(This post includes spoilers for Breaking Bad season 4 episode 13, “Face Off”. If you haven’t watched it but plan to and wish to remain spoiler-free, stop reading and come back after you’ve seen it. Additionally I mention a couple character names from the yet-to-be-released Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so if you’re trying to stay completely spoiler-free, skip the third paragraph. Oh, and if you’re somehow unaware of the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, go watch The Empire Strikes Back right now.)
I am pleased to announce that I am finally excited about The Force Awakens. Admittedly, it took Force Friday, the official merchandise launch on September 4, to elevate my interest from mere curiosity to something more along the lines of “This will probably be good. I’m definitely going to see this.” While I had previously insulated myself from anything that could be considered a spoiler – and to some extent I still am so insulated – I have enjoyed browsing the Star Wars aisle at various stores, checking out new characters and vehicles, and wondering what sort of presence they might have in the film.
I did not queue up at my local Toys ‘R’ Us at midnight, nor have I, as of this writing, bought anything bearing a The Force Awakens logo. While some of the stuff I’ve seen on the shelves looks really cool, it’s unlikely I’ll pick up anything, certainly not three months before the movie is released. I fell for that with The Phantom Menace, and while I have every reason to believe the new film will be much better than that one, I’m nowhere near as die-hard a Star Wars collector as I was in the 1990s; therefore I see no reason to buy a bunch of figures of characters whose roles and overall significance I do not yet know.
It’s pretty fun seeing all of this new stuff available for sale, though. While it has definitely piqued my interest in The Force Awakens, more than anything else it reminds me of the spring of 1983, when the hype for Return of the Jedi kicked into high gear. I saw an advertisement in an issue of Muppet Magazine featuring an array of new figures and felt my curiosity spike like never before. Suddenly May 25th couldn’t get here fast enough. I had to see the film, and perhaps more to the point, I had to own all of those figures. Though I don’t feel compelled to buy a Finn or a Captain Phasma, the anticipation I’m feeling now recalls what I felt more than thirty-two years ago when I saw that ad.
While walking through my local Toys ‘R’ Us, it occurred to me that everything is now officially overmerchandised. This isn’t a new development, nor is it even new to me. But it seems problematic, and I say that as a man of nearly forty years who really likes a lot of this stuff. I’ve bought plenty of pop culture-related merchandise – not exclusively Star Wars merchandise – and I can admit to checking various collector-oriented websites in order to stay apprised of what’s coming out even if I have no plan of buying much of it. I like checking out a particularly cool new action figure line or a highly-detailed collectible bust or statue. If I had more room to display such things I might buy a few of them.
The so-called “boys’ toys” area of Toys ‘R’ Us and other stores seems to consist primarily of the following brands (all of which, it should be noted, were introduced in the 1980s if not before): Star Wars, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as well as Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and other toy cars. Newer toy lines include Jurassic Park, which dates back to 1993 and which was reintroduced thanks to this year’s Jurassic World, the first installment in the series in almost fifteen years; and Nintendo which was a brand back in the 1980s but offered comparatively little in the way of action figures and other toys.
Ironically G.I. Joe, probably my favorite brand of the 1980s, is currently relegated to a small area of the collectors’ section at Toys ‘R’ Us where shoppers can find more adult-oriented action figures from the likes of McFarlane, NECA, and Funko. This is presumably because the property’s first two theatrical films failed to set Hollywood on fire, and while a third installment is in the works and will undoubtedly be promoted by a new series of action figures, it’s thought to be almost a year away. Additionally there has been no animated G.I. Joe television series since 2010’s G.I. Joe: Renegades.
There is an ongoing G.I. Joe comic series published by IDW Publishing, but this is not enough to keep the property from falling out of the mainstream. These days, comics are a loss-leader; movies and commercial television are where it’s at. Compare G.I. Joe with the Transformers, which has under its belt four theatrical films to date (five if you count the 1986 animated film), with the most recent in 2014 and the next scheduled for 2017. Additionally two animated series, Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye and Transformers: Rescue Bots, are currently in production.
A better example might be Marvel Comics. Per Wall Street Journal, the publishing juggernaut dominated the comics market in 2014, but as they continue to roll out animated series, expand their slate of upcoming films, and alter their comics universe to better reflect the Cinematic Universe so as not to alienate new readers led there by the movies, it’s clear that the comics themselves are at best a relatively inexpensive revenue stream.
Thus it’s understandable why G.I. Joe has fallen into semi-obscurity and been placed alongside such properties as Godzilla, Doctor Who, Sons of Anarchy, and Aliens. The first two franchises I named, though certainly popular in the United States, are imports from Japan and Great Britain, respectively, and not exactly well-known to most American children. The latter two are franchises developed for adults, and while collectibles are available for both it might not be in the best interests of mainstream corporate retailers to place the “Torn-in-Half Bishop” figure from Aliens beside the Marvel Super Hero Mashers figures, which are very much intended for children.
Today G.I. Joe is insufficiently promoted in pop culture to justify an expansive toy line, or at the very least a heavy retail presence of said toy line. This is a far cry from the 1980s, when G.I. Joe was one of the largest and most significant brands in the boys’ toy market, with barely enough shelf space to contain the numerous action figures, vehicles, and playsets necessitated by the overwhelming demand. In addition to a popular animated television series, there was a groundbreaking Marvel comic series that sold nearly 350,000 copies per month at its peak.
In fact, going only as far back as 2007 and 2008, one might recall a similar onslaught of G.I. Joe merchandise released for the 25th anniversary of the Real American Hero toy line. Granted, it pales in comparison to the amount of Star Wars merchandise available at the same time. An argument can be made – and in fact has been made by me – that the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy was engineered at least in part to keep money pouring into Hasbro’s coffers.
In theory, I have no problem with the proliferation of such merchandise, even if some suggest that marketing toys to adults contributes to the infantilization of society. It’s not the merchandise that concerns me, exactly; it’s the effect that a shift in focus from storytelling to merchandise has on the overall narrative. And make no mistake, there is an effect. In my opinion, it’s a negative effect. This is hardly a modern phenomenon; Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, refused to produce Return of the Jedi because of the series’ increased focus on toy sales over coherent storytelling.
Now, more than three decades removed from Return of the Jedi, the Star Wars Saga may be the most merchandised single entertainment franchise in history. In addition to action figures, playsets and almost-to-scale vehicles, there are office supplies and housewares bearing the Star Wars logo and imagery because Heaven forbid we have to open a bottle, flip a burger, or eat Chinese food without being reminded in some way that the Saga exists.
And I’m not trying to belittle anyone who owns any of this stuff. I can fondly recall a time when my enthusiasm for Star Wars was such that I would have probably owned it myself. We live not only in a geek-positive world where individuals are encouraged to embrace their fandom rather than put it in a drawer, but also in a world where we are all encouraged to spend, to accumulate stuff, to build our collections in order to prove our worth as fans, to outdo the next guy, and to ensure that the CEO of Master Replicas can pay off his yacht in a timely fashion.
I am not surprised that fans clamor to own all of this. But I am surprised that the creators of some of these properties approved them for production and sale. Or perhaps I’m not surprised. Perhaps what I’m feeling is disappointment that revenue trumps all. I’m not speaking exclusively of Star Wars, though that is the source of much of my consternation. Take a look at the Star Wars section of your local Toys ‘R’ Us and count the board games. There are Star Wars versions of Battleship, Monopoly, Operation, Trouble, and Guess Who? I can’t wait for the inevitable Star Wars conversions of Cootie, Don’t Break the Ice, and Ants in the Pants.
And don’t get me started on the corporate circle-jerk that was Angry Birds Star Wars. I am aware that the two games in the series were well-received by fans and positively-reviewed by critics, but I personally can’t think of a stupider interpretation of the Star Wars mythos. Sure, I played the original iteration of Angry Birds a few times, but why marry the game to Star Wars? And for that matter, why merge any two unrelated properties in this fashion? Is it simply because both are popular? Is it because at the time the original Angry Birds Star Wars game was released, the saga needed something to help put it back into the public eye, or to give it relevance in the eyes of a younger generation?
While I’m on the subject, I may as well talk about the Star Wars Lego toy line. I’ve discussed my theoretical misgivings elsewhere on this blog, and while I stand by them I must disclose that I realize Legos are immensely popular; I consider myself a fan, and as I type these words there are no fewer than nine Lego-related publications in a bookcase to my left. Additionally the joining of the two brands has been great for both, giving Star Wars fans new ways to experience the beloved films while simultaneously opening Lego’s door to an endless parade of licenses including Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and Minecraft. And while I’m all for any toy that inspires creativity in children, I miss the days when Legos were everyday objects, vehicles, and playsets, and the stories were created by the builders rather than by Hollywood. For that matter, I miss the days when Legos cost less because the manufacturers didn’t have to pay for expensive entertainment licenses.
Beyond all of that, though, my problem with this kind of merchandise is that, at least from a narrative point of view, it somewhat trivializes its source material. It’s natural to want to make a property like Star Wars accessible to a younger generation, but if you have to make the iconography cute and cartoonish in order to get it to appeal to kids, maybe there’s a fundamental problem with the iconography itself. I remember playing with Star Wars figures as early as age two or three. They didn’t have to be particularly cute or cuddly; the fact that they were Star Wars figures was enough for me.
I acknowledge that it’s nearly forty years later, and there are a lot more entertainment options for children these days than there were in the late 1970s. With these options come a variety of toy lines, each one more visually appealing than the last. I understand the need for Star Wars to stay competitive as a children’s toy brand in an ever-changing market. But Lucasfilm and Disney shouldn’t underestimate the passion of adult Star Wars fans when it comes to raising their children with the same pop culture they themselves loved as children. I speak from experience.
Ultimately, portraying the characters in such a fashion dilutes their effect. I suppose that for me, a longtime fan who’s watched the Original Trilogy many times, it’s less of a problem. I can see the Darth Vader Toaster on Amazon without having it taint the scene where Vader strides into the Tantive IV at the start of the original film. But maybe the same won’t be true for the next generation. A toddler whose first exposure to Star Wars is Angry Birds Darth Vader, a bit of slapstick in Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out, or some other piece of ancillary detritus will experience the Star Wars Saga differently. Maybe Vader will seem less threatening because the child has already seen him hugging it out with Luke on a Father’s Day card.
And while I’m excited about the new film and optimistic that toy sales won’t drive the plot the way they did with the Prequel Trilogy, I realize that now that Disney owns Star Wars – and especially as the Saga expands with sequels and spinoff films – we’ll certainly be seeing more merchandise, not less. After all, Disney has multiple theme parks with souvenir shops waiting for new stuff to cram onto the shelves. Hell, they’ve even got a chain of specialty retail stores throughout the world. Of course they’re going to be cranking out more and more merchandise for these locations, in addition to the many retailers not owned by Disney outright. I just hope that as fan demand grows Lucasfilm will avoid the temptation to turn any upcoming films into extended toy commercials.
Let’s forget Star Wars for a minute. Forget Marvel Comics too. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Jurassic Park. DC Comics. All of that summer blockbuster fare, let’s just put it out of our heads and focus elsewhere, specifically on the realm of basic and premium cable TV drama. Basically, any dramatic series that didn’t air on network television, which could conceivably include shows produced for Netflix, Amazon Prime, the Playstation Network, and other non-traditional outlets.
The first generation of the basic and premium cable serial drama began in 1997 with the HBO series Oz. I was a big fan, especially during its first few years, as I enjoyed not only the stellar acting and superior writing but also the leeway HBO gave it (and its other original programming) with regard to content. Even with the profanity, graphic violence, and sexual content toned way down, there was no way commercial television could tackle such subject matter.
At the time the show was airing I was in my early-to-mid twenties, and I was a pretty avid toy collector. McFarlane had made its mark on the toy industry with Spawn, Metal Gear Solid, Movie Maniacs, and other collector-oriented lines. They produced figures for seemingly random semi-obscure films like Slap Shot and Strange Brew. What I really wanted, obviously, was a series of figures based on Oz, designed and sculpted to McFarlane’s usual standard. I knew it was a pipe dream, of course; in 1999 McFarlane had ruled out a line of James Bond figures as apparently too mundane.
Still, I daydreamed about the sort of figures McFarlane or a similar company might have produced before realizing that a much cooler way to collect the various inmates and corrections officers featured in the HBO series was as a line of one or two-inch non-poseable figurines. After all, in six-inch scale collectors might have gotten a half-dozen of the show’s more than fifty regular and recurring characters, but as a series of small PVC figurines we might have gotten the entire cast. I pictured the ensemble arranged on my desk, not unlike a group of full-color M.U.S.C.L.E. Wrestlers.
With the exception of DVD box sets, a soundtrack album, a coffee-table book, and a handful of promotional items including T-shirts, no merchandise from Oz ever surfaced. There certainly weren’t any action figures. And why should there have been? The fanbase for the program and the toy-collecting community overlapped so seldom that such a thing certainly wouldn’t have been profitable. There weren’t any figures from The Sopranos, The Shield, or any other television series from that first generation. And while I don’t recall anyone clamoring for a Fisher & Sons playset from Six Feet Under, I definitely remember the occasional forum posting in which someone bemoaned the lack of figures of Tony, Paulie, Silvio, and Chris; or Vic, Shane, Lem, and Ronnie. As with Oz, I knew it was wishful thinking.
Which brings us to The Wire, which ran on HBO from 2002 until 2008. While far from the ratings powerhouse that was the much more mainstream The Sopranos – it was largely ignored by general audiences – The Wire was well-reviewed and can be found on many television critics’ list of best television series. The show was nowhere near mainstream enough for merchandise, not that I suspect showrunner David Simon would have been interested even if it was. Though The Wire has spawned several books, there were no collectibles of any kind. I suspect that this is largely due to timing.
When The Wire wrapped in 2008 we were left with such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy, with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead soon after. Unlike that tenuous first generation of shows, for the second generation the atmosphere had changed. This was the social media age. Viewers got stickers for checking in to episodes of these shows on GetGlue. The cast and crew appeared on panels at San Diego Comic-Con. And there was merchandise. Lots and lots of merchandise.
With the exception of Dexter, which saw the release of several collector-oriented figures in a single line, these shows all have multiple toy lines which include figures from the likes of Mezco Toyz, McFarlane Toys, and Funko; and in some cases blind-boxed mini-figures and painstakingly-sculpted one-sixth-scale figures with non-sculpted clothing. Game of Thrones has Legacy Series figures and Mystery Minis, both by Funko. The Walking Dead has action figures and building sets by McFarlane, as well as Mystery Minis. I can understand the merchandising blitz surrounding these two shows. They fall into the fantasy and horror genres, respectively, and are geared toward geeks.
The other three have me somewhat confounded. They are set in the real world, and none of them have any significant genre ties. These days it would seem that such dramatic television series have greater credibility amongst geeks, or else that the general non-geek populace is more susceptible to marketing than it was a decade ago. For example, in addition to glassware, T-shirts, posters, keychains, and other collectibles traditionally marketed to a fanbase that considers itself above toy-collecting, Breaking Bad has spawned not only a five-inch figure line by Mezco Toyz, but also Reaction Figures and chibi-style Pop! Vinyl figures by Funko, and blind-boxed vinyl figures by Titan Merchandise. Additionally there have been high-end one-sixth-scale figures by Threezero Toys.
In what is hopefully as close as we’ll ever come to Angry Birds Breaking Bad, Mezco also released a series of bobbleheads, because while watching Walter White proclaim himself “the one who knocks” to a fearful Skyler, all I could think of was, “I wonder what this aspiring drug kingpin would look like with a comically disproportionate head that sort of bounces as though on a spring.” I can’t wait for the inevitable cuddly plush Heisenberg doll.
Seeing all of this merchandise on shelves in the past couple years made me feel sorry that The Wire didn’t air five years later. I suspect it would have better caught on with contemporary audiences, and there almost certainly would have been some manner of merchandise released: A few waves of Pop! Vinyl figures. Maybe some sort of non-poseable figurines sold in blind boxes. Perhaps – do I dare dream? – a collector-oriented line of six-inch figures. Today’s corporate marketing machine and hungry-for-toys populace would have ensured that I’d have a little Omar Little standing on my desk, perhaps protecting my computer with his shotgun and twelve-gauge pumpkin balls. If only…
Over time, however, it occurred to me that this wasn’t really what I wanted. Sure, my love of The Wire is all-encompassing, and my endorsement of the show as the greatest thing to air on television since the dawn of the medium is unimpeachable. But might the sight of plastic Stringer Bells and Lester Freamons hanging on the pegs at Toys ‘R’ Us dilute the show’s awesomeness in the eyes of future audiences? Or more importantly, in my own? I admit that I don’t particularly care whether some hypothetical viewer watches the show or not, and yet while I wanted (and perhaps still want) some sort of physical manifestation of my fandom I realized it was probably for the best that there was none.
I can’t think of a better example than Breaking Bad‘s Gus Fring. A truly menacing villain played by Giancarlo Esposito, Fring serves as Walter White’s nemesis in the third and fourth seasons before being killed in an explosion that burns half of his face and head down to the skull. It’s a shocking moment, an iconic image to the show’s fans, and the perfect ending to Breaking Bad‘s fourth season. In addition to various plastic representations of the character that feature 100% of his face, this particular depiction of the character (which was on screen for less than ten seconds) has been produced and sold in four of the aforementioned figure lines.
It can be argued that the proliferation of dead Gus Fring action figures diminishes the surprise of the scene. Seeing the extent of the character’s ruined face for the first time on an action figure will undoubtedly lessen the impact of seeing it on the show itself. I realize it has been nearly four years as of this writing since the original airdate of the episode in question. I understand that in this day and age it’s nigh-impossible to shield oneself from all manner of spoilers, and given that fact the predominant attitude today regarding them seems to be one of disregard for anyone who hasn’t consumed a particular work of fiction.
I am overly cautious when it comes to discussing spoilers for recent movies, television shows, comics, and the like, but even when discussing an older work I try to remember to ask the individual with whom I’m discussing it if they’ve seen it or read it. This applies primarily to my offline conversations, though I’ve been known to slap a spoiler warning on a forum posting or a Facebook post or comment. Apparently this doesn’t apply to this blog, as in various posts I’ve included untagged spoilers for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles volume 1 #1 (1984), Old Man Logan volume 1 #7 (2008), Daredevil volume 2 #2 (1998), House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Twilight Zone episode “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up” (1961), the Doctor Who Big Finish audio production “The Light at the End” (2013), and Top Gun (1986).
While I personally find it unseemly to toss about spoilers under the assumption that everyone has consumed the work being spoiled, I find it mind-boggling when the creator of said work does so. I’m not saying that Robert Kirkman, Vince Gilligan, or David Simon should refrain from discussing even the most surprising plot twists of their respective television series in interviews or on blog postings on their own websites; obviously that would be ridiculous, but I also think that journalists (and showrunners themselves) would do well to exercise common courtesy when discussing spoilers from recent episodes; given that some viewers wait until a television season has wrapped before watching all the episodes on Netflix or a similar streaming service, spoiler tags transcend simple etiquette.
But I’m not talking about journalists conducting interviews or even posting reviews. I’m talking specifically about the individuals who created the works in question, who presumably expect these works to have an unlimited shelf life. To me it’s a lot like Lucasfilm haphazardly making light of Luke Skywalker’s parentage because The Empire Strikes Back is thirty-five years old and it’s so well-known that it’s permeated most aspects of pop culture. I realize most people have seen the film, and the twist has been discussed openly for decades. But Lucasfilm’s official stance has always been that Star Wars is a modern day mythology that is to future generations what the epic poems of Homer might have been to the past. Obviously the intention is that a hundred years from now a young child will watch them for the first time. Even with Lucasfilm’s official insistence that everyone watch the films in chronological order (sorry, not happening), why would so many officially-sanctioned publications include in-jokey mentions of said plot twist? Why blare it over a loudspeaker?
I understand that letting films and other works of fiction speak for themselves is out of the question. Studios make money off of licensing fees, and too many other companies need to get paid as well. I get that. But do we really need to extend merchandising rights into areas that conceivably detract from the narrative, or portray the characters and events in inconsistent ways? Or which spoil iconic moments? It’s a trick question, obviously. Of course we do. I admit my guilt in supporting this practice by occasionally purchasing such merchandise. Additionally, I realize nothing is going to change because mine is the minority opinion. I’ll wager that the majority of fans don’t see a problem with any of it. While I’m willing to accept this, I can’t personally condone the practice.
Anyway, if G.I. Joe can have a small but long-running modern toy line, surely The Wire isn’t too fringe to see some love. I need a little Omar Little on my desk.