When it comes to designing the highly coveted collectible toys for sale at Comic-Con, the annual celebration of pop culture lifting off Thursday in San Diego, the sky's the limit for the designers at Mattel. Fittingly, the building where Mattel's dreamers conceive of their limited-edition playthings is just down the street from the Los Angeles International Airport.
Inside the colorful design center -- a Hot Wheels-themed shuttle bus transports employees from Mattel's parking garage -- the designers have spent the past year working on 10 toys created especially for the Comic-Con crowd, including a replica of the Batmobile from the game "Batman: Arkham Knight" and a 9-inch-tall action figure of Superman killer Doomsday.
"It's one of the coolest things we do," said Doug Wadleigh, Mattel's senior vice president of global brand marketing for boys and entertainment. "We don't have to worry about retail. We don't have to worry about margins. We don't have to worry about operational efficiencies. We only have to worry about creating the coolest toys for our fans. Period."
Because the toys aren't intended to be sold in stores, only in small quantities on the Comic-Con show floor and on Mattel's collectors' site, Mattel designers are encouraged to employ premium materials and create over-the-top packaging. Mattel's exclusives this year run between $20 and $85, but the elite toys can fetch much more when they're put up for auction.
The crown jewel for Wadleigh and his team this year is a Darth Vader die-cast car, the first official collaboration from Hot Wheels and the "Star Wars" franchise. The car -- imagine if a Chevrolet Corvette C5 and the villainous Sith lord's helmet had a baby -- comes in a sleek black box and encased in a replica of Vader's lightsaber, complete with a swooshing sound effect.
"We've been trying to partner with Lucasfilm and Disney on this property for a long time," said Wadleigh. "It took us time to get them to understand how Hot Wheels and `Star Wars' could be married together to create a unique opportunity within the vehicle space. It blows me away to finally see it come to life in such a beautiful form. It's gorgeous.
Wadleigh isn't exaggerating about the toy car coming to life. A full-size working replica of the Vadermobile will be on display at Mattel's booth at the massive San Diego Convention Center. The vehicle is capable of going up to 80 miles per hour, and the dashboard inside will resemble the interior of Darth Vader's helmet. Yes, it will emit his breathing sounds, too.
Comic-Con will be the first place that fans can see the initial line-up of "Star Wars" Hot Wheels. The first set is modeled after such classic characters as Han Solo, Yoda, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. If sketches on display inside the Mattel design center are any indication, rides based on Princess Leia, Jabba the Hutt and the new "Star Wars Rebels" characters are being tinkered on.
"There's a lot of thought that goes on behind the scenes on how we select what type of car goes with which character," said Bryan Benedict, the designer behind the "Star Wars" autos. "It's not just about what the character looks like but who the character is and their personality traits. The Darth car, and this is reflected in the full-size build, is really a timeless looking car."
Several other toy makers and publishers are also pushing collectible toys and books at the convention. The line-up from Mattel rival Hasbro this year includes a set of Marvel superhero figures that comes with a wearable foam Infinity Gauntlet, a box of Transformers figures depicting the `bots as rock stars and a giant foam replica axe from "Magic: The Gathering."