REVIEW: WWE ELITE SERIES - THE UNDERTAKER
When it comes to the world of "Sports Entertainment", the modern nomenclature for professional wrestling, far and away in the number-one spot is World Wrestling Entertainment. With four weekly television programs on four different networks, Pay-Per-View events every several weeks, an astounding recognition level of its Superstar athletes, and an equally astounding merchandising machine, the WWE is not just a media giant, they're a media juggernaut.
Now, somebody is going to say, "Oh, professional wrestling is so fake." Let's clarify something. Are the storylines written in advance and the outcomes of the matches pre-determined? Yes. The WWE even admits as much these days. But in that, they're really no different than any other scripted television series. And call it "fake" all you want, if you don't have a considerable range of athletic skills and put in tons of training to do what the WWE Superstars do in the ring night after night -- well, not for nothing do the shows run those "public service announcements" where a number of the wrestlers discuss their background and training, and how they've still managed to get seriously, legitimately injured from time to time, concluding with, "Please, don't try this at home."
Throughout the year, the Superstars of the WWE routinely visit United States military bases all over the world, culminating in an annual trip, most often to Iraq, near Christmastime, for a special "Tribute to the Troops". Their efforts have won them the USO's "Legacy of Hope" Award for carrying on the traditions of the legendary Bob Hope himself.
For a good number of years, the toy license for the WWE was held by Jakks Pacific, and the massive WWE figure line they turned out was pretty much their mainstay, much as Power Rangers has been for Bandai, just for a matter of comparison.
That all changed at the start of 2010, when the license for WWE action figures and related toys shifted to Mattel. The announcement of this was actually make in late 2008. To Jakks' credit, they continued to produce a wide range of merchandise throughout 2009. At the same time, I believe most people were very curious as to what Mattel was going to come up with.
What Mattel has come up with -- is pretty impressive.
I'll admit, I never got that much into WWE action figures. Nothing really against Jakks. But they turned out so much product, it was difficult to keep up with it to any degree -- sort of like trying to follow all of Marvel's X-Men related titles. Unless you're seriously die-hard into it, you're scared to touch it. I did try to get into Jakks' 4" line of "Build 'N' Brawl" figures, but these sadly turned out to be rather poorly assembled, as good as they may have looked, and as convenient a size (and price) and they may have been.
Now, I don't expect to be any sort of completist on Mattel's WWE line. There are a number of factors involved here, not the least is financial. Mattel's plans are massive. They have a good plan, though. There's a good basic line of action figures; a "Heritage" series which features specific individuals from specific time periods, generally reflecting an individual's appearance at, say, a certain WrestleMania or some such; and there is an "Elite" line, which features a somewhat greater level of articulation, detail, and in most instances, "ring gear".
Another factor is something that both Jakks and now Mattel will have to deal with. For all the technology out there, it's still not always an easy thing to capture an actual person's likeness for use on a mass-produced action figure. This is something that any number of toy companies have had to deal with over the years. It's one thing to sculpt a figure of a comic book or cartoon character. It's another to have to match a real person or an actor. Star Trek, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and certainly the WWE, have all had to struggle with this in ways that, except for live-action movie tie-ins, G.I. Joe, Batman, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have not.
Jakks did a good job, but it was still a bit hit-or-miss here and there. And no offense to Mattel, but I expect the same from them. Some of their WWE action figures will look better than others. And I'll grant that I'm picky. If I'm going to bring John Cena, Jeff Hardy, or Shawn Michaels into my collection, then I expect them to look like those individuals.
I decided to focus on the "Elite" line. For one thing, I liked the sound of somewhat greater articulation and detail. If you've read my other reviews, then you know that I have been hugely impressed with what Mattel has done with their Masters of the Universe Classics and DC Universe Classics lines. And even though the sculpting and design team of the Four Horsemen, who work on those two lines, would not be working on the WWE line, I was hopeful that the bar that they had set would at the very least be an aspiration -- and inspiration -- for those that would.
I discovered the WWE Elite figures right about when Mattel said they would be out, and the first one I decided to bring home was certainly worthy of being part of any WWE line carrying the name "Elite". He is readily a legend within the WWE Universe, and has been for many years.
His name is -- THE UNDERTAKER. You want a legend? Here he is. Allow me to hit the high points from the very extensive Wikipedia article on him:
Mark William Calaway is better known by his ring name The Undertaker. He is signed to World Wrestling Entertainment, currently wrestling on the SmackDown brand where he is the current World Heavyweight Champion.
Calaway began his wrestling career with World Class Championship Wrestling in 1984. He joined World Championship Wrestling (WCW) as "Mean" Mark Callous in 1989. When WCW did not renew Calaway's contract in 1990, he joined the WWE as The Undertaker in November of that year.
Having remained with that company ever since, Calaway is currently one of the senior performers in the WWE. The Undertaker remains, along with Shawn Michaels, one of only two full-time wrestlers that made an appearance in the very first episode of Monday Night Raw, who are still with the company today.
The Undertaker is undefeated at WrestleMania with a 17–0 record and is recognized by WWE as a seven time world champion, having won the WWE Championship four times and the World Heavyweight Championship three times. He is also a one-time WWF Hardcore champion and has won the WWF Tag Team championship six times and the WCW Tag Team Championship once. The Undertaker was the winner of the 2007 Royal Rumble and became the first man to win the Rumble as entrant number 30.
Calaway made his WWF debut as "Cain The Undertaker" at a taping of WWF Superstars on November 19, 1990. The appearance of The Undertaker's first Deadman persona was modeled after a mortician from old Western movies, wearing a trench coat and black hat with grey gloves and boot covers. Under this "Deadman" persona, he was "impervious to pain", something accomplished by "no-selling" his opponents' attacks.
Calaway made his official on-camera debut on November 22 at Survivor Series as a heel when he was the mystery partner of Ted DiBiase's Million Dollar team, where he was simply called The Undertaker. Approximately one minute into the match, The Undertaker eliminated Koko B. Ware with his finisher, the Tombstone Piledriver. He also eliminated Dusty Rhodes before being counted out. Shortly after Survivor Series, "Cain" was dropped from his name, and he was called simply The Undertaker.
He made his WrestleMania debut at WrestleMania VII, quickly defeating "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka. The win was the first in his undefeated streak at the event. He began his first major feud with The Ultimate Warrior, when he attacked the Warrior and locked him in an airtight casket. After a year of battles with the Warrior, Randy Savage, Sgt. Slaughter, and Hulk Hogan, he defeated Hogan to win his first WWF Championship at Survivor Series.
After WrestleMania X, Ted DiBiase introduced an Undertaker back to the WWF. This Undertaker, however, played by Brian Lee, was an impostor Undertaker (dubbed the "Underfaker" by fans) and led to the return of the real Undertaker at SummerSlam, appearing as a new version of his original Deadman persona, replacing grey with purple. The Undertaker defeated the impostor after three Tombstone Piledrivers.
In 2000, during a period of time for the WWE where "personality gimmicks" were minimized in favor of a greater level of "character realism", the Undertaker took on a different persona. He abandoned the Gothic mortician-themed attire, his funeral dirge ring music, allusions to the supernatural, and the accompanying theatrics of his ring entrance. The Undertaker now took on the personality of a biker, riding to the ring on a motorcycle, and wearing sunglasses and bandanas to the ring. In real life, Calaway collects Harley-Davidson and West Coast Choppers motorcycles and purchased his first brand new motorcycle after defeating Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship at the 1991 Survivor Series. Calaway has also had a custom motorcycle built for him by Jesse James, the founder of West Coast Choppers.
This lasted until 2003. In 2004, in a storyline leading up to WrestleMania XX, Kane, the Undertaker's (storyline) half-brother, who had defeated him in a "Buried Alive" match in late 2003, was haunted by vignettes proclaiming The Undertaker's return. The first was during the Royal Rumble when The Undertaker's bells tolled, distracting Kane and allowing Booker T to eliminate him. At WrestleMania XX, The Undertaker, in his "Deadman" persona, returned and defeated Kane.
Undertaker has since maintained this persona, and has feuded over the years with Randy Orton, Batista, CM Punk, and others, and has both fought and teamed up with Kane, in a tag-team known rather appropriately as "The Brothers of Destruction".
The rest can be read on Wikipedia. It's worth noting that it has been announced that the Undertaker will be in his own feature film that will focus on his origin of the character and more about his powers. It will also star Calaway himself.
So -- how's the figure? Extremely impressive. Mattel is clearly dedicated to turning out the best product they can.
I don't usually discuss packaging all that much, but I must compliment Mattel for coming up with a core design for the packaging for most of their WWE figures. Apart from the sheer volume of Jakks Pacific's line, they had such an excessive variety of package designs for their figures, even ones that were out within a relatively short period of time to each other, that sometimes the only way you knew it was a WWE product was to notice that the figures inside the package were of professional wrestlers, and then hunt around for the WWE logo somewhere on the card.
Mattel's come up with a good basic design and I sincerely hope they stick with it for a good long time. The packages are generally mostly black with red trim, a whopping big WWE logo in white with a red underline(the official colors anyway), and bold lettering indicating which collection a given figure is a part of, and the name of the figure prominently displayed.
The Elite figures comes boxed, not carded, in a package that has a sort of angular hourglass shape to it (you know, with some of the bizarre toy packaging I see out there these days, box fabricators must dread calls from toy companies...), with a large front window displaying the character, and smaller side and even a back window. Lets you get a good look at the figure you're buying, something I definitely appreciate.
The Undertaker is presented wearing his traditional wide-brimmed hat and long black coat. And this leads to a considerable mystery as far as I'm concerned. That mystery being -- how in the name of anything you'd care to invoke here did they get the coat on him in the first place!?
The coat is not made of fabric. It's a molded piece, decently detailed, but it's not made from a really flexible plastic. It's not rubbery. It has a fair amount of "give" to it -- but not really enough to remove it from the figure! Which is what I wanted to do. For one thing, the coat is a severe impediment to any sort of arm articulation. For another, the Undertaker is known for a vast accumulation of tattoos down both of his arms, and regardless of my own opinion of tattoos, I was curious as to what sort of job Mattel had done with these.
Ultimately, and I sincerely feel badly about doing this, since I don't like to damage toys intentionally or accidentally, and I know someone worked very hard designing this coat, and I almost feel like I should apologize to Mattel for saying this but -- I could find no alternative to removing the coat except to cut it off. This I did with the greatest caution possible, slitting both sleeves and then across the front. I could probably put the coat back on him and use some sort of glue to repair the coat and it would look decent enough. Not that I plan to.
Okay, with the coat off, what have we got here? Mattel has designed an extremely well-articulated figure. Now, let's draw a comparison here to another favorite Mattel line of mine -- DC Universe Classics. How well does the Undertaker compare? Well, honestly, it's probably not a fair comparison.
I don't believe the two lines are to scale with each other -- for those who might have been interested in seeing if Batman could beat up Batista. The average height of a DC Universe Classics figure is 6-3/4". Undertaker is slightly over 7-1/2" in height. Now -- Undertaker is a big guy. He's billed at 6 feet, 10 inches in height -- and I don't think they're kidding. I once had the Undertaker standing directly behind me on a boarding line for an airplane flight. I am not a short person. I am just about six feet tall. I felt like I was standing in a hole.
However, taking relative scale into consideration on the action figures between the Undertaker and DC Universe Classics, that's a bit too much of a disparity. However, I definitely commend Mattel for maintaining proper scale within the line, something they addressed at length within the ToyFare article that discussed their WWE plans. One thing Mattel wants to do is make sure everyone is properly scaled to each other. This was something that Jakks tended to "fudge" a bit, given the various heights of certain wrestlers.
Mattel plans to be more accurate. Thus, large and super-large individuals such as Undertaker, Big Show, and Great Khali will be properly represented, and while smaller wrestlers such as Rey Mysterio might look a bit small in their packages, at least they'll be in scale to the rest of the group. I just wonder what Mattel's plans for Hornswoggle are...
The Undertaker figure is superbly well articulated, but the figure is not entirely designed along the same lines as DC Universe Classics or Masters of the Universe Classics. There are some similarities, especially in the arms. Undertaker has the same "swivel-at-the-bicep" feature, and also has proper arm and elbow articulation. The wrists are actually more articulated than the other two lines. Of course he is articulated at the head, and has mis-torso and waist articulation.
The legs are different than either Masters or DC. It's a near-ball-and-socket design, but not quite, and it looks good and works well. There is a swivel at the very top of the leg. Somewhat to my surprise, the Undertaker figure has double-jointed knees. I'm not always a proponent of double-jointed elbows and knees. I feel that too often, it can adversely affect the "look" of an action figure, and really isn't that necessary. On this figure, it works well enough, I think in part because of the size of the figure, and in part because he's dressed in black.
Of course, Undertaker also has ankle articulation, and also has swivels at the tops of his boots. I can see the double-jointed knees being advantageous for wrestling poses, as far as that goes. The sculpted detail on the boots is superb. All those laces... impressive!
And the arm tattoos? Okay, I'm going to sort of have to assume that they're accurate. You don't really get that much time to study them when Undertaker is in a match in the ring, and I didn't get that good a look at him when he was behind me on line at the airport that one time. But they are certainly extensive and intricate, and in one case, even colorful. Undertaker has this weird-looking dude in a red robe on his lower right arm, holding a feathered fountain pen with a bright blue feather.
I'm not sure precisely what processes are involved to get this level of markings on an action figure, but I salute whoever did it. Whoever is responsible for it, they're probably overworked. Undertaker is hardly the only extensively tattooed wrestler out there. Throw in people like Randy Orton, Batista, Rey Mysterio, and CM Punk, who probably annoys the heck out of toy companies because two of his most prominent tattoos are a Pepsi logo and the Cobra emblem from G.I. Joe, and any toy company that has a WWE license had better come up with a way of effectively rendering tattoos on their figures. Fortunately, Mattel has.
The tattoos can also be surprisingly intricate. Undertaker has the names of his real life daughters, Gracie and Chasey, tattooed on either side of his neck. The tattoos are present on the figure.
The facial likeness is excellent. Calaway uses a small amount of make-up to make his eyes appear more shadowed and grim for his Undertaker persona, and that's been reflected on the figure. (He also can roll his eyes back in his head to give this creepy blank-eyes look when he first gets in the ring and stares down his opponents. Perhaps fortunately, that hasn't been reflected on the figure). Undertaker has rather long and somewhat matted hair, and that was largely made as a separate sculpt from flexible plastic and attached to his head. It does not hinder his head articulation. I still think we owe it to the 1984 Baroness figure from G.I. Joe for coming up with this procedure.
Undertaker, aside from the coat and hat, is dressed in an outfit that looks like a black tank top and black leggings, with black boots. There are two symbols on either side of his legs, imprinted in dark red. One appears to be a necklace with a small skull and the Undertaker's logo. The other one looks like a horned and rather exaggerated skull.
The figure comes with a display base, and a cardboard name tag. He has 2010 clearly sculpted on the bottom of his boot.
So, what's my final word here? I'm impressed. As I said, I don't expect to be a completist with this line, but I am extremely impressed by what Mattel has done. Jakks Pacific is not an easy act to follow. They did an impressive job for the majority of their WWE license, and turned out a massive array of products that were well-received by fans, kids, and collectors.
But if this Undertaker figure is any indication of what Mattel has in mind, then I am confident that some excellent days are ahead for WWE action figures, and that they will be just as well received by the fans, the kids, and collectors, as anything that Jakks ever turned out.
The WWE ELITE COLLECTION figure of THE UNDERTAKER most definitely has my very enthusiastic recommendation!