New DC Comics Multiverse Action Figures Highlight Wonder Woman
Mattel’s DC Comics Multiverse Wonder Woman action figures hit toy store shelves recently, promoting the upcoming film starring Gal Gadot. The DC Comics Multiverse toy line produces 6-inch action figures that supplement DC’s blockbuster superhero films (think Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman) with select characters from DC comics and TV shows thrown in (comics like 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns and the current Flash and Supergirl TV series have received the plastic treatment thanks to this line). The 3.75-inch Multiverse line ropes in video game and older film characters, but the 6-inch waves will be the focus of this article. While the line’s Suicide Squad wave offered a fair number of Harley Quinns and Katanas, waves tend to contain nothing impressive in terms of equal-or-better female representation. In fact, some waves, like the line’s first, have been all-male. That is the primary reason this new Wonder Woman wave stands out: it delivers three female action figures to its two male characters (including the “Collect & Connect” Ares figure you can only make if you collect all the other figures and build the toy out of pieces in each box).
This departure from the line’s male-centric trend is certainly positive, but Mattel’s hesitations bubble just below the surface. For instance, the typical DC Comics Multiverse wave contains anywhere between six and eight figures, with one additional “Collect & Connect” figure constructible only after all figures have been purchased. Here, there are four, plus one “Collect & Connect” character. Did DC/Mattel make fewer figures for this film based on their reservations that a female-centered superhero story could sell toys? DC’s Paul Dini mentioned in an interview with Kevin Smith that DC cartoon executives don’t want large female fan bases because girls supposedly don’t buy action figures at the same high rates that boys do. Therefore, depending on the pervasiveness of this attitude, it isn’t a stretch to speculate that this lighter wave could be linked to a perception that producing too many female action figures in a male-targeted line is a risk.
That, however, is not to declare these four figures irrelevant. The wave incorporates two variant looks for Wonder Woman, an aspect that increases the character’s presence on shelves and adds to the active role possibilities the toy has in play (she can exist in training mode, or with armor, or zapping between the two). Plus, the Steve Trevor figure feels well-placed, as his character also plays a prominent role in the film. But now we have to talk about Queen Hippolyta.
As a toy category, action figures do not usually do well when it comes to representing middle-aged or older women. How many action figures have you seen of the younger Princess Leia? Now, how many have you seen of the older General Leia from The Force Awakens? The products are heavily weighted toward the character’s younger self. Here, Queen Hippolyta, played by Connie Nielsen in the film, exists in plastic, but she is tragically shortpacked. Shortpacking is essentially the action figure version of gerrymandering. It allows some characters to be well represented, and others to essentially vanish. Companies mail waves of action figures to stores in boxes. Those boxes do not contain all characters in the wave equally. There will be more of some characters than others. Here, a standard case of Wonder Woman action figures from this line contains three armored Wonder Woman toys, two Steve Trevors, two un-armored Dianas, and just one Hippolyta.
This decision is undoubtedly made based on projected sales: most people will recognize an armored-up Wonder Woman and will therefore buy her, even if they’re not necessarily going to see the movie or build the Ares figure. Likewise, DC is probably betting that fans won’t be as enthusiastic about Queen Hippolyta. The company doesn’t want her figure warming the pegs, so they’ll just make fewer of her, knowing fans trying to build the “Collect & Connect” toy will buy Hippolyta regardless. Read economically, the decision seems sound. Read socially, it’s a shame.
Above, I compared shortpacking to gerrymandering. That’s because, like gerrymandering, shortpacking could increase visibility for bodies that we know comprise a significant portion of the public. But it rarely does that. Instead, it is often a way for companies to say, “Look! We made a female toy!” all the while burying that figure in cases filled overwhelmingly with Batman and Superman figures. Black Widow, Gamora, and Rey have all suffered this fate, despite women making up a large chunk of the geek community. It is, therefore, with figures like Queen Hippolyta that I wonder what toy pegs would look like if they were overflowing with non-shortpacked, strong, older female characters. If mothers, grandmothers, and older women walked into toy stores and saw heroic bodies that resembled theirs. If male characters were sometimes shortpacked to accommodate this. Some would call that a silly “What If?” scenario, reminiscent of DC’s own ridiculously campy stories of the 1960s, but I wouldn’t. Toys are an 80 billion dollar industry. That is one hell of a megaphone. To only deliver a watered-down whisper, hushed by traditionalist, conservative economics, does a disservice to 21st Century fandom.
Jonathan Alexandratos is a playwright and essayist who writes about action figures and grief. Collect & Connect him on Twitter @jalexan.