For something that has been plagued by ownership issues for most of its history, the Terminator franchise has proven to be quite profitable. So far, it has four films to its name (with a fifth on the way), a TV series (with another one rumored to be in production as a complementary narrative for the fifth film), and dozens upon dozens of comic books, novels and video games.
This two-part post will look at one of the more unusual aspects of the franchise: toys. I'm not talking about the highly-detailed Terminator action figures produced by companies like NECA, or the highly-detailed and super-expensive Terminator action figures produced by companies by Hot Toys; I'm talking about Terminator toys that were specifically designed for the pre-teen set. I'm not sure what convinced toy company executives that genocidal robots from the future that cover themselves with human flesh as camouflage would be the perfect play time pals for kids, but that's what happened twice (so far) during the franchise's history. Read on …
The Terminator was released in 1984 and it launched the career of James Cameron and boosted the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it didn't have any toy tie-ins. It was an R-rated flick that featured gore, nudity, and violence that included massacres in a night club and a police station, so obviously kids were not the intended audience of the film. Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived in 1991 and it was a somewhat kinder, gentler version of the first film, although it still had an R rating largely due to violence. Such a restriction didn't stop T2 merchandising from including a toy line of action figures, vehicles and play sets produced by Kenner around the time of the sequel's arrival in theaters.
One key aspect that set T2 apart from its predecessor was its budget which, at $100 million, made it the most expensive film ever made up to that point in Hollywood history. (In contrast, The Terminator only had the budget of around $6 million.) With so much money riding on the sequel, it made sense that ample amounts of merchandising were produced to help T2 recoup its cost; regardless, why anyone would think that an R-rated movie could inspire a toy line that would attract kids still leaves me baffled. Then again, T2 wasn't the first R-rated sci-fi movie to produce an action figure line, since Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop was adapted into a Saturday morning cartoon with a toy tie-in just three years prior.
The selection provided by Kenner in its T2 toys revealed just how poorly planned they were. They largely consisted of variations of Schwarzenegger's T-800 character, with names like "Power Arm Terminator" and "Secret Weapon Terminator". There were also a few T-1000 figures and a single adolescent John Conner figure, but that was it--no Sarah Connor figures, no Kyle Reese figures, and no Future War human resistance figures. There wasn't even a generic police officer action figure that the toy Arnold could shoot in the leg.
A Kenner T2 action figure.
Kenner's initial T2 line didn't last long with such a meager variety of characters, so the figures were repainted and repacked later under the T2: Future War line. The Future Line added an extra robot figure named Kromium; even though Kromium was presumably a Skynet minion, he looked like a robot that had been made by the Lord of Darkness from the 1985 movie Legend. The figures were also repacked under the Terminator 2 3-D line, which was sold in the gift shops for the T2 3-D: Battle Across Time ride at the Universal Studios theme parks.
Kenner's Kromium action figure (photo courtesy of FigureRealm.com).
In spite of its shortcomings, Kenner's T2 toy line provided the first opportunity for Terminator fans to purchase an affordable, pre-assembled replica (albeit a vaguely sculpted one) of the T-800 endoskeleton. Between the releases of Terminator and T2, the only available endoskeleton replicas were expensive resin model kits; if you had neither the money nor the skill to competently assemble such a kit, you were out of luck.
A Kenner T-800 endoskeleton action figure.
During the mid-90s, Galoob acquired the T2 license for its Micro Machines line and produced a series of small figures and vehicles based on the sequel. It also produced a play set based on the T2 factory scenes, a play set that folded into a T-800 endoskeleton skull.
Like the Kenner action figure line, the T2 Micro Machines provided another new opportunity for Terminator fans: affordable replicas of Skynet's Hunter-Killer (HK) units, the Aerial HK and Tank HK. Like the T-800 endoskeleton, the only other replicas of these HK units were expensive resin model kits, so the pint-sized T2 Micro Machines provided an alternative. The HK units would also have been ideal for Micro Machines' Action Fleet line, a line of larger vehicle toys that were designed to scale with mini-figures, but that unfortunately never happened.
Micro Machines' Tank HK, T-800 endoskeleton mini-figure, and Aerial HK.
Of all the T2 toys that were produced in the '90s, the most unique was Kenner's Terminator 2 Bio-Flesh Regenerator Play Set. This play set was a lot like Kenner’s Play-Doh play sets, except it involved making tiny Arnold Schwarzeneggers for the purpose of tearing their skin off to expose the homicidal machinery underneath. That’s all the play set was good for--it didn’t come with any future humans for the robots to terminate. Nevertheless, the Bio-Flesh Regenerator Play Set was able to use the most magnificently morbid aspect of the Terminator franchise as the basis for a kid's toy, so Kenner deserves at least some credit for that.
Stay tuned for part two of this post series, which will look at the various toys that were released in 2009 for Terminator Salvation. Click here for a complete list of Kenner T2 toys.