It was all going to hell for me inside a haunted house. I was five or six and had begged my dad for a solid year to take me to the abandoned schoolhouse that turned into a Halloween fun-fest every October.
Inside that musty, fog machine-filled pit of horror, I clung to my dad’s leg, wishing that I had never suggested to come here in the first place. “Why did I even want to do this?” I thought. “I’m not brave. I’m a little kid and these are legit monsters who want nothing more than to murder the crap out of me.”
Then, as the fear took over, making my legs stiff with terror, I reached up and touched my head. I felt the red snapback, wet with sweat. I felt the large yellow M on the front of it. I felt Mighty Max’s cap.
A jolt of bravery surged through me as I recalled his adventures. How he fought the vicious Skullmaster and all of his minions without fear. I, too, shouldn’t be afraid.
In that moment, that silly hat gave me the courage to keep moving. I didn’t move well, but I did move. After all, I had the hat.
Thinking back through rose-colored glasses about this stage of my life, Mighty Max was really the first time I experienced a fantasy story. The first time I lost myself in something imaginative. But where are these stories today? Why are children’s TV shows so much weirder and funnier — having gags every 10 seconds to keep kids entertained — but much less focus on actual narrative? Why are there no more serialized children’s stories, especially now that kids can watch them at any hour of day?
To answer this, let’s explore the rise and fall of Mighty Max, one of the last true fantasy-filled children’s programs, and one that — obviously — holds a place in my heart. I’m not saying that I have all of the toys, but I’m not denying it, either.
Mighty Max, the Boy, the Myth, the Prophesied
First, a brief synopsis:
For those who don’t know, Mighty Max was a preteen boy with an attitude problem who lived a normal 90s life in the suburbs. You know, skateboards, backwards hats, etc. One day after school, Max comes home to find a weird package waiting for him. Inside, he finds a fowl-shaped relic that says, in some form of hieroglyphic text, that he is the chosen one — the “cap-bearer” — and he must quickly go to the mini-mart down the street.
Max ends up dropping the statue, shattering it, which reveals a red cap with a large yellow M on the front of it. The same hat I wore in that haunted house. He puts it on and heads to the mini-mart where he ends up fighting a lava monster. Yes, a lava monster right in the local 7–11.
A battle ensues and Max ends up getting teleported to a far off desert where he meets Virgil, a wise fowl whose race — the Lemurians — were defeated thousands of years ago by Skullmaster, the show’s villain. Alongside Virgil, he also meets Norman, a Viking warrior who serves as Max’s protector.
Virgil explains that Max’s rise to become the cap-bearer was prophesied nearly 5,000 years ago by the Lemurians. It is now his sacred duty to protect the world from the vicious Skullmaster alongside Norman and Virgil, who will aid him as much as they can.
The subsequent episodes — there were 41 of them in total — followed Mighty Max’s quest to defeat Skullmaster. Along the way, countless foes are slaughtered, histories revealed, and — at the end of each episode — Max came on the screen to share what locations the crew went to, adding a bit of an educational angle to a show that was primarily about defeating monsters.
A Brief History of Mighty Max, the Brand
Mighty Max wasn’t just a success because it had an interesting and compelling narrative, though that definitely helped. What made it truly a hit was the toyline it was built upon.
Back in the 80s and 90s, toys were responsible for many of the cartoons we have all come to love. Transformers, He-Man, She-Ra, and many others existed solely to sell toys to children.
One of the companies operating in this space back in the early-90s was Bluebird Toys, a manufacturer from the UK who is best-known for Polly Pocket. But there was a problem: Polly Pocket wasn’t interesting to young boys. To succeed, and to compete with other toy companies, Bluebird needed to hit the other half of the market.
So, in 1992, they came up with Mighty Max, a toy that operated similarly to Polly Pocket where miniatures were sold with a small container that acted as a playset. These “containers” were basically small, foldable adventures that kids could take with them anywhere they wanted. Here’s what they looked like:
Anyway, to sell these toys and hit their target demographic, they created the Mighty Max TV show, which aired on Saturdays back when Saturday morning cartoons were still hot.
The coolest thing about this marketing ploy was that each episode — or, at least the climatic ones — could become miniature toys, allowing kids to reenact the adventure while waiting for a new show to come on. Remember, this was long before On-Demand or other VOD services allowed kids to watch their favorite shows at any hour of the day, so kids wanted to interact with toys a lot more than they do today.
Like any successful franchise, Bluebird quickly added other Mighty Max products, such as video games, VHS releases, comic books, a McDonald’s tie-in, and — as you probably guessed — Mighty Max’s awesome red hat.
The Fall of a Hero
While it seems like Mighty Max had everything going for him, and he did for awhile, the show’s cancellation was seemingly inevitable from the start because of its use of violence in just about every episode.
This is a truly weird tale given the current state of TV. Since Mighty Max’s initial airing, critics, parents, and other groups were offended by the amount of death and destruction in the show.
Though it ran for two seasons, spanning 41 episodes, the writers were supposedly growing more and more tired of fighting the network and the network was growing more and more tired of fighting the writers. It’s unclear exactly what led to the show’s cancellation outright, though it’s safe to say that it was likely a mixture of all of these tensions and pressures.
When it did eventually fail, though, it failed hard. Mighty Max went from a household name to nothing seemingly overnight. Even now, a large swath of kids who grew up in the 90s have no recollection of Mighty Max despite all of the success.
Why is that? Why does everyone have a thriving memory of Carmen Sandiego, He-Man, and other adventure shows? The answer is likely a combination of things, but the easiest thing to pin down is the fact that Mighty Max has had no consistent buzz since the show’s cancellation.
Power Rangers has never stopped producing new content. The Transformers film series has brought that entire franchise back from the grave. He-Man had a reboot a few years ago (not a very successful one, though) and is now at least on Netflix. Carmen Sandiego has a reboot in the works.
For some reason, Mighty Max is now lost, and that’s a shame because it offered me — and I’m sure many other people based on how well the toy merch sells on eBay — their first glimpse into fantasy, a genre that I have loved my whole life.
It’s Time For Mighty Max to Return
If you take a quick survey of what the kids are watching nowadays, things have changed quite a bit from the 80s and 90s. Shows are now typically self-contained, fast-paced comedies with quick, oftentimes ridiculous jokes.
That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a different thing. In the Mighty Max-era, when fantasy shows were way more popular, they had worldbuilding, a narrative arc that spanned longer than 12 minutes at a clip, and used harder to produce animation styles that networks today would reject outright.
But fantasy and storytelling is important. Escaping into a world where kids can be brave heroes is a good thing that has sadly vanished. Adventure Time is the closest thing that many kids have to a fantasy-thrill ride today, especially since Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, which had a rocky last season that saw the show move from TV to streaming, have ended. Gravity Falls was also super close, but was also short-lived.
Proper fantasy storytelling needs longer arcs to build, arcs that Mighty Max had. The sad truth of the matter is that these types of stories are hard sells in today’s world where cartoons are typically short and zany to the point of insanity. Whether or not that is because shows are now focused on selling other things instead of merch based off of the show, is a good question.
However, in today’s world of streaming services, a Mighty Max reboot seems perfect. Adults that loved it in the 90s would watch it and kids would watch, too.
In a nutshell, I want today’s children to have the same experience I did: a hero to look up to, a world to escape to, a place that could influence how feel in real life, giving them bravery when they need it the most despite the fact that it was fiction.
Back to October, 1990-something: After enduring what felt like an eternity of ghouls, ghosts, and goblins, I was beat. My shirt was ruined with sweat. My dad’s hand was probably numb from all of the squeezing I was doing to it. He was, in that moment, my Virgil and Norman mixed into one.
We came to the exit, a series of steps separated me from the outside world, a world that where goblins and other monsters ceased to exist. I could feel the October air streaming onto my wet clothes, my damp skin from all of the sweat, and — strangely — a cool breeze on the top of my head.
My hat! It was gone. Somewhere in horror I lost it.
I never saw it again.
Just like Mighty Max himself, my hat was lost and forgotten. Now, all that remains are nostalgia-filled memories.
I want my hat back.