With Return of the Jedi faded into America's memory, and with no new Star Wars film in the immediate future, the Kenner line of Star Wars figures left the market in 1985. However, Star War's popularity was definitely not on the wane. The video release of the Star Wars Trilogy rekindled an interest in the films and introduced a new generation to the series. For most of the late 1980's and for much of the early 1990's, Star Wars-hungry fans faced a rather bare merchandise market which consisted mainly of games and books. As fans clamored for anything Star Wars, the action figures that had proliferated for eight years soon became hot collectibles, escalating in demand and price. Clearly, a market for new Star Wars merchandise did exist.
Recognizing this virtually untapped marketplace, Kenner worked to renew its toy license with George Lucas. As a result of these efforts, the Star Wars figure experienced a rebirth and re-entered the market in 1995. Following on its initial successful and revolutionary line, Kenner created its new line in the 3-3/4" action figure style it had pioneered nearly two decades ago. Likewise, Kenner approached this new line of toys with the same mentality as before and released several spaceships and playsets, full of compartments, accessories, and other open narrative aspects, for the new figures. Although the new action figures adhere to the action figure format of the original line, they differ completely in their sculpting and physique. The new figures appear to be on some type of muscle enhancer as they all feature extremely muscular bodies that bear a closer resemblance to He-Man. In no way do they bear a likeness to the actual actors and actresses who played the main roles in the Star Wars Trilogy.
This tremendous physical alteration between the original and new figures causes a myriad of questions as to the reasoning behind such a decision. One must wonder how anyone could look at the new Luke Skywalker figure and think of the character as he appears in the movie. The new Luke figure does not even resemble Mark Hamill, and it makes the original Luke figure look like a little boy. What forces within society would cause Kenner to enhance and falsely depict the Star Wars figures?
On a practical and an economical level, the new design modernizes the figures and places them on a level field of competition against other toys. When a child goes to a toystore, he sees walls of different action figures. Somehow, the manufacturer must capture the child's attention and cause him to buy the figure. While a connection to a popular television show or movie frequently sells the toy, the physical appearance of the toy does serve as a factor in the final selection process. Naturally, a figure with special features such as karate kick action and missile launcher weapon definitely makes a lasting impression in a young child's mind. Virtually all of the action figure lines Kenner must compete with display bulked up bodies and special features. The Power Rangers, X-Men, Spawn, and other lines make the original Star Wars figures appear as tame and visually boring. Additionally, figures today face a competitive adversary in the form of the home video game system. For a new generation of consumers inculcated with the video game culture of high definition graphics and fast paced games, visual appearance takes on even an greater importance in capturing the fleeting eye of the young consumer. Therefore, Kenner's physical enhancement of the new figures makes the line more visually appealing and competitive in the marketplace.
On a deeper level, the new figures reveal society's fitness culture and obsession with the perfect body (for more on fitness culture see Nike and the American Body). One need only look at the magazine rack or watch television commercials to realize this fitness craze. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Men's Health constantly feature articles on losing weight or flattening the abs. Commercials air advertisement after advertisement, ranging from Suzanne Sommer's Thighmaster to the Soloflex machine. Obviously, a large market exists for all of these products that delve into some aspect of health and fitness. Therefore, when one looks at the new figures, he/she sees an example of society's theoretical perfect image. Luke Skywalker bulges at the seams and does not bear an ounce of flab. Even his face is sculpted in such a manner that it incorporates a strong, square jaw. In designing the figures in this fashion, Kenner has not only competed with other toys, but has also tapped into American culture. The fitness desires and aims of America manifest themselves in the new Star Wars figures. Even the Princess Leia figure displays a well built body. Her new design, with broad shoulders and a taut face, bears a closer resemblance to a Redskin's linebacker than to a graceful, charismatic, princess. Yet this design, while fitting with America's fitness mentality, also complies with America's revised view of the woman and her role in society. While Leia always displayed fighting prowess and did come with a laser gun in the original line, the new figure comes with a rifle and pistol and appears more as a fighting equal of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. The new Leia figure's appearance suggests that she can handle anything the men can handle. The Star Wars figures of today definitely provide insight into American culture as they incorporate some of the fitness mindset of American culture of the 1990's.
The Star Wars figure, in both its forms, has played a key role in not only the boys' toy industry, but also in American culture. As parents who played with Star Wars figures in the 1970's introduce their young children to the magic of Star Wars and the new figures today, they help to prolong and strengthen the appeal of Star Wars within popular culture. Each year, the current line of Kenner figures rises in sales while the demand for original figures continues to soar on the collector's market. Clearly, the Star Wars action figure provides a concrete embodiment of the magic of the Star Wars story, and it is highly probable that the figure will continue long into the future, assuming new forms and revisions, adapting to the cultural trends of the day, and ultimately serving as an object that perpetually provides an outlet for people to tap into the Star Wars story, for generation after generation....
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