First of all, lest anyone accuse me of untempered insensitivity after reading this article, let me state plainly that the events surrounding Chris Benoit's death were undeniably tragic. During my freshman and sophomore years of college, I really got into professional wrestling. Benoit was one of my favorite acts to watch -- in fact, I started watching right around the time he and the Radicalz entered the WWF -- and I have no doubt that one of the reasons that I stopped watching was because a neck injury took Benoit out of the ring for a while. Chris Benoit was a fantastic wrestler who imbued me with a certain respect and appreciation for the profession, and the reality that this gifted performer at the height of his career not only ended his life under such horrific circumstances, but also took his wife and seven-year-old son with him... well, it's difficult to accept.
On the other hand, one has to admit that there's something ironic -- and kinda funny -- about the notion of a guy who played a brutal psychopath on TV going apeshit and murdering his family in real life. I'm not sure how Benoit's ring persona changed in recent years, but back when I watched WWF he was portrayed as a cold, emotionless dude who only smiled when he was causing people excruciating pain and/or knocking them unconscious. His nicknames included "the Rabid Wolverine" and "the Canadian Crippler" -- the latter because he allegedly made a name for himself by giving his in-ring opponents debilitating, lifelong injuries. One of Benoit's signature moves involved him coming up behind his opponents, grabbing them around the waist, and dropping them onto their heads multiple times; another saw him catching his opponents in a modified armbar and pulling on their faces until they tapped or passed out in agony. So while my initial reaction to the news was one of shock, this response soon gave way to hearty bouts of chuckling.
This chuckling continued as I made the rounds of local toy stores and was surprised to see Chris Benoit action figures still sitting on the shelves. With the news of the tragedy, I had expected them to be pulled immediately lest livid parents protest the sale of plastic representations of contemporary murderers (I still remember the harsh words I received from a customer for selling Freddy versus Jason 2-packs back when I worked at KB Toys). But for whatever reason, weeks after the details of the tragedy were revealed, Benoit figures remained available to anyone who wanted to lift them from their pegs and carry them to the checkout counter. And when I discovered multiple Face Flippin' Fighters Chris Benoit action figures on an endcap at Value City, I giggled so giddily that I couldn't help but leave the store with two of them in my possession.
A closer look at the figure should immediately reveal why I found it to be so hilarious. The main draw of Face Flippin' Fighters is that they can "flip" between two different faces -- one smiling promotional photo-type face; another more suited to in-ring action. As far as I saw, each of the fighters has his own character-specific second face. The late Eddie Guerrero, for example, goes from cocky Latino Heat to victimized punching bag, which I suppose is fitting considering that Guerrero's one-time fictional fling Chyna and real-life widow look like some brutal chicas who'd be likely to pummel a man for not commenting on their painted toenails. Yet by squeezing Chris Benoit's legs, one can instantly transform him from a happy, content gentleman to a crazed, violent maniac... and yeah, you can already totally see where I'm going with this. But before we get there, let's talk a little more about the figure's other merits and attributes.
Face Flippin' Fighters came out in 2005, so they're not exactly new -- which, given my unfamiliarity with them, goes to show you that I haven't paid attention to wrestling toys in a fairly long time. I was much more knowledgeable about the releases during the summer that I worked at KB Toys (and during which I was a devoted WWF viewer), however, and one thing that always bugged me about the figures was how little they resembled the real-life superstars. Even when waves began to boast some special face-scanning technology that allowed them to manufacture molds based on data taken from profile scans of the actual wrestlers, complete with a little wire mesh graphic to illustrate the process, the only thing about the 5" Rock that identified him as Dwayne Johnson was a raised eyebrow and the trademark tattoos. Granted, Jakks Pacific did much better with the caricature-esque depictions of the wrestlers -- I have a set of WWF Jakk'd Up display figures with oversized heads that are more recognizable as Stone Cold Steve Austin and company -- but by and large I was disappointed with the wrestling toy offerings back in the day.
But that was in 2000, and in the five-year interim there were apparently some improvements at the Jakks HQ. The sculpting isn't as accurate or detailed as a McFarlane offering, as the hair seems a bit too smooth and the figure lacks the stubble, but it looks enough like the late wrestler to call it a Chris Benoit figure without needing to toss a handful of salt over your shoulder. You can even see his missing tooth in his open, smiling mouth, which is a nice touch and helps to make him even more identifiable. As far as articulation goes, Benoit has eight points: rotating hinge joints at the shoulders (that's two; one per arm), rotating hinge joints at the elbows (again, two), rotating joints at the hips (he has two legs, so two), and hinged knees (two-hoo). This does offer him some impressive arm poseability, as the shoulder joints allow him a wide range of motion, but the elbow joints temper this by being restricted by his bulging biceps and unable to bend very far. The leg articulation is less useful -- at least for standing poses -- as the lack of ankle joints on this top-heavy figure means that Benoit can only maintain his footing with both feet planted firmly on the floor in a static, straight-legged position. However, if you use his arms to help balance him, you can create some pretty effective ground poses, which work well enough considering the nature of Benoit's profession and his technical prowess on the mat. He also seems unusually glossy due to the plastic used in his construction. It works for him, though, considering that wrestlers are always sweating and glistening and whatnot. And at 8" tall, he towers above most standard-sized action figures and is signicantly smaller than the majority of the larger ones -- meaning that most crossover matches involving him are likely to look pretty one-sided.
That said, you don't drop $7.99 on a Face Flippin' Chris Benoit action figure to display him in evenly-matched bouts with combatants from across the multiverse (though the idea of him entering the Battle Nexus in a stable with Drako and the Ultimate Ninja is admittedly cool) -- you get him because he perfectly captures what will unfortunately be the defining event in a certain wrestling superstar's history. In a way, the figure is oddly prophetic. It features multiple conflicting warning labels, including one stating that the toy is a choking hazard (Benoit allegedly strangled his wife and suffocated his son) and is not for children under three years old and another noting that the toy has been "Safety Tested for Ages 8 and Up" (at seven years old, Benoit's son just missed the cutoff). But more than that, the toy plainly depicts the two faces for which Benoit would forever be remembered two years before he committed the deed that would solidify his fractured legacy in the hearts and minds of fans everywhere. With Face Flippin' Chris Benoit in hand, you can remember the good times... and then, with a squeeze of his legs, you can look upon the snarling face of a killer of helpless women and children. Once you get past the tragic elements of the event and start giggling about the irony of the Canadian Crippler offing his family, you can even reenact the grisly events of the final days of Benoit's life! The only way the figure could be better for this purpose is if it had a third head with an expression of suicidal guilt and grief.
But despite the great (if tasteless) fun that the figure promises, Face Flippin' Chris Benoit can also provide fans with the opportunity to create hopeful alternate scenarios. Just as the deceased James and Grace were able to forgive each other and find peace at last by possessing Buffy and Angel in "I Only Have Eyes for You", one could easily squeeze Chris Benoit's legs again -- before he murders his family -- and have him resume his home life without contributing three corpses to the buffet of the worms. Despite being over a head shorter than his fearsome opponent, the Rabid Wolverine could have fought a fierce battle and wrested the ECW World Championship from the villainous Victor Creed. Benoit's relationship with his family was undoubtedly in need of some repair, but perhaps he could have received counseling from a diminutive Professor Xavier or Jean Grey. In the fantasy world of action figures, things could have turned out differently.
And in this respect, perhaps the most interesting thing about the figure is not the toy itself, but the small paper insert that comes packaged with it. Unlike most action figure instruction sheets, this one does not fold out to reveal more detailed instructions for using the toy or an advertisement for other figures from the same line. Instead, it features a small note glued so firmly to the interior plastic that the manufacturers clearly expected it to be ignored and thrown away with the crushed bubble and twisty ties. With only a simple, line image of the toy being caressed by a curiously feminine finger, this paper arguably inspires images of absolution and forgiveness as it informs owners that, in the event that the figure's head jams, they should simply move it back to its original position and start again. If only real life were like that, eh? But perhaps -- somehow -- it is.