When I ask athletes, actors, and influencers about how they first discovered a passion for bodybuilding or making gains with their physiques, many of them point to icons of the cinema such as Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and of course the Rock, but even before we are old enough to go to the flicks, millions of us become attracted to muscle as a result of the incredible cartoons and accompanying action figures that are welcomed into our homes with wonder and excitement.
Studies have even shown that both boys and girls prefer hyper muscular action figures over more naturally sized frames, so it’s easy to see why He-Man, Superman, and the grapplers of WWE inspire us to chisel away at our own physiques. Our relationship with action figures is a fascinating love affair that often extends long past childhood and fortunately, M&F was able to sit down with two of the men behind the magic at Mattel, to learn more about the process of designing muscle on their action figures and how those designs often inspire us to become the best versions of ourselves.
With the action figure market being worth a hulking $8.28 billion in 2022, and growing, there’s no doubt that these heroic plastic people are more popular than ever. But how do these visions of perfection affect our own self-esteem? Do figurines make us feel inadequate as flesh and blood human beings, or do they serve as models of inspiration? A 2018 study showed that when it came to their toys, kids preferred exaggerated mass as relates to muscle, and while there is a reasonable assumption that these unattainable physiques could have negative consequences on our mental health, perhaps in the same way as some of those overly filtered social media influencers do, there’s a much healthier side to the process of creating or owning action figures that explains our love of them, as we found out.
How Superhero Muscle Is Brought from the Mind to the Mold
“I wind up using a variety of different tools daily to design.” says Bill Benecke, who is the Design Manager for WWE figures and is originally from Chicago. Benecke has been living the dream at Mattel’s base in El Segunda, CA since 2008, and at 48, still has a childlike passion for creating exciting toys. The artist begins with handmade sketches to get a general feel for whether a figure’s presentation could work, and then tightens the visual using a combination of Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop software packages.
Think of figure designers as IFBB pro bodybuilding judges, except that these creatives can fix any flaw, and even flex a muscle so that it reaches many times its original size. Benecke explains that he carefully brings real world observations into the design of an action figure. “Rey Mysterio was sharing some (wrestling) gear with us at one point, and just looking at his physique and the strength in those shoulders and in his arms and the way those tendons and muscles stand out, even in repose it was just really striking,” he says.
Once complete, the visual is then passed on to the sculptors. “As I’m drawing something, I’m really getting to ‘know’ it, and understand how one form relates to and interacts with another,” shares Benecke. “In this process, I start figuring out what parts of the design feel ‘important’ and which ones don’t, or which parts feel like they require more thought, and this is a big help in order to provide useful guidance to the sculptors that I work with.”
There’s no questioning the fact that figure sculptors do masterful work, taking 2D images like those created by Benecke and then teasing them into something fully formed as a 3D object in order to create a draft mold. Even after this careful stage, there’s an additional process of refinement, revising, and editing a toy that goes on for months before arriving at the final figure. It is, of course, well worth the wait, since those final figures will bring excitement and enjoyment to children and adults alike.
“I’ve been really lucky to work on a number of dream projects over my years in the toy industry, but my favorite recent set of figures was the Masters of the WWE Universe figure line,” says the design manager. “As a huge He-Man fan since I was a kid, the opportunity to combine the worlds of WWE and Masters of the Universe was an incredible thrill.” When pushed on his favorite fictional superhero, Benecke points to Iron Man, The Flash, and that dedicated fitness guru; Doc Savage. “I always loved the idea of his two-hour exercise regimen, every day without fail,” he enthuses.
Art Becomes Life for Many Action Figure Enthusiasts
Working with the silhouettes of He-Man and the WWE Superstars also has a reciprocal effect because while Benecke is adding muscle to his figures, he finds himself inspired to become a fitter version of himself, too. “I’ve gotten into a regular routine of swimming 3-5 times per week with a goal of clocking up a mile per swim,” he says. “I’m very lucky to live near a beautiful bike path along the beach, so I also try to schedule in a long bike ride on Friday afternoons. It’s a great way to wind down the week!”
Staff Designer, Michael Kadile, originally from Manitowoc, WI, is a talented designer, sculptor, and creator in his own right. He also gets to re-live his childhood everyday at the office at Mattel, and feels exactly the same way as Benecke in terms of becoming inspired to work on his own physique.
Kadile tells M&F that when he first began developing WWE products, he wasn’t a fan of wrestling, but as he started to familiarize himself with the athleticism required, the creator got immersed and totally hooked. “When you work on WWE, you can’t help but admire the level of fitness that the athletes must go through,” says Kadile, who has been with Mattel since 2014 and is a driving force behind incredibly ambitious and innovative accessories such as the WCW Monday Nitro entrance stage concept.
“I know I am 48 now, but my goal is to look forward to when I am 50, and be as fit as the Rock!,” he says. “I know that fitness, and my lifestyle will help me get there, but it also helps me with my work and keeps me focused on the end goals; whether that be an item for Mattel or my own personal fitness goals.”
Mattel’s Designers try to Emulate Their Actions Figures in Real Life
As a keen surfer, Kadile hits the waves every morning if conditions are right and burns up to 1,000 calories before his workday even begins. The creator is also fortunate in that Mattel has its own on-site gym, and so he hits that daily as well. Kadile is a fitness fanatic, and fits in a further home training session on the bike before he hits the hay each night. But, unlike the immortal action figures that they develop, even talented humans will suffer from health ailments. Thankfully, many of these can be alleviated through becoming fitter. “Physically, I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis,” shares Kadile. “I was told by my doctor that moving and being healthy will help to keep that in remission, if I put in the work. six years later and I have never been this fit or healthy.”
When quizzed on his favorite fictional super hero, Kadile goes with Batman. “The fact that he’s not only a super hero without special powers, but he was a builder, designer, and had to personally train his own body to be fit,” he says, explaining his choice. “Batman’s physique wasn’t given to him by some other special incident.”
Both creators serve to illustrate that if we don’t get too obsessed about comparing ourselves to the aesthetical perfection of action figures, the inspiration that they provide can be a great motivator for staying or getting into shape. Still, the magicians at Mattel both agree that there really are some extraordinary humans are larger than life both in the flesh and in plastic. “It was (my) first time meeting Hulk Hogan,” says Kadile, “and then you stand next to him and then from that point on, (I realized) ‘holy cow,’ these people are massive! Like, it’s not just (that) you see them on TV and you think ‘ah, they’re like maybe as big as me and just built’. No, you look at their overall size.” Benecke was equally amazed by The Hulkster. “Yeah, Hulk Hogan for sure,” he says. “It’s like, his arm is thicker than my thigh. This is insane. I remember standing next to Braun (Strowman) one time, and you’re just looking at his triceps, and he moved his arm, and it was like ‘his tricep is the size of my head, this is crazy!’” When it comes to action figures, I can’t help but think of that Diana Ross classic; “I want muscles!”
To see all those larger-than-life characters in action figure form at Mattel, visit mattel.com.