Thursday, January 5, 2017

Imperial Death Trooper - Black Series

This figure is actually named the Imperial Death Trooper.  Yes.  Death Trooper.  The implications of this are both that this character is really good at bringing death and, by extension, standard Imperial troops are rather incapable of ending someone's life.  Both things appear to be true in Rogue One.  But, we'll get to that later.  The name of "Death Trooper" though is overly wrought and cliched.  Dressing them in all black makes them a caricature of themselves and their name even more over the top.  But, this is Star Wars and Star Wars names have a long history of terribleness (Elan Sleazebagano?!?)  so you can forgive the unoriginality of this one.  The reality is that the Death Trooper is a collector geared character and toy that delivers in his design.  He has been omnipresent in Rogue One marketing and appears often in the film, even while not being part of any real plot points.  In the end, they exist for one purpose and one purpose only: to create cool action figures that will be snatched up by kids and, more likely, collectors.  There are many versions of the character available.  But, I'm a 3 3/4" collector and focus on those releases.  The Black Series figure brings a design that is closer to the adult collector in me than the kid in me, and that's where I begin.

I've been around long enough to remember when super articulated Star Wars were just called Star Wars figures.  There were no special series or releases.  Incredible quality figures were just part of the standard retail line.  But, that's no longer the case.  A few years ago, Hasbro began a strategic change to their Star Wars marketing.  Their standard retail line offered figures with fewer articulation points and "kid friendly" accessories.  To appease collectors who wanted more articulation and realism from their toys, Hasbro created the Black Series of figures.  The connotation was that these toys would be super articulated and movie accurate.  However, to justify these "improvements", Hasbro also gave the Black Series of figures a substantial price increase so they cost about 50% more than the standard, retail releases.  The upside is that there is still a series of collector themed figures available.  The downside is that it's a smaller, niche line at a premium price point.  But, if you are a collector, there are some really nice figures that are part of the Black Series.

My general take on Star Wars figures is that if something is good enough, then I'm satisfied with it.  This saves me from buying the same character outfit over and over again.  I have one version that's good enough for me and I don't need to spend time and effort on the "best" version of a character design.  But, I got spoiled in the late 2000's.  At that time, Hasbro produced hundreds upon hundreds of new figures and characters.  For the most part, each of these figures utilized the best methods of sculpting available at the time.  While not all super articulated, they were substantial improvements over the 1990's figures and many were nothing short of spectacular.  As such, seeing Hasbro revert to vintage style articulation (granted, with modern sculpting, though) seemed like a step back and really turned me off to Star Wars figures in general.

Having a smaller selection of figures and characters available in the a super articulated series, though, is somewhat nice.  The line is small enough to collect and large enough (in movie years) to provide a nice cross section of figures and characters.  In the case of Rogue One, the Death Trooper character appears in the Black Series and as a 5 POA figure a 2 pack in the regular series.  (The basic figure is also available in a retailer exclusive gift set.)  So, the only, initial, options for the figure are higher priced items.  A single carded 5 POA figure will be hitting any day now, too, though to give army builders a cheaper alternative to fill out displays.

The official word from Hasbro is that rising wages in China are the driving force behind the massive price increases for Star Wars figures.  Since it takes about the same amount of a labor to build a 3 3/4" figure as it does as 6" figure, that has also been a reason why Hasbro shifted scales.  The bigger figure uses marginally more materials and can be sold at a higher price point, making people feel they got their money's worth.  Ostensibly, rising foreign wages isn't a bad thing.  (Hasbro is moving their manufacturing from China to Vietnam to take advantage of lower wages there.)  But, the short run effect is that we now have easier to assemble 5 points of articulation (POA) figures at one price point and another series of super articulated figures at nearly double that price point in the same scale.  I'm not sure I buy this, entirely.

While I do firmly believe that rising labor costs are a factor in the sudden increase in Star Wars figures, it is not solely responsible for the change.  If it were, we'd see this type of pricing across all toy lines from all companies.  Instead of that, though, we've seen licensed products continue to rise in price while other, in house brands have been less affected.  I suspect that a lot of the pricing issues are due to increased licensing costs.  The owners of the Intellectual Property have figured out that they really control the toy market now since brands without big media tie ins find it tough to establish a foothold in the market.  (Even Hasbro's in house G.I. Joe brand was affected when the movie required licensing payments that raised the cost of figures at retail...and killed the line.)  Knowing that, the rights owners are demanding more in licensing revenue and Hasbro has no choice but to agree and pass those costs on to the consumer.

Death Troopers are, supposedly, the creme de la creme of the Imperial Army.  They are a crack team of 6 who support Director Krennic in his evil missions.  They wear special gear and carry special weapons.  In a lot of ways, they are the decedents of the Clone Wars era Arc Troopers.  In Rogue One, they appear to have one real advantage of the standard Stromtroopers:  they can actually aim their weapons.  In Rogue One, Stormtroopers are a new level of incompetent.  Hundreds of them can not stave off a small band of Rebels.  Yet, once the Death Troopers show up, these previously mighty good guys are quickly dispatched.  This is all done by the Death Troopers walking out of the transport in broad daylight and simply crouching down a bit and actually hitting the targets at which they are shooting.  Oddly, the Rebels, who appeared to be crackshots against standard Stormtroopers and the toy friendly and otherwise unnecessary Scarif Stormtrooper suddenly can't hit the broadside of an AT-AT.  I'm sure there will be a handy EU explanation like the black armor deflected light and made them hard to hit or it contained special disruptors that affects those tho attempt to shoot them.  But, if that's the case, why wouldn't the Empire (who can spend untold sums of wealth on superfluous Star Destroyers, TIE Fighters and pocket pens for their officers) simply give this gear to more of their Troops?  A few extra bucks on each trooper would have spared them the first Death Star for sure.  I'm sure the Empire's version of Excel could put together a quick cost benefit analysis that would justify the expense.

As such, the characters are completely unnecessary.  They fill no purpose in the plot other than looking cool and being visually distinctive from standard Stormtroopers.  But, this is OK.  Star Wars toys exist because we buy them.  I don't need dozens of Stromtroopers any more and won't buy them.  But, I'll buy a Stormtrooper in different colors and different gear that appears in a movie, or a cartoon, or could have simply existed.  On that level, the Death Troopers work.  We've seen black Stormtroopers before.  So, the notion isn't new.  (The first showed up in a Marvel Comic back in the late '70's/early '80's.)  Even TIE Fighter pilots have been black since the first film.  But, the are interesting to see on screen and provide a nice contrast to Director Krennic's white officer's uniform. Having them appear paves the way for more specialized Stormtrooper units to appear in future films, regardless of their time period.

Plus, this is a damn fine figure.  Really, it's awesome.  Not just in design, but construction and execution.  The benefit of armored characters is that the armor is designed so humans wearing it can move on screen.  As such, it's much easier to hide joint and articulation on armored figures than standard clothes wearing humanoids.  That alone lends this design to toy form.  But, the overall construction is excellent.  The figure can hold is weapons with no issue and his joints move freely and easily without being too loose to pose the trooper.  The figure can be posed pretty much any way you wish.  The combination of Boba Fett rangefinder, Arc Trooper gear, new color and slightly new weapons leave this figure a visual feast.  There's a lot going here and you can set him up to highlight the various details of the mold.

This particular version comes decked out in pauldrons, grenades and web gear.  This is a different configuration than you see in other Death Trooper releases where the character is just wearing the special armor.  The gear is removable, but I haven't attempted to take it off.  It appears the single carded 5 POA Death Trooper either also uses this full regalia or a newly sculpted version of it.  The figure includes two weapons: a rifle and pistol.  It would have been nice for the pistol to fit into a holster.  But, no such accessory is included with the figure.  The rifle is interesting enough.  It's reminiscent of Imperial blasters, but new and "exciting" as it does feature a very small paint application in faint red on the rifle's side.  Only getting web gear and two weapons with a $13 figure seems like a rip off.  But, this figure matches what you saw in the movie and is high enough quality that the lack of superfluous gear can be forgiven.

Death Troopers are guaranteed sellers.  Stormtroopers in black with more gear?  I don't think you could have come up with another easier best seller to Star Wars fans.  Hasbro planned their releases well.  Death Troopers are only, initially, available as ~$13 Black Series figures or as a 5 POA figure included in a ~$15 figure two pack.  There will be an $8, 5 POA figure available at some point in 2017, though.  But, with just the two initial options, collectors have made the Black Series figure very popular.  They aren't instant sell outs like some Black Series figures were.  But, they usually disappear very quickly.  It will be interesting to see if the movie makes them more or less desirable.  If Hasbro were handling Star Wars the same way they were pre Disney, I would expect a refresh wave of figures in the middle of 2017 that would bring more Death Troopers, First Order Troopers and other greatest hits of the Black Series to stores for collectors to catch up.  But, that doesn't seem to be the type of thing that the Disney era Hasbro team is either willing or able to do.  That doesn't mean we won't see this figure again.  His story timeline makes him a candidate to appear in the Han Solo movie or other, one off Star Wars projects.  Lots of retailers like Star Wars toys gift sets for the holiday selling season, too.  These are often repaint and repack fodder.  So, there's a good chance we'll see this character in 3 3/4" form again.  We just don't really have a good idea of where or when.

I passed on the Death Troopers, initially.  But, after seeing the movie, I liked the design more.  But, the main reason I got one was that I found it the Sunday after seeing the movie: when I was still on the excitement high from the theatre experience.  So, I bought a Death Trooper and a Krennic.  I liked them in the movie and their looks do fit with the majority of my original trilogy collection.  I see myself getting sucked back into Star Wars again.  As of today, I want an Admiral Raddus and bought a K-2SO, TIE Fighter Pilot and Darth Vader for my kids.  It's a slippery slope I've been down many times before.  At some point, it will end.  But, you can be sure it won't be before I've snatched up at least one of the young Lando Calrissian figures that will appear in 2018 or so.

On the one hand, seeing new Star Wars films is awesome.  On the other hand, so much new material will, eventually, become blase.  A film a year will slowly deteriorate the specialness of the saga and will, likely, dilute it.  We're over a decade into the super hero renaissance in film right now.  While there have been some misfires, the overall genre is still going strong.  There's a chance that Star Wars will just fit into this cultural zeitgeist and will roll along sans issue.  But, the appeal of Star Wars for me was that it was limited.  You had to fill in the story gaps with your imagination and toys.  Constant films will negate that and it's unlikely that my kids will grow up with the same wonder for the Star Wars universe as I did.  But, that's OK.  I will get to see some more stories on film.  Some will be good.  There will probably be several that are really bad.  But, we already have that dichotomy in the Lucas era films.  In the meantime, I'll find what I enjoy and buy toys to fill in my collection where they make sense.  My days of ever being a completist are long gone.  And, the days of even buying the majority of a new film's characters are over as well.  But, here and there, I'll cherry pick items that I find appealing.  This Death Trooper fits that criteria quite well.  In a decade's time, he may be as antiquated and irrelevant as many of the Clone repaints I bought back in 2006 and 2007.  But, those retain some value due to the memories of their acquisition and their general timeframe.  Worst case scenario, I know the same will always be true of this Death Trooper.

2016 3 3/4" The Black Series, Wal Mart Exclusive, Imperial Death Trooper, Rogue One, Star Wars

2016, Rogue One, Imperial Death Trooper, Director Krennic, Black Series

2016, Rogue One, Imperial Death Trooper

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