While there’s a hundred different streaming services out there at this point, as far as I’m concerned you’re the greatest one out there. You’ve completely reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise, with not one, not two but five successful series. You’ve also supported talented creators to develop a number of massively popular original series, including the juggernaut Yellowstone, which as of now includes three different series and mini-series and at least two more to come.
In the feature realm over the last 15 years you’ve also taken what seemed like an enormously goofy Hasbro toy concept from the '80s, robots that for some unfathomable reason decide what they really want is to turn into cars, and transformed it (see what I did there) into it one of the most successful film franchises of all time.
It’s with all of this in mind that I want to point your attention to another Hasbro toy property that you own the rights to which is absolutely ready for a film or TV franchise right this second: the Micronauts.
A Whole Other Kind of Far, Far Away
For those reading this who were not lucky enough to be around in the early '70s, the Micronauts were a toy brand from the American company Mego drawn from a Japanese toy line —the same one which created the Transformers, in fact. The line had a brightly-colored cool scifi vibe and included time travelers, masked warriors, translucent robots and a guy who came with his own Egyptian sarcophagus which was also a 'time chamber.'
What did that mean, exactly? Well, it was up to the children who bought the toys to decide. That was part of the sales pitch of the series, in fact: unlike most action figures, the Micronauts came with no mythology attached to them. A couple characters were identified as villains, but other than that you could create whatever stories you wanted.
They proved to be massively popular. In its first year selling Micronauts, one third of Mego’s $110 million in sales came from the toys. And each year that followed Mego released another line, along with new vehicles and environments for kids to build and play with.
Watching his son playing with the figures one Christmas, Marvel comics writer Bill Mantlo was so taken with them he pushed Marvel to get the license to write stories about the Micronauts. And with that license in hand he and artist Michael Golden delivered a Star Wars-inspired epic about a universe existing at what we might today call the quantum level in which the ebony-armored scientist Baron Karza, who offered humanity immortality in exchange for their servitude, had seized control of the entire universe, while a small group of rebels led by a princess, her adorable robot Microtron and a variety of others fought to liberate the galaxy from his grasp.
Mantlo wove in a number of new characters of his own, including both the princess and Bug, a human-sized grasshopper-type warrior who was great at fighting and kind of the soul of the team. And that series, too, would prove to be massively popular, at times outselling both Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men and the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans run.
Eventually, as things always do, it all ended. Mego went bankrupt (in part because Star Wars figures completely took over the market). Marvel also didn’t renew its license to the property, which meant that when Mego sold the property to other toy manufacturers, Marvel was no longer able to tell stories about the original Micronauts characters. Image, Devil’s Due, and IDW have all created Micronauts comic book series since, with their own original takes on the toys and their microscopic universe.
The Micronauts' time is now
The film is very clearly drawing on Micronauts elements; there’s a tyrant, a rebellion and cool quantum characters. And it’s been a massive success, earning over $120 million domestically in just its opening weekend, almost double what the last Ant-Man film earned.
Among critics, who have had mixed reviews of the film, one of the most persistent complaints is that it’s so weighed down by the bigger MCU story that it wants to tell that it never really explores the reality of the Quantum Realm. The trailers are filled with spectacular, weird landscapes and unusual creatures, but the film is all about a bad guy’s pursuit of yet another MCU magic doohickey which is itself the beginning of a larger MCU story.
And for me, what’s notable about that complaint is the desire it expresses for a story about a strange quantum realm. Rather than dismissing about the whole idea of a microscopic universe of heroes and villains, critics have been frustrated that they were offered that possibility and then Marvel didn’t actually follow through on it. In other words, give us more.
And when you think about it, that hunger actually makes a lot of sense. For decades now, we’ve heard stories about microscopic particles that have strange qualities that don’t fit our own experience of physics, like the ability to stay connected over the length of the entire universe, or the quality of somehow existing and not-existing at the same time. It’s a layer of reality so totally weird it already feels like it’s from a movie. And yet up until now no one has attempted to explore it in story.
Paramount, you have the technology
Hasbro eventually acquired the exclusive rights to create Micronaut figures (including Pharoid, above). And in 2009 they announced that J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions was in negotiations to make a movie about the Micronauts. In 2013, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (aka the Deadpool film writers) said they were doing a script for Bad Robot.
As often happens, that script didn't get made. But since then, Paramount, you have repeatedly talked about how you’re developing the property. In fact at the end of 2015 you announced you were launching an entire shared universe that contained the Micronauts, G.I. Joe, Rom the Space Knight (another toy and character that is just waiting for its moment), and a couple other toy/storylines.
For Micronauts you even put together a writers’ room with some of the most talented storytellers around— Michael Chabon, Brian K. Vaughn, Nicole Perlman, Cheo Choker, Joe Robert Cole, and others — with Akiva Goldsman running the room. In 2019 How to Train Your Dragon creator Dean DeBlois was attached as the writer/director. A release date was given for October 2020, then June, 2021.
Two years later there's still nothing. And maybe that’s not a surprise. There are some definite challenges with the Micronauts. First, Marvel has already told a great story with them, a space opera that involved revolution, time travel and a scale of sacrifice that honestly puts blowing up Alderaan to shame. And almost certainly you don’t have the rights to use any of that.
Then there’s the whole question of the relationship between the microscopic universe and our own. Marvel actively had the characters and their enemies zipping back and forth between their realm and ours, which was great from a 'selling toys' point of view but did not really work as story. It’s very hard to take seriously a bunch of characters that literally look like kids’ action figures.
Mego for its own part had literally written the problem into the idea of the toy line, saying the characters disguised themselves as action figures when they came to Earth.
But there are some pretty easy workarounds, too, like allowing the characters from 'Micro World,' as Mego called it, to grow to full size when they travel into our universe, and making their quantum realm technology cool enough that it interacts with our own universe in interesting ways. (Like, if quantum entanglement means that things at long distances can be intimately connected to each other, does that create a kind of teleportation technology that would be fun to see, or even involves human characters and Micronauts unexpectedly swapping places?)
Or, you could just ignore the relationship between that universe and ours altogether. Star Wars begins a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away but you never seen anyone at Lucasfilm trying to establish a connection to Earth. It’s not that kind of story, and Micronauts doesn’t need to be, either.
The bottom line is, the Micronauts are today, as they were in the '70s, an entire line of cool-looking characters living in a spectacularly weird universe, and also an almost total blank slate when it comes to storytelling. Space opera, scifi historical epic, Egyptian time travel adventure—you can make of them whatever you wish.
The Micronauts were the next big thing fifty years ago (no pun intended). And given the opportunity, they can be even bigger today.
Read our review of Ant-Man 3.