5.) Armed Terrorist (The Villains, 21st Century Toys, 1999)
In late 1999, Sears began selling an action figure of an armed terrorist from a 12" toy line called "The Villains" (designed to oppose "The Heroes"). The figure wore a ski mask and trenchcoat and came with an arsenal of weapons. To many customers, it was far too reminiscent of the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre that had occurred just a few months later.
Although the figure had been in development before the tragedy, Sears quickly pulled the toys after receiving a number of complaints. While any "controversy" about a toy pales in significance to the actual event, it nonetheless warrants inclusion on the list.
4.) Nomad (Rambo, Coleco, 1986)
Though it's easy to forget, the first Rambo movie, First Blood, wasn't so much an action movie as a psychological thriller about a Vietnam veteran suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. All that introspection went flying out the window strapped to a rocket-propelled grenade with the 1985 release of Rambo: First Blood Part II, which replaced any and all moral questions with machine guns, explosions, and Sylvester Stallone's well-oiled pecs. It became the biggest hit of the Rambo series.
Noting popularity of both Rambo II and, presumably, Hasbro's G.I. Joe, a Rambo cartoon and accompanying toy line was developed. Called Rambo: The Force of Freedom, it was the first kids cartoon ever based on an R-rated film (though it would soon be followed by Robocop).
When the inevitable controversy surrounding Rambo toys showed up, there was more than just the usual complains about the violence of the toys themselves. Protesters particularly complained about Nomad, the stereotypical turban-wearing Arab terrorist of the toy line. After receiving a number of complaints about the character and figure, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee successfully lobbied Coleco into ceasing production of the figure.
3.) Totenkopf Division - Normandy 1944 (Call of Duty, Plan-B Toys, 2004)
Man, the categories for the Guinness Book of World Records has gotten really specific these days. They apparently have a category called "Most Controversial War Video Game Action Figure." The current record holder is Totenkopf Division (Normandy 1944), made by Plan-B Toys in 2004 for their toy line based on the videogame Call of Duty.
There were a number of different groups in the German military during WWII that were known by the name "Totenkopf" (which means "Death's Head") or had the word somewhere in their name. Most of them were part of the Schutzstaffel or SS, the Nazi organization among whose many tasks was the supervision of the concentration camps. The name "Totenkopf" was enough to cause complaints from Jewish groups and Holocaust survivors. Within a month of the initial complaints, Plan-B toys had discontinued the figure.
2.) Django Unchained (NECA, 2012)
As most fans know by now, some action figures were made by toy company NECA for Django Unchained that caused an uproar from some civil rights groups. They claimed the figures commercialized slavery.
If I may editorialize a bit, I think the controversy might have been avoided if the figures had been done in the usual NECA style - fully plastic, realistically-sculpted 7" figures - rather than the 1970s, Mego-like style that was used. With their fabric clothing, the figures just look too much like dolls. That made it easy for people unfamiliar with the collector action figure market to perceive them as children's playthings rather than adult collectibles, and thus more noticeably incongruous on the toy shelf.
It's unclear whether any of this actually affected NECA's bottom line, though. The Weinstein Company asked NECA to stop production on the figures, but the way NECA operates, chances are the figures had all already been produced and shipped to stores by the time the controversy arose.
1.) Death Row Marv (Sin City, McFarlane Toys, 1999)
When it comes to a moral panic about toys, nothing comes close to Death Row Marv.
Back he was still creating amazing comics instead of being crazy, Frank Miller gave us Sin City. The word "hard boiled" doesn't begin to describe Miller's dark underworld, whose filthy streets are stalked by the likes of Marv. Described by Miller as "Conan in a trench coat," Marv's story ends when he is sent to the electric chair for crimes he didn't commit (and maybe a few he did). Marv actually survives the first jolt, asking his executioners, "Is that the best you can do, you pansies?" before finally meeting his end.
Naturally, this scene cried out to be memorialized in plastic, so in 1999 McFarlane Toys created "Death Row Marv." It not only depicted Marv in his last moments, but featured lights to represent the electricity searing through his veins and Marv himself spouting his famous line.
People went nuts over this thing. Representatives of the National Organisation of Parents of Murdered Children asked, "What will they come up with next, a rape doll? How about an incest doll?" Articles claimed "the doll is pitched at adults [...] but the main buyers are children" - an assertion apparently based solely on the assumption that the only people who bought action figures were children. Many of the articles cited complaints from people who were against the death penalty, but even supporters of capital punishment such as Michelle Malkin wondered, "have we grown so accustomed to bloodlust marketed as youthful entertainment that nothing is beyond the bounds of good taste?"
McFarlane Toys, for their part, produced as many Death Row Marv figures as they could and laughed all the way to the bank.
In many ways Death Row Marv was a watershed moment in the growth of the of adult action figure market. Many of the articles focused on the incongruity of a "children's toy" being so gruesome, bringing to mind the shocked lawn-defenders who had flipped through Miller's The Dark Knight Returns fifteen years earlier and wondered when comics got so dark and violent.
But just as people got used to darker comics, so did they get used to darker toys. Six years later, NECA made another Death Row Marv, this time based on the film adaptation - and no one gave a rat's ass.