Toy Review: Defenders of the Earth Series 1 by NECA

When children of the ’80s discuss their favorite toy lines with tie-in cartoons, Defenders of the Earth isn’t necessarily high on the list. More a cult favorite than anything else, it’s notable for bringing together three classic King Features Syndicate newspaper comic superheroes from the early 20th century into their own mini-league. Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, and the Phantom battle the evil Ming…and all the major characters now have teenaged children. Stan Lee also had a stake in the show, enabling a Marvel comics tie-in, and presumably a stake in the new teenage kid characters, had they taken off.

Yet, with the possible exception of Mandrake, these are by no means considered definitive versions of the characters. Flash Gordon and the Phantom spawned tongue-in-cheek live action movies that are more beloved, and when people think of Flash Gordon cartoons, the Filmation series usually comes to mind first. The toys by Galoob, however, were impressive for their day, featuring a dial on the back that made the figure punch. Nonetheless, they were by no means definitive likenesses of the characters, as they made some design and kid-friendly changes. Notably, as part of a larger trend in updating older villains based on Asian stereotypes, Galoob changed Ming to a green alien. (James Bond Junior‘s Dr. No and Iron Man‘s Mandarin would follow that same path in other cartoons.)

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NECA recently revived the line in order to have a superhero license of their own. Making use of the muscular hero body they developed for Superman and Batman exclusives, they debuted the 7-inch line at Walmart before going wider. It’s mostly the same buck, with new sleeve forearms  for Phantom and Flash, armored forearms for Ming, and armored shoulder-balls for Flash. All three wear a generic boot.

Articulation: double ball neck, ab crunch, ball shoulders, swivel biceps, double-hinge elbows and knees, pin-and-disc wrists, cut waist, ball and twist hip, cut mid-calf, hinge-and-rocker ankle, and toe hinge. Many collectors have had some trouble with the Phantom’s left hip. On our review copy, we did too, and ultimately found freezing it worked better than boiling to free it from immobility. He seems to be the only one of the three with this issue.

Sculpt-wise, these are the most jacked versions of the characters probably ever, since heroes of the 1930s weren’t the kind of super-bodybuilders we see today. NECA’s hero body is like something drawn by Simon Bisley, with back definition that resembles Ralph Fiennes’ tattoo in Red Dragon. It’s hard to imagine these guys having time for anything else besides the gym. But this is fantasy, after all. Flash Gordon as He-Man.

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I don’t pretend to know why certain parts get colored the way they do, but have to assume it’s cost related. As you can see, the hinges at Flash’s (and Phantom’s) angles represent their body color rather than the painted color. But that’s not the biggest paint issue.

That would be the interchangeable hands. They’re fully painted in a flesh tone (green flesh for Ming), but the moment you interchange them, the paint peels off the connector peg instantly. This ought to have been noticed in a testing phase. The ideal here is to quickly choose the hand you prefer, and not swap them out again. NECA usually excel at flesh-toned plastic, so one has to assume it was not economical to use in this case.

The point of the hands is to utilize different weapons. All the original Defenders figures came with the same blaster pistol, and NECA follows suit there, including add-ons of a short muzzle flash and long laser blast. Every figure gets a hand that can hold this. It’s a right hand on the Phantom; left on the others. Flash and Phantom also feature fists, but the Phantom gets an extra right fist that can blast another long laser effect from his ring, as in the cartoon. It should be noted that this Phantom has rings on both fingers, and does not feature the original character’s trademark pistols. NECA has hinted they’ll do a classic comic-strip Phantom later, which may bode well for other Flash and Mings.

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Ming includes a more clawed left hand that holds his sword better than the blaster hand, and looks a bit like devil-horns when empty. His right hand is meant for the Mongor staff, which he holds a loose grip on. Flash also can hold a laser sword. The one detail missing from Galoob is that Phantom originally came with a whip.

It’s interesting to note that aside from their all using the same base body, there’s no consistent style. The Phantom’s face is very much in the stylized, Lee Falk strip kind of mold, while Flash and Ming look like hybrids of some of the actors who’ve played them in live-action. Flash’s face has hints of Buster Crabbe and Sam J. Jones, without looking too much like either one for legal actions…

While Ming may not be Max von Sydow, he’s not completely NOT Max von Sydow either. A skilled repainter might get him close enough.

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Oh, but there’s one more character in the line. Packed in with the Phantom is Zuffy, the obligatory ’80s-cartoon cute sidekick. All his limbs and tail feature ball-joints, and he comes permanently holding the crystal containing the memories of Mrs. Gordon. In an oddly dark move for ’80s toy cartoons, the first episode of Defenders of the Earth had Ming murder Flash’s wife. (She is presumably Dale Arden, though the show never calls her that.) But her memories survive on a crystal, saved by Zuffy, which then becomes embedded in the Defenders’ computer. You may not need to know this.

Each figure runs around $30, with retailers like Entertainment Earth offering a set of three for $90. (Note: Superhero Hype is part of Entertainment Earth’s affiliate program, and earns fees from any purchases made through our link.) This may feel a bit high, since so many “Ultimates” also cost about the same, and these are all the same base figure. But prices are rising across the board this year and with six-inch figures going up to $22-$23, $30 for 7-inch foretells a new normal.

Series two looks set to feature Mandrake and Lothar, and Mandrake seems to use an entirely new sculpt. We’ll see how those less recognizable characters fare. In the meantime, take a look at our full series 1 gallery.

How do you like these modern takes on vintage heroes? Let us know in comments.

Recommended Purchase: Defenders of the Earth – The Complete 65 Episode Series

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