A Brief History of Batman Action Figures

By: Tony Frye

Last Updated:

The center of some of the most popular comic books, cartoons, television shows, and films, it goes without saying that Batman is one of the most recognizable pop culture icons of all time. Batman action figures are among the most produced in the history of the hobby and have been a source of nostalgia for collectors as well as non-collectors since the 1970s.

Over the years, DC Comics has licensed their iconic property to very few manufacturers. Mego Toys, in 1972, was the first company to produce superhero action figures and they helped draw the blueprint for the development, packaging, and marketing of action figures for the future. Batman was included in every single superhero product Mego ever produced and is, naturally, one of the most collectible characters among Mego’s many products. There is no shortage of eBay listings for Mego figures but high quality, authentic, action figures are going to cost you.

Mego World’s Greatest Super Heroes

In time for Christmas 1972, Mego took the bodies of their Action Jackson action figures, swapped out the heads, dressed them in what can only be described as a one-piece footie pajama outfit, and launched them as the World’s Greatest Super Heroes. Batman, as was the norm for virtually all Mego releases, is among the first wave of figures released in this line. The first release of the Batman action figures included a removable cowl while later versions went with the (cheaper) painted on cowl.

Also notable is that Batman is one of the only heroes in this line to have oven mitts for gloves because, by 1974, Mego had switched to painted hands or molded gloves. Designed in the fashion of the 1966 Batman costume, there are several variations in costume design, fabric color, head molds, cowls, and packaging. Several head molds were put on the Batman figure and there are at least two versions of his boots, gloves, and utility belt. The bat emblem worn on his chest has minor design variants and his shorts come in different materials. Certain releases have capes that appear more purple than blue and the cut of those capes varies throughout the years.

The original figure was released in a solid box but would eventually be released in the window box as well as blister pack. There are several international versions available as well as a “Kung Fu Action” Fist FIghting figure.

Mego Bend N Flex

To call this an action figure is a bit of a…stretch but the Bend N Flex line, released by Mego in 1975, is often sought after among collectors. These rubbery, bendable figures were 5” tall and took on a more cartoon like design than the WGSH counterparts. Figures were released on blister cards and the only variant is that some of the cards were shorter than others (which became the preference later in production). It is worth noting that this is the first line to release figures to scale meaning that characters like the Penguin are smaller than the 5” Batman figures.

Mego Comic Action Heroes

Hoping to broaden their market share with their superhero licenses, Mego released a line of 3.75” action figures in 1976. The Comic Action Heroes were designed smaller and in a crouching position so that they would work better in playsets also released by Mego. Batman was one of the 12 figures released in this line and despite being a far cry from today’s action figure molds, were quite innovative. Each figure’s pieces were painted separately and assembled later in an attempt to keep coloring costs down. Batman was packaged with a batrope.

Mego Pocket Super Heroes

In 1978, Mego retooled their Comic Action Heroes line and released Pocket Super Heroes. Now with straight legs and slightly more detailed molds, these figures more closely resemble modern action figure designs. Batman was, sometimes, packaged with a batrope and the only real variants to be found beyond rope inclusion are card back colors which come in either red, white, or blue.

Mego Die-Cast Super Heroes

Quite possibly the first action figure specifically targeting action figure collectors, the 5.5 Batman figure is one of only four characters to be a part of this limited edition line. The metal figure has some nice detail work and because of its collector target, can be found mint in box more frequently than other Mego products. Internationally, there is also a line of magnetic 7” figures which have Batman in a plastic cape instead of the fabric cape of his die-cast figure. There were prototypes for American pressings of the magnetic figure but it was never released in the states but was sold throughout the rest of the world.

After Mego went out of business, the license for DC Comics characters got a little hinky. Kenner was the first company to follow Mego which was a logical direction since they had mastered the market with their Star Wars lines. Kenner, though, only released one product line before DC gave the license to a smaller company, Toy Biz. You will read more about the tangled history of Batman action figures through the 1980’s below but, suffice to say, Kenner ended up winning the war and released over 100 different Batman figures.

Kenner Super Powers

An iconic product line that set the stage for every future action figure collection to follow. Kenner, reeling off the success of their Star Wars line, jumped into the superhero game with their Super Powers line of action figures in 1984. Batman was included in the first of three waves for this set which, unlike the Mego toys before, has very few alternatives and they’re all card variants.

This series was pretty much the toy of choice throughout the 1980’s but, since we all played with the figure, mint on card figures can sell for several hundred dollars.

Toy Biz Batman

Once Kenner shut down production of their Super Powers collection, Toy Biz was granted the license to DC Characters. Their first use of the license was to produce three figures inspired by the Tim Burton Batman film of 1989. This Batman had a batrope hidden in his belt and came with a batarang with shooter. Along with a Joker and henchman figure, Toy Biz released vehicles and a playset for this small series. The quality of this line, as well as the Super Heroes line with which Batman was not included, caused DC to revoke their license and future figures were handled, again, by Kenner.

Kenner The Dark Knight

In 1990, Kenner produced their first Batman centric line of action figures with The Dark Knight. Each figure in this collection had some sort of gimmick, usually related to the suit, which bore figures such as Tec Shield Batman, and Thunder Whip Batman. Each different toy was loaded with new accessories and suit enhancements but, by this point, actual variations in design, coloring, or molds are all but non existent and the only differences to be found would be in packaging. Some cards in this line simply say The Dark Knight while others are branded for the 1989 film.

Kenner Batman Returns

In 1992, The Dark Knight line was renamed Batman Returns to market alongside the latest Batman film. For the most part, the only thing that changed was the packaging as Batman molds were still being used from the first series and the costumes worn by Batman bore little resemblance to action from the movie. A Penguin figure was introduced which was simply the old Kenner mold with a darker paint job.

Kenner Batman: The Animated Series

From 1992 onward, several product lines were released in the style of the Batman cartoon. The initial release for Batman: The Animated Series included several characters from Gotham City including rare figures like Clayface. This line eventually shifted to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, with mostly the same styling and a few new characters from the animated film, and then to The Adventures of Batman and Robin to match the recently renamed television cartoon. These figures are easy to track down and fans of the cartoon’s unique styling will enjoy the molds used but they do not rank among the more valuable Batman action figures.

Kenner Legends of Batman/The Dark Knight

Legends of Batman was released in 1994 with brand new stylings and molds including renditions of Elseworlds storyline designs as well as recent additions to the comic books from the Knightfall storyline. Also included were a number of first time characters to the hobby such as Nightwing. Despite being widely distributed, the line never gained the popularity of previous Batman product and was canceled fairly quickly. There are some unique and one of a kind figures in this line that can be found for just a few dollars each on online auctions so it is a worthwhile group of figures to collect but definitely not an investment collection.

Kenner made one more attempt at the Elseworlds design concept with their Legends of the Dark Knight line but, again, it failed to gain traction on the market and was canceled. This line, though, does seem to have more value among collectors and many of the figures are molded in styles more appropriate for display than play. The molds are creative and inventive and bring an artistry to action figures that is seldom displayed. That said, these are still entry level collectibles and can, for the most part, be found for just a few dollars.

Kenner Batman Forever

For their line coinciding with the third film in the Batman franchise, Kenner created all new molds (for better or worse) of the key characters and introduced new characters like Riddler and Two Face from the film. Target had an exclusive line of toys with different paint jobs and alternate packaging so a complete collector should be on the lookout for both. Much like the movie that inspired them, this line is of very little actual worth and figures are often sold in lots on online auctions sites. The most popular, and valuable, thing to come out of this series is probably the Batmobile which regularly sells for around $100.

Kenner Batman: Total Justice

After 10 years of almost exclusively producing Batman action figures, Kenner decided to get back to the broader DC Universe with Batman: Total Justice in 1996. That’s right, even their all inclusive DC properties now bore Batman titles. Only 14 figures were released, two of which were Batman, before the series was discontinued due to overwhelming consumer indifference. Limited checklists coupled with limited interest makes this set incredibly easy to assemble and the entire series can often be purchased at once and for less than $100.

Kenner Batman and Robin

In 1997, Kenner released their fourth line of toys based on Batman films and, again like the film, it was a disappointment. This line does include various versions of each villain, a first for Kenner, as well as 12” figures but their value may be less than contemporary retail value. In February, 2016, a lot of five figures from this line sold for less than $20. Of course, if you’re a fan of the movie or want an inexpensive entry point into collecting Batman action figures, this may be a great place to begin.

The Mattel Years

Kenner was obtained by Hasbro and eventually lost their license to DC properties. In 2003, Mattel was given the rights to produce a handful of characters, mostly related to the Batman and Superman universes. In 2008, Mattel acquired the rights to more of the DC Universe’s eclectic character base and began producing expansive product lines, many of which featured Batman prominently.

Mattel The Batman

The first proper line of new Batman figures since Mattel took over the license in 2003, The Batman line was designed in the style of the popular cartoon of the same name. Eventually the line was renamed The Batman EXP with each figure now included with a battery powered weapon and again renamed The Batman Shadowtek. It is not uncommon to see a figure from this line selling for above retail value and a recall for lead paint and choking hazard magnets may thin out the availability of the figures but there are no runaway, must-have, toys coming out of this set yet.

Mattel Batman Begins/Dark Knight

Aside from a seemingly rushed production with several figures having identical body molds and costume designs not at all relevant to the film they aim to promote, this collection was also poorly distributed and managed to anger collectors more than please them. For the sequel, Mattel released a line under the Dark Knight moniker which included the main characters from the film as well as some comic based characters never appearing in the trilogy. The Joker figure was given a kid friendly design that did not resemble Heath Ledger in the slightest.

When the Dark Knight Rises film was released, Mattel again released a series of action figures to support the movie. The collection includes seven figures and, despite the immense popularity of the franchise, the action figures for all three movies rarely sell for much more than retail value.

Mattel DC Universe

The evolution of this line began with a series of Batman figures designed by Four Horsemen which were of higher quality but, to their own demise, a higher price tag. That line’s cancellation led to the DC Super Heroes line which shared little more than a name with the earlier Toy Biz line. This product line was popular with collectors and eventually spawned the DC Universe line of toys which included a wider range of DC characters. The packaging of these figures would appear to be specific to DC but a close look at the copyright information or the UPC code reveals their Mattel manufacturer.

Mattel Justice League

Designed in the style of the new Justice League cartoon, several Batman figures appeared in this line of toys. Figures under the banner of Justice League, Justice League: Unlimited, and DC Super Heroes Justice League are all considered part of the same product line as the title was only changed to maintain a continuity with the television show. Batman was also a focal point of the Brave and the Bold and Young Justice lines which were also based on current cartoons.

Mattel Batman vs Superman

Several action figures were released as tie-ins to the Batman vs Superman film. The 12 inch versions were modeled to look much like the film’s costume designs while the six inch versions were more reminiscent of the old Kenner toys with various costume variants and elaborate accessories. Along with the many variable designs, there were also several packaging configurations upon release such as three packs featuring the trio of superheroes from the film.

DC Direct

Beginning in 1998, DC Comics decided to take matters into their own hands and appeal to collectors with their own line of high quality action figures. While other companies continued to release licensed figures in the major retail space, DC Direct was geared towards online sales and hobby shops. The company originally focused on characters from DC’s more adult themed comic books or on characters rarely produced by other toy manufacturers.

In 2001, DC Direct began a series of action figures displaying MAD Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman dressed in various DC costumes. Batman was released in the first series of the Just-Us League of Stupid Heroes along with Superman. Neuman dressed as Robin would appear in series 3. Two years later, and five years into the DC Direct launch, a line of figures inspired by the 1996 Kingdom Come comic miniseries was launched with Batman’s first action figure included in the second wave.

In 2004, three different product lines were launched that included at least one Batman figure. Hush, based on the popular graphic novel, First Appearances, and The Dark Knight Returns were all released in the summer of that year. The following year a line devoted to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (both a comic story arc and a direct to video animated release) as was an Elseworlds line which also featured the caped crusader.

Many other major comic events, both crossover and Batman centric, were given the DC Direct treatment including The Long Halloween, Identity Crisis, Dark Victory, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Batman and Son, and the Knightfall saga. Though it took five years for the first Batman figure to be released, DC Direct managed to release several figures in several different lines every year until the company was rebranded to DC Collectibles in 2012.

In 2012, DC renamed their DC Direct line to DC Collectibles and continued releasing high quality action figures. They relaunched the Just-Us League of Stupid Heroes line and produced an expansive collection of New 52 figures. Figures based on the popular Arkham video game series were also produced by DC Collectibles as well as Batman 75th Anniversary line.

Since the first Batman action figures hit the market in the 1970s, no fan of the Caped Crusader has been without a Batman figure on the shelves of their local toy store. With no end in sight to the franchise’s massive popularity and a collector market eager to embrace the finest that designers have to offer, it’s safe to assume that no Batman action figure collection is every complete and that it will continue to grow for decades to come.