With "Superman Returns" mere weeks away and the hype machine in overdrive, a torrent of merchandise has been unleashed on fans and non-fans alike. The red and yellow (excuse me, maroon and gold) "S" pentangle is emblazoned on everything from a "Heat Vision Headset" to "Kryptonite" Doritos. For fanboys, the vast majority of whom are collectors, the problem now becomes figuring out how much of this crap to buy.
Blockbuster movie tie-ins are, of course, ubiquitous. "Star Wars," "Batman," "Harry Potter," "Cars" — the stuff is everywhere. You can't escape it. Warner Bros. has "Superman Returns" licensing deals with Mattel, Pepsi, Burger King, Duracell, Samsung, EA Games and Quaker State Motor Oil, to name a few. It's publicity carpet bombing.
While there are some fanatical collectors who "have to" buy every single item that ties in with their particular obsession, most will pick and choose, employing subjective criteria that fit their esthetic (and their wallet).
Most comic book fanboys don't get worked up over movie tie-ins. Cartoonist and animator Chris McCulloch ("The Tick," "The Venture Bros.") prefers "something that represents the comics. The kid in me bristles at seeing merchandise ... that doesn't match the original source material. When 'Batman' came out, I would have been more likely to buy a classic bat-logo T-shirt than the shiny, over-rendered movie version."
Fueling collectors' resistance to superhero movie-specific merch is the sheer quantity. After all, collectibles by definition need to be scarce, and as 1989's "Batman" taught us, ubiquity breeds contempt. While Bat-crap sold like crazy upon that film's release, almost every so-called "collectible" has aged like cottage cheese rather than fine wine. Nobody wants the stuff.
Personally, I don't buy much movie-specific merch, but again, we're talkin' Superman here and that's a different story. My Superman collection includes comics, books, videos, toys, posters, music and, most of all, action figures. I have 91 different Superman figures sitting on shelves in my living room. That number includes three Clark Kent figures, but doesn't include the Superman villains nor other members of what's called the "Superman family" (or the few doubles I have stashed away as backups). If I were to add those in, the total would soar past 100.
Only three in my current collection are from "Superman Returns," although there are more than two dozen different action figures tying into the new movie ("Super Breath Superman," "Truck Lifting Superman," etc.). Buying them all would not only be a bit too expensive but, more importantly — since movie-based figures are almost always slight variations on the same design — the figures would be superfluous.
That may sound hypocritical from someone with almost a hundred replicas of one character, but all those different figures represent not only different versions of Superman, but different stages of my life. A pressed wood figure from the 1940s was one of my first figures. The cloth-garbed Mego figure from the 1970s is a true vestige of my childhood, just as the 1980s Kenner Super Powers figure represents my late teens. The barrel-chested Justice League figure and many DC Direct variations are very much products of today's world, where adults with disposable income have become the biggest market for what were once exclusively children's toys.
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Sometimes it's all about preserving value. For instance, you can score a 1974 Mego Superman for about 20 bucks (depending on condition) on eBay, but if that same figure is still in the original box you're gonna pay upward of $250.
It's amusing to think of fanboys who are parents trying to explain to their 5-year-old kid why daddy doesn't want to take his " 'Superman Returns' Disc Attack Superman" out of the package and fire those orange plastic circles out of Superman's chest. (Hmm. I don't remember that superpower.)
But it's not always about investment. Steve Leach keeps most of his collection of Superman toys from the 1960s to the present in the package because "the box is a big part of the appeal of the product. I'm a graphic designer and I appreciate seeing how the package graphics enhance the figure. There's a back story of design and marketing decisions that you lose when you take something out of its original package.
"However," he admits, "I can appreciate taking figures out of the package, because it's kind of difficult to appreciate them 'in the round' when they're all sealed up. Unpackaged figures are a lot easier to play with, too."
Therein lies the dark secret of the action-figure collector. Yes, the sculpting is sometimes worthy of being deemed 'art.' Yes, a figure can come to be worth hundreds of dollars. Yes, they are pop-culture time capsules. But there's probably not one fanboy who hasn't at least once posed an action figure in a flying position and spun around making a swooshing sound. It's a primal (and primarily male) instinct, as difficult to resist as playing air guitar to AC/DC.
Art appreciation is always subjective. The density of my Superman collection (I'm a diehard Non-MOC collector, although I do sometimes save the backing card) has prompted some interesting reactions from visitors to my apartment. It's been called "slightly frightening," "obsessive" and "cool." One contractor actually gasped and said in broken English that it was "so beautiful...."
Maybe fanboys love action figures because it's a way of openly declaring one's passion. Comic books themselves are usually carefully protected and packed away in dark, cool rooms. Perusal is limited, and often restricted. Jeff Ayers, the manager of and buyer for NYC comic store Forbidden Planet, notes that "people love to immortalize their passion in plastic form. Never underestimate that."
But perhaps Chris "Venture Bros." McCulloch sums it up best. "A tiny little plastic superhero on your shelf — well, that's a beautiful thing."
Next: In the final installment of this series, we'll consider the worst case scenario: What if "Superman Returns" is (gulp) a dud?
Be sure to watch MTV's "Superman Returns" movie special on Friday, June 23, at 7 p.m. (ET/PT).
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