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REVIEW: MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS THUNDER PUNCH HE-MAN
By Thomas Wheeler

It's pretty much a given these days that most action figure lines are going to produce multiple versions of their respective central characters. Now, with some action figure lines, this is more appropriate than it is with others. A line based on Spider-Man can expect to have multiple versions of the Web-Slinger. Similarly, a line based on Batman can certainly expect to have multiple versions of the Dark Knight.

And yet, it can be taken to excess. Some years back, there was actually a 200th Batman figure. This was commemorating the fact that there had been, starting with the Super Powers Batman figure in the 1980's (nice of them to include it, by the way), two hundred action figure versions of Batman in what could be construed as the modern era. And that was long enough ago that I'm surprised we haven't heard about a 500th by now, except that maybe they'd be too embarrassed to admit it.

I do think there comes a point where toy companies need to take a look at their lineups and wonder, despite how central to the concept a character may be, despite how popular he supposedly is in other media forms, are more versions of him really CONSTANTLY necessary?

This question becomes even larger when the action figure line in question basically features an ensemble cast. How many versions of Optimus Prime are in existence these days? And I'm literally afraid to look at the G.I. Joe archive listings to find out how many Snake-Eyes and Cobra Commanders have been produced. It was in the fifties the last time I checked them.

Then there's the case of Masters of the Universe. Now, certainly, the two major characters in this concept are He-Man and Skeletor. And yes, during the run of the original action figure line, there were several versions of both of these characters. But they didn't dominate the line.

I remain convinced to this day that one of the major factors in the demise of the 2002-era line was that somebody, and I don't know if it was Mattel or the retailers, got it into their head that there had to be plenty of He-Man and Skeletor available at all times. And so a great many versions of He-Man and Skeletor were produced. Now, some of them weren't bad. Others were downright silly. It becomes a bigger problem when your case packing ratios start to be three He-Man, three Skeletor, and one each of a couple of supporting cast members. The latest versions of He-Man and Skeletor clog the shelves, no one can find Roboto and Evil-Lyn, and all the retailers see is a huge supply of unsold product. That's the sort of thing that ends toy lines. Which it did!

The original Masters of the Universe action figure line was a lot more judicious with this sort of thing, and in turn, so is the current Masters of the Universe Classics line. One of the recently-released figures is a version of He-Man. Now, of course we've already had He-Man in the line. After King Grayskull, who was a San Diego Comic-Con exclusive, he was the first figure produced. He-Man essentially kicked off the monthly offerings at MattyCollector.Com, along with Beast Man.

But that was several years ago, and this latest He-Man is only the fourth version of the character produced, among dozens of characters. Fifth, if you want to count Prince Adam. That's a far more agreeable ratio. The other three are, of course, the original He-Man, Battle Armor He-Man, and Preternia Disguise He-Man. Now, we have THUNDER PUNCH HE-MAN!

Now, while I probably don't need to go into too much of a history of He-Man, allow me to present a bit of a summary of the character nevertheless.

In the race to design the next hit action figure, Roger Sweet, a lead designer working for Mattel's Preliminary Design Department during much of the 1970s and 1980s, realized that simplicity was the key to success.

Originally, He-Man was presented to Mattel executives not as drawings and wax models but in the form of the He-Man Trio: three three-dimensional prototype models depicting He-Man as a barbarian, a soldier and a spaceman. Out of the three concepts, the barbarian version was chosen to be the basis of the toyline.

Expanding further on the barbarian theme, Mattel hired comic-book writers and artists such as Donald F. Glut and Earl Norem to create additional characters, posters, package inlays, box art and mini-comics for distribution with the action figures.

In the illustrated mini-comics released with the first series of toys, He-Man was a barbarian from an Eternian tribe. The planet's inhabitants were dealing with the aftermath of the Great Wars, which devastated the civilizations which 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 gave He-Man some of these weapons, and he set out to defend the secrets of Castle Grayskull from the evil villain Skeletor.

He-Man possessed one-half of the Power Sword; Skeletor had the second half, and used 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, when the action figures were initially released). In one early illustrated story, He-Man and Skeletor united their two Power Sword halves to form the true Power Sword, defeating a common enemy.

By the time the original Filmation animated series was developed, He-Man's origins had been revised: his true identity was Prince Adam of Eternia, son of King Randor and Queen Marlena, who ruled the Kingdom of Eternia on the planet of the same name.

The Sorceress of Castle Grayskull endowed Prince Adam with the power to transform into He-Man, which Adam did by raising his Power Sword and proclaiming, "By the power of Grayskull..." Once the transformation was complete, he continued "...I have the power!" The differences from Prince Adam and He-Man were minimal; He-Man had a slightly-deeper voice, and slightly-darker skin and hair.

Adam was friendly with the beautiful, strong-willed Teela, who (unbeknownst to her) was the daughter of the Sorceress. Teela was adopted by Prince Adam's mentor, Man-At-Arms. Adam and Teela grew up together and now, as Captain of the Guard, she was entrusted to protect the prince. Unaware of his alternate identity as He-Man, she saw Adam as lazy and cowardly.

Man-At-Arms was He-Man's closest companion and the Eternian royal family's innovator of technology and weapons. In many episodes, Man-At-Arms unveiled new and fantastic weapons or devices which helped He-Man and his friends.

Castle Grayskull was the source of He-Man's powers. Inside the Castle lived the Sorceress, who granted Prince Adam his transformative abilities and communicates telepathically with He-Man. To protect his family He-Man kept his double identity a secret, sharing it only with Orko, Man-At-Arms, Cringer/Battle Cat and the Sorceress.

He-Man's chief adversary was Skeletor: a blue-skinned sorcerer with a yellow skull for a head, wearing a cowl. He was skilled in black magic and all forms of combat. Though his origin was mysterious, and the cartoon described him only as a "demon from another dimension", a tie-in comic implied that Skeletor's true identity was Prince Keldor (older brother of King Randor), thus making him He-Man's uncle. It was revealed in the animated motion picture He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword that Skeletor was Hordak's right-hand man until his capture.

After the end of the Masters of the Universe toy line Mattel attempted to revive interest in He-Man by producing a new toy line, simply entitled He-Man. The accompanying storyline in the mini-comics packaged with the figures explained that He-Man had now left Eternia and pursued Skeletor into the depths of space, where Skeletor had now set his sights on conquering the distant world of Primus, a planet with great technological resources. He-Man was shown to have relinquished the identity of Prince Adam altogether, basing himself on Primus where he led a team of defenders known as the Galactic Guardians.

He-Man's appearance was retooled for the new toy line, with a space helmet and golden armor added to his attire to give him a more futuristic appearance and his sword redesigned. In the insert comics issued early in the toy line's run, He-Man begins to transform – only to be grabbed by Skeletor, who was astonished to see that Prince Adam was casting some kind of strange spell, not realizing he was about to transform into He-Man. Still holding onto Adam, Skeletor was caught in a backwash of power as the comic proclaimed "Prince Adam is no more. Long Live He-Man!" Therefore, He-Man was responsible for the cybernetic breastplate on Skelator's figurine.

A cartoon series was produced by Jetlag Productions to accompany the toy line, entitled The New Adventures of He-Man. Although generally following the story line from the mini-comics, this series maintained the double identity of Prince Adam and He-Man. On the planet Primus, Prince Adam posed as a traveling merchant and the nephew of Master Sebrian to disguise his secret identity. His transformation oath was altered slightly, to become "By the power of Eternia...".

To tie in with a new line of action figures based upon the original toy line, a new He-Man cartoon series was produced in 2002-03 by Mike Young Productions again entitled He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. This series retold the Masters of the Universe story from the beginning. He-Man's origin was told in a 90-minute series premiere, in which the 16-year-old Prince Adam was summoned to Castle Grayskull by the Sorceress to assume the identity of He-Man and his role as Eternia's defender. The portrayal of his character in this series was consistent with Filmation's portrayal, although the character of Prince Adam was brasher and more youthfully-energetic than his 1980s counterpart.

The second-season episode "The Power of Grayskull" revealed He-Man as a descendant of King Grayskull, a powerful barbarian hero from Eternia's ancient past, who sacrificed his life to save Eternia from the Evil Horde and originally wielded the Sword of Power. He was the original owner of Castle Grayskull; his sword was concealed in the castle for centuries before being given to Prince Adam, who inherited his ancestor's own power channeled through the sword, thus giving added meaning to the phrase "By the power of Grayskull...".

He-Man was characterized as possessing superhuman strength. The extent of his strength was unknown, but on one occasion he was able to hoist Castle Grayskull and throw it through a dimensional doorway. He-Man also demonstrated his strength by lifting mountains and icebergs, and hurling them to a desired target. In the episode "She-Demon of Phantos" he was shown to be the only person to break Photanium (claimed by Man-At-Arms to be the strongest metal in the universe). In comics, he was shown as able to go one-on-one with DC Comics' Superman. On the original action figure's packaging and in the introductory sequence of the 1980s cartoon series, He-Man is claimed to be "the most powerful man in the universe". His strength was derived from magical powers within Castle Grayskull.

The modern Masters of the Universe Classics series has been doing its best to reconcile all of these story elements into a reasonably consistent history. One suspects there are some writers for Mattel that are having some long nights and are in need of aspirin every so often. Still, they've been doing a better job of it than one might expect, given no shortage of contradictions and assorted chaos here and there that need to be cleared up.

And that brings us around to THUNDER PUNCH HE-MAN. Now, at first, that doesn't sound like all that much of a gimmick, and to be honest, I find myself wondering just a little bit if it was inspired by a sequence in the opening credits of the original animated series where He-Man walked towards the screen and threw a punch right at the viewer that vanished in a burst of light before the remaining opening credits concluded. But that's just speculation.

Honestly, a significant percentage of the original Masters of the Universe figures could throw a punch. Many of them had a spring-action feature in their waists that allowed the figure to turn at the waist just so far, and then it would spring back. Raise the figure's arm a certain degree, and it could look as though he was throwing a punch, even with the limited articulation of the original line.

So what made Thunder Punch He-Man so special? Simply stated, he was wearing a backpack that could hold a disc of caps. You know, like a cap gun would use. The pack had a dial on the back to move the caps into position, and when He-Man threw a punch -- BANG! One of the caps went off. Or anyway, that's how it was explained to me by a longtime fan of the series. I never had the original Thunder Punch He-Man. But I do have the new one.

So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive, of course. I have come to expect no less from the Masters of the Universe Classics series.

What sets Thunder Punch He-Man apart from his predecessors are certain costume details. Naturally, this is still a He-Man figure, and it clearly uses the headsculpt and body from the previous He-Man figures. However, it's a really great sculpt. I'm not sure to what degree the Four Horsemen, the sculpting and design team that create these figures for Mattel, are trying to match the Filmation animated counterparts of these characters, but they certainly come very close.

One of my criticisms of the original Masters of the Universe line, apart from limited articulation, was the overall bodily proportions. The original Masters of the Universe figures had powerful bodies, but they were possessed of these rather stubby bow-legs that gave them very odd stances and threw off their overall proportions. In contrast, the animated likenesses of these characters were far more realistic and better-proportioned, especially since Filmation was in the habit of using a technique called rotoscoping, which involved filming a live actor performing a certain movement, and then basing the animated drawings on that footage. It tended to make for a lot of stock footage, and similar movements between characters, but it also created some surprisingly realistic animated characters.

The Masters of the Universe Classics line has corrected the odd proportions of the original figures. They are now far better proportioned, and many of them really look as though they stepped right out of a Filmation episode.

Thunder Punch He-Man -- only to a degree, though, since He-Man never underwent much in the way of wardrobe changes over the course of the series, and this figure is definitely dressed differently than the classic He-Man. Now, the headsculpt is superb, and certainly a good match. The hairstyle, although more detailed, certainly looks like the original, and the facial expression is one of decided seriousness.

And, as one would expect, He-Man is wearing a brown furry loincloth, brown boots, as well as a somewhat ornate belt, wristbands, and a harness. However, it is at this point that we see the differences. He-Man's belt and wristbands have been changed to a fairly bright red, and the harness is a completely different piece of work than the traditional version.

Front and center is what looks like a huge shield. More or less badge-shaped, it is bordered in chrome silver -- and credit to Mattel for carrying over this important detail from the original -- with a stylized chrome-silver "H" in the center. The rest of the shield is a bright red, as are the straps which go over He-Man's shoulders and around his sides.

Here we find a very high-tech type of backpack, with several slots cut onto it along one corner, and a precise round dial in the center, which can actually be turned. Among the accessories is even a simulated disc of caps that can be popped into the backpack. However, obviously, it's non-functional.

This is no great surprise. Only if a particular action feature is absolutely vital to the character are they included these days. Thus, Tri-Klops' visor rotates, Trapjaw has several accessories that can be attached to his artificial arm, but the days of spring-activated waists and cap-firing punches are gone. And really, as far as I'm concerned, no big loss. That spring-activated waist, if nothing else, was a hindrance to articulation.

Nevertheless, it's impressive to see the original backpack duplicated with such precision, even down to SOME of its capabilities.

A few other interesting detail notes about the figure. He-Man's right hand is clenched into a fist. Appropriate in this case, certainly, and it's well-designed. But if memory serves, this is the first Masters of the Universe Classics figure -- with human-type hands, anyway -- to have one of his hands sculpted as a fully closed fist.

Additionally, for some reason I can't quite fathom, He-Man's skin tone is slightly lighter than his predecessors. The same individual who gave me the background on the cap-firing backpack of the original Thunder Punch He-Man assured me that the original figure was NOT lighter-skinned than his contemporaries, so I really have no idea what may have happened here. There's nothing wrong with the figure, although just as oddly, the face is entirely painted flesh-tone. That's not what I'm saying. All I'm really saying is that this is a rather odd inconsistency from the previous He-Man figures in the Classics collection, and I'm wondering if it was accidental or deliberate, and if it was deliberate, then why? And if it was accidental, let's hope that we don't experience any worse slip-ups.

The painted detail on the figure is excellent, especially facial details such as eyes and eyebrows. There is a slightly darker red on the borders of the belt and wristbands, which makes them look a little more detailed. And the fur at the top of He-Man's otherwise brown boots has been painted a pale gray, perhaps intended as a furry counterpart to the chrome silver on the chestplate. I don't think any of us would want to try to explain chrome fur, so I'm glad they left it at this.

Of course, the figure is superbly articulated, something the original line, or for that matter the 2002-era line, wasn't, really, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, boot tops, and ankles.

Thunder Punch He-Man comes with several accessories. These include a mostly chrome silver shield, which is also designed to house a disc of caps, or in this case, its replica; his sword, which has been cast in a rather eerie transparent pale yellow plastic this time around (and as odd as it may sound, given the color, I was honestly surprised that it didn't glow in the dark), and a third accessory that frankly looks like a small comet. This is designed to attach to He-Man's fist, thus giving a little "lightning" to the "Thunder Punch".

The bio card on the back of the package reveals some very interesting details. It reads as follows:

THUNDER PUNCH HE-MAN - Heroic Leader with a Power Punch
Real Name: ADAM OF THE HOUSE OF RANDOR

When Skeletor banished Randor to Despondos, he used Faker to convince the royal court that He-Man was not only a Gar but also responsible for the king's "death". This ruse turned the people of Eternia against He-Man and he and the Masters soon became renegades in their own land. Driven to the underground caves of Tundaria, the Masters reformed as an elite attack squad. They returned to the surface, and found not only Skeletor ruling Eternia, but King Hssss and a newly returned Hordak also challenging for control. To enhance his strength for these new battles ahead, He-Man used the Powers of Grayskull to energize his weapons, giving them a new Thunder Punch to combat evil!

Okay -- wow. This card answers a LOT of questions. There have been hints here and there on any number of previous bio cards that, from a story standpoint, something pretty dramatic had happened on Eternia. Among these was the implied death of King Randor, the Masters being forced into a defensive position, and She-Ra's Great Rebellion traveling to Eternia from Etheria to aid in new battles against Hordak.

And yet, without any new comic book or animated series, we were largely left to the bio cards to try to fill in the blanks -- which wasn't easy given the limited information available. This bio card is the first one to paint a fuller picture. Apparently Skeletor carried out a successful ambush against Randor and tossed him into the same dimension to which Hordak was once exiled. The blue-skinned Faker could easily be mistaken for a Gar, the same race from which Skeletor himself hails. And apparently the populace of Eternia is capable of being just as fickle as people from Earth.

So the Masters fled underground -- literally (and I wonder if that explains He-Man's paler complexion), to rebuild to take on Skeletor, only to have King Hssss and Hordak both show up during a time of obvious political instability to try to take advantage of it. One can well imagine that relative to anything previously seen in any of the animated incarnations, Eternia is something of a mess these days, and the Masters are forced to fight on three different fronts -- not that the forces of Skeletor, King Hssss, and Hordak have any love for each other.

But does that fully catch us up? Not entirely. You see, Thunder Punch He-Man also comes with the first of three new mini-comics, produced for Mattel by Dark Horse Comics. This first comic, titled "The Powers of Grayskull Part One: The Legend Begins" starts off with a bit of text that reads, "It has been a long time since the defeat of Serpos." If you recall the final episodes of the 2002-era animated series, they culminated with the Snake-Men reviving their ancient deity, Serpos, who was ultimately brought to defeat by He-Man and the Masters. Clearly, a lot of time has passed since then.

The text goes on to read, "The Snake Men have amassed power and the Horde have returned from Despondos, overthrowing King Skeletor and claiming rule over all Eternia. But not all is lost. She-Ra and the Great Rebellion have followed Hordak through the Laser Gate. United, the heroes of Eternia continue their fight for freedom..."

It doesn't end there. The opening pages of the comic itself show a pitched battle between the Masters and well, just about everybody. Further notes of recent events are made. The Sorceress is dead, replaced by Teela. This was noted on the "Battleground" Teela figure's bio card. Man-At-Arms has been transformed into a Snake-Man, and this is a forthcoming figure. Personally, I don't care too much for either of these developments, but the one about Man-At-Arms is a carryover from what was planned for the 2002-era animation had it continued.

Then, just when the battle seems completely out of control, King Randor and his father, King Miro, return from Despondos, and the legendary Three Towers -- also known as the Eternia playset from the original line -- make their return.

The story progresses with Teela/Sorceress sending He-Man, in his Preternia disguise, into the past. Any number of toys that barely saw release from the original line, including the dinosaur-like creatures Bionotops and Tyrantisaurus, make an appearance, their bionics explained as a techno-organic virus. Skeletor also travels back in time, and makes an alliance with the Snake-Men. He-Man is saved by a shadowed character that is almost assuredly He-Ro.

All very impressive, and I certainly look forward to the next issue. We're finally getting some answers to the mysteries that have been hinted at on the bio cards for some time now.

Also notable are some of the characters that appear in these pages. Clamp Champ is prominent. We can see Orko turning one of the robotic Horde Troopers into scrap metal. Essentially all of the individual Snake-Men appear. I wouldn't mind figures of all of these. Hopefully, that will come to pass.

So, what's my final word here? Some of you may think, "Oh, it's just another He-Man. I don't need him." Well, he's still a very cool figure, and a nice modern rendition of a legitimate version of the character from the original line, from a time before multiple versions got as out of hand as they can be today. He's certainly well-made, looks cool -- come on, you can find it in your heart to welcome him into your collection. And there is also the matter of the details on the bio card and in the comic book.

Kidding aside, this really is an excellent figure, and I sincerely believe that any fan of the Masters of the Universe will welcome him into their collection.

THUNDER PUNCH HE-MAN from the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE CLASSICS collection definitely has my highest recommendation!