Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Max Steel Ultra Action Body, a spotter's guide
In the spirit of my previous "Spotter's Guide" post on the Hasbro, GI Joe CC body, I present a somewhat less extensive post on a body-style whose importance and usefulness has been greatly underestimated, one that remains a favorite of mine, the Mattel, Max Steel, "Ultra Action" body.
Though eclipsed in the U.S. by the 12" GI Joe line, though the late 90s Hasbro had a second 12" line, Action Man. Many adult collectors disliked Action Man. Most Action Man bodies had limited articulation, and the colorful and toy-like accessories and uniforms were clearly geared to younger children. But on the other hand, Action Man explored non-military themes more in keeping with the 70s GI Joe Adventure Team, and there were some interesting vehicles, play-sets and accessories in the line.
Why are we talking about Action Man in a post about Max Steel? Because, though Mattel would probably never admit it, Max Steel was very-clearly Mattel's attempt to do a knock-off of the Action Man line.
That may seem a strange move for a major toy company, but outside the United States, the Action Man line was a big seller, and even in the U.S. reached a younger market segment than GI Joe. At this time, Mattel was also still hugely successful with it Barbie doll line for girls, and therefore it would have seemed natural to offer a similar product line for boys. Max Steel was that line. (Interestingly enough, M&C's Power Team line also seems to have been created as an Action Man knock-off, but it evolved in its own, very interesting, direction.)
However, while most knock-offs are done by lower-tier toy companies with the idea of creating a cheaper, but inferior copy. While Mattel was pretty slavish in copying Action Man and his accessories, their intent seems to have been to surpass Hasbro at every turn, and I must admit that in almost every case they succeeded. Action Man had a plane, Max Steel got a better plane. Action Man had a car, Max Steel got a better car. Action Man had a high-tech wind-surfer, Max Steel got a better wind-surfer.
And though the original and most common Max Steel body (sometimes known as "Super-Action" was a copy of Action Man with only minor enhancements (slightly improved neck articulation and a high-tech arm-band, to be described later), Mattel wasn't content to stop there. In some of the higher end sets they started to offer what was sometimes known as the "Ultra Action" body, an improved body with double joints at the elbows and knees plus cut rotation joints (two in each leg, and one in each arm). This post will focus on this very interesting body design, which I regard as one of the best compromises ever in creating a well-articulated but robust and kid-friendly body design.
Though it's little known to 12" action figure hobbyist (except for those few who specifically collect the Max Steel line), based on the numbers of these I see in thrift stores, I think the Max Ultra Action may be the most-produced "super-articulated" action figure bodies in history (though the M&C G3 Power Team body may be catching up).
This first picture shows two very basic Ultra Action bodies. The one on the left is a plain-vanilla UA body, which is actually a rarity in the line, as I'll go into. The one on the right is a "motion talker" body, with added electronics in the torso and head. More on this later.
From a kitbashing standpoint, one thing I like about the body is how beefy and muscular it is. Many "super-articulated" bodies, such as Hasbro's SA body, tend to be rather slender. Making the arms and legs thin makes it easier to have a large range of motion. But not every character is suited to be a bean-pole. For others, such as super-heroes, a muscular body is a necessity, and the Max body offers that option.
As I said, it's unusual to see an UA Max without some kind of action feature or modification. It's fairly common to see them with black molded bodies, arms, and sometimes even legs. There were action torsos, like the talkers seen here, and many figures were issued with "hybrid" bodies, that has UA legs with a Super Action torso, or some kind of action-feature torso or arms that even further limit articulation. Like Action Man, this was first and foremost a toy line, and the desires of adult collectors and kitbashers were probably never a consideration.
This shot gives some idea of the articulation offered by the improved joints. Though the arms and legs can't bend as far as some super-articulated designs, the range of motion is very good considering how muscular the limbs are. It could be argued that the joints are somewhat large and obvious, but one real advantage to the design is that the joints seem to have lots of internal surface contact area. I've never seen a loose knee or elbow joint on one of these, and they hold poses very well, even holding heavy accessories.
The same applies for the rotating cut joints in the arms and legs. The arms have a cut joint in mid-bicep. The legs have one mid-thigh, and a second one in the ankles to allow for full rotation of the feet. (The latest Power Team G3 design also has similar cut joints, though it lacks the ankle joints, and they're more more likely to become loose over time.)
Unlike other super-articulated designs, the UA body doesn't have any additional joints in the torso. Again, I think this is a kid-friendly choice. Such joints tend to be fragile and are difficult to design so that they don't become floppy. Uniforms and accessory straps can also become caught in the joints. The utility of such joints is limited too. They most often come into play in prone shooting positions, and Max was more of an adventure line than a military one.
One other thing that should be noted is the pelvis. Like Action Man, Max came molded and colored with "underpants." This is kid-friendly as younger kids often remove and lose the uniform. With the underpants, they still have a playable figure. There may also be modesty concerns in some countries where the toys are sold. One less obvious design feature is the "waist band" on the shorts. This double-row of raised ridges is designed to hold the elastic waist-bands used on many of the uniform pants and shorts. Without these ridges, the elastic would tend to slide over the top of the pelvis and get caught in the upper torso joint. It's one of these little details of design that you have to admire.
I think there are a couple of reasons that Max never caught on with kitbashers. First is the head, and the way it's mounted. The only character ever to use this body (that I'm aware of) is Max himself. There are several variations on the Max head though, including one with a molded-in headband and a more determined facial expression, and one with a Terminatorish high-tech headpiece that covers one eye.
Also, the mounting design used is non-standard and makes head-swaps challenging (though not impossible, as we'll see).
The other disincentive for customizing is the arm-band, featured on every Max figure in the line, no matter the body style. The molded-in band is painted silver over the flesh-colored plastic, and has decal "controls" (often missing or damaged on the ones I find in thrift stores).
The back of the armband has a socket, and many Max accessories have a plastic "cable" that can plug into into it. I think this is so he can control the accessories with some kind of build-in bionics, but I've never paid a lot of attention to the character's back-story.
Some customizers have carefully carved away the band using a hobby knife (though I imagine it's difficult not to leave the arm with what looks like a horrible burn scar of some sort). Others have covered it with custom cuffs or arm bands of their own. In most of my Max-based kitbashes, I've either gone with the arm-band as an accessory, or covered it with a long sleeve and a tight cuff.
Let's get back to that "talker" Max seen above. I'm going to cover this in some detail, in that it seems to be one of the more common UA variations out there, an unlike most "action features" that have been added to action figures, this one doesn't interfere with the utility of the figure must, and I actually kind of like it.
The talker-torso can be identified by the speaker holes in the chest, an activating button on the front (the "third nipple" on the right pec), and a three-position slide switch on the left side of the body.
There's also a battery door on the back, secured by a screw. The bit of cloth ribbon is intended to make it easier to remove the button batteries, and normally would be tucked inside out of sight. The torso is otherwise the same size and shape as the standard one, and this doesn't limit the articulation in any way.
The slide switch has three positions, off, button activation, and motion activation. The first position is self-explanatory. In the second, a sound clip is activated when the chest button is pushed. As I recall, Max's vocabulary (at least in the versions I have) is pretty limited. He will alternately say "Going Turbo!" or let out a "yeeee-HAAAA!" worthy of the Dukes of Hazzard.
The motion activation is more interesting. This kicks in the voice chip when the figure is moved drastically. I think this figure was originally built around the concept of tornado surfing, believe it or not, and came with something like an aerial snow-board. The child could swoop and flip Max through the air, and he'd shout and whoop enthusiastically in response.
I made another interesting discovery when I tried doing a head-swap on these. I'd naturally assumed that whatever kind of motion sensor it had, it was mounted in the chest with the rest of the mechanism. Instead, I discovered that there was a special neck attachment piece with a post extending up into the middle of the head. At the top of a post was a metal canister was a component that is apparently the motion sensor (my guess is that it may be a magnetic sensor that responds to movement in the Earth's magnetic field, but it could be something simpler than that.) It's fascinating to me that Mattel's designers decided to put the Max's "balance organ" in approximately the same location as the human inner-ear.
In case you were wondering, though the size of the neck post was somewhat different than other Max heads, I was still able to successfully transplant a modern Action Man fuzzhead onto the body and keep the voice/motion feature intact. That figure is currently dressed in a spare FAO Schwartz-exclusive Adventure Team "Skydive to Danger" uniform and accessories. It's amusing to watch people's faces as I toss he and his parachute into the air, and the character shrieks "yeeeee-HAAAA!"
This shot shows one of the most annoying limitations of the UA body. There's just no ability to bring the arms together across the chest. They stop at a 90-degree angle. The rotating cut-joint compensates for this somewhat, but it still prevents a lot of poses.
I may go into this in greater detail in a future post, but for now, I'd just like to offer some evidence of how other types of heads can be transplanted onto the Max Steel neckpost. This first shot uses a 30th Anniversary GI Joe head. The 30th Joes were Hasbro's first, crude attempt at recreating the vintage GI Joe, an used a barely articulated doll-like body. The head design almost makes it impossible to transplant to later GI Joe bodies.
The design, however, had a concave socket in the bottom of the head that fit over a rounded neckpost on the torso, very similar to Max Steel's, making this a natural head-swap. The 30th head is also kind of large, and I think large heads look better on the beefy Max Steel body. The only problem is that the neck on the 30th torso is longer and the socket on the head proportionally deeper. The result is that the transplanted figure is something of a "no-neck," but it does work.
Here's an assortment of head transplants onto Max Steel bodies. All the heads are Hasbro of one sort or another. Left to right, 1, 4 and 5 are from the GI Joe Hall of Fame line. Number 3 is obviously a from a Star Wars Luke Skywalker. Number 2 is a modern Action Man fuzzhead. Most modern Action Man use a neckpost identical to CC and SA GI Joes, but for some reason, this one used a socket-on-dome similar to the 30th body and head. Likewise, an easy transplant, but a no-necked result.
The figure on the right, by the way, as an example of one of the "hybrid" figures I mentioned. The legs are UA, but the upper torso and arms are a mish-mash of parts. The left arm is a less articulated arm from a Super Action body. The torso has a battery compartment, and the right arm is a special part. Moving the elbow activates a led light feature visible in a clear window in the bicep. Because of the lever that activates the feature, that elbow loses its ability to rotate. Still kinda cool in a Six Million Dollar Man way, though.
And finally, for something completely different, a more unusual transplant. As mentioned above, some of my first transplants onto UA Max bodies were Action Man heads, bringing this high-class "knock-off" full circle. Given that the build and proportions are similar, Action Man heads look pretty good on the UA body. But the result isn't perfect. The UA arm still has that wrist band, and most modern Action Man have a cool AM logo arm tattoo. How to get some improved articulation and retain that tattoo?
I started to wonder, if Max Steel is an AM knock-off, is is close enough that some parts might be interchangeable? In fact, at least in the case of the mid-torso joint, they are! Using the "boil and pop" method, I was able to remove an Ultra Action lower body and snap it onto an Action Man upper body! The result still has AM's limited (but distinctive) arms, but the improved leg articulation of the Ultra Action Max.
I've used the same method to improve other figures in the Max Steel line, namely the "Bio Constrictor" villain, a favorite kitbash subject of mine. The Bio Constrictor has a unique upper torso, arms, and head, but the pelvis and legs are simply recolored (Bio Constrictor's skin is kind of a putty-brown) Max Steel parts. When I run across a Max Figure with black-colored UA legs, the lower body usually gets transplanted onto one of my Bio Constrictors. They don't look any different, but they're much better at assuming realistic poses than stock figures.
The real shame of the Max Steel Ultra Action body was that it was used for so little. Mattel never created other heads for the body, and as the line wound down, the UA body parts were pushed aside by the less articulated Super Action body, and increasingly gimmicky action bodies with even less articulation and utility. One assumes the molds still exist somewhere, an excellent body design going to waste. Let's hope this isn't the last we've seen of Max, or at least, of his better body.