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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Force in Focus: Shadows of the Empire Action Figures

From the beginning, action figure licensing has gone hand-in-hand with new Star Wars movies. So when the Shadows of the Empire initiative attempted to create all the usual tie-ins associated with a new movie (despite not having a new movie to tie them into), a line of action figures had to have been a no-brainer for LucasFilm. Thankfully, Kenner had, in 1995, relaunched their long-stagnant line of Star Wars figures under the "Power of the Force" line, so the groundwork was already in place for a line of Shadows "tie-in" figures.

The end result is small sub-line under the "Power of the Force" umbrella, consisting of five individual figures, two multipacks containing a pair of figures each, and three vehicles (one of which contained an additional figure not found elsewhere).

Figures
Chewbacca in Bounty Hunter Disguise
Dash Rendar
Leia in Boushh Disguise
Luke Skywalker in Imperial Guard Disguise
Prince Xizor

Multipacks
Boba Fett vs. IG-88
Prince Xizor vs. Darth Vader

Vehicles
Boba Fett's Slave I
Dash Rendar's Outrider
Swoop Bike w/Swoop Trooper

Each of the single-carded figures comes packed in a variant of the then-standard "Power of the Force" card design, with a hologram sticker in place of the film still image to the left of the figure and "Shadows of the Empire" emblazoned above the bubble, while the multipacks come packaged with a Shadows of the Empire comic book.

The main line of single-carded figures is comprised mostly of costume variants of the main (film) characters, along with Dash Rendar and Prince Xizor (the principal original hero and villain of the story). Lando and the droids are the notable absences amongst the protagonists, left out, presumably, because none of them donned any looks in the course of the story which could be used to set their figures apart from their counterparts in the main line.

The other notable exclusion in terms of the main characters is Guri, Xizor's female replica droid assistant/assassin, who was featured rather heavily in the comic book series. She was likely left out due to the incorrect (and sadly, still-present) impression among toy executives that boys are less likely to buy a female figure than a male figure, so including Leia in the line was probably pushing it already, from their perspective.

Speaking of Leia, her appearance here in the Boushh disguise (later used in the opening of Return of the Jedi) is the first appearance in the new series of that iteration of the character. The figure would later be repackaged in the main "Power of the Force" card style.

Darth Vader, the other main villain of the story (albeit also one with a large presence in the main "Power of the Force" line), makes it into the Shadows line via a multipack that pairs him with Xizor (though the characters never directly fight one another in the story, strict adherence to source material never stopped toy lines before). Also of note, the IG-88 included in the multipack with Boba Fett is, I believe, the first IG-88 released as part of the modern line.

With the vehicles, the Outrider is notable for being the first larger vehicle released by Kenner in the revitalized line to feature an entirely brand new mold (all the previously-released vehicles, like X-wings and TIE fighters and Slave I, simply reused the existing molds from the vintage line). A toy version of Xizor's personal ship, the Virago, was also planned but never executed.

The Swoop Trooper packed with the Swoop Bike technically counts as an original figure, but is functionally useless independent of its vehicle as the figure's legs are molded to fit the bike, so it looks funny on its own, unable to fully stand upright (this was a problem with most of the line's early "rider" figures, like the more familiar Scout Trooper packaged with the speeder bike).

Overall, as with much of the Shadows product overall, the intent is appreciated more than the execution, as most of the figures are fairly humdrum. The Chewbacca figure is simply a recasting of his main "Power" figure with some 90s-riffic accessories mold on, while Luke is cosplaying as a generic troop that only appears in the story and thus has no real connection or point-of-reference for anyone. Leia is the standout figure of the bunch, but only because her figure is, essentially, a Return of the Jedi figure, as well as an update to a figure that appeared in the classic line.

The two original figures fare much better - Xizor comes packaged with some weird energy shield weapons, because Kenner was still afraid to release figures aimed solely at collectors without some kind of play feature for kids, but is otherwise a decent enough representation of the story's central character. The figure of Dash, a fairly bland and obvious Han Solo stand-in in the story, actually has a fairly dynamic sculpt, striking the right balance between characterization and playability, and has some unique accessories (I mean, they're guns, but they're original to the figure). Despite being a fairly bland character, his figure is probably the best of the bunch after Leia.

In the end, the Shadows of the Empire toy line is remembered as little more than curiosity today. Never a sales juggernaut, with the figures for the most part being quickly relegated to clearance racks and bargain bins, it did, however, at least partially prove the flexibility of the increasing-popular revitalized "Power of the Force" line, showing that there was a market for figures outside of the core cast/re-sculpts of vintage figures, in part opening the door to more diversity within the line (including both figures of characters who never received a vintage version, like Grand Moff Tarkin, and the later Expanded Universe subline, which, like Shadows, featured figures of characters who never appeared in an official film). Few action figure aficionados today likely have strong feelings about these figures, but the action figure line as a whole is nevertheless better off for their existence.  

4 comments:

  1. Man, I'm pretty sure I had most of these figures (Including the comics, the novel, and the video game). At the time, 10-year-old me was excited that there was a new, "official" piece of the Star Wars canon so I ate up every bit of it that I could.

    Then the Special Editions came out and that distracted me from SOTE, and then Episode I came out and it was all but forgotten. But yeah, I completely forgot how much merchandise was out there for this new property and how huge it was. Hell, a couple years ago I broke out the video game and actually beat it for the first time, and it still holds up.

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  2. I never knew that Rob Liefeld had designed a Chewbacca figure. That’s hilariously ’90s.

    // strict adherence to source material never stopped toy lines before //

    You say that with at least a soup├žon of snark, I think, and rightly so, but it would be a sad, unimaginative world in which kids used action figures purely to recreate scenes from the movie-or-whatever that spawned them. My own playsets were gloriously amalgamated cross-property alternate universes. Which doesn’t mean that as cool as weapons and gadgets usually were I didn’t get all purist on occasion about variant costumes or accessories.

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  3. I used to get so annoyed by the philosophy that female figures wouldn't sell. I was a boy, but I wanted all the characters in any line, regardless of gender. And then on the rare occasion they did produce a female character, she was usually packed one per case so you had to pay scalper prices at the local comic shop to get her. (That's how I got Rogue from Toy Biz's X-Men line, probably among others).

    Strangely, I think Playmates' STAR TREK line was the first series of action figures to represent female characters pretty regularly. They produced Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher along with all the male characters, and both were very easy to find. Subsequent years would see Kira Nerys, Jadzia Dax, Uhura, and many others alongside the male characters. (Though I seem to recall Ensign Ro was short-packed for whatever reason. Had to pay scalper price for her, too.)

    But then, sometimes I think I was an odd kid. I didn't just want all the major male and female characters; I wanted all the civilian characters too. I may have had figures of Spider-Man and a ton of his villains, but it always bothered me that I didn't have plastic representations of Mary Jane, Aunt May, Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson, etc.

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  4. "And then on the rare occasion they did produce a female character, she was usually packed one per case so you had to pay scalper prices at the local comic shop to get her."

    This makes so much sense. When I started collecting the Power Of The Force toys around '96/'97 I was never able to find a Leia figure of any kind and always wondered why. Like you, I wanted all the main characters so I could tell the most epic stories while playing with them. I'm pretty sure Leia was the last figure I managed to find of all the major ones. I remember looking online (First time I ever tried to buy anything online) and I found Leia figures going for insane prices. Then one day my mom, knowing I wanted to Leia figure, just happened to find one in a mall on a business trip and got it for me.

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