Putting together a top ten list of action figures for a given year is a difficult thing even under the best circumstances. Unless you’ve got an Academy-like cadre of voters to draw from, no single writer is going to be knowledgeable enough to know the best figure from every action figure line. And even if such a thing were possible, that writer would then have to weigh the relative merits of figures of entirely different sizes, shapes, and source material and determine whether one is somehow “better” than another.
If it happened to be a pretty weak year for action figures, one might have a chance. But 2013 was an exceptionally good year. Despite ever-rising production costs and a declining market share, 2013 was a banner year for action figures, with a number of long-awaited, fan-demanded toys finally being immortalized in plastic.
As usual, “best” doesn’t necessarily mean the absolute finest-made items from this year (if that were the case, this list would consist entirely of high-end toys with triple-digit prices, like Hot Toys figures). The toys on this list had a certain magic combination of design, fan demand, novelty, and other intangible qualities (i.e., I thought they were particularly cool). Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.
10.) 1960s Batman (Mattel)
For reasons I don’t understand and am too lazy to look into, I can watch the 1960s Batman show in reruns on local fly-by-night television stations, but I can’t get them on DVD or Netflix. Evidently there are a bunch of rights issues and we haven’t yet reached the point where enough corporations have bought enough other corporations to get it all under the same mega-corporate umbrella.
But in 2013, the various rights holders managed to work out the merchandising rights, and let’s face it, that’s where the real money is. So we were hit with a wave of 1960s Batman merch of all sorts and sizes. Hot Toys will be releasing Batman and Robin in their inimitable, highly-expensive style, and NECA will be dropping a massive 18″ Adam West Batman figure. But Mattel offered a full 6″-scale line, with a number of figures ranging from the classic West Batman to Burgess Meredith’s Penguin to Julie Newmar’s iconic Catwoman. There was Surfing Batman. There was even a “Batusi” SDCC exclusive with dancing action. Combined with DC’s great new comic based on the show, it seems that both DC and Bat-fans at large are ready to welcome back this once-derided era of Batman to the fold.
9.) Alien (ReAction Figures, Funko)
The Kenner toy company made its name – and a fortune – on Star Wars. The little 3.75″ figures were ubiquitous during the 1980s and spawned dozens of similarly-scaled lines, including Hasbro’s wildly successful G.I. Joe revamp. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, as the popularity of Star Wars waned, Kenner would attempt to repeat that success with other sci-fi franchises, in progressively larger scales. Most of the ones they chose – Robocop, Terminator, Aliens, and Predator – were all based on R-rated movies.
But Kenner had dipped their toes in the R-rated waters before. In 1979, they infamously released a 12″ Alien figure. It didn’t last long in stores – possibly due to parent outcry, but more likely due to lack of interest from kids who were too busy being obsessed with Star Wars. Perhaps thinking along those same lines, Kenner designed prototypes for a five-figure 3.75″ line of Alien toys in the same SW style. For whatever reason, the line was never produced, but it became a legend among toy collectors.
Over thirty years later, Super7 and Funko teamed up to finally release this long-lost cousin to Kenner’s Star Wars. The designs are nearly identical to the prototypes and come with great packaging in the style of the era. What’s more, Funko plans to release many more figures in this same style (under the “ReAction” brand), including classic ’80s properties such as Back to the Future and Goonies as well as more modern licenses such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
8.) Springer (Transformers Generations, Hasbro)
It was a relatively quiet year for Transformers, as the franchise awaits its next cinematic opus from Michael Bay. Not being a Transformers collector, I solicited some opinions from fans as to what the best Transformer of the year was, assuming that the gigantic, two-foot-tall Metroplex would win it walking away. To my surprise, the general consensus was that the best figure of the year had been Generations Springer, the first official “triple-changer” in Transformers since Generation 1.
Unlike the G1 figure, the car mode and the helicopter mode are distinct from one another. He’s fully articulated and features some great accessories. All-around, he’s everything fans want from a Transformer.
7.) Michael Keaton Batman (NECA)
With the Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale Batman trilogy a couple years behind us, some Bat-fans are beginning to reexamine the Michael Keaton era and finding it better than they remembered. Peopled with grotesque characters, set in some sort of strange 1980s-by-way-of-1940s Gotham City, and bestowed with a powerfully Gothic sense of style, the 1989 Batman still has plenty of fans, especially those for whom the 1989 film was their first introduction to the Dark Knight.
Many collectors have wished for a good Keaton Batman action figure for a long time. A few years back, Hot Toys produced a high-end 12″ figure, but this year NECA brought a (somewhat) more affordable Keaton Batman to market as a giant 18″ figure. It features a dead-on likeness of Keaton’s Dark Knight and a ton of accessories, including the memorable flip-open Batarang and the grappling hook launcher.
6.) Biollante (Tamashii Nations, S.H.MonsterArts)
If one were to put together a list titled “Action Figures That Will Never Exist,” one has to think that “Super-articulated Biollante” would have been a shoo-in. And yet! Bandai’s collector division, Tamashii Nations, has been catering to Godzilla fans with its super-articulated S.H.MonsterArts line for several years now. While they have focused largely on the 1990s era of Godzilla films, many fans doubted Tamashii would make the gigantic plant-monster from 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante.
But here were are, with a big, super-articulated Biollante staring at us, face to colossal plant-based face. A wonder of engineering, the figure features a gigantic articulated head, poseable tentacles ending in monstrous mouths that can open and shut (yes, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors was one of the inspirations for the film), and even a light-up…thing in the torso. On a list filled with figures fans had long wanted, this one may have been the unlikeliest.
5.) S.H.Figuarts Iron Man
S.H.Figuarts is the non-monster equivalent of Tamashii’s S.H.MonsterArts (in both lines, the “S.H.” is a contraction of the concepts of “Simple Style” and “Heroic Action”). S.H.Figuarts focuses primarily on Japanese licenses, particularly Super Sentai series such as the various shows that were bastardized into Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. But recently, they’ve branched out to more Western properties.
The figures are in something of an odd scale – closer to 5″ than 6″. They also run into the $60+ range. But they’re made with high production values, with lots of articulation and great accessories. Their Iron Man figure (based on his appearance in Iron Man 2) even comes with interchangeable little vents to mimic the suit’s look while Iron Man is flying, as well as “blast” accessories that work for both attacking and flight poses. The figure also has die-cast metal parts (his feet, which help anchor the figure for posing). It’s an impressive debut for a major Western property in the S.H.Figuarts line.
4.) Metal Build Gundam 00 Raiser (Tamashii Nations Exclusive, Bandai)
In the interests of trying to expand this list beyond Western brands and properties, I reached out to some collectors of Japanese toys and asked them what they’d name as their figure of the year. As you might expect, there were a lot of different responses, because Japan makes a shitload of awesome toys. Biollante was one, but another figure that received multiple mentions was Tamashii’s Gundam Metal Build 00 Raiser.
I know nothing about Gundam, and every review of this toy I found, while very positive, appeared to have been written from an “in-universe” perspective – said universe being one in which everyone appears to know everything about the history of Gundam collectibles. But it’s agreed that this figure, which features lots of diecast metal, incredible detailing and a metric ton of accessories, is a supreme example of Japanese toymaking skill.
3.) Sandtrooper (Star Wars Black 6″, Hasbro)
The Sandtrooper is simply the best representative of what has been, so far, a pretty great action figure line. More importantly, it’s been a long-awaited one. Ever since the six-inch scale became a standard action figure scale in the early 2000s, many Star Wars fans have eagerly hoped that Hasbro would move beyond the 3.75″ scale and offer larger, more detailed, more articulated figures. But Hasbro seemed very committed to the 3.75″ scale, and many thought it would never happen.
And then, seemingly out of the blue, it did! And it’s focusing primarily on the original trilogy! And the figures are mostly pretty good! The standout so far (yes, even more than Boba Fett) is the Sandtrooper, who features a great sculpt, good paint work, and tons of accessories. It’s still too early to know how long Star Wars Black 6″ will last, but if Hasbro can make more figures as good as the Sandtrooper, fans will remain happy for quite some time.
2.) Jungle Patrol Dutch (Predator, NECA)
While the Terminator will always be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous role, and to many he will always be a Barbarian, his performance in the machismo-soaked Predator remains a memorable touchstone for many an action movie fan. Collectors had long clamored for a good figure of his character in the film, Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, and in 2013 NECA finally delivered in a big way. Featuring great articulation, detailed sculpting and an uncanny likeness of Arnold, NECA’s Dutch was quickly deemed one of the best action figures of the year.
1.) Castle Grayskull (Masters of the Universe Classics, Mattel)
It’s not an action figure per se, but it’s part of an action figure line and it’s certainly the action figure equivalent of a blockbuster. Designed by Four Horsemen Studios – who have sculpted every figure in the Masters of the Universe Classics (MOTUC) line so far – the new Castle Grayskull is a wonder. At nearly two feet tall, it’s larger than the original Castle and jam-packed with accessories and features, including an opening “jawbridge,” three levels inside, two secret doors, a trap door leading to the dungeon, a throne, a bat-wing jet pack and training device, a working elevator, a ladder to the roof where there’s a mounted laser cannon, a sculpted version of that weird “Astronaut Suit” decal from the original playset, and an attachment for the Wind Raider (sold separately). And it all comes in a box with brand-new art by Rudy Obrero, the artist who created the original box art for Castle Grayskull.
It’s not perfect – some fans would have preferred it be a bit larger, for example. And at $300 (for anyone who didn’t pre-order it), it ain’t cheap. But it’s an incredible playset designed as a loving tribute to the original, but made for today’s more modern standards.