Last modified: Saturday, January 6, 2001 6:20 PM


When Joeheads first heard about 21st Century Toys' new super-articulated figure, it was instantly promoted to the status of Manna from Heaven: "Woo Hoo!!! I can't wait!" was a pretty common reaction. In the past year or two, 21st Century Toys has endured a lot of griping over the fact that their first effort-- commonly called the "SSAM" -- was an unimaginative clone of Hasbro's Classic Collection design. It shared that figure's most damning design defect: Falldown-itis. It didn't help that Dragon popped up on the scene, seemingly from out of nowhere with their more articulated figure (and superb outfits) and totally eclipsed 21st Century's PR blitz created at Toy Fair. Even before that, Formative had stolen a lot of 21st Century's thunder by releasing their excellent jeep (again, seemingly from out of nowhere) when everyone was anxiously awaiting 21C's Mutt Jeep. It didn't help that 21C seemed to have trouble meeting the expectations and tentative deadlines that their advance PR and fan hype had created. 1999 was a humbling year for 21st Century Toys, despite having put out some very good product. I can't help but feel that their own arrogance helped bring about this perception, and so it's played out like something straight out of Aesop's Fables.

Add to this backdrop the company's base of die-hard loyal fans and the peculiar football-like mentality of some Joe collectors when it comes to the their favorite company. Many people were probably hoping that this would be the "Dragon Slayer" that would restore order to the world and reclaim 21C its former glory as undisputed leader of the pack. That's a heckuva lot of baggage to place on the release of one stinkin' figure!

Well, the wait is over. Some people have reported finding the new "Super Soldier" body packaged in the new "101st Airborne Operation Market Garden" boxed figure set. It makes you wonder when a highly-anticipated figure arrives and there's an awkward silence. Is it like getting a ghastly tie as a present? You have to say something, but you're inclined to be a tad understated... (?) What's going on here?

The first thing that I noticed about the Super Soldier was the rounded abdomen piece and narrow upper torso. Because the lower torso is so rounded, it almost looks like a pot-belly, or that he's got a generous set of "love handles" on the side. Because of this, the articulation is very good there. The abdomen/hips articulation rotates and has a limited amount of forwards/backwards poseability. The chest/abdomen articulation has deep forwards/backwards and side to side poseability, plus a less usable potential for rotation. It appears to accomplish this by using spring or elastic tensioning, which extends up to the neck, which is spring tensioned. It's not like vintage tensioning though-- you can't pull the body sections apart far enough to see whether it uses posts and springs like the Dragon or an incredibly heavy custom band, like Barbie. I suspect it's spring-tensioned.

The narrow chest and shoulders resembles the Marmit figure's design. The cutouts at the shoulders allow the arm to cross the chest at a more acute angle than most figures. As you can see from the picture, the area beneath the arms would need to be similarly cut out if you wanted the figure's arms to pose straight down.

The arms are secured in the shoulder by a ball & socket assembly (instead of rotation-only flanges), which allows the arms to rotate a little bit off of the normal dead center axis. This is supposed to simulate bringing your shoulder forwards or backwards, but because the angle is so shallow, it hardly makes much difference. The unfortunate part about this design is that it's extremely prone to wear and slippage since the ball is pressure tensioned within the socket. This isn't a great idea, considering that the arms are the highest-traffic part of the figure, and often are posed where their weight and whatever they're holding are fighting the pull of gravity. Since the figure isn't screwed together, there's no easy way to retension the socket. Mine came from the factory with about 25 degrees of "dead socket" on one arm which amounts to about 1.5"/4 cm of free floppy travel at the extremities-- stuff like this happens when the ball or socket aren't mating properly.

Here's some comparative anatomy. One of the biggest disappointments of the SS figure are the ganged hinges. They're much uglier and cruder than any of the others, with huge gaps and funky plastic pins showing. This picture shows the better of the two-- the other one had a bubble of flash growing on the inside. Overall, they have what I can only describe as a "funky" quality of production-- about on par with the SOTW's joints, but uglier. You can't see in the pictures but the center piece has horizontal raised lines which function as click stops. Ideally, a hinge like this should have a smooth but firm, continuous movement. The click stops announce the fact that the hinge will wear and not have sufficient tension to hold a pose during some range of its movement. It's a backup plan for fault tolerant manufacturing or compromised material choice in the design. Dragon does this with it's rubber feet and at the arms. It's a cheapo substitute for a quality assembly of materials with the proper friction properties and a reliable way to tension them.

I suspected some of these problems beforehand based on advance pictures and the way 21st Century Toys has done things in the past. I suspected that this figure would be made of dense, flexible plastic and it is. And because of this, I further expect that this, coupled with the crippled foot hinge design, will cause the same "falldown-itis" problem of their SSAM and the CC figure. Fortunately though, the design of the hand coupling is the same so you'll be able to transfer hands between both figures.

Aesthetically, there are a few oddities. There's the usual one that goes with these ganged hinge, mega-articulated figures-- they all look uglier than a simpler figure. The SS is just worse in that regard. In addition, the legs seem slightly longish, the crotch is rather peculiar (they've got no monopoly on that!), his boobs are kinda...fem-like without the full expanse of chest, and the short neck with a deadhead headsculpt makes him look sort of hunchbacked. Maybe we'll be seeing headsculpts with longer necks in the future? The legs, straightened as far as they'll go, still don't go far enough. Otherwise, the figure is decently proportioned, but would not be an ideal choice for use as a bare-chested primitive. To be fair, the aesthetic aspect is of no consequence if you're going to keep the figure fully dressed, which is how 99% of the folks who buy him will display him. (But this is a customizing site for that rare 1%.)

I've been hard on this figure, but that's due to expectations: Other people probably expected more, but 21st Century did many of the wrong things that I expected they would. I've gotten sort of blasé about the whole ganged hinge thing, since it's old hat now. I've begun to appreciate a more aesthetic balance of form and function, depending on the situation. Otherwise, you might as well just stick a head & hands on a dressed wire armature-- that would be almost infinitely poseable, no? What probably would have blown people away is if this figure were more precisely engineered and finely crafted, and had the cachet of a more expensive figure. But I guess that's how they keep costs down? Oh well. But you can still claim that it's a durable figure.

Sooooo... the assessment? Who wins? We all do. It's good to have another figure style, and this one offers better torso articulation than any of the others. I think it's good to have all the styles-- even the Classic Collection guys (but maybe not the Zena one, except as a doorstop)-- because they all excel in different areas. And they all have different faults too. Even though I haven't even mentioned outfits in these figure assessment articles, as a collector I usually make my purchasing choices based on the outfit and accessories. As a figure customizer, I don't think that any particular one is always the best-- it depends entirely on the application. That's why I often cut them up and combine parts.

At this time, it appears that the Market Garden figure is 21C's only mainstream retail release with this new figure style: It's expected that this will eventually replace the SSAM figure.


An inside look at the figure