A SUCCESS STORY
They didn't stand up properly, the paintwork was poor, they had silly names and yet somehow the original MOTU toys were enormously popular. What was it about these figures that proved to be such a success for Mattel? Why is it, over a quarter of a century after the toys' debut, there are people like you and me who still have an interest in the Masters Of The Universe?
Afterall, we are supposed to be grown-ups now. We have jobs and responsibilities. Yet something keeps drawing us back to He-Man and his allies. The inner child seems to be unable to let go. I suppose we are not alone - there are plenty of railway modellers and Dinky toy collectors out there, each one enthusiastically pursuing his hobby with a dedication to match the most determined Olympic athlete.
But the Masters weren't built to the same quality as model railways. Let's face it, they were mass-produced lumps of brightly-coloured plastic with minimal articulation. Logically, we should have seen they were not very good. So what was it about the MOTU figures that had such appeal?
I think there are two answers to this. Firstly, it was the fact that the figures inspired the imagination. They were more than toys because they came with minicomics that helped turn them into characters. I have discussed elsewhere on this site how important the minicomics were (particularly the Series One and Series Two sets), so I shan't repeat what I have already written. But imagination is an important thing, and in that respect the figures were actually secondary to the stories in my mind.
Secondly, the Filmation cartoon, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, played a huge role in promoting the toys - so much so that many viewed it as advertising. Let's face it, it was advertising, but the cartoon went ahead anyway. Many children became fans as a result of the cartoon, and that is why many people think of the Filmation cartoon as being the definitive guide to the mythology of Eternia.
Of course, there was a version of Eternia already in existence before the cartoon - the swords and sorcery world that the original fans knew about. That world was too barbarian and wild for children (supposedly) and the cartoon was a much softer approach. I actually enjoyed the cartoons but could never accept them as being a representation of my Eternia. They were simply too child-like.
Without Filmation though, it is unlikely that the MOTU would have had the same success, and there is a certain irony in that. The medium responsible for dumbing-down the Masters probably inspired the greatest number of fans. And if you disagree with my view that the cartoon softened the original barbarian concepts, just remember the alter-ego of He-Man was a chap wearing lilac tights.
Filmation also gave us a new version of Man-At-Arms - the Freddie Mercury lookalike. Filmation Freddie was nothing like the battle-worn hero and weapons master of the original Masters. The Sorceress was merged with the male fighting falcon Zoar into a character that was nothing like the Sorceress of the minicomics. So with all this redefining going on, the original concepts were effectively shelved to make room for a more commercial version.
The commercial version of the MOTU did have enormous success. The cartoon opened the doors for more and more characters, and each year saw the arrival of new MOTU faces. But they became a random collection of gimmicks rather than bands of warriors. Mattel swamped the market with far more figures than anyone could reasonably be expected to buy. By the time the original toys were withdrawn, over seventy characters had been produced, and that does not include vehicles and playsets.
So the success story caused its own downfall. All sense of direction had been abandoned in the quest for commercial exploitation. Mattel realised this and desperately tried to refocus with the New Adventures line, but it was a hopeless mistake that was short-lived. The story of the original MOTU is filled with irony. Would the line have had the same commercial success had Mattel stayed with the barbarian themes and released fewer figures?
Perhaps we are getting distracted by history when we talk about commercial success and failure. The interest we have in the MOTU is ultimately a personal aspect of our childhood, and the rights or wrongs of the Filmation cartoon and Mattel's strategy are less important. So if you are a Filmation fan and you still have the words by the power of Grayskull ringing in your ears, or if you are like me and still imagine Eternia as a barbarian world of myth and magic, you have a childhood connection to something that inspired your imagination, and that is what really matters.
Update: For an interesting article which follows the theme of this page,