The past week saw an enormous press blitz, and attendant fan excitement, for the Star Wars merchandising release day officially dubbed Force Friday. Though it was kept secret as long as possible, details about the bevy of new toys, figurines, and other assorted paraphernalia related to a galaxy far, far away eventually leaked online, spurring the imagination of fans and triggering widespread anticipation for the event. In turn, stores coordinated midnight releases for the launch of these products, further stoking the excitement of anyone hoping to acquire Force-related merchandise. In an effort to see what all the hoopla was about, and whether the event did itself (and its fans) justice, The A.V. Club sent its intrepid reporter out to the wilds of several Chicago megastores, hoping to sort the products that stay in the light from the shoddy, boring, or just plain inexplicable movie tie-ins that clearly crossed over to the dark side.
I pull into the parking lot of the Elston Avenue Target, and I’m immediately greeted by the sight of Jedi. “Oh, that’s neat,” I thought. “Some Star Wars fans decided to get dressed up and have some fun with this whole thing.” This is the first of many times to come over the next hour or so in which I vastly underestimate just what I’m seeing. These are not some Star Wars fans “having fun.” They are Jedi—the Chicago Order of the Jedi, to be more specific. Which is to say, they’re not just dressing up for a goof. This is a way of life for them.
They’re very friendly, posing with anyone who wants a picture, and are more than happy to talk about their group. (Even happier to talk are the people accompanying them, promoting a documentary film called American Jedi, all about these folks who take being a Jedi seriously—as a philosophy, a way of life, all sorts of stuff that sounds rather silly to outsiders, but is actually pretty much just another form of New Age self-improvement, only with the added bonus of getting to nerd out about Star Wars all the time.) I ask one of them for his name. “My real name, or my Jedi name?” Fair enough. I meet Gabriel (Master Angelus Kalen), Dan (Tallen Kaid-dan, and yes, I see what you did there, Dan, nice work), Nelly (Rikael), and Ross (Raphael Ben Raven). They’re all dressed in full regalia, and whether they founded the group, joined later, or are still learning, they all shared a desire to be a Jedi—something this group of theirs actually helped make happen. Which, I’m sure walking around acting like a Jedi in real life is well and good, but seems much more rewarding on occasions when little kids dressed as Darth Vader walk up.
And yes, they were nice enough to let him use the Force on them:
I ask Nelly (a.k.a. Rikael), one of the few women present, how long she had been with the group, and she starts to distinguish between how long she’s been a Padawan versus total time. “I’m sorry,” I interrupt. “Say what?” She explains that she’s a Jedi apprentice, and Ross is her Master. Meaning, he gives her studies and homework to do, helps her grow as a Jedi, that sort of thing. It sounded okay until she called him over. “Master,” she gestures to him, and it’s… uncomfortable sounding, to me, in the way that I’m uncomfortable when women call their boyfriends “Daddy.” He’s also the sensei who teaches her martial arts in real life, so that’s probably a helpful overlap. No need to save up for two different outfits.
But this is all outside the store. The line is inside, so I push through the stormtrooper-emblazoned doors and make my way toward the rear corner, where there’s a motley assemblage of customers and employees buzzing around. There’s already a good-sized line, so Sally (The A.V. Club photographer) and I dutifully take our place at the end of it. Employees are in the middle of making a line of out shopping carts, because they ran out of stanchions, and these red-shirted workers run the gamut from being personable and friendly to only slightly less personable and friendly. Maybe they’re all big Star Wars fans, too? (I try to talk to one or two, and see if they’re actually happy about this huge pain in the ass of a workday, but there are supervisors hovering about, intercepting me and my little notebook before anyone says anything too honest.)
Everyone here is very presumptuous with one another in terms of physical space and sociability, which makes sense: We’re all here united in happy common purpose, which is to plunder this store of its new Force Friday goods until only a smoking crater remains where once there stood a plush Chewbacca doll. (Speaking of plush Chewbaccas, we’re all entered in a raffle to win a giant one of these, which also apparently necessitates getting your hand stamped with the Target logo, triggering THX 1138-like concerns about the world in which we live.)
While we wait, I strike up conversations with some of the other people in line, which is to say, I walk longingly to the front of the line, and then engage people in a desperate effort to pretend I’m actually among the (at least) 80 or 90 people ahead of us. Brandon and Renee explain why they’re waiting: Brandon wants one of the Kylo Ren Force Fx Lightsabers. Renee had no desire to accompany him—until Brandon showed her the adorable BB-8 droid, and she decided it must be hers. I ask them what products they have absolutely zero interest in acquiring. “Folders and notebooks,” Brandon says scornfully. “I’m not gonna get a folder and a notebook.” Noted: Brandon doesn’t like to have fun writing or organizing his papers.
I go to the very front of the line and meet Dan (not the Jedi) and Berto, who have been here since 7:30 p.m. “I figured that was early enough that I’d get what I want,” Dan says, in the most accurate-sounding statement anyone has made to me yet. And what does he want? “The Captain Phasma 3.75-inch action figure,” he says, without hesitation. (For those not in the know, this is the badass new villain played by Gwendoline Christie, a.k.a. Brienne Of Tarth from Game Of Thrones). Berto wants a BB-8 droid, but has learned they don’t have it in stock here. They both confirm they’ll be doing what I’m planning to do—heading to Toys R Us immediately following this outing and trying to pick up any missing pieces after they hoover up whatever they can here.
I return to where Sally is holding our place in line, so that she can wander around for a bit. As the line behind us starts swelling to truly worrisome proportions, winding around several more aisles, an employee makes a surprise announcement: After we pass through this first section, we’re to head back by the bicycle wall, where more stanchions form a line into a second area, containing yet more toys. This generates a ripple of excitement, as it provides hope for those of us not in the first wave. See, Target has repeatedly emphasized a “one of each item only” rule, as a way of helping cut down on eBay vultures and associated scum, and the knowledge of a second wave of toy opportunities means those of us who will lose out on the best of this first area just by dint of simple arithmetic now have another opportunity to find what we want.
Perhaps this is a good place to explain that while I’m not dying to buy anything myself—I’m a Star Wars nerd but not a collector—I’m on a mission for someone else. Rick, who works right behind me in the Onion offices, learned of my little mission a couple of days earlier. His initial email to me included the following two sentences: “If I gave you some money would you buy me a couple action figures? My wife won’t let me go.” Since I’m not a monster—unlike Rick’s wife, obviously—I agreed, and Rick provided two pictures and descriptions of the figures he wanted. One is an alien-looking fighter pilot named Asty, who looks like a Bullhead fish. The other? The much-desired-by-Dan Captain Phasma. Rick has assured me he’ll understand if I’m unable to complete this task, and will accept just about anything I can manage to acquire, even if it’s “a three-fourths destroyed Chewbacca,” as he volunteers. It’s comforting to know failure is acceptable, even as I’m disturbed by the idea of someone who would open a package, rip two arms and one leg off a Chewbacca action figure, and then gently put it back in its place. That sort of sadism should be reserved for Jar Jar Binks.
A guy several people ahead of us in line practically pulls a Target employee off her feet when he grabs their arm and asks if there are any Lego toys in their horde. She assures him she saw some Lego sets on the shelf, and—I shit you not—he lets go, arches back, and lets loose a flawless Chewbacca uvula-rattling growl. I’m starting to see why Rick’s wife didn’t want him to come. Still, wannabe Chewie seems more the exception than the rule: The couple in front of us, for example, seem very cool. They have a young daughter who’s severely excited about getting her hands on some swag. The American Jedi people have cornered every single person in this line—some more than once—and given them the hard sell. (One of the local Chicago Jedi stands amid a busy corner of the line, and says loudly, to no one in particular, “Sometimes I wonder if people know we’re in the movie!” Clearly, he has mastered the delicate Jedi art of passive-aggressive bragging.)
The line is getting restless. There’s an announcement over the loudspeakers that Target will only be letting in 25 people at a time to go through the area and scavenge their one-of-whatever goods. I watch 200 people simultaneously try to mentally calculate whether this will help or harm their chances of getting that lightsaber.
Someone decided to jump the gun. Employees start letting people through one minute early, and we all excitedly begin filing our way toward the entrance to what was formerly Target’s “Back To School” section, now converted into nerd central. As Sally and I make our way forward, we pass a break in the aisle, one that affords us a perfect view of the Star Wars toy section. Even if you’re not a die-hard, it should come as no surprise that it is pandemonium. It’s like a feeding frenzy, if sharks had fewer manners. I mean, this thing is bananas. By the time Sally and I get past the velvet rope, the entire action figure section has been ravaged, its black shelves as empty as the Emperor’s heart. The hardcore collectors have all dashed to the next line already. Sorry, Rick: Looks like you’re not getting that Captain Phasma, let alone Asty.
Sally and I wander the aisles, seeing what’s left. No one seems very excited about this Star Wars Hero Mashers line of figures. They’re figures with softer, less detailed crafting, designed to be pulled apart and mixed and matched in pieces among the various designs. It smells like fake Star Wars to me, and obviously to most other folks here, too.
I turn my attention, instead, to the crap—stuff almost nobody wants. I pick up a plastic, janky-looking stormtrooper headpiece and give it a knock. A guy standing next to me scoffs. “Don’t bother,” he says, gesturing toward the display. “These suck. I got the last series of these, and they were much better made.” So these suck, eh? Sounds like I’ve found a winner. Into the shopping cart it goes.
Similarly, we stumble upon my favorite stupid Star Wars tie-in I’ve seen. The good people at Campbell’s soup have made an arrangement that is just delightfully abstract in its irrelevance.
But don’t worry, Spaghetti-Os fans: You haven’t been forgotten, either.
Also, I’m not sure who on the A.V. Club staff will wear these boxers, but I bet someone will surreptitiously make off with them when the rest of our backs are turned:
I feel bad about being unable to get Rick anything he wanted, so I start looking for “Sorry about that” options to make up for it. I find one of the last of these foot-high Finn figures, and hope that something three times the size of what he wanted will feel three times better as an apology.
Also, I get him a little Millennium Falcon. Who doesn’t love the Millennium Falcon?
I wander over to get in line for round two, which seems even more hopeless. I leave Sally waiting in line and walk to the end of the second area, where I see every single action figure already gone, though the line has barely started moving. The people here are slowly and steadily filing past the barren shelves and out onto the main path in stunned, disillusioned rancor. Target staff stand nearby alongside carts filled with restock reinforcements, which primarily consists of… additional Hero Mashers. Nobody seems to much want a Hero Masher, but they sadly accept them, like a participation prize in Little League. (There’s a genuinely tragic moment, just before we reach the front of the store, when I see a man walking alongside me pause just before hitting the register, place his Hero Masher figure back on a random shelf, and say, “I can’t do this.” It’s like the direst part of Las Vegas.)
I’m already depleted. This was exhausting. We both buy bottles of water, which go into our official Star Wars Target bag. “Do you want the hanger?” our checkout clerk says, holding up the boxers. No, we do not.
As we pile into our car to head off to Toys R Us, I hear a car squeal its tires. I look up to see a man park his car askew between two spaces, and run frantically towards the store, wearing flip-flops. I admire his optimism, even as it seems clear that he knows this is a fool’s errand. Star Wars—and its fans—wait for no man.
Apparently, we should’ve gone to Toys R Us first. Walking through the door, it’s immediately clear that, despite having roughly the same amount of display space for merchandise, there’s approximately one-tenth the number of people. And even though that probably discounts the first-in-the-door people who came and went, there are probably under a dozen people wandering the aisles, as opposed to the hundred-plus still dejectedly shambling around the hallways of Target, the ghosts of their once-hopeful Star Wars fan spirits abandoning their bodies to drift among the Hero Mashers like a banshee, wailing about missing their Kylo Ren actions figures.
The most obvious indicator of the upside to being a Toys R Us attendee is that you almost certainly got your pick of figures, because despite being 40 minutes late and batting cleanup after the initial rush, I still manage to get Rick a couple of action figures. Not Captain Phasma or Asty, mind you—I’m not a miracle-worker—but figures in the same series, at least. I grab him a Poe Dameron (which I forgot to get a picture of, so here’s the marketing image):
And a First Order Flametrooper:
Needless to say, I immediately regret buying him that other stuff from Target, which will now come across like a sad and wasteful abuse of the $40 he left with me to make these purchases. But in my defense, I really didn’t think there’d be anything left here. By the way, Rick, you owe me another 15 bucks.
As Sally and I peruse the vastly superior items on display here, I round a corner and bump into Dan—as in first-in-line-Dan, who seemingly had his pick of the litter for toys, so clearly is just here to clean up by getting the stuff unavailable at Target. “Now that you’ve gotten Captain Phasma, taking care of your second-tier items, too?” I ask him. Dan looks like he just got a dire medical diagnosis. “I didn’t even get a Captain Phasma at Target,” he says, which would be a funny sentence if he didn’t seem so bummed.
“What happened?” I ask, though my mental flashback to the image of the Target feeding frenzy frenzy answers the question for me.
“It was a free-for-all,” he admits. People behind him were muscling him out of the way, but that’s not even the worst of it. “The Target employees let people do whatever they wanted,” Dan explains. “Four guys who weren’t even waiting in line just cut in front of everyone, like, sweeping armfuls of toys off the shelves into their carts.” I ask if this pretty much annihilated the rules in place to prevent eBay trolls. He nods. “But hey, I got some good stuff here, so it’s all right.” He walks back down the toy aisle.
My plan to just stand around being bemused by this whole exercise in rampant consumerism evaporates immediately, as though millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were silenced by Target’s pathetic lack of enforcement of its own rules. Here’s a really nice guy who waited in line for almost five hours, following the simple instructions, and should’ve had his pick of the litter, and he was left with nothing. Force Friday clearly turned too many people to the dark side, including the very staff ostensibly on hand to keep it fun. Here’s my first big takeaway from Force Friday: Hey Target, fuck you. And I have it on good authority that your stormtrooper helmets suck, too.
Not only does Toys R Us have more stuff left, but it’s generally higher-quality—and weirder, to boot. Mini skateboards? Are the Yoda figures supposed to ride them into battle?
There’s a YoMan, which is just a yo-yo that can be placed on a stand to create a little Vader. You can pay $22 for the privilege of owning a yo-yo that’s a bit too big for its britches:
The item that confuses me most, however, seems to be a total hoax. It’s an insane-sounding “Star Wars Science” Hologram Kit. Boasting Bluetooth headset technology, it promises the ability to “Move holograms with your mind!” After noting the “Tablet required for product use (not included)” disclaimer at the bottom of the box, I turn it around, assuming the fine print will tell me what the deal really is.
Holy hell. This toy literally promises children it will read their brainwaves—and that’s the fine print. I’m so baffled. “As you concentrate, you generate Beta brainwaves,” the box helpfully lies. “The headset detects these waves and transmits a digital signal via Bluetooth to your tablet causing the hologram to move based on your level of concentration.” It seems like a fun time, and ushers in a bold new era of baldfaced dissembling on behalf of The Force Awakens-related merch. Good call, Toys R Us—this is indeed “Hot New Stars Wars”:
Still, overall, since this is such a giant step up in quality from our Target experience, in terms of both the products and the clientele, Sally and I both forgive this singular lapse in rationality. Here we’ve got better lightsabers, Pop! figures, Micro Machines, Chewbacca masks… it all seems better. This isn’t to say everything looks great—the remote-control Millennium Falcon, for example, looks like it’s roughly on par with a similar unlicensed toy you’d find at Radio Shack, meaning it probably works for about 40 minutes. But overall, it’s a far superior shopping experience. And they’re ready for your child to pack this all up and fly to a galaxy far, far away:
I do stop to pick up what seems like the most A.V. Club-baiting item on the shelves: a pair of Yoda earbuds.
As we’re heading out, Sally and I find ourselves mesmerized by the most nightmare-inducing product on the shelf. It’s a Yoda head, marketed as a talking toy, but simply turning it on triggers the kind of dead-eyed creepiness best saved for horror movies:
Shockingly, it’s the Avengers who greet my arrival at The Disney Store. This seems like an appalling mistake on behalf of the proud new owners of Star Wars. After all, I thought the whole point of this new #ForceFriday marketing push was to demonstrate just how badass the company will be when it flexes its licensing muscles. You thought Star Wars merchandise was omnipresent before? it seemed to taunt. Well, now Disney owns it, motherfuckers. So this seems tough to justify:
Of course, when I indignantly call this out, Sally points out that maybe I should’ve just walked up to the store from the other direction:
We walk in, and aren’t disappointed by the proud new owners. The original soundtrack is playing on the speakers. It’s a full-on onslaught of Star Wars the second you pass through the doors, with tall displays and TVs playing the trailer for the new film. A young teenager wearing an employee shirt and holding a lightsaber smiles brightly, and says to me, without the faintest hint of irony, “Good morning, sir, and welcome to the dark side!” It might be the single most honest store greeting in history.
We’re here to see the aftermath. Disney Stores also participated in last night’s midnight feeding frenzy, and I was curious to see if it was a wasteland, or if Disney refused to let its own stores capitulate to the vanishingly small amount of action figures it released to the other big box stores. The answer, it turns out, is a little bit of both. Disney doesn’t have any more action figures than anyone else, but it sure as hell isn’t going to let there appear to be any empty shelf space in its store. I ask to see the action figures, and I’m directed to only a single six-figure package, which features none of the figures from the other, sold-out series. But from the way employees talk, The Disney Store does a decent job of pretending it never had any of the small individual figures to begin with. It’s a good five minutes of conversation before an older employee admits they were picked clean last night.
But if you’re looking for high-quality goods of almost any other type, Disney Store has got your back. Sally notes several times how much better all the Star Wars crap here is—in comparison to Target’s crap, especially. She admires the quality of the children’s clothing and costume materials, something I would never have noticed, because I am not a parent.
Also, I finally see a Captain Phasma, even if it’s not the one Rick and Dan were hoping for. It’s a mask that talks when you press a button, and as has been noticed, these phrases hint at possible storylines in the upcoming movie. But even from the picture, you can see how much better the quality is than the stormtrooper mask I picked up at Target:
Still, this isn’t to say that everything here is a cut above. Disney has its share of silly-ass merchandise, as well. There’s a wind-up plastic “Flipping Yoda,” that can’t seem to flip so much as launch itself into a violent horizontal position, where he proceeds to then curl and un-curl like he’s suffering from a horrible case of appendicitis. And if you want any other mass-produced random crap emblazoned with something from this film series, you’ve got more than a few options.
We end up purchasing one thing, and only because it’s so stupid. It’s the world’s most unwieldy, least-practical keychain, which should really come with a guarantee: This will snap the instant you affix it to your keys and try to put them in your pocket.
Honestly, as we walk back to A.V. Club home base, I’m a little impressed by the overall execution of Force Friday, at least when it comes to the materials released. I went into this expecting a barrage of junk, and came away from it both disappointed and begrudgingly admiring how Disney handled the rollout. This was an event for the hardcore fans, and the company mostly treated it as such, not wasting people’s time with tons of pencil sharpeners and mascara the color of Jar Jar Binks. There’ll be plenty of time for that down the road, and the coming months will see an endless proliferation of just such silliness.
But this event took the fans, and the quality of the products offered to them, seriously. We went looking for stupid new merch, and came away with slim pickings. It seems the junk will have to wait. Of course, the other people who will have to wait? The fans who wanted nothing more than to get the latest line of their beloved action figures, and were not only met with a very small likelihood of success, but were totally fucked over by companies like Target who let assholes jump the line with the clear intent to sell Captain Phasma online for eight times the price an hour later. The struggle against these dastardly servants of the Empire continues.
I stop by a comic book store to take the temperature of a few folks who are both die-hard Star Wars fans and presumably the ones who’d most like to participate in Force Friday, but were basically shut out: small business owners. While Diamond, which is handling most of the licensing items that will be available in comic-book stores, is touting the many items that will soon be available for purchase in your local shop, there wasn’t much outside of pre-orders to be made yet. Meaning, Force Friday was more or less a bust for the little guys who would love nothing more than to get their hands on some of that highly desirable product.
The guy behind the counter (at a store which shall remain nameless, for fear of him pissing off the very people who will soon be in charge of providing them with Star Wars stuff) seemed mostly noncommittal when I asked if it was frustrating not to reap the benefits of this day of gluttonous capitalism. “What are you going to do?” he says with a sigh. “We sold a little more stuff than usual—maybe there was some trickle down.” Let’s end this with a gentle request that Disney attend its target market, rather than its Target market.
Post-Postscript: Tuesday, 8:20 a.m.
I decide to stop into the same Target this morning, following the Labor Day weekend, to see if anything remains of the Star Wars feeding frenzy. You know how The Usual Suspects ends with Kevin Spacey saying the line, “And like that [flick of the fingers, puff of air]…he’s gone”? That’s what is happening at Target, which presumably means every other Target around the country is following suit. The shelves are stripped bare, the displays pulled down, as if this never happened. Not even the destruction of Alderaan was this total. Only a few kids’ costumes—in the process of being taken down—give any indication that Force Friday was ever a thing.
After the botched midnight release, I’d like to think Target is just frantically trying to pretend it never even participated, that it’s doing the equivalent of walking away whistling with a shoplifted box of candy stuffed in its pocket. Unfortunately, I suspect this is only temporary—the Empire will rise again.