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By Thomas Wheeler

It's become increasingly common to see popular toy concepts from the 1980's brought back with a "fresh coat of paint" for the 21st century. Effectively, the "big three" -- Transformers, G.I.Joe 3-3/4", and Masters of the Universe, are all back, admittedly in somewhat different forms and in some cases with mixed results.

Mattel, creator of Masters of the Universe, has never been known for a large stable of action figure hits. The company is best known for Barbie and Hot Wheels, both decent and popular products, but neither especially fitting into the action figure format. Mattel's notable action figures can be almost broken down by decade -- the 60's saw Major Matt Mason, the 70's were Big Jim, the 80's provided the original Masters of the Universe, and the late 90's could marginally be granted to Max Steel.

Mattel recently acquired the license to DC Comics' stable of super-heroes, especially Batman and the Justice League, so hopefully the company best known for die-cast cars and fashion dolls will soon be making more of an action figure impact. Meanwhile, they've brought back the Masters.

Mattel tested the waters in 2000-01 with collectors' versions of a number of the original Masters of the Universe figures. These proved sufficiently popular for Mattel to proceed with an all-new line based on this popular concept. And perhaps at this point a little background is appropriate for those unfamiliar with the concept.

In the early 80's, Mattel launched the original Masters of the Universe action figure line, which enjoyed a healthy run of about six years and a level of popularity comparable to G.I.Joe and Transformers. The concept was fantasy-based, instead of the semi-military G.I.Joe and the more sci-fi like robotic Transformers. The adventures of the Masters of the Universe took place on a planet called Eternia. Prince Adam had been granted the powers of He-Man, a superhuman being whom Adam transformed into when he raised his sword and yelled, "By the power of Greyskull!"

Greyskull was an ancient castle and home of the powerful Sorceress, who sought to protect Eternia from the forces of evil that threatened it. These threats came largely in the form of Skeletor and his assorted minions.

Clearly Eternia had a far wider range of sentient life-forms than Earth. While He-Man and a number of his compatriots were relatively human, such as Teela and Man-At-Arms, a good number of the characters in the concept, while generally humanoid, weren't especially human per se, such as Mer-Man, Beast Man, Buzz Off, Man-E-Faces, Moss Man, Clawful, Webstor, and a host of literally dozens of bizarre heroes and villains that would emerge over the next several years. It seemed almost anything could fit into this concept, and that may well have been some of its appeal.

The concept was popular enough to warrant a superb animated series from Filmation, which was one of the first-ever animated series specifically directed to syndication. Previously, all "first-run" animation had gone to networks for Saturday morning, while most syndicated animation was reruns of The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Tom and Jerry, etc. The Masters of the Universe series broke that mold and opened the door for the subsequent arrival of G.I.Joe, Transformers, M.A.S.K., DuckTales, and a host of other series that are enjoyed to this day. This was all well before anyone even thought of the Cartoon Network, I might add.

Personally, I never collected Masters of the Universe that much when it was around the first time. In the first place, I was into G.I.Joe. In the second place, the oddly bulky figures with the short, knee-bent legs and limited articulation just didn't appeal to me that much. I enjoyed the concept, and I watched the show fairly regularly, but I just couldn't get into that many of the toys. I had some, and still do. But it wasn't a priority.

Certainly it was enough of a priority with other kids and collectors. Before long, new enemies came into the concept. The serpentine King Hiss brought his Snake-Men in. Then along came Hordak and his Evil Horde. To top it all off, Mattel created a spin-off concept, trying to combine the popularity of the action figure concept with a girls' toy, the result being He-Man's sister, She-Ra, Princess of Power!

She-Ra got her own series, and Hordak was the primary villain, since He-Man seemed to have enough to do to keep Skeletor in check. There were occasional crossovers in the two animated series, and a number of specials and even one animated theatrical movie which first introduced She-Ra. There was even a rather hysterical Christmas special that brought the Masters characters to Earth for the first time, and at least temporarily turned Skeletor into a good guy when Hordak tried to kidnap a couple of children. A live-action Masters of the Universe movie in the mid-80's is best forgotten, frankly.

The Masters of the Universe concept created some controversy in some circles. Some perhaps too-conservative Christians saw both the name of the concept and its fantasy element as a threat. To them, there is only one Master of the Universe -- God -- and the seemingly magical elements of the concept were that much more of an insult. To a degree, I can see their point, and I certainly agree that God is the only true "Master of the universe." At the same time, the animated series never seemed to delve that far into these aspects, certainly never portrayed anything comparable to real-world witchcraft, and compared to such garbage as far darker role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, or more contemporary concepts that come far too close to real-world withcraft like Harry Potter, He-Man and company are pretty tame.

Alas, even the most popular concepts come to an eventual end, as was the case with Masters of the Universe in the late 80's. An attempted revival in 1990, giving He-Man a more sci-fi bent, resulted in a less than impressive toy line and an even less impressive animated series, and is even more readily forgotten than the live-action movie. This was probably the He-Man equivalent of "G.I.Joe Extreme", and the less said about it, the better.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. G.I.Joe is back. Transformers are back. Disco doesn't seem to be as dead as it used to be. Oh, well, nothing's perfect. Anyway, Mattel found themselves sitting on one of the major popular toy concepts of the 1980's. But would anyone still want it? The molds to a number of figures still existed, so special "Collectors Editions" were put out and proved to be highly popular. The go-ahead was given for a complete revamp of the toy line, combined with a return to the original Masters of the Universe concept.

The responsibility for designing the line was given to a cadre of Mattel sculptors known as "The Four Horsemen". Although the articulation of the new figures was not greatly enhanced -- they still can't move at the elbows and knees -- the detail was brought up considerably and the overall look of the figures was somewhat more plausible. The rather stumpy legs are gone. There's a greater level of articulation at the shoulders and hips. The wrists turn. The figures still have certain built-in movement functions, but then, so did the original Masters of the Universe.

To date, the figures have proved extremely popular. I was concerned that the figures might end up looking like "He-Man by way of McFarlane", but they don't. They look like what I think they were intended to look like -- upgraded versions of the original characters.

I hadn't bought any until recently. I have to watch my toy dollars these days, and honestly, there's very little that catches my eye. Really, my main toy interest these days is Gundam. I do buy some Star Wars, especially the 12" line, but that's about it.

But I saw a boxed set that included He-Man and Skeletor at Target recently, and it included a comic book, and the price was decent, so I decided to purchase it and see if these toys lived up to the acclaim they were receiving.

For the most part, they do, and very well. They're well-made, have a decent amount of articulation. which is nice and tight, I might add, a superb amount of detail, are well-constructed, have excellent accessories, and a great deal of appeal to both kids and collectors. The figures are a bit pre-posed, but no worse than their 1980's counterparts. The enhanced detail on the figures is not so excessive that it goes to the point of being grotesque. In fact, it's very impressive. The figures stand about 6 inches in height, fairly large by today's standards for "small-scale" action figures, and slightly taller than their original counterparts, although they have somewhat more slender (but as such somewhat more plausible) builds.

The accessories are just as well done. He-Man's sword has an interesting little "pivot" feature which duplicates the sword's action in the new animated series. Skeletor's sword can split into two separate swords if needed.

My one and only complaint, and it's a very minor one, is that Skeletor is marginally but noticably shorter than He-Man. Granted, Skeletor is more of a plotter and planner than a fighter, but I'd think Mattel would have wanted him to be more on a par size-wise with He-Man than he is.

And, as I mentioned, there is a new animated series, airing on Cartoon Network -- check your local listings. For the most part, it's superb. The opening credits -- to a point -- mirror those of the original series, but then get broken up pretty quickly. It's actually pretty funny for anyone who gets the joke. The music for the end credits is excellent. About my only complaint with the show is that I wish they'd tone down Teela's attitude a bit. In the original series she was abrasive. In this show she's something that I can't really call her in polite company.

Interestingly, they've even brought back two characters that were originally NOT created by Mattel -- the Sorceress, who was really kind of necessary to the concept once they decided to make Teela a warrior and not a sorceress in her own right as originally implied by the toy, and, incredibly, comic magician Orko! This little twerp was originally created by Filmation to bring some comic relief into the series. He's back, still managing to mess things up right and left, well-meaning though he may be. And yes, a figure of this new Orko is in the works.

Bottom line -- Will I be collecting this line? Probably not. At least not extensively. There's already several versions of He-Man and Skeletor out there, and I'm not fond of that sort of practice unless there's good reason for it other than to boost sales, and there isn't here. Mattel is also short-packing certain figures. I have yet to see Mer-Man, and if I ever do, I might just snag him. And I was never much into the vehicles in this line, even the first time around.

HOWEVER, that doesn't mean that I don't recommend the new Masters of the Universe. If you're old enough to have fond memories of the original toy line and concept, then you'll love this one. And I certainly recommend the animated series. If you don't have any real memories of the original concept, but are just looking around for a cool fantasy-based and very well-made toy line with a very well-thought-out concept behind it, then Masters of the Universe is also for you.

Either way, it looks like Mattel has hit a home run for the second time with MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE!