If you haven’t spent the last week in a galaxy far, far away, you have probably heard that on November 15, Star Wars action figures joined the 50 other august toys honored in the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong. It seems like big honors for such itty bitty, 3.75-inch toys, but these figures demonstrate the iconic stature, longevity, and creative play essential to earning Hall of Fame status. Given their inauspicious beginnings, however, these action figures might not have ever come to be. The Kenner toy company secured the license to produce Star Wars toys for the May 1977 release of the first movie (later, renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), and the company planned easy-to-produce toys like puzzles and paint sets. But the film’s immense popularity created a huge market for action figures, vehicles, play sets, and other intergalactic merchandise. Caught without any action figures for the all-important holiday season, Kenner offered instead—wait for it—an empty box and a certificate promising to supply figures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2 in spring 1978. The phenomenal success of the movie made kids so eager for Star Wars toys, they accepted just the promise of future toys in place of real toys under the Christmas tree.
In the first year of production, Kenner offered figures of 12 characters. The scarcity of petroleum (a key ingredient of plastic) in the 1970s forced the company to model its figures in a small size—smaller than G.I. Joe, the Six Million Dollar Man, and many popular Mego figures of the time. The smaller size, however, reduced the purchase price and made the figures cheaper to buy. Star Wars fans have purchased more than 300 million figures since they first appeared. With continued marketing and tie-ins to five more Star Wars films and television series, novels, comics, and repackaged movies on DVD, Blu-ray, and in 3-D, the toys—especially the action figures—continue to sell. What makes the Star Wars action figures so popular? Some scholars suggest that the figures connect to an epic tale that is more than just a good science-fiction yarn. The Star Wars saga draws on a classic narrative from mythology, literature, religion, and history. We recognize Luke Skywalker as the archetypical hero, who (like Hercules and King Arthur) has special powers and abilities, which he develops under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, his mentors. C-3PO and R2-D2 provide comic relief as the tricksters. Darth Vader, of course, in personifying the Dark Side that Luke must confront and reject, lends an Oedipal element to the hero’s journey. And Luke, always training to be a Jedi warrior, learns to harness the Force for good, for peace in the galaxy, and for the liberty of its inhabitants. With such ready-made stories, how do kids play with their Star Wars figures? Surely some kids reenact their favorite scenes from the movies. But at some point, kids get creative and make up their own narratives as they move and manipulate action figures. And because most kids know the Star Wars stories, the action figures give kids of diverse upbringings common ground for cooperative play. The Force, of course, is with them all.