REVIEW: MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS BATTLE ARMOR SKELETOR
The pop culture world has certainly produced its fair share of classic, iconic villains. Cobra Commander, Megatron, Darth Vader, Lex Luthor -- and I would certainly include SKELETOR in that line-up. This skull-faced "Evil lord of destruction" plagued He-Man and the other heroic Masters of the Universe for years in his attempts to conquer the planet Eternia and gain access to the power of Castle Grayskull.
Skeletor, of course, has always been the main villain of the Masters of the Universe concept, and this continues to be the case today, within the spectacular Masters of the Universe Classics line produced by Mattel, and designed by the sculpting and design studio known as the Four Horsemen.
Skeletor, not surprisingly, was among the first figures offered when Mattel brought the Masters of the Universe Classics line to the fan community through their online store at MattyCollector.Com. To date, we've not only seen Skeletor -- twice if you count the somewhat hapless version that came with the Eternian dentist Mo-Larr at the 2010 San Diego Comics Convention -- but Skeletor's pre-skull-faced version as well, Keldor.
However, in the original Masters of the Universe line, there was more than one He-Man -- and more than one Skeletor. Although the original Masters of the Universe line didn't have the runaway problem with near pointless variants that, in my opinion, doomed the 2002 line, and has also certainly plagued a wide range of other action figure lines over the years, Mattel did realize that there was something to be said for making sure that the "stars of the show", as it were, didn't vanish completely from the line, even as the cast substantially expanded.
The earliest variant in the original Masters of the Universe line was Battle Armor He-Man, who was quickly followed by Battle Armor Skeletor. No one is ever likely to accuse He-Man of being a clothes-horse. He seems entirely content with his loincloth, boots, and chest harness. Skeletor isn't exactly overdressed himself, as far as that goes. It probably took a while, in light of his hood and the absence of any visible skin on his face, to realize that Skeletor's light blue coloration across the majority of his body wasn't a suit, but was, in fact, light blue skin. If nothing else, the Keldor figure has since cleared up that potential discrepancy.
A while back, MattyCollector.Com offered a Masters of the Universe Classics version of Battle Armor He-Man. And doubtless this led many people to question -- okay, so where's Battle Armor Skeletor?
Well, we finally have him. He was offered as a secondary figure in the same month that King Hssss of the Snake-Men came out, and I purchased both figures. For those in need of something of a refresher on the character of Skeletor, let's consider his background, with a little help from some online research.
It should be noted, however, that tracking the backstories of Masters of the Universe characters can be a tricky thing. Unlike G.I. Joe and Transformers, the other "big guns" of the 1980's, Masters of the Universe did not employ character file cards. Similarly, the animated series produced by Filmation was not overly concerned with delving too far into the backgrounds of characters, unless it was crucial to the story, which occasionally it was. To frustrate matters a little further, the mini-comics that came with the action figures often contradicted the animated series, which arguably had a greater audience. The 2002 animated series did go into greater background detail, but ultimately, tracing the background of prominent Masters of the Universe characters can be a long and winding road.
Not surprisingly, the online material chooses to separate the various versions, starting with the Filmation animated series. Here, Skeletor is a former pupil of Hordak, although this was not revealed until Hordak himself was introduced. When Hordak and his Horde invaded Eternia and stormed the palace, Hordak broke in and kidnapped one of the King and Queen's twin babies. Man-At-Arms and the Royal Guard captured Hordak's apprentice, Skeletor, and forced him to divulge the whereabouts of his master, who had retreated into his base of operations, Snake Mountain. When cornered, Hordak opened a random dimensional portal (later revealed to have led to Etheria), and leaped through with the baby Princess Adora in his possession.
Skeletor remained on Eternia, raised an army of powerful minions of his own, and took over as ruler of Snake Mountain. Skeletor's main goal is to conquer the mysterious fortress of castle Grayskull, from which He-Man draws his powers. Should he succeed, Skeletor would be able to conquer not only Eternia, but the entire universe.
The animated series made no mention of the character of Keldor, nor how Skeletor became a blue-skinned humanoid with a yellowish skull for a head. Interestingly, the online article mentions that Skeletor appeared in only 71 of the 130 episodes of the original Masters of the Universe series. That's only slightly more than half. That sincerely surprised me. I wonder what he was doing the rest of the time?
At this point we start getting into the mini-comics, and things get complicated, especially since the mini-comics were produced both before and after the animated series, with the later ones trying to adapt the animated universe as best as possible.
The earliest mini-comics are drastically different from the animated series. For example, there is no royal court of Eternia, King Randor, Queen Marlena, or Prince Adam. Instead, He-Man is depicted as the superhuman champion of a tribe of stone age jungle-dwellers. Granted, he sort of looks the part.
In these comics, Skeletor is an inhabitant of another dimension, populated with others of "his kind". During "The Great Wars", a concept which was never significantly explained, a hole was opened in the dimensional wall, and Skeletor was thrown from his world into Eternia. Early on, Skeletor's key motivation here was to reopen the rift between his world and Eternia, thus allowing Skeletor's army to invade and conquer Eternia alongside him. However, this particular version of the character was rather short-lived, and questions arising about his origin remained unanswered.
In the comics that followed the conclusion of the Filmation series, we get our first hint that Skeletor is in fact Keldor, and also as such King Randor's long-lost brother.
This inference occurs specifically in the 1986 mini-comic "The Search for Keldor", a story that involves Prince Adam and Randor searching for Randor's lost brother Keldor. When Skeletor learns of their quest, he states that "they must never discover the secret of Keldor", as the truth would lead to his destruction.
In this story King Randor announces that Keldor disappeared years ago. "He thought to master magic; when his experiments went wrong he was lost in a dimension beyond time!" This maintained one aspect of Skeletor's backstory, in that he had come to Eternia from another dimension. It's likely that Randor's statement was used to reconcile Skeletor's extra-dimensional origin with the possibility of being Randor's brother, and Adam's uncle.
To find out what happened to Keldor, Randor and the Sorceress attempt to peer through the dimensional veil. Randor announces, "I think I see Keldor, or is it..." Before he can say anything else, Skeletor appears, determined to stop them from finding out any more. Although Skeletor is defeated, he is able to prevent Randor from discovering Keldor's fate.
For years, Skeletor's frantic effort to cover up what happened to Keldor was taken as a strong implication that Keldor and Skeletor were in fact one and the same. However, because the original toy line concluded before the story could be resolved, the question remained unanswered.
I'm going to skip over the live-action 1987 movie, since that took place outside of any continuity, as well as the "New Adventures of He-Man, even though there were aspects of that which could be tied into the Filmation continuity, there wasn't really a lot there that delved into Skeletor's background, and it represented a different toy line in which only He-Man and Skeletor were carried over.
By the time of the 2002 animated series, and the concurrent toy line, there was something to be said for establishing more in the way of backgrounds, and this was certainly the case with Skeletor. In this new version, it was shown that Skeletor was formerly a warlord named Keldor who had trained in the dark arts. Keldor was taught the ways of magic by summoning Hordak, who was trapped in the dark dimension of Despondos. He gathered a small band of warriors to attack the Hall of Wisdom.
Here, they encountered resistance from then-Captain Randor and his officers. Keldor fought Randor personally, wielding two swords with astounding proficiency, but when Randor disarmed him, Keldor threw a vial of acid at him. Randor deflected it with his shield, and the acid splashed on Keldor's face.
A retreat was called, and Evil-Lyn took Keldor to Hordak's sanctuary, where Keldor summoned Hordak to save his life. Hordak transformed him, stripping the damaged tissues from his skull and dubbing him Skeletor; Keldor's head had been completely stripped of soft tissues, leaving only a bare skull. Somehow, Skeletor is still able to see, hear, and speak. In keeping with the more intense tone of the 2002 animated series relative to the Filmation series of the 1980's, Skeletor is a decidedly nastier customer with a far more malicious edge.
Ultimately, it took the Masters of the Universe Classics line to try to unify all the various aspects of Keldor/Skeletor into something that made some sense. According to what one must now assume to be the official backstory for the character, Keldor is Randor's half-brother. Keldor's mother was a member of the blue-skinned Gar race, and he was ousted from the royal castle due to his Gar heritage. He roamed Eternia for knowledge, eventually learning the dark arts from Hordak. He then sought to unite Eternia by ruling it himself, and battled his own brother with his army of assorted villains. After losing the battle and being wounded, much as portrayed in the 2002 series, desperate to survive, he turned to his mentor Hordak who merged Kendor with an entity known as Demo-Man. Together they formed Skeletor.
The "Demo-Man" part of the story is new, but apparently "Demo-Man" was an early name considered for the Skeletor toy, so it was added. To what degree it might play out in the action figure line remains unknown. I think it would be reasonable to say that this entity has probably aided in Skeletor's survival somehow, but has had little impact in his personality. He's always been a villain.
So, how's the figure? Hey, it's the Masters of the Universe Classics line as designed by the Four Horsemen. I have yet to see a poor figure come out of this line, so of course it's impressive.
As one might expect, a lot of the body molds are carried over from the original Skeletor. He has the standard hooded skull head. One of the things I appreciate about this line over the 2002 Masters line, which admittedly was also designed by the Four Horsemen, is that the Classics line isn't as stylized. It's a lot more straightforward. As such, Skeletor's skull really has the proportions of the human skull. Honestly, so did the one from the original 1980's line to a fair degree. It was hard to tell because of how it was painted, but at one point, I customized the Skeletor figure I had to more closely resemble the animated version of the character, which meant painting the entire skull-face a flat pale yellow, and I was amazed at how truly skull-like the head looked when I did that.
The Classics Skeletor is similar -- although I haven't repainted it. I'm not saying that you could use Skeletor in an anthropology assignment, but the face definitely looks like that of a human skull, even given the color scheme. The face is molded in a surprisingly bright green, and then most of the skull-face is painted in a pale yellow. Honestly, the face could've used a little more yellow. It looks to me like how this was painted was to paint most of the face through a stencil, and then add some hand-painted swipes of yellow across the rather broad forehead. This Skeletor could've used a few more swipes.
The eyes -- or perhaps more accurately, eye sockets -- have been painted black, with red centers. Somewhat curiously, both the black and red paint used here has a very glossy finish to it, as if Mattel was trying to make the eyes look like they were glowing or some such. The end result looks more like Skeletor's eye-sockets are getting teary-eyed.
The indentation for the nose has also been painted black, and his teeth have been outlined in black. The end result is, on the whole, very impressive.
The arms and legs are entirely those used for the original Skeletor figure. I think it's interesting to note that the Skeletor figures to date have a somewhat more muted blue to them than the Keldor figure has. It's as if the acid shot to his head, and whatever mystic stunt Hordak used to preserve his life, had a dramatic effect on Skeletor entirely. While it would be a difficult thing to evaluate, since there are no blue-skinned humanoids in real life (sorry, Star Trek fans of Andorians everywhere), it's as if Keldor's somewhat brighter blue is reflective of a healthier skin color than Skeletor's. I also appreciate the fact that Mattel has maintained this coloration consistently for the various Skeletor figures.
There are two notable differences between this Skeletor figure, and the standard Skeletor figure that was offered fairly early on in the Masters of the Universe Classics line -- besides the Battle Armor, that is.
First off, Battle Armor Skeletor lacks the additional -- well, I don't know what else to call it -- apron -- that hangs in front of his loincloth. The furry-sculpted loincloth is still, thankfully, present and accounted for, but the additional "apron" is absent.
Now, let's discuss the Battle Armor. When Battle Armor He-Man and Skeletor were first introduced in the 1980's, the Battle Armor for both had a very specific gimmick to it. A large portion of the chestplate, bearing an emblem, was actually a spring-loaded, rotating "drum" built into the torso of the figure itself, which was designed to show various degrees of combat damage in three different sections. The chestplate had a "clean" setting, a "one strike" setting, where it looked as though the chestplate had taken a single blow from the opponents weapon, denting the armor and "chipping the paint", so to speak, and a "multi-strike" setting, which showed two or more such blows, at which point one would think whoever was taking that many shots would have the good sense to surrender.
Technically, it was this "multi-strike" setting that was the "unsprung" setting. One essentially "wound" the armor all the way to the "undamaged" section, and then two successive blows to the chestplate took it through the other settings. It wasn't a bad gimmick, and the Masters of the Universe figures certainly had enough bulk to accommodate the mechanism within their torsos without affecting the overall look of the figures. Although, of course, special torsos had to be designed for them, as did the mechanisms themselves.
That wasn't really an option for the Masters of the Universe Classics figures. Completely new parts are few and far between, and there's as much reuse as possible (in fairness, the original line reused as many parts as it could, as well). Even if Mattel opted to design an entirely new torso with an internalized rotating chestplate, there was also then the matter of duplicating the spring-loaded mechanism. The original Masters of the Universe figures had this sort of thing in abundance. They started out with spring-active waists which let them appear to be winding up and delivering fearsome punches. But the Classics line, marketed as a collectors line, had chosen not to duplicate these mechanisms. The closest we've seen to this in the Classics line has been the transparent, gear-filled torso of Roboto, who certainly deserved it and came out astoundingly well.
However, while it wasn't considered feasible or appropriate to duplicate the mechanism of the original Battle Armors, it was considered feasible and appropriate to find a way to duplicate the look of what they did. Thus, when Battle Armor He-Man was released, it was discovered that it was possible to detach the chestplate, and replace the center section of it with one of three different armor pieces, which mirrored the original undamaged, slightly damaged, and more heavily damaged versions. This technique has also been used on the Eternian Palace Guards, entirely new figures introduced in the Classics line.
And, of course, the same practice has now been used for Battle Armor Skeletor. His torso is sheathed in metallic purple armor with black straps. My only complaint with armor pieces like this is that it makes it impossible for the figure to lower his arms all the way to his sides, but generally speaking, the figure looks cool enough that it can more or less be written off as an "action pose" or some such.
The black straps, with glossy black studs, criss-cross both the front and the back of the armor, and give it a decidedly sinister look. There's a small black skull on the front, just below the changeable chestplate, that gives a nice bit of added imagery to the armor.
The armor is snapped in place along four tabs and slots, two at the shoulders, two on the sides. The armor is a lot easier to remove than He-Man's was, but I suspect this could well vary from figure to figure. The actual torso of Skeletor underneath the armor has been molded in the same metallic purple color as the armor itself.
The "undamaged" chestplate has a bat-like image on it, but no one's going to be mistaking Skeletor for a certain Dark Knight. The bat shape is outlined in bright green, with green lines segmenting the wings, and portions inside the wings are colored -- pink!? Not sure what to make of this choice of colors, but go ahead, you laugh at a skull-faced armored muscleman if you want to. As far as I'm concerned, he can wear what he wants to.
The center piece pops out readily enough, and Battle Armor Skeletor comes with the other two pieces necessary to present the various levels of "damage". When not in use, I personally recommend a Ziploc bag.
Weaponwise, Skeletor comes with a good-sized purple axe, molded mostly in metallic purple, with some black trim on it. Nice piece, really.
Skeletor's Battle Armor never appeared in the original animated series. Neither did He-Man's, for that matter. It would've meant redoing way too much stock footage, I'm sure. As such, the Battle Armor has never really received much of an origin -- until now. Thanks to the scroll-like bio cards on the back of the Masters of the Universe Classics packaging, we now know where Skeletor came by his Battle Armor. It reads as follows:
BATTLE ARMOR SKELETOR
Using dark magic taught by Hordak, Skeletor occasionally creates new forms of armor and weapons to outmaneuver the Masters of the Universe. His Battle Armor was first created to help Skeletor penetrate through the Mystic Wall in order to kidnap Adora and secretly clone the Sorceress of Grayskull. The original armor was destroyed by Oo-larr after three strikes with his mighty battle axe, sending Skeletor back behind the wall. Skeletor reformed the armor twenty years later in an effort to combat a similar suit now worn by He-Man. Although lacking the mystic qualities of the original, his new armor was stronger and more powerful. Skeletor, Evil Lord of Destruction, is now protected by his magic Battle Armor!
It's interesting that the kidnapping of Adora is mentioned. If memory serves, in the flashback sequence which showed this event, both Hordak and Skeletor were wearing armor. I know Hordak was. It wasn't like this Battle Armor, but it was armor. As for who Oo-larr is, that remains something of a mystery, although speculation has it that this is the new name for the primitive, caveman-like He-Man from the early days of the mini-comics, now being treated as an entirely separate character. I suspect we may see a figure of him someday, much as we did with Vikor, who was another proto-He-Man.
One other interesting note -- the prototype for Battle Armor Skeletor shown on the back of the package card shows him with bare feet. Somewhere along the way it got changed to booted feet. And as far as I'm concerned, it's an improvement.
So, what's my final word? Normally, I tend to question the need for repaints. But neither Battle Armor Skeletor nor his He-Man counterpart are really repaints. And their original incarnations certainly are well-established and well-remembered within the concept. I believe that the Four Horsemen found a more than agreeable means of replicating the armor and giving it the ability to duplicate the look of the original gimmick.
And certainly Battle Armor Skeletor is a well-designed, well-crafted, well-painted, and definitely well-articulated figure. These Masters of the Universe Classics figures are readily the ultimate Masters, and Battle Armor Skeletor is most assuredly an appropriate and welcome addition to the collection.
The MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of BATTLE ARMOR SKELETOR definitely has my most enthusiastic recommendation!