“Merchandising,” said Mel Brooks‘ Yogurt in Spaceballs. “Where the real money from the movie is made.” And there has never been a more accurate statement about the way films are sold. Imagine a world without Star Wars toys – an area in which George Lucas himself invested heavily. Or Batman without a little plastic hunk shaped like the Dark Knight. Joel Schumacher himself has stated many times that the embarrassment that is Batman & Robin was made only with the motivation to sell toys. Could there really have been any other reason?
And our childhoods are populated with little totems of our favourite cartoons, films and comic books. We create our own worlds, ones in which Ninja Turtles can go head to head with Robocop.
Action figures have come a long way. They’ve become a more legitimate art form since artist Todd McFarlane began designing collectibles. There were collectors in past generations too – the brave, lonely souls who braved the temptation to open the cardboard/plastic border to get their grubby fingerprints all over Han Solo. And since the dawn of retro, lines of recent figures have become big sellers at conventions and online. NECA, in particular, has both a Freddy Kruger and a Jason Vorhees designed based on their pixelated representations in their respective terrible NES games.
But what about the failed attempts at marketing? The cash-ins desperate to recoup their budget from a flop by creating likenesses of the not-so-memorable characters in their crappy films? Turns out, nerds want them too.
Here are some of the strangest, cash-grab attempts at would-be popular action figures. For completists who want to recreate their favourite scenes over and over. We’ve avoided retro toys, sticking to those released during the production’s initial run. Should you have any in your collection, see what they’re going for on eBay.
17. Itchy – Dick Tracy
Steven Spielberg‘s Hook is one of the director’s most poorly regarding works, scoring only 30% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was savaged upon release, with critics complaining that not only was the film was inappropriately titled (it’s a Peter Pan story, not a Captain Hook story), unfocused, unfunny and overlong. It’s a mess, with the actors clearly having more fun hamming it up than the audience. That being said, it couldn’t have found a better actor to play a grown up Peter Pan than impish man-child Robin Williams.
The film also made news with one of the most famous controversies regarding its toy line. Seems none of the actors agreed to have their likenesses sculpted for the action figures, which were heavily advertised on TV. As a result, the toys bear no resemblance to anyone in the film.
15. Kahega and the Apes – Congo
For his second film after the success of Arachnophobia, producer-turned-director Frank Marshall adapted Michael Chrichton‘s adventure novel in 1995. This wasn’t long after the success of Jurassic Park, mind you, and Chrichton’s fiction was the new oil well for Hollywood. The film flopped miserably, remembered today only as a great Drive-In double feature alongside Mortal Kombat.
But bad movie-enthusiasts take note: Congo is a weird, wild blast. Ernie Hudson does his best Errol Flynn, there’s a guy in an ape suit who knows sign language, Tim Curry has an indecipherable accent and Delroy “Stop eating my sesame cake” Lindo shows up for one of the strangest scenes of the 90s.
The toy line for the expected summer hit was fairly standard, with various killer apes for sale, as well as the aforementioned signing ape, and a plastic Laura Linney.
But the oddest inclusion is doubtless Hudson’s mostly silent sidekick Kahega – an early role for Lost and Suicide Squad alum Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. For the figure, Akinnuoye-Agbaje is just downright ripped.
14. Bob the Goon – Batman
Anyone who grew up with Tim Burton‘s adaptation of Batman has fond memories of Bob the Goon. He was the Joker’s right hand man, mostly on board to provide the Clown Prince of Gotham supplies and backstory. What makes Bob so memorable is how he isn’t memorable at all. He’s just always there, an accepted, seemingly necessary figure throughout the film. That is, until Jack Nicholson‘s Joker – frustrated his plan to poison the city had failed – requests a gun and arbitrarily offs Bob toward the end of the movie.
Another reason we all love Bob the Goon is his action figure. As in the film, Bob is impeccably clad in black and suffers from male pattern baldness. He even comes complete with a fedora. But here’s the kicker – quite literally: this Bob is Power Kick Bob, which means his leg springs up at the knee when his arm is dropped.
13. Aunt May – Spider – Man
What growing boy wouldn’t want to play with Spider-Man toys? Some even game with web (read: small amounts of water) shooters, so the child could pretend to swing from building to building. Or wrangle up any number of his rogues gallery. As a male child, superhero action figures were a must, hard-wired into genes to help bring about puberty.
There’s no denying that Peter Parker’s Aunt May is a crucial character throughout the comic series. Like most such characters, she’s provided Parker with the moral turpitude necessary to continue to don the responsibilities of a hero. She’s also died numerous times, like all comic characters.
Still, it’s hard to imagine the kind of kid who would want to play with the action figure of a septuagenarian woman in an apron. It doesn’t help that the face on the doll appears to be maniacal. Just look at her. Or don’t, should you want your soul to remain intact.
12. April O’Neill’s Boss – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began as an incredibly dark comic series. It still had a sense of humour – it was, after all, intended as a parody of the popular gritty comics of its era – but the material was still much less light-hearted than what we’re used to today.
By the time the cartoon series debuted in 1987, they had already become the pizza-loving, tubular dudes that Michael Bay publicly urinated upon two years ago.
Naturally, the toys were bestsellers. Schoolyards would be full of intense debate over who the best turtle was (it’s Leonardo, by the way). Fights were staged between the foot clan and the evil Shredder and Krang. And April O’Neill fulfilled her one duty as a hard-nosed journalist – to look pretty and get kidnapped a lot.
One wonders then what kid staged scenes in his little universe in which April’s boss, Burne, assigned her the story that eventually lead to her being a damsel in distress? Well, the option was there.
The figure is a malproportioned overweight newsman, presumably with multiple ulcers, his mouth half full of a cheeseburger. He came equipped with the essentials any reporter needs, including a typewriter, a press pass, a hilariously oversized cellular phone and, just in case he gets hungry on the road, a sandwich.
11. German Mechanic – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Spielberg and Lucas revitalized the modern action adventure story in a few coke-fuelled days in which they tossed around ideas with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan riffing on their favourite short serials on which they grew up. The transcripts of those meetings are available online, and are essential reading for anyone who wants to hear their favourite filmmakers spitball what would become some of the coolest action scenes committed to celluloid mixed in with potent racism and sexism.
The toy line for Raiders is something of a rarity that collector’s seek out. And while there’s no question kids would have a blast recreating the iconic fight scene between the German mechanic and Indy next to spinning propellers of an airplane. However, the mechanic’s representation here seems to want to portray him with a muffin top. It looks like they took the legs of a G.I. Joe figure and smacked on the torso of a small Ken Doll.
10. Ludmilla Drago – Rocky IV
The Rocky toy line has some incredibly strange editions, including your very own plastic slab of meat, the only Frank Stallone action figure and a replica of the Rocky statue in Philadelphia.
Sylvester Stallone has always been a friend to fans, often answering aintitcoolnews questions directly and openly about upcoming projects, but no one has taken him to task on the strange marketing decisions behind the Rocky toys.
Rocky IV pits the Italian Stallion against a soviet fighter, Dolph Lundgren, responsible for killing rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed in the ring. But in the grander scheme of things, as Hunter S. Thompson put it, the film was “a series of harsh beatings [that] climaxed abruptly in a frenzy of teenage political blather…when Sly beat the huge Russky like a mule.” You know, a serious political statement.
So how do you top a Frank Stallone action figure? A Brigitte Neilson – Stallone’s then-wife – action figure. Neilson played Lundgren’s steely cold bride. Kids could buy her to…we’re not entirely sure. The term action figure typically implies some kind of movement, but the best use we could think of for Ludmilla Drago was to have her sit in the audience and stare.
9. Janine Melnitz – Ghostbusters
There have been several toy lines based on the Ghostbusters franchise. The original film, the cartoon series, the EXTREME cartoon series (as everything in the early 90s was graded on its level of extremity), even the new all-female reboot has action figures with cooties.
As a child, nothing could be better than sliding down the firepole (in this case, a quick moving swivel elevator) in the replica of the firehouse from The Real Ghostbusters. Or letting the ectoplasmic slime drip down all over Stantz or Spengler. Then there’s Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts in the film), their bitter, overworked, easily irritable secretary.
8. Drake – Aliens
James Cameron‘s sequel to Ridley Scott‘s haunted-house-movie-in-space is generally regarded as one of the best sequels ever made. It expands upon the universe of the first film, amps up the intensity and violence ten-fold and tops its predecessor in just about everything. Everything except scares, for Cameron jettisoned just about anything that made the alien of Alien frightening. Between this and Rambo: First Blood Part II, it seems Cameron just couldn’t stop re-fighting the Vietnam war. As a result, the aliens in his film are legion, dispatched quickly and without hesitation regarding their acid-for-blood.
In fact, only one character dies due to acid blood: the wise-cracking marine Drake. Drake has only a few scenes in the film, typically brief flirtations with his female counterpart Vasquez. He is one of the first to be killed in a blitz attack early in the film after shooting an alien that covers him in blood.
Yet, for some reason, Drake’s action figure is infinitely more badass than his character. His hair (Drake is played by Mark Rolston in Aliens, with short cropped blonde hair) is spiked upwards and the snarl on his lips says he drinks an acid blood smoothie for breakfast. The rail gun he carries is almost the size of the entire toy.
7. Stan Parks – Robocop: The Series
Paul Verhoven’s Robocop is many things; a modern retelling of Jesus, an amazing action film, a viciously sharp, clever satire, a movie where the dad from That 70s Show snorts mountains of cocaine and brutally kills policeman. The one thing it isn’t is TV-friendly.
Robocop was neutered throughout the late 80s and early 90s. There’s an excellent picture of disgraced former President Nixon shaking Robocop’s hand in front of The Boy Scouts of America, which sums up just how badly the machine’s protocols went on the fritz. Robocop 3, directed by Fred Dekker (who has, sadly, never directed a film since), turned him into less of a corporate machine programmed to do whatever its overlords wanted and more of a robotic community organizer, protecting unjustly evicted tenants from the evil OCP.
The television series that followed only worsened the misread of the character, turning him into an avenger of all social causes and wronged injustices. The line of action figures from the series wasn’t, as earlier merchandise from the franchise was, just different variations on Robocop. It featured the side characters no one cared about, like watch commander Sgt. Stan Parks (Blu Mankuma).
First of all, it appears Parks lost a lot of weight for the figure. Second, it’s hard to imagine a more generic looking African-American cop toy. The expression on his face is one of resignation, as if he’s perfectly happy with his desk job.
6. Iggy – Super Mario Bros.
Never had a child raised by Nintendo felt so betrayed in their lives than by the live action Super Mario Bros. film. Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton’s vision is beyond warped, shoehorning in minor aspects of the simple game in a slapdash manner. The sets appear to have been retrieved from the dumpster of Total Recall and the plot is so deranged one wonders if they ever played the game at all.
No one could blame the cast for being completely wasted on set, as they all reportedly were. But Fisher Stevens’ performance as King Koopa’s henchman Iggy proves he was on a whole other level of substances: he’s coked out of his gills.
But Nintendo heard there was money in this action figure business, so a line was produced, presumably to dismal sales. Stevens’ Iggy is there, along with de-evolve machine, a dystopian-looking police car and, naturally Mario Mario and Luigi Mario – who, by the way, aren’t even brothers in the film.
5. Muldoon – Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park, for many readers, was probably the first culture-wide event film of their lives. The marketing, buzz and discussions about Stan Winston’s groundbreaking special effects was inescapable. It penetrated every level of pop culture.
The film has no shortage of memorable characters, from B.D. Wong’s scientist (the only returning character in Jurassic World) to Samuel L. “Hold on to your butts” Jackson‘s Mr. Arnold. Jackson, it appears, was the only character who didn’t get an action figure (though Dennis Nedry’s detachable arms would have suited his just fine).
Most toys look at least vaguely like their film counterparts. The exception being that of raptor wrangler Robert Muldoon. Bob Peck’s performance consists of two or three scenes and a handful of lines (“clever girl…”), but no one forgot it. His toy is a generic man in a yellow vest. Either he didn’t give permission for his likeness or they never bothered to ask.
4. Skaara, the Guards – Stargate
Stargate is better known for its multiple television shows. Initially, however, creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin had planned a trilogy of films. After the disappointing box office numbers, those plans were scrapped. It is still, however, a threat that Emmerich seems intent on seeing through.
Most of the toys resemble their counterparts. Kurt Russell‘s gritty Colonel O’Neill does bear a vague resemblance to the actor. James Spader clearly refused to have his likeness used, as the Daniel Jackson action figure looks nothing like his nerdy archaeologist.
Though it appears kids were being encouraged to build their own Stargate universe. Not only is Ra, the main villain represented, but each of his Anubis guards are also available for purchase. On the rebel side, the teenage boy Skaara comes battle-ready as well. This may seem reasonable for a popular film, but given Stargate’s lack of following (at the time), it’s just bizarre.
3. The second Dennis Nedry – Jurassic Park
Another article could cover the number of toys released based around Jurassic Park, but even before a second film was in production, a second toy line was rushed to stores. The Dino Hunters line featured characters never even suggested in the original film as well as reboots of those from it.
While it makes sense to have Wayne Knight‘s Dennis Nedry in the first wave – you need villains beyond dinosaurs, after all – it’s perplexing to see him armoured up for round two. We’ll let it slide that it appears Nedry underwent stomach stapling for his toy (predicting Knight’s future weight loss by a decade). Both toys, as mentioned, allow you to tear off his arms, leaving gory stumps. But in the action figure world, somehow he was resurrected and armed to the teeth.
2. Danny Madigan – Last Action Hero
Last Action Hero was a notorious flop meant as a send-up of mainstream action pictures written by no less than four major Hollywood screenwriters – some of them the very writers the film meant to satirize. You can probably tell how that went wrong.
The toy line only contains four major characters – with multiple versions of Arnold Schwarzennegger‘s Jack Slater available. The others were the films two main villains, Benedict and the axe-wielding Ripper, and young boy Danny Madigan.
Madigan is portrayed by Austin O’Brien as a constantly whiny little boy who serves to annoy Slater and, by accidental extension, the audience. His figure is surprisingly accurate right down to the haircut and the black and white pyjama hoodie he wears throughout the film. But then they try and make him an action hero as well, advertising him not as just “Danny Madigan” but “Hook-Launchin’ Danny”! He comes equipped with a grapple hook that was never even suggested in the movie.
1. Basically Every Minor Star Wars Character – Star Wars
Love or hate the Star Wars franchise, it’s impossible to deny that Lucas created a richly detailed, lived in environment. The best example of this is the iconic cantina scene on Tatooine in A New Hope, filled with puppets and men in complex make up of every shape and size. Even the dreaded Star Wars Christmas Special expanded the universe, offering new, unwanted characters unique to the universe.
For the obsessive fans, there’s no shortage of three-inch plastic representations of characters. If it was onscreen for even a frame, you bet there’s a toy based on it – also potentially a comic book, a novel, a video game and a board game as well.
From the little box droid on the Jawa trader ship to anything in Jabba’s palace, it can be yours to own. If it’s in the original packaging, there’s a good bet it’s worth some serious coin.