Star Wars did more than transform Hollywood following its release in 1977. The merchandising of George Lucas' space opera also launched the toy industry into hyperspace. As a 12-year-old, though, I totally missed the boat – or Imperial cruiser, as the case may be.
At the risk of indulging in reverse nostalgia, the toy market existed in a primordial state before Luke Skywalker came along. In my prepubescent days, I was a total action-figure playa, tricking out my room with mismatched playthings that were primitive by today's toy standards. Green army men, bionic man knockoffs, rubber creepie-crawlies, molded-plastic cowboys and snap-together dinosaur models (usually missing limbs or heads) would stage elaborate missions while riding atop improvised ships made of cardboard building blocks.
I had my fun, and eventually put away my childish things. Then Star Wars came out and the ancillary toy products of my dreams followed in the film's wake. The poseable, lovingly detailed spacecraft and characters were exactly the kind of toys I loved – or would have loved had I been only a couple of years younger. I purchased my own Hammerhead from the Cantina scene, who toted a ray gun. As much as I admired the craftsmanship, the thrill was gone. Sorry, Hammerhead. It wasn't meant to be.
Star Wars marked a quantum leap for "intellectual property" toys, according to Travis Sharp, creative director of the kids advertising agency Uproar! and a sometime performer and playwright for Dad's Garage Theatre. "IP toys were always around, but made up a small percentage of the market," he says. "Now about half of all toys are attached to some kind of entertainment property."
In some cases, toys have become the tail that wags the battery-operated, somersaulting dog. Sharp says, "When Star Wars came out, it was like, 'Hey, let's make a toy!' Now, we've got the toys and the reasoning is 'Let's make a movie!' We've had the Transformers and G.I. Joe movies, and next they're making movies about Stretch Armstrong, Battleship, even the Candyland board game. They're saying, 'Everybody knows what Candyland is: Let's monetize it!'"
Despite being 2009's highest-grossing film, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen proves how much movies can suffer at the expense of neat-o merchandise. Filmmaker Joel Schumacher has attributed the failure of his 1997 eyesore Batman and Robin on studio pressure to make the movie more "toyetic," or suitable for marketing spin-offs.
Toy sales have declined a few percentage points in the past decade, but still comprise about $20 billion a year in U.S. retail sales. Children and their parents aren't the only buyers. Grown-ups decorate their workstations and even fireplace mantles with the latest meticulously crafted action figures or restored versions of classic toys like Lite-Brites or Easy-Bake Ovens. Some workplaces – Cartoon Network for example – look like Steve Carell's apartment in The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
Those lucky kids who were the right age for the first wave of Star Wars toys brought their playthings with them to work: A conference call becomes slightly more tolerable if you have, say, Chewbacca perched on your speakerphone. Comic book creator Todd McFarlane became a pioneer in this market territory in 1994 when he founded McFarlane Toys, which specialized in lovingly designed statuettes of superheroes and other pop characters. Go to a shop like Atlanta's Oxford Comics and Games, and you'll see toys you can't imagine kids playing with, or even comprehending, such as the Yellow Submarine action figure set of the hirsute, psychedelic Beatles and the Blue Meanies.
The phenomenon probably won't let up anytime soon. "Since the advent of leisure time, there has always been nostalgia, and we've seen the older twentysomethings putting Pound Puppies on their shelves at work," says Sharp. "Soon we'll see Pokemon sitting in cubes, because for the early twentysomethings, that was their thing."
Sharp, who hopes his beloved Stretch Armstrong will make a comeback, points out that adult buyers still only comprise a niche market. "It was actually surprising to me when I went behind the curtain. The majority of toys are still for kids, and collectors represent a shoulder market. When you look at the numbers, for every one Yellow Submarine action figure sold, there are 1,000 Star Wars toys sold."
Toys seem to have taken another evolutionary step that's left me behind yet again. I understand toys serve as extensions of major pop brands, but I can't get my head around the toys that combine two brands at once. I see how, say, the Spongebob Squarepants Operation game can repurpose a classic for a new generation. But things like the Lego Indiana Jones video game strikes me as an exercise in postmodern surrealism: So he's a movie character, who is now made of Legos, through which you play video games?
Sharp points out that rigorous logic and attention to pop continuity don't really concern toys' intended audience. "A tough thing for me is that kids don't think about their toys the way adults do. If Darth Vader can transform into a TIE fighter, or the Hulk into a tank, kids just think that's cool," he says. "But I can get hung up on things like, 'Why would the Flash need a motorcycle? He's the fastest man alive!' Kids don't think about that."
The nature of the contemporary, toyetic market points to an overlooked virtue of my playdates in the pre-Star Wars era: at least the make-believe adventures were my own. I didn't envision the latest adventures of Spider-Man and Optimus Prime vs. Darth Vader and the Joker, but fired my imagination to put the no-name army guys, the generic dinosaurs and the plastic Apaches in the same battle royale. Back then, I played with the toys, but now, I'm not sure who's playing with whom.