Kenner’s relaunch of STAR WARS figures was a great success in ’95 and ’96, but this was only the beginning.
In 1997, the saga’s 20-year mark, Kenner cranked up production, and we’re going to take a look, month by month. I’m getting the release dates from Stephen Sansweet’s STAR WARS: THE ACTION FIGURE ARCHIVE and will be posting images from this book for any ’97 figure I don’t have in my collection.
Today’s focus is on 3.75-inch figures, so I won’t be including 12-inch figures, the playsets and vehicles that didn’t include figures, and other merch.
As January began, Kenner changed the figure packaging art from Vader’s red lightsaber to Luke’s green. The last wave from ’96, that had only been out for a month or so, was the first to be changed. (Greedo, Hammerhead, Tusken Raider, Jawas, Stormtrooper Luke, R5D4, Sandtrooper, and Death Star Gunner)
Once updated to the green backer cards, figures were available in two options – with the normal character picture, or with a foil sticker over the picture. I usually bought the ones with the sticker.
Here’s a picture I took at Toys R Us as the green packaging first began coming in.
Throughout the year, many of the ’95 and ’96 figures had their packaging updated to the green backer-cards. Here’s some side-by-side comparisons:
Now, let’s get started with the new figures of ’97.
There was a Frito-Lay mail-away Spirit of Obi-Wan that came out in January. It is somewhat transparent and looks pretty cool when it’s backlit, appearing to glow.
Two “deluxe” figures were also released that month. The Rocketpack Boba Fett was similar to the three deluxe figures from the previous year in that it was just a slightly modified figure that came with a Kenner-invented contraption. If you already had the basic Boba figure, this wasn’t anything to be too excited about.
However, the other new deluxe figure was an absolute must-have. The first Probe Droid to come out since 1981, with an all-new sculpt that “explodes” at the touch of a lever.
On January 31, STAR WARS Special Edition hit theaters, commemorating the 20-year anniversary. It was a massive success and Kenner had plans to meet the hype.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK Special Edition came out February 21.
Kenner released five basic figures that month, four of which coordinated with EMPIRE’s release.
An Endor Luke also dropped that month, coming with a Speeder Bike.
This was also when the first “Electronic Power F/X” figures were introduced – a Vader, Kenobi, and R2D2. They were similar to the basic figures but had light-up and sound effect features added, as well as background displays.
RETURN OF THE JEDI Special Edition hit on March 14. It was a quiet month for Kenner with the only 3.75-inch release being “Luke Skywalker Jedi Knight Theater Edition.” Not available in stores, it was randomly handed out to those seeing JEDI at various theaters. The figure itself, is the same as the ’96 Jedi Luke, so I don’t count it as a ’97 figure, but the “theater edition” packaging is a cool variant.
The bottom of the backer card states JEDI’s opening day as March 7, which had been the planned date. But the success of special editions STAR WARS and EMPIRE was greater than expected, so JEDI was pushed back a week for some box office breathing room.
In April we got a four-figure wave – all RETURN OF THE JEDI. This was probably meant to coordinate with JEDI’s theater release, and they came a bit late.
In May, the Cantina Band figure shipped. It was a STAR WARS INSIDER magazine mail order exclusive and was named Figrin D’an. It was the first 3.75-inch SW figure to have articulated elbows and wrists, making it possible to hold the various instruments. A figure came with five different instruments, so if you bought a bunch, like I did, you ended up with a lot of extras.
May 25 was the day STAR WARS turned twenty. The Cantina band member was a fun figure to be released during this anniversary month.
In June we got the first “movie scene” 3-pack. There was already a basic Stormtrooper Luke and Chewie figure that were similar, but a main selling point for the set was Stormtrooper Han which was never made during the original Kenner run, and never available in a store during the ’90s run until now. (A Stormtrooper Han had been a mail away exclusive in ’95, but many missed out on it.)
The other main selling point was that the clear box, poised figures, and background picture made for a great display piece, even for those who left it unopened.
June also saw the release of a new A-Wing Pilot that came with an A-Wing. This was the first time a SW figure came with such a large vehicle. Before this, figures came with smaller items like speeder bikes or rocket packs. Today, it’s common for a SW vehicle to include a figure, and for other lines, such as G.I. Joe, it was the norm all along. But for Star Wars, back then, this was a first.
On a side note, Episode One began filming on June 26 which gave the SW hype machine yet another shot in the arm.
This brings us to July, an explosive month with a wave of 14 new figures. (9 basic, 2 deluxe, 2 electronic power f/x, and a speeder bike Leia.)
But it’s not just volume that made July extra amazing. As a kid during the original Kenner run of the ’70s and ’80s, there were several figures I desperately wanted that were never made, and here, three of those FINALLY came. Tarkin, Garindan (as a kid, we called him “Elephant Spy” or “Babar” haha), and the Rebel Fleet Trooper.
Let’s check out the basic figures first:
For the new Electronic Power F/X figures, we get Jedi Luke and the Emperor. This is the first Emperor figure to come with Force lightning.
One of the Deluxe figures was another Hoth Rebel Soldier that’s quite different from the bearded Hoth soldier released earlier. It came with that Hoth radar-looking laser. The other was a Snow Trooper that came with an E-Web cannon.
To top it off, here’s Endor Leia that came with a Speeder Bike.
Here’s a picture I took of the three ’90s speeder bike figure packs, shortly after adding Leia to the collection.
Whew! What a month!
In August there were no basic figures released, but three figure/creature combo sets dropped that were all based on updates made in the Special Edition.
The Sand Trooper with Dewback is my favorite of the three. I put the vintage Dewback in the picture for a comparison. I’m not throwing shade on the original in any way – I love it – but I have to admit the ’97 Dewback (with articulated jaw!) was an outstanding update.
Here’s a picture I took shortly after buying it:
And here’s another picture I took, though I no longer have that Ronto.
By the end of summer, there had already been more SW figures released in ’97 than any other year, but Kenner would continue to strike while the iron was hot, putting out more product for the upcoming holiday season.
In September we got eleven new figures.
The second “movie scene 3-pack.” Kenobi and Ponda Baba were variations on the basic carded figures, but the first ever release of Dr. Evazan made this set a must-have.
An AT-AT Commander and Driver that came with an AT-AT. (Following in the footsteps of the A-wing with having figures included.)
A Wedge that came with a Falcon-shaped carry case. (I remember wanting the figure, but not bad enough to buy the case – haha)
Finishing off September, the mail-away figure B’omarr Monk (the robot spider from Jabba’s Palace) began shipping.
Another amazing month with Prisoner Leia, Dr. Evazan, Wedge, and B’omarr Monk receiving action figure status for the first time.
October saw the release of a five-figure wave. They were all RETURN OF THE JEDI and all these characters had been made previously, during the original ’80s line, however the new Yak Face was significant because the original ’85 one is very rare, having never been released in the US. So for many, this was the first reasonable chance to add the character to their collection.
In November, Kenner released their final 3.75 of the year – a never made before “Luke in Ceremonial Outfit” with removable gold medal.
A fitting one to end ’97 with, as STAR WARS won back the gold medal from E.T. thanks to the Special Edition release, once again becoming the highest grossing film in history.
(TITANIC would snatch the title away the following year, though, and the current inflation-adjusted box office champ is GONE WITH THE WIND with STAR WARS in second place.)
Anyway, 1997 is one for the books with 55 new 3.75-inch figures released, 11 of them being characters or outfits that had never been made before. To put that in perspective, 55 is more than half of the original run from ’78 to ’85. 1995 produced 13 new figures and 1996 gave us 29.
Let’s finish with a few set-ups, featuring some of these ’97 gems:
Thank you for reading!