They were the coolest Star Wars figures. I spent the better part of my youth checking every single figure on every single peg, looking for light-sabers and brown robes. But how have these hardcore warrior-monks changed over the years? To be frank, they’ve gone from “okay” to absolutely thrilling playthings/collectibles. Recently, however, they’ve been released as mediocre and lifeless imitations, joining the ranks of has-been toy series like the WWE.
The Golden Age of Jedi Action Figures
In the beginning, Kenner made three figures with the power of the Force: Obi-wan, Darth Vader, and Luke Skywalker. These figures would be considered primitive and useless to today’s market (if they weren’t worth $6,000 each), but at the time, they had some cool features.
Vader and Kenobi had removable vinyl cloaks, and all three had the strangest representation of a light-saber: a telescoping blade that collapsed into their hollow arm. The weapon was non-removable, broke easily, and was quickly abandoned in favor of a sturdy blade (making these figures even rarer). While not perfect at all, these original-run babies were a prophesy of the absolute coolness that would come later.
The Silver Age of Star Wars Figures
Things stayed the same for a long while, until Hasbro bought Kenner and started pumping out thousands of Star Wars figures in the 1990’s. The “Power of the Force” series could be considered a Silver Age of Star Wars figures, featuring better, more detailed light-sabers, actual cloth capes/cloaks, and they actually looked like the actors from the films (more or less).
Of note during this era was the use of characters outside the films, such as the Cloned Emperor from the comics. This gave kids like me the opportunity to stage more epic light-saber duels.
But there were still problems with the series. Only five points of articulation meant a lack of variety in poses and play. My first Star Wars figure ever was Luke Skywalker, in his farm outfit. He had a pistol and his father’s blue lightsaber…his hand couldn’t grasp either, and he could barely stand upright. Things had gotten better, though, and they would continue to get better.
The New Golden Age: Prequel Figures of the 2000s
Finally we come to the apex of my childhood, and coincidentally the best era of Jedi figures: the prequel era. While Episodes I and II did not blow away fans, the toys were officially perfect.
Wrists and knees had articulation, lightsabers were beautiful and accurate-looking, and there was a veritable smorgasbord of Jedi and Sith characters to duke it out with. Other little features made these bad boys worth the price, including lightsaber blades that detached from the hilts, magnetic palms/hilts for that Force-pull-my-weapon-to-my-hand action, and my favorite: easily detaching and reattaching limbs for lightsaber dismemberment.
Violent for kids? A little, but nothing inappropriate. Choking hazards? Absolutely. A good rule of thumb for Star Wars action figures: if the kid can follow the plot of the original trilogy, they can handle these toys.
This ten-year-old’s nirvana was followed later by the Episode III series. Though I was in high school by then, this series fascinated me. Many a time did I skip lunch to go buy a new Jedi, as there were tons of different characters (even more than Episode II’s “Clone Wars” series) and even more necessary variants (Chancellor Palpatine vs. Emperor, Anakin vs. Vader, et cetera) to choose from.
I was particularly struck by how Hasbro took advantage of the film’s plot. Since Anakin and Palpatine transform into evil bad guys, and the clones become stormtroopers, and the ships in Episode III evolved into Episode IV’s TIE fighters and X-wings, it became a theme for the toys. We got transforming figures with interchangeable parts and accessories, as well as “evolution” packs, wherein teen Anakin, war hero Anakin, and Darth Vader are packaged together. Sweet.
Things have stagnated since then. Occasionally, we get a cool comic book pack with a good Jedi, like Quinlan Vos or the Dark Lady, but these are expensive and hard-to-find.
The Empire Crumbles
Nowadays, kids are expected to go gaga over blocky, ugly little flat-faced characters that resemble Star Wars favorites. Otherwise, they can pick through five hundred “cantina alien” figures in order to find a re-packaged figure that their older siblings already bought eight years ago.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, what happened? These were the best figures in retail toy history until that blasted cartoon ruined everything. Now we have less articulation, lots of overblown matte colors (I’ve never seen so much orange and purple), and a deep sense that we’ve lost something special.
That’s it for Jedi figures, at least until Lucas finds yet another way to market his 33-year-old merchandise. I’m fortunate enough to have a drawer full of the best Jedi figures, which I plan to pass down to future generations. How about y’all?