press the button on his back, his left arm jabs out with whatever weapon is in his hand. While I don't play with my toys, I suspect most kids will find this a very amusing feature.
I'm slowly but surely reviewing a number of toys from the new MotU line. In each review, I try to give a tangential but interesting aside. In my review of Skeletor I discuss the kids vs. collectors aspect of this line;
in my review of He-Man I discuss some of the larger issues surrounding the MotU franchise and the way it is marketed to children.
Today I wish to impart a nostalgic memory of the original toy line. I was a mere lad of four when I received my first MotU toys. Some I remember receiving clearly: Mekaneck, and Buzz-Off, the original "Bumblebee Guy." But I also have some more interesting memories. For instance, on my cousin's sixth birthday he received a Battle Cat. I distinctly remember bawling my eyes out because he now had a Battle Cat and I didn't (I'm sure I got one soon, though). My parents and my aunt and uncle learned their lesson well, and the following Christmas my cousin and I both received a Battle Ram.