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REVIEW: MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS BATTLE ARMOR HE-MAN
By Thomas Wheeler

Okay, so Eternia is this world where the populace seems to live in a strange cross between high technology and a certain medieval society. They have castles, kingdoms, and the clothing design seems, to a various degree, rather primitive. And yet they also possess a fairly substantial technology, occasionally aided by magic, but I'm not even going to try to explain that, as they have repeatedly shown evidence of building sophisticated machines, including flying vehicles, and assorted high-tech weaponry.

Between that and the wide and varied forms of sentient life, I think an anthropologist would have a field day on Eternia. Either that or an aneurysm.

I say this because, in such an environment, it is perhaps not entirely unexpected that the primary hero of Eternia -- He-Man, of course -- might be outfitted fairly basically, even primitively by Earth standards. And indeed he is. Typically, He-Man wears a grey chest harness with an insignia in its center, a loincloth with a wide belt, wrist bands, and fur-topped boots. None of this is likely to be viewed as especially protective.

One might tend to think that it takes a lot of courage, a lot of self-confidence, a lot of innate heroism, to go up against the likes of Skeletor and his minions dressed little better than Tarzan and with only a magical sword as your primary weapon.

But I'm not here to analyze He-Man's mental state. I'm here to review this addition to the truly superb MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS action figure line from Mattel -- specifically, BATTLE ARMOR HE-MAN.

A little history on the character of He-Man:

In the illustrated mini-comics released with the first series of toys, 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. 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. After this, we have the "Filmation" era.

By the time the Filmation animated series was being developed, He-Man's origins had been revised: 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 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, better 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 on the front, is the source of He-Man's powers. Inside the Castle lives the Sorceress, who grants Prince Adam his special 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").

Generally speaking, it's my opinion that most Masters fans tend to give the Filmation animated series credit as being predominantly "canon", although most also regard the mini-comics as entertaining stories, with a fair amount of credit given to the 2002-era animated series for filling in some of the origin-type blank spots. The character bios that have been provided with the Masters of the Universe Classics line would seem to bear out these general preferences, as well, combining as much as possible where possible.

Now, not surprisingly, He-Man was one of the first figures released in the Masters of the Universe Classics line. The line was officially commences with a San Diego Comic-Con exclusive figure of King Grayskull, who had never before been made as a figure in any previous line. However, the figure was a good indicator of what one could expect as far as design, articulation, detail, and so forth. That King Grayskull was well received is a colossal understatement.

By the end of 2008, Mattel was ready to go with the regular line, and released He-Man and Beast Man in the same month. Throughout 2009 and now into 2010, the line continues to be massively popular each month on MattyCollector.Com, with fans and collectors barging in mid-month to acquire the latest offerings.

So, if He-Man's already been offered, what's up with this Battle Armor He-Man? Well, simply stated, the figure does have precedence in the original line. There was indeed a Battle Armor He-Man in the original Masters of the Universe line.

It's certainly not uncommon for any given toy line to issue more than one version of certain core characters. The number of Snake-Eyes, Cobra Commander, and Duke figures offered in the G.I. Joe line is -- heck, I don't even know. Spider-Man, Iron Man, Indiana Jones, and any number of others have done the same. I personally tend to call it "Batman Syndrome", simply because throughout the Kenner-then-Hasbro-then-Mattel runs of the Gotham Guardian, there were so many versions of Batman (and frankly so few versions of just about everybody else) that it bordered on the ridiculous. A 200th Batman was even offered at once point, actually listing every Batman version, from Super Powers on, that had been created to date.

The original Masters of the Universe line didn't get that carried away. In my opinion, the 2002 Masters line DID. It kept turning out one version after another of He-Man and Skeletor, while short-packing the rest of the cast (which was what everybody was looking for), and I sincerely think that it was a major factor in the demise of that particular run of the Masters.

However, there is something to be said for keeping core characters available in the concurrent toy line, at least to a reasonable degree. And in the original line, that "reasonable degree" took the form of "Battle Armor" versions of both He-Man and Skeletor.

These "Battle Armor" figures presented a fairly interesting feature to go along with their new versions. Both He-Man and Skeletor were dressed in detailed armor that encased their torsos. Of course, in the case of the original figures, the armor WAS their torsos. The special feature was on the chestplate. Installed within the figure was a rotating "drum" that used some sort of gear and spring mechanism (I assume) to create the effect that the armor being worn was taking successive hits and damage from battle.

There were three different "images" on each armor. Clean and undented; one fairly decisive whack with a sword or an axe; and several such whacks. This battle damage was portrayed by cracked indentations in the armor, that were painted in such a way as to look as through the painted surface of the "metallic" armor had been chipped away.

It worked simply enough. If you set the figure's chestplate to "clean", then a sufficient strike would change it to the "one dent" mode, and another strike would change it to the "multiple strikes" mode. It wouldn't rotate back around to clean again. It would need to be completely reset.

The original Battle Armor He-Man served two purposes, really. It allowed for a new version of He-Man with a decently interesting, innovative, and new special feature -- and it showed that He-Man, after what had likely already been numerous battles against Skeletor, decided that maybe he needed to be doing something other than facing off against ol' Skullface in little more than his furry skivvies.

Although Battle Armor He-Man never appeared in the animated series, he's certainly a well-regarded version of the figure, and now, he's been brought into the Masters of the Universe Classics line. So, how well does the new figure work out?

Not too badly at all, really. Obviously the bulk of the figure is a repeat of the first Masters of the Universe Classics He-Man, but that's to be expected. There are a few changes, apart from the armor. The airbrushed detail on the face is absent. This was a somewhat controversial bit of detailing the first time around. Some people likened it to a sunburn. I honestly had no real opinion about it one way or the other. I thought it looked okay, and unlike some other action figure detailing in other lines, it wasn't intended to be any sort of dirtying or weathering. I hate that. Granted this sort of detailing can be tricky business if not done well, but I had no cause to complain about the original. That having been said, the "airbrushless" face on the Battle Armor He-Man figure looks fine, too.

The figure obviously uses the same arms, lower torso, and legs as the first He-Man figure. Most of the Masters of the Universe figures do so. It lends a certain consistency to the toy line which I sincerely appreciate. And of course, it's in the same color scheme as the first He-Man.

But then there's the armor! Truly, it's an excellent updated-but-faithful rendition of the original, like like the entire action figure line itself. It's molded in a metallic grey, and is very nicely sculpted and detailed. The mid-torso of the figure is molded in metallic grey, but is actually part of the figure, as is the upper torso, which is also molded in metallic grey. The chest and back armor is actually a separate attachment.

I'm honestly not sure to what degree this may result in some controversy over this figure. I rather hope it doesn't, because it is a cool figure. But -- the actual function of the original Battle Armor has not been carried over. I suspect that given the enhanced articulation of the Masters of the Universe Classics figures, plus the expense of designing and building a suitable mechanism, it just wasn't feasible. Unfortunate? Maybe, but then the Masters of the Universe Classics line has tended to be seen as a collectors' line for the most part, anyway. And while I wouldn't put it past some collectors to want to stage a battle with their figures, I doubt that this would be the majority attitude.

The three different stages of armor damage ARE accommodated for, however. He-Man comes outfitted with the "one-strike" stage of his armor in place. At least mine did. For all I know, Mattel shuffled this around at random. Included among the accessories are two more armor chest pieces -- a clean one and a multi-strike version.

This is one time when instructions with the figure would have been helpful. The additional armor pieces do not snap in on the front. As far as I've been able to determine -- and I'm a little reluctant to try it out myself -- the way these work is that you remove the chest armor from the figure -- and it does appear to be removable -- and then snap any given chestplate insert into the main chest armor from the back, and then snap it back onto the figure.

Clever, really, and the end result really does look a great deal like an updated version of the original Battle Armor He-Man, since the rotating part of his armor was somewhat recessed on the figure anyway.

The chestplate(s) have a logo imprinted on them, that looks like a large, ornate letter "H". This has been very well done on all three pieces, and in the case of the damaged ones, imprinted around the battle dents, which themselves have been painted in with a brighter silver paint.

The only real downside to the figure is that, like any of the figures in this like that wear torso armor, Battle-Armor He-Man can't quite lower his arms to the sides all the way. The arms invariably stick out a little to the side, and in He-Man's case, it makes him look like he's a little uncomfortable wearing the chest armor, somehow. Nevertheless, he's hardly the only figure in the line that's had to make this accommodation. He-Man's own father, King Randor, has the same issue, as do a few others. It's not really that big of a deal.

Of course, overall detail on the figure is excellent. The Four Horsemen, the sculpting and design team responsible for this Masters of the Universe Classics line for Mattel, really went all out on these figures from the outset, and they continue to impress. The musculature is impressive, the sculpted detail amazing, the articulation astounding, and the paintwork came out very nicely, as well.

He-Man is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, boot tops, and ankles. His accessories, along with the two aforementioned additional chestplates, includes a large axe, which doubtless could put a couple of good dents in a Battle-Armor Skeletor, as such time as he joins this line.

Any complaints? None. The figure has been assembled well -- there are no stuck or too-loose joints; the paint work is all very nicely and neatly done -- this is the sort of thing I like to see on a consistent, regular basis, and not just in the Masters. Any action figure line from any company should have this as their constant objective.

One thing I especially appreciate about these Masters of the Universe Classics figures is that their package cards include character bios, for the first time in the history of the Masters. Presented in ornate type on what looks like a scroll, they've really helped add a bit more personality to the characters, as well as being respectful of their history. Battle Armor He-Man's character bio reads as follows:

BATTLE ARMOR HE-MAN - Most Powerful Man in the Universe

Real Name: ADAM of the HOUSE RANDOR

To adapt to new enemies and situations, Adam has learned to tap further into the great power which his sword unlocks. The combined Power of the Universe and the Knowledge of the Elders is used by Adam to imagine and create new forms of armor and weapons to combat evil. His Battle Armor was created to protect He-Man during his early battles with Skeletor and his evil warriors. Using the Power of Grayskull, He-Man - The Most Powerful Man in the Universe, is now shielded by his mighty Battle Armor!

So, what's my final word here? I continue to be both amazed and impressed by this Masters of the Universe Classics line. And although I wouldn't want to see He-Man and Skeletor turn up all that often, there are some legitimate variants established in the original line that, every once in a great while, in and around other characters who are deserving of their first turns in the line, I would have no objection to seeing. And I'm certainly pleased to have added Battle Armor He-Man to my collection.

And if you've been following this line, or are any sort of Masters fan, you'll enjoy him as well. The MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of BATTLE ARMOR HE-MAN definitely has my highest recommendation!