Whether you are aligned with Marvel or DC in this fatuous battle for supremacy, you have to admit that Marvel has been on a bit of a winning streak since the release of the first Iron Man movie; revolutionizing the way that people look at comic book IP and event films while earning a ton of money and accolades in the process.
Perhaps that’s why it feels so weird to see Marvel sustain body blow after body blow as they’ve had to deal with blowback from the Edgar Wright/Ant-Man divorce, Drew Goddard’s ill-timed departure announcement from the Daredevil TV series and rumors that Marvel’s publishing arm might pull the plug on The Fantastic Four and the Ultimate FF comic book series’ to deny FOX a promotional boost in the run-up to the release of their Fantastic Four reboot film. Add to that, X-Force creator Rob Liefeld’s tweeted-out observations about the lack of an X-Men: Days of Future Past action figure line and his proclamation that, “The Fox shut out is real”, and it appears that Marvel may have a new fire to put out… unless they just ignore this controversy until it flames out on its own.
So, let’s get into it: Liefeld (his main tweets on the matter are above) is right, there are no mass market X-Men: Days of Future Past action figures available; that means that you won’t find any tie-in products in a Wal Mart or Target toy department, but generally speaking, how much does that really matter? The “direct market” isn’t quite as closed off as it used to be and there are Minimate figures available now at comic book shops, Toys R Us and on the web; and a planned Mystique (the Jennifer Lawrence version) Marvel Select figure will hit the market soon.
Is this on par with the toy options available for Marvel controlled films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, or Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 (whose merchandise rights Marvel owns)? No, not at all, but before we rage about the effort to supposedly undercut FOX, it’s important to note that Hasbro (Marvel’s partner in mass market toys until 2020) has to weigh the risks and benefits associated with launching a line and that maybe they decided that a Days of Future Past line didn’t make a whole lot of sense to them, much in the same way that certain blockbuster films get tie-in video games and some don’t, but that’s a whole other issue.
While we have information on current lines (I’ll get to that in a moment), I couldn’t locate any information on the sales performance for the Captain America: First Avenger or the Amazing Spider-Man lines from a few years ago and I can’t find anything on the performance of both the X-Men Origins: Wolverine toy line or the Wolverine and the X-Men line that hit shelves in 2009. I do, however, recall the site of Wolverine figures clogging store shelves for a long while after their release and I recall seeing markdowns on them often.
If the X-Men Origins: Wolverine line (which also featured X-Men figures like an Astonishing X-Men era Cyclops and an Iceman figure) under-performed for Hasbro, it might explain a hesitancy in them to fully embrace a new line, especially in that they have released several X-Men figures through their on-going Marvel Universe (now the Marvel Infinite line) and Marvel Legends lines. This includes a Cyclops figure in the third wave of the Infinite series that is coming out early this month and an X-Men: First Class themed 2-pack that was timed to the release of the film of the same name back in 2011. Hasbro also released a wearable set of plastic Wolverine claws around the same time (even though, in X-Men: First Class, Wolverine only cuts people with his words, and my kingdom for a pull-string Wolverine plush toy that only utters, “Fuck off”).
Now, it would be hard to say that Hasbro’s previous efforts constitute a “flood” of the market with the X-Men brand when you compare them to the other active Marvel toy brands like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Spider-Man, but Hasbro might be wise to avoid over-saturation whenever they can in light of a recent report in The New York Post.
The report indicates that movie tie-in toylines like the Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Transformers: Age of Extinction are off to a “sluggish start”, and apparently that is leaving these products vulnerable to early markdowns.
“merchandise associated with the flicks is languishing at big-box retailers like Walmart, Target and Toys ‘R’ Us and is the subject of markdowns that are unusually steep considering it’s so close to their initial release, says BMO Capital Markets analyst Gerrick Johnson.”
Here’s more from Johnson:
“You’ve got all these action figures chasing mind-share, and they’ve all got the same backstory and the same characters, […] Every kid already has Spider-Man and Captain America.”
That’s a fantastic observation that really hits the nail on the head, but I’d guess that every kid has five Spider-Man and Captain America figures.
Did you know that if you count up the Spider-Man figures that have been released as a part of the Marvel Universe line, Marvel Legends and the assorted other Hasbro Spider-Man lines since the 2009 launch of Marvel Universe that there are more than 30 different Spider-Man figures and that after 31, I decided that there was no point in counting anymore? Spider-Man in his black costume, Ultimate Spider-Man, regular Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2099, Spider-Man with a grappling hook, web battlers, a web blade and Spider-Man with a crossbow. Seriously, and Hasbro has released a similar amount of Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk and Wolverine figures. It’s a plastic flood.
It”s actually a little hard to feel bad for a company when they release so much (similar) product onto the market in a relatively short amount of time, but the sympathy comes rolling in when you realize that Hasbro was expecting an uptick in what is somewhat distressingly classified as their “boys’ lines” (girls play with action figures too, folks).
Here’s a bit from a Bloomberg Business Week report that was published back in February:
“Hasbro’s revenue from boys’ lines fell 22 percent last year, to $1.2 billion, including a 16 percent decline in the fourth quarter, due to what Chief Executive Brian Goldner called “a nonmovie year” today on a conference call. He expects this year to be much better: “2014 is just the first year of an unprecedented era of new boys’ entertainment,” Goldner said, citing the expected release in June of Transformers: Age of Extinction and two new films from Walt Disney’s (DIS) Marvel Studios unit—a second installment of the Captain America franchise in April and Guardians of the Galaxy in August. The second film in the revamped The Amazing Spider-Man franchise opens in May.”
Now, on April 21st of this year, Hasbro reported what Reuters classified as a “better-than-expected quarterly profit” thanks to a 21% increase in sales of “girls’ lines” (boys play with My Little Pony too) and a 2% increase in “boys’ lines”, but while that is good news, there was some of the other kind as well in the Reuters article.
“Demand has been weak industrywide for action figures and preschool toys, two important categories for Hasbro, as children shift their focus to mobile devices, analysts have said.
However, Wissink (Piper Jaffray analyst Stephanie Wissink) said she expects shipments of action figures to accelerate in the second quarter with the release of the new Spider-Man movie in May and the next installment of the Transformers franchise in late June.”
Unfortunately for Hasbro, “toys licensed around the next “Transformers” film is nearly 50 percent below levels seen before the release of the previous franchise film in 2011” according to Monday’s Post report and Mr. Johnson, so there goes that as a saving grace. Hasbro can — and likely does — take solace in the upcoming Avengers 2 release and the return of Star Wars to the big screen, but while there will doubtlessly be toys and a high level of interest, it’s not like the majority of those characters aren’t already well exposed as a part of Hasbro’s existing product line as well.
I don’t mean to bore you with economic details, but the point is that Hasbro pays a high premium to secure these license deals with the hope that they will get an ample return on their investments. It’s those deals, the state of the market and their shareholders that should concern Hasbro when they dedicate resources to a new line, nothing more.
Getting back to the the alleged FOX shutout: is it possible that Marvel looked at the calendar and decided to put the kibosh on an X-Men line because it would have screwed with the roll-out of the Guardians of the Galaxy line? Anything is possible, but I don’t know for sure and honestly, even if Marvel did do that, so what? Marvel took a risk with their money and reputation when they greenlit Guardians of the Galaxy and they took on the task of growing a somewhat obscure set of characters into the latest batch of Marvel icons by any means necessary (toys, shining a light on those characters in their publishing efforts) to help make that risk worthwhile. The bottom line is, FOX and Marvel made a deal a long time ago and one imagines that it was carefully structured and obviously beneficial to FOX in the long run or else they wouldn’t continue pumping out Marvel films. One also imagines that the deal said nothing about Marvel shooting themselves in the foot to to help FOX promote their products. Maybe it sucks as a fan, but as cynical as it may sound, these characters are — first and foremost — assets to be utilized in the pursuit of profits.
The real question is, do movie-tie in lines even matter anymore?
Their usefulness as a promotional tool for these films is debatable. On one hand, these products recieve a fair amout of coverage at comic book conventions and at Toy Fair, and it doesn’t hurt to have a large center-aisle or end-cap display at a Wal Mart or a Toys R Us to remind you that the next Spider-Man film, but it’s hard to put a number on that influence, and as Liefeld points out, X-Men: Days of Future Past has done just fine without that kind of assistance.
Besides that, we also have to remember the inherent risk that comes with making these toys, as demonstrated by the GI Joe: Retaliation situation. In May of 2012, GI Joe: Retaliation got pushed back to the following year to convert it to 3-D, unfortunately, some of the action figures had already hit stores, no doubt creating a slightly embarrassing and confusing situation for consumers. Just imagine if there had been a toy line for Jupiter’s Ascending, retailers would already likely have the product up on shelves only to sit for eight months without context now that is has been delayed.
As for the figures themselves, all I can say is, the days of Bob the Goon are gone, my friend. These figures often feel low quality (though, credit to Hasbro for releasing products that aren’t far away from the quality of their ongoing lines) and the lines never offer a wide variety of characters to chose from, just a ton of variations on the same thing. We also have to remember the numerous lines that seem to stall when they hit the market and the ones that are simply just a terrible idea. Here’s a pretty great list from Topless Robot on some really dreadful tie-in toylines. I’d add the World War Z line as an addendum since that post-dates the list. I’d also add Mattel’s rather dreadful 3.75 scale Dark Knight Rises line as well, but I understand the reason behind green lighting it… sorta.
I hate to say this, but comic book movies like The Dark Knight Rises, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Iron Man 3 and countless others are a bit more adult and dark in nature now than comic book movies were seven or eight years ago. Was there a lot in The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, X-Men: Days of Future Past or Captain America: The Winter Soldier that spoke to kids besides the presence of these characters? I don’t think so, but the days of the “action figure commercial” comic book movie are gone and that is a great thing for film fans, but as these films wrestle with complex issues, it’s fair to wonder if it is mildly inappropriate or at least disingenuous to directly link these films to action figures with cartoonish cannons and metallic alternate uniforms that are made specifically for young consumers.
Perhaps I need to re-read my own words about these characters being “assets to be utilized in the pursuit of profits”, but by my estimation as a fan of these films and their source material and as a casual toy collector, I don’t think that they have any value beyond that end and it seems as if they might not even have value there.
With all of that said, though, I get Liefeld’s point about kids and the importance of introducing these characters to them (when parents deem that to be appropriate), but there are so many iterations of these characters on store shelves right now with ongoing lines, Vinyl Pop, Minimates, comics, games, animation and (yes) the live action films, that I don’t think that any popular comic book character is in danger of fading into obscurity and I think that the effect of Hasbro’s lack of an X-Men: Days of Future Past line and the absence of another set of plastic retractable Wolverine claws is negligible at best.
“Whatever” is a column on Nerd Bastards. It will appear randomly and it exists as a place for me to get on a soap box about… well, whatever. If you want to read past entries, click this link and bookmark that page. I’ve only written one other so far, it’s a lot better and a LOT shorter than this.