Enough about underperforming would-be franchise starts, then, and back to topics of serious import. Specifically, He-Man toys!
PART THREE: EQUALS AND OPPOSITES
I’ve already taken note of the popular opinion that a core set of He-Man toys should consist of He-Man, Man-at-Arms, and Teela on one side and Skeletor, Beast Man and Evil-Lyn on the other, with the seventh slot going to a standout good guy like Man-E-Faces or a similarly distinguished baddie like Trap Jaw. (Or possibly Battle Cat.) If we leave aside the number seven wild card, for symmetry’s sake, there are some interesting patterns that begin to emerge.
More than one person who answered my poll question took as a given that He-Man and Skeletor are the main champions of good and evil and that Man-at-Arms and Beast Man are their respective sidekicks. I don’t think that second part’s entirely accurate, though. Beast Man is more of a lackey than a proper sidekick. In fact, in my arbitrary and geek-centric view of heroic fantasy in general, I don’t think master villains ever have sidekicks, because that implies the partnership and mentoring of a benefactor, not a malefactor. I know that’s basically just semantics, but it factors in for me. And Man-at-Arms isn’t really a sidekick, either, if you define that role as someone subordinate who assists the protagonist in a peripheral way but leaves the bulk of heroing to said hero. Man-at-Arms is more of a trusted ally, perfectly capable of acting as a protagonist himself, and occupying a different niche from He-Man. (And Man-at-Arms, in fact, is the older mentor figure in the MOTU cartoon, which I haven’t touched on much yet because I’m saving that for next week, so let’s stick a pin in that for now.) Anyway, I take exception to the term sidekick as applied to Man-at-Arms and Beast Man, but I get where people are coming from. Right hand man, boon companion, lieutenant – the gist is in there somewhere.
One of my buddies went so far as to assert that the core six are not simply He-Man and his arch-enemy plus their respective seconds plus their respective token females; he held that Man-at-Arms and Beast Man are each other’s arch-foes, and that Teela and Evil-Lyn shared that specific relationship as well. I had to admit I never thought of this before but found it intriguing particularly in the case of Man-at-Arms and Beast-Man. The He-Man and Skeletor dichotomy is the age old fighter-versus-wizard archetypal struggle. Man-at-Arms compliments He-Man because he’s a weapons master; few can challenge He-Man’s sword and axe skills, but the Masters of the Universe live in a world with not only medieval weaponry but laser guns and presumably everything in between. So while He-Man has pure brawn and flashing blades covered, it doesn’t hurt to have an ally who can comprehend and operate atomic cannons and whatnot. Meanwhile, Skeletor has the opposite problem, as his sorcerer’s staff gives him as much firepower as any techno-arsenal, but he falls a bit short in terms of hand-to-hand combat. Hence Beast Man, who is pure animal savagery and barely needs any weaponry at all beyond his own claws and a pretty badass whip. So actually there’s this whole foursquare arrangement of compliments and contradictions between the physical and the cerebral, the tamed and the untamed, and so on. You could arguably make the case that any of those four is the arch-enemy of the other (notwithstanding the pre-established good/evil split), for example that Man-at-Arms represents the disciplined intellect that can build and utilize tools of war, and Skeletor represents the chaos-fueled hubris that tampers with dark knowledge and secrets man was never meant to know.
And you thought these were all just dumb garish action figures.
But assuming both that the good guys and bad guys remain as such and that He-Man and Skeletor already called dibs on arch-enmity, that does leave Man-at-Arms and Beast Man to stare each other down. Why did I never see this before? I think it has something to do, at least in part, with not being quite so obsessed with monomyths when I was eight years old. That, plus the re-paint system.
Teela and Evil-Lyn aren’t just locked into being Best Frenemies Foreva because they’re the token women. They’re mirror images of each other in their physical construction. One has Caucasian skintone and one Simpsonoid; one wears white and the other midnight blue, but that’s all surface stuff. It’s the same doll, painted differently, with the minor exception of their sculpted heads. And MOTU did this all the time.
Faker was just a He-Man painted in weirdo colors, with bright blue flesh and orange hair. He was never going to be He-Man’s arch-enemy, but maybe one degree off from that. If He-Man is Superman and Skeletor is Lex Luthor, then Faker is Bizarro. (Strike that “if” – that analogy is air-freaking-tight right down to Skeletor being the one who created Faker.) Moss Man was Beast Man colored green and jazzed up a little with some flocking. And there’s something of the light/dark reflection in those character concepts, too: plants versus animals, the compassionate life-giving green kingdom opposing the predatory creatures prowling the top of the food chain. (Seriously, every time I think about heroic symbolism in He-Man I catch something new.)
But on the other hand, just when you think Mattel had some mad geniuses toiling away on MOTU character designs rife with hidden meaning, they would do something strange like unveil Stinkor, who is a repaint of Mer-Man. Especially in the head, Mer-Man always had as much of a cat about him as a fish, so retooling him in black and white as a skunk-man wasn’t that much of a stretch, but the end result was two evil characters who were mirror images. (And who both smelled bad, theoretically?) Clearly this is where the whole “repaints indicate archfoes” theorem of mine falls apart.
But it’s still a theorem worth revisiting if only because it offers a glimpse of the greatest MOTU toys that never were, in terms of the repaints they could have exploited but never did. I could, though! If fate should happen to place in my path a box full of He-Man cast-offs, and it contains multiple Man-at-Arms dolls, you had better believe that I will snag (at least) two of them and spend a little quality time with one of them in my geek-workshop, repainting the figure until it re-emerges with hot pink limbs and indigo armor and deathly gray skin as Doctor Rezro, the all-new archfoe of Man-at-Arms! While He-Man’s ally is a master of techno-weapons used to cut down enemies, Doctor Rezro is a mad scientist who uses experiental methods to bring Skeletor’s fallen minions back to life. Muwahahaha!
And then of course, of course, I would turn Doctor Rezro and Man-at-Arms, backstory and all, over to the little guy to play with in Castle Grayskull. Because this whole mental exercise is all about him and his playtime, right? Besides, while he’s playing with two copies of the same toy, I can proceed to figuring out a way to re-color and make a hero out of Trap Jaw …