SSG's 2013 Year in Review
I think 2013 can be charitably described as a transitional period for Star Wars. As new and exciting projects come to fruition behind the scenes at Lucasfilm and Disney, just as many had to come to an end, lending the year a bittersweet feeling. We lost The Clone Wars, but we’re gaining Star Wars Rebels. We lost Star Wars 1313, but we’re gaining Star Wars Battlefront. We lost Attack of the Clones 3D and Revenge of the Sith 3D, but we’re gaining at least five new movies. More than any year in recent memory, 2013 was a significant test of patience.
On the Hasbro collecting front, things weren’t any better. The awful distribution, poor character selection, and head-scratching decisions that have plagued the line since at least 2011 weren’t improved upon this year whatsoever - in fact, they were only compounded by newer problems. Hasbro hoped to reengage the collector market with the 6” Black Series collection, but that line proved to be far from immune to the same issues.
LUCASFILM, EPISODE VII, AND LUCASARTS
This time last year, the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney raised a lot of questions. A year later…we still don’t have many answers. We know the major crew members for Episode VII, including JJ Abrams as director, John Williams as composer, and Ben Burtt as sound designer. We know it will be released on December 18, 2015, and that R2-D2 is the first and only confirmed character. And…that’s about it. The news has moved as slowly as a drunken Hutt, and even truths we thought we knew (Michael Arndt is writing!) weren’t exactly set in stone (just kidding it’s Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan!). With shooting scheduled for Pinewood Studios sometime in Spring, we’ll be getting a deluge of production updates in just a short amount of time, and the rumormongering will only get more intense.
As the company moved under the Disney umbrella, some divisions faced significant changes - none more than LucasArts. With its last big hit (The Force Unleashed) five years in the rearview mirror and its apparent next big hit (Star Wars 1313) nowhere near completion, it isn’t like the video game division was operating at peak efficiency. Still, its restructuring as solely a development house came as a surprise to longtime video game fans. But it certainly didn’t mean the end to all Star Wars video games, with fun apps like Angry Birds Star Wars II and Tiny Death Star coming out and both Attack Squadrons and a Battlefront reboot in the works for the near future - the latter under the announced agreement with EA games for future Star Wars titles.
At the dawn of the new year, we've found out that 2013 was actually Dark Horse's penultimate year with the Star Wars license before it returns to Disney's Marvel in 2015. I'm not a big comics reader, but the most-publicized releases were Star Wars and, uh, The Star Wars. The former, an apparent soft reboot of the era between Episodes IV and V; the latter, an adaptation of George Lucas' first-draft screenplay. Both Dark Horse and Del Rey have been dealing mostly with the time periods set during the films lately as Lucasfilm calibrates the story for the new wave of entertainment (along with what it means to be canon).
The Clone Wars kicked off the year with its 100th episode, fulfilling George Lucas’ long-stated goal for the series. Furthering the exploits of Colonel Gascon and D-squad, the installment dealt with a lost Republic Commando and, er, a burger restaurant - thankfully the out-of-place cartoonish antics concluded the following week. The next two arcs exceeded the show’s usual high standards for visual storytelling and shocked longtime viewers with the deaths of several high-profile characters. Darth Maul’s unexpected reign as ruler of Mandalore met its abrupt end at the lightning-charged hands of Darth Sidious, who claimed to have other uses for his unruly former apprentice. Even more shocking was Ahsoka Tano choosing a path apart from the Jedi Order following a fundamental shaking of her beliefs. Her final descent down the Temple steps provided a nice coda to the season, and as it turned out, the series as a whole – well, at least its time on Cartoon Network. As we found out, production continued on the series until October (even after massive layoffs to the production staff) to wrap up a handful of episodes that were already nearly completed. Dave Filoni promised that the bonus content would hit in early 2014, consisting of at least two arcs; from the sound of it, we’re in for at least half another season, as well as a limited Dark Horse comic series adapting what would have been Darth Maul's final story arc. We still don’t know much at all, but we know that the bonus content will somehow deal with Order 66, an important mission for Yoda, and at long last, the mystery of Sifo-Dyas.
The cancellation of The Clone Wars was coupled with news of the postponement of Star Wars Detours, the comedy series that was first previewed at 2012’s Celebration VI. It didn’t seem that too many fans were waiting for the show with bated breath, but Seth Green noted that the series is still planned for release…eventually.
Instead, Lucasfilm Animation’s efforts are turning towards Star Wars Rebels, focusing on the planet Lothal as it adjusts to Imperial rule around five years before A New Hope. Dave Filoni will be executive producing along with Simon Kinberg, who currently has his fingers in several Star Wars pies, and Greg Weisman, a television animation giant. Again, we don’t know much, but we know it will involve the crew of a ship called the Ghost, a Jedi-hunting Utapaun Inquisitor, and lots of references to Ralph McQuarrie and classic Kenner toys.
So with one series winding down, another just ramping up, and a third somewhere in limbo (oh yeah, and some Lego specials I didn’t watch), 2013 didn’t have a ton to offer in the ways of Star Wars animation. But with The Clone Wars bonus content in the first half of the year and Star Wars Rebels in the second, 2014 is already looking much brighter for Star Wars on TV.
THE STATE OF HASBRO
Lucasfilm wasn’t the only one making big changes to already-announced plans. Hasbro’s relaunch of Legacy Collection’s Droid Factory - just about the only thing collectors would have been happy with replacing The Vintage Collection - ended before it began due to budgetary issues, with the figures reassigned to The Black Series or exclusives. The Vintage Collection “greatest hits” repacks were nowhere to be seen, and any backlog seemed to consist of more Episode I figures. After the final wave of The Vintage Collection was sold exclusively online in late 2012, the final waves of The Clone Wars and Movie Heroes were sold everywhere but the United States. The Class I vehicles were laid to rest after one wave in the Spring, leaving the simplified Class II ships to pull up the slack (spoiler alert: they couldn’t).
The year then continued the pattern of holding back most of its releases until Fall, but unless you were a huge Angry Birds fan, it was kind of a wash. New lines are always plagued by over-ordering and relatively uninteresting choices for wave 1, but at least we typically could have expected Hasbro to glue the bubbles to the cards properly. While I applaud their continued efforts to be more environmentally conscious - this year’s plastic packaging has the universal recycling symbol for the first time ever - it can’t be coupled with figures falling off the cards in the store, or the hideous tape, staples, and shrink wrap that many stores had to resort to. And as if distribution and case assortments weren’t bad enough on their own, the stores weren’t helping matters: Target listed The Black Series under the same DPCI as The Vintage Collection, so you just had to pray your store sold out of Naboo Royal Guards and Qui-Gons; depressingly, many Walmarts chose not to carry anything but role-play lightsabers, and didn't offer any exclusives whatsoever. Toys R Us and, surprisingly, Kmart turned out to be collectors' best hopes at retail thanks to their actually stocking product and offering interesting exclusives. Heck, even Barnes & Noble entered the fray with its limited selection of 6" figures. Online, Amazon stepped up in a big way, offering exclusives and basic figures and continually slashing prices, though early on it was a crapshoot as to whether your boxes would arrive mangled; HasbroToyShop finally came through by keeping individual figures well stocked and offering multiple holiday sales. If Target and Walmart can't get their stuff together, at least there are numerous other options now.
BEST 3 3/4" FIGURE OF THE YEAR
The Black Series probably isn’t going to go down as anyone’s favorite 3 3/4” line, but its first three waves have nevertheless offered a handful of amazing figures. The highlight of the first bunch is undoubtedly Padmé Amidala, a long-awaited and much-needed update; her mismatched elbow joint is unfortunate but forgivable. Pablo-Jill is a hulking, stupendously articulated version of the Ongree Jedi Master that turned out cooler than he had any right to be. TC-70, sold as the build-a-droid in the Amazon multipack, is the most interesting-looking protocol droid figure so far, way more accurate than her 2009 animated release. And while I don’t yet have Darth Plagueis, every other figure in wave three is a knockout. For some reason, the figure that struck a chord with me this year was Clone Commander Neyo. He builds on the 2011 Vintage Collection Clone Trooper - one of my all-time favorite sculpts - by adding gear, his unique helmet, and a new portrait based on The Clone Wars concept art. Sure, the grimy wash could be more even (especially on the belt), but Neyo’s sheer cool factor makes it easy to overlook. We got too many clones in too short a time this year, but if they were all as fresh as Neyo, I don’t think anyone would mind.
WORST 3 3/4" FIGURE OF THE YEAR
Many collectors would simply say “all of Saga Legends and Mission Series,” but I find those lines to be pretty charming and fun for what they are: simple, low-priced toys. (If five points of articulation is the way the entire line goes, though, we would have a problem.) The worst figures of the year, however, tended to be ones that came out looking worse than they should have, either by a factory error or poor planning or a combination of the two. There’s Yoda from his Jedi Attack Fighter - a fun concept bungled by melty-eyed paint applications. There’s Mara Jade, who had her severe eyebrows and ‘80s mane positioned incorrectly in early shipments; later releases have everything in place, and she’s not bad overall, but she’s still not the version that fans voted for in 2011. You could even mention Que-Mars Redath and Khaat Qiyn, otherwise fine Jedi who somehow got their left hands noticeably mixed up. But the top honor has to go to the 41st Elite Corps Clone Trooper. For no apparent reason, his armor is missing the vast majority of its paint applications, as seen in the film and on the multiple previous releases of this design. Hasbro has stated twice that the applications would be fixed, but so far, it’s just a boring white clone with a few subtle gray stripes, and at this point nobody should be asked to drop $10 on an incomplete figure like this one.
BEST VEHICLE OF THE YEAR
The final wave of Class I vehicles - including two figures each - brought us the last American animated Clone Wars figures, a mini-rig dropped from the MTT, and Yoda’s Jedi Attack Fighter, which was pretty fun aside from the wonky figure. Class II was downsized this year from the bloated $30 repacks of 2012 to the $20 under-scaled, hollow shells of 2013. The Episode III Jedi Starfighters are probably more in scale than the 2005 mold, and the whole group of eight works well as toys, but the line could be better served by featuring vehicles that are already small instead of just scaling down bigger ships that we already have. Toys R Us and Amazon both brought us a nice selection of Vintage Collection vehicles - continuing the year's theme of upgrading stuff everyone already bought. Slave I (Boba Fett's Spaceship) resurrects the 2010 Clone Wars mold in Episode V colors and looks incredible, but the flight stabilization feature doesn't work as well as it did three years ago. It's nice to finally have Biggs Darklighter's X-wing Starfighter, using the upgraded mold that was last sold as Luke's vessel in a 2010 Toys R Us exclusive. Call me crazy, but I think the overall best vehicle of the year is the Vintage Collection Republic Gunship. The set started out overpriced, perhaps a reaction to the fact that the original 2002 Gunship (and the only release aside from this one that's based on Episode II) has skyrocketed in the years since. In a year where paint was the only difference on most vehicles, it was great to finally get the gunner pods included with the ship (they were sold separately in 2009 or as tiny accessories in 2002). We had several big vehicles this year - I haven't mentioned the fine-but-not-mind-blowing TIE Interceptor or Endor AT-AT - but here's hoping that 2014 brings a new BMF-class ship.
BEST 6” FIGURE OF THE YEAR
Distribution woes, rising prices, and a general sense of malaise have driven a great number of collectors away from the hobby, and Hasbro decided to alleviate the problem by fixing these problems and releasing long-requested figures… No, of course that didn’t happen. You FOOL! Instead, they started a brand-new line in an entirely different scale, branding it as a collector line and releasing eight figures across two waves. The launch was sadly screwed up thanks to widespread paint and quality control issues, but it seems these problems have improved as the months passed.
But how are the actual figures in and of themselves? Pretty dang awesome. Boba Fett was first released with Han in carbonite as a San Diego Comic Con exclusive, but proved to be just as popular and hard to find when he made his individual debut (I don’t yet have him). R2-D2 is the closest thing to a stinker in the bunch since he’s clearly under scaled, but aside from that and some standard paint issues he’s very cool. Not counting Boba, the second-best figure in this line is Han Solo. With a strong likeness, expressive articulation, and a ton of swappable accessories, he sets the standard for human characters in this line (even if that so far only includes the Big Three). If there’s one complaint to be made, it’s that his wrist articulation doesn’t allow his wrist to rotate up and down, limiting some shooting poses, but it’s not awful. The best, though, would have to be the Sandtrooper. The armor sculpting far surpasses anything we’ve seen in the 3 3/4” line, looking just like a miniature costumed actor and finally recreating the details that set the Tatooine-based squad apart from the standard Stormtroopers. As with Han, the Sandtrooper includes numerous accessories, which would be nice to see with more figures in the line (even if the trend in wave three indicates the opposite). I wasn’t initially thrilled with the idea of this line, but the execution on my samples has been brilliant and I’m greatly looking forward to the progression of this line.