On Masters of the Universe

Featuring Robert Duncan McNeill (Star Trek: Voyager), Frank Langella (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Meg Foster (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess), and Courteney Cox (Scream film series), Masters of the Universe is a terrible cheesy movie, though it tries to be something. It’s an 80s movie. According to the Digital Spy article, “In Defence Of… Masters of the Universe, Dolph Lundgren’s fantasy flop“:

When Masters of the Universe was pitched to financiers by infamously grandstanding Cannon Films execs Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, it was described as “the Star Wars of the ’80s”.

Though they seemed to have forgotten we already had two pretty good Star Wars films in the 1980s, you can’t really blame Golan and Globus for trying, a decade into their run at Cannon, they needed a big hit to rescue the company from financial ruin. They put everything they had into Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and when both flopped, it spelled the beginning of the end for Cannon Films.

Still, they sort of delivered on that Star Wars promise. With its laser guns and Earth-set plot, Masters of the Universe certainly bears little resemblance to the popular cartoon series it shares part of a title with (Filmation’s iconic He-Man and the Masters of the Universe). But it’s not set in space, either, so it ends up being a sort of hybrid sci-fantasy featuring character names you recognise in forms you don’t. It’s small wonder the film earned a rep as a turkey — beloved of ’80s kids but scorned by critics, it’s a high camp oddity that we should celebrate on its own terms.

Opening in battle-scarred Eternia, it’s fitting they dropped the ‘He-Man’ part of the title. As played by Swedish giant Dolph Lundgren, the sword-wielding hero’s admittedly something of a non-entity. Unlike more contemporary cinematic heroes, Masters isn’t particularly interested in what makes He-Man tick. Blame part of that on Lundgren’s inability to convince as a human being, but David Odell’s script doesn’t exactly throw him a bone. He-Man remains a live-action cartoon character, motivated by little more than a sense of justice and a deep hatred of Skeletor (Frank Langella).

As He-Man and his comrades escape to 1980s Earth, where they plot to head back to Eternia and pry Castle Greyskull from Skeletor’s bony grasp, the hero barely seems to register the change in environment. He’s such a lug that even his comrades mock his cotton-headed heroism. “We’ll drop right into the throne room, fight off two or three thousand of Skeletor’s crack troops, break into the force field and free the Sorceress,” scoffs Man-At-Arms (Jon Cypher) at one point, to which He-Man enthusiastically replies “Right!” He’s a hero of the old mould, a pec-flashing Scrappy-Doo, which sort of makes him unintentionally adorable.

Fantasy films live or die by their villains, though, and it’s here Masters comes up trumps. Top of the baddie pile is Langella’s Skeletor, who’s gifted a great staff-slamming intro and goes on to hiss memorable one-liners like nobody’s business (he even steals a few from Richard III: “I am not in the giving vein this day”). Langella’s clearly having a ball.

“It’s one of my very favourite parts,” he said in 2012. “I couldn’t wait to play him.” And Langella is ably supported by Meg Foster’s creepy henchwoman Evil-Lyn, who’s catty as you like (“Outnumbered? Outclassed is more like it”), while the prosthetics department really went to town on Beastman and the lizard-like Saurod.

It’s even more impressive that the film was made for just $22m. That’s around $45m in today’s money, a sum that the likes of Iron Man (made for $140m) and Transformers ($150m) would scoff at. The limited budget did put restrictions on the film’s story, necessitating the dumping of certain stock characters (Battle Cat and Orko would have been impossibly expensive pre-CGI) as well as that plot jump to Earth in order to save on set-building costs.

But director Gary Goddard put the money where it counts, offering tantalising glimpses of Eternia and building the impressively vast throne room in Castle Greyskull, replete with towering statues and deathly hellpits. The costumes are fantastic, too, and still influencing current films (compare Lundgren’s leather get-up with Taylor Kitsch’s in John Carter).

And thanks to Goddard’s love of comic books, the film often feels like an old Jack Kirby story brought to life. In fact, Kirby’s Fourth World was a touchstone for Goddard, who tried to hire Kirby as the film’s production designer, only to be shot down by the studio (who also removed a dedication to Kirby from the film’s credits). Also on the comic book front, there are even parallels to be drawn between Masters and 2011’s Thor, which follows the same ‘fish out of water’ blueprint as a shirtless hunk crash-lands on Earth. (Though Thor boasts a far bigger budget and, alright, better acting, too.)

In fact, the rise of studios like Marvel, who are forging formidable genre fare, arguably makes Masters‘ campy vibe and cheesy heroes appear even more outdated than ever. We’re spoiled for choice, and even Dolph can’t decide if he loves or hates the film. “It was a fun movie, it was a kids’ movie,” he said in 2010. “There’s nothing wrong with it, that was 25 years ago.”

He’s right. Released at a time when grown-up fantasy flicks were the exception to the rule (for every Star Wars, we had dafties like Krull and Beastmaster), Masters of the Universe remains a gleefully daft romp that’s light years away from the gravitas of contemporary fantasy fare. It’s admirable how much it wears its camp on its sleeve, though. Masters knows it’s ridiculous (witness Gwildor’s chain lock), but it embraces its shortfalls and stands up as an incongruous sci-fi adventure with one heck of a memorable villain. Which isn’t half bad, even if it isn’t quite an ’80s Star Wars.

Additionally, according to the Den of Geek article, “The Masters of The Universe Movie and Its Wonderful Worldbuilding“:

Masters of the Universe, the 1987 movie that transferred what was at the time one of the most successful toy lines of all time to the big screen, wasn’t as well received as anybody hoped. The modestly budgeted He-Man movie underperformed at the box office, and response was so lukewarm that it’s credited as one of the factors that toppled the Masters of the Universe toyline from absolute mastery of the boy’s action figure market to mere afterthought in the space of a year.

Much has been made of the failures of the Masters of the Universe movie, and the disappointment inherent in the decision to set the vast majority of the film on Earth: two teenagers and a bumbling detective are the primary POV characters; there are obvious Star Wars echoes with Skeletor’s robotic not-stormtroopers and Gwildor’s cut-rate Yoda appearance; it’s located in an incongruous small town California setting complete with the seemingly obligatory 1950s imagery that kept popping up in ’80s flicks; the bonus presence of Marty McFly’s high school principal, James Tolkan. There’s a certain quaintness to how much of the film plays like a pastiche of family blockbuster conventions of the era.

But when you look purely at the fantasy and sci-fi elements, Masters of the Universe has aged remarkably well.

Unlike Cannon’s other 1987 flop, the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (which MoTU siphoned some of its budget off of), Masters of the Universe isn’t a complete creative failure. While the comparatively grounded setting means there’s a little less high-tech sword and sorcery action than He-Man devotees were expecting, first-time film director Gary Goddard made the most of the modest $17 million budget.

Bill Stout, who was the concept artist on Tobe Hooper’s underrated 1986 Invaders From Mars remake and (more recently) Guillermo del Toro’s lush and creepy Pan’s Labyrinth, had much to do with the movie managing to retain its sense of scope despite the fact that the vast majority of the action on Eternia takes place in one room. Initially reluctant to take on the job because of the concept’s toy aisle roots, Stout eventually relented and brought a sense of realism not usually associated with Masters of the Universe to the project.

“There had to be little doubt in the audience’s mind that these were real characters,” he told Starlog in 1987. Compared to the relatively spare designs of the cartoon and the cartoonish proportions of the toys, many of the movie’s character, set, and costume designs hold their own against some of the best genre films of the era.

The statues that line the Castle Greyskull throne room, an enormous set constructed across two soundstages, were intended, according to director Gary Goddard, to represent Eternia’s technology based religion, interesting when you consider that this is a world where magic exists, as well. “I didn’t want to tie the throne room into just a sword and sorcery thing,” Goddard said, “it’s the past and future all rolled into one.”

Frank Langella, unrecognizable under the Skeletor makeup designed by Michael Westmore, is the real star of the film. He delivers a surprisingly restrained performance considering the subject matter, even dropping in an ad-libbed line from Richard III as he dispatches one of his failed bounty hunters. Lundgren is, of course, physically perfect as He-Man, looking considerably larger (if that’s even possible) and more defined than he did as Ivan Drago in his breakthrough in Rocky IV. Although at this point in his career he wasn’t quite as good at hiding his accent as he was by 1989’s The Punisher.

Goddard wisely elected to shoot the majority of any earthbound scenes featuring He-Man and friends at night with the rationale that doing so would make them look a little less ridiculous in such mundane surroundings. He’s not wrong, although most fans would have preferred a He-Man movie that kept its focus on Eternia and the amazing visuals it would contain.

It wasn’t to be, though. Cannon had determined that Masters had to be brought in under budget, and Goddard and company had to scramble to shoot a suitable ending for the movie. Despite the presence of Man-at-Arms and Teela, fans of the cartoon, of course, noted the lack of many recognizable heroes and villains, but two in particular. He-Man’s magical steed Battle Cat is noticeably absent as is irritating floating magical imp, Orko. “Orko would have been hard to adapt and prohibitively expensive,” Goddard says on the Blu-ray commentary, and that probably went triple for Battle Cat. Instead we get the equally annoying Gwildor, a character impressive if only for burying 73-year-old Billy Barty under several pounds of rubber makeup.

First wave toy baddie Beast Man (Tony Carroll in some impressive prosthetics) makes the cut, although he doesn’t have any actual lines (this was a speaking role in an earlier draft, however) and Evil-Lyn is brought to life wonderfully by Meg Foster. The rest of Skeletor’s crew of baddies is made up by toy ready villains created specifically for the film. Karg, who Bill Stout described as “a little Hitler. A half-human, half-bat creature who has strange dental tools to do his dirty work,” Blade, a fairly self-explanatory cyborg swordsman, and Saurod, a hideous reptile/robot hybrid. At one point, we might have also been treated to Arachno, “a man with the eyes and poison mandibles of a giant spider,” and Mantoid “a cyborg robot with infrared-vision [and] long, telescoping limbs designed for seizing things.”

Stout was particularly proud of Saurod. “Pons Maar as Saurod was so incredible that we all regretted killing him off so early in the movie,” he said in Dark Horse’s excellent The Art of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe book. “I took great pains to design every single aspect of Saurod, even down to his contact lenses.”

While Cannon’s budgetary concerns certainly affected how much time we could spend on Eternia, a He-Man movie set entirely on an alien world was never really in the cards. An earlier draft of David Odell’s script dated December 1985, nearly two years before the film’s August 1987 release date, indicates that the fish out of water/Wizard of Oz elements were already firmly in place, and the movie’s entire middle section is virtually identical to what was ultimately filmed.

However, there are some noticeable differences. There’s more time spent on Eternia in Odell’s early draft, particularly during the film’s climax. While the movie transports the characters directly back to the Castle Greyskull throne room where the final battle almost immediately ensues, the script put them in the jungles of Eternia, where they then have to journey through the caverns under Greyskull, and even encounter some allies who would have helped flesh out the all-important movie tie-in merchandise.

The noble warriors who would have joined He-Man’s fight at the end all boast appropriately on-the-nose names and abilities. There was Blastar “who can fire powerful energy beams from his hands,” Mandroid “the left side of whose body is pure robot, with powerful weapons concealed in the robot half,” Nettor “who can fling thin gossamer nets stronger than heavy steel cable,” Mirroman “whose armor is covered with shiny mirror segments that can catch and reflect back the laser beams of his opponents,” and Wizaroid who is (you guessed it) “a powerful magician.” While Mattel was probably looking forward to these characters making an appearance so they could have exploited them for toy sales, obviously they would have pushed Cannon’s finances much further than they would have wanted.

What would have been the most important bit didn’t make the final cut (although it did make it into the Marvel Comics adaptation of the film) was the revelation that Eternia had first been colonized by astronauts from Earth’s future, including He-Man’s mother.

While the additional time on Eternia certainly would have been welcomed in the finished film, Skeletor’s spectacular transformation into his golden godlike form wasn’t in this draft, and the final throwdown with He-Man was a little more traditional. It’s a trade off, but audiences probably got the better end of this deal in the long run. As a quick aside, note that the purple banners in the Castle Greyskull throne room change from purple to gold after Skeletor has his psychedelic apotheosis.

While some of the early production art was done by sci-fi comics legend Moebius (who famously storyboarded the entirety of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune movie, the shadow of comics legend Jack Kirby looms large over Masters of the Universe. The toy line itself certainly took a lot of inspiration from Kirby’s cosmic comic book work (particularly The New Gods), and the movie looks more like a live-action Jack Kirby comic than most of the Marvel superhero movies of recent years that actually feature characters he created.

Gary Goddard was never shy about the Kirby connection. “The storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there,” Goddard told John Byrne in a letter to Byrne’s Next Men comic (via this handy Comic Book Resources article) in 1994. The director said he “desperately wanted” Jack Kirby to do the concept art for the Masters of the Universe movie, but Cannon wasn’t having it. Failing that, Goddard wanted to dedicate the movie to Kirby, but Cannon ultimately put the kibosh on that too.

The Kirby influence is there if you know where to look, though. Gwildor’s workshop, which is far more than just a hi-tech version of Yoda’s Dagobah hovel from Empire Strikes Back, is filled to the bursting with bizarre machinery that resembles stuff out of Kirby’s dreams. The time/space gateways that the Cosmic Key opens are as close as we’ll ever see to the Boom Tubes that Kirby’s New Gods use to traverse the cosmos. Skeletor’s ornate “god” armor after his metamorphosis during the film’s climax feels like something straight out of panels from Kirby’s later ’70s return to Marvel. The flying platforms that the Air Centurions zip around on (they were actually designed by essential Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie…his other designs didn’t make it into the film, sadly) are reminiscent of Orion’s preferred method of transport.

There are plenty of similarities if you want to look for them, whether they’re intentional or not. Perhaps someone should have given Goddard a chance to make a New Gods movie in the late 1980s.

While Masters of the Universe is no cinematic classic by any stretch of the imagination, there’s an attention to craft here sorely lacking in most other attempts to bring toy lines to the big screen. It will never be more than a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been were it under the guidance of a studio with a little more capital to invest, but thanks to some talented folks who refused to talk down to material even as potentially silly as He-Man, it’s still worth a look.

“We need pictures like this one,” Billy “Gwildor” Barty said during filming. “We’re bombarded with so much reality in our everyday lives that it has destroyed our urge to dream. Fantasies like Masters of the Universe spark imaginations and encourage people to dream again.”

Finally, according to the Agony Booth review:

Masters of the Universe landed in theaters with somewhat baffling timing in August of 1987, after the peak of the He-Man cartoon and toy phenomenon had passed. It was neither a critical success nor a financial one, fading from theaters into obscurity for a long while, before being somewhat rescued from that obscurity thanks to the internet.

The ease with which the internet allows cult entertainment and cult fandom to gain a voice has, I think, led to renewed interest in this movie, and it’s gained some further recent attention with podcast shows and review sites. A few repeated themes and points have emerged about it, ones that I’ll try to present my own take on without dwelling on them too much, since I think they’re fairly well-established.

It’s common, for example, to hear praise for Frank Langella’s performance as Skeletor, but also plenty of criticism for inconsistencies with the cartoon, and the decision to move most of the action to Earth rather than have it stay on Eternia. But overall, I think the movie deserves a reappraisal. Leaving aside the association with the cartoon and toy line, it’s a decent but not great sci-fi movie of the ‘80s.

It’s hard to escape the obvious thought while watching it that the movie is somewhat derivative. This is apparent from the opening music, a seeming blend of Superman and Star Wars. But that’s only the beginning for the Star Wars similarities, as one of the first scenes is of Darth Vader walking down a line of stormtroopers… er, I mean, Skeletor walking down a line of his storm—guards, his guards. We also get a scene of Skeletor reviewing a group of mercenaries, which is a lot like the scene in Empire Strikes Back with bounty hunters. And then there’s the repeated scenes of He-Man’s small group facing off against a much larger group of evil troopers, only to have the troopers repeatedly miss with their laser guns. Even the blend of sword and sorcery with sci-fi and ray guns, despite being found in other works, reminds the viewer of Star Wars.

The movie does suffer from a problem of scope. Due to budget and effects constraints, we see very little of Eternia, though I thought the Castle Grayskull scenes looked good for the most part. More problematic, though, is the totally unnoticed invasion by Skeletor’s forces of a small suburban town. It actually gets quite comical to see floating vehicles and marching troops go up and down deserted streets at night. I guess it’s supposed to be well past midnight or something, but it still seems strange.

Also, we never get more than the core group of good guys fighting Skeletor and his minions. The heroic resistance consists of six people, three of whom (Kevin, Gwildor, and Julie) aren’t really fighters. This is again an issue of scope and limitations of casting, but it makes it seem that this small group defeats Skeletor’s much larger force entirely on its own. Star Wars: A New Hope does that with the escape from the Death Star and rescue of Leia, but at least we see a lot more of the Rebel Alliance later, and that small group doesn’t take out the Death Star on their own. I guess that’s why they added Lubic going back to retake Grayskull, so he could single-handedly take out a bunch of troops.

Masters of the Universe is unexpectedly dark for a movie targeted toward young fans of He-Man. Skeletor’s look, as well as that of two of his henchmen, Saurod and Karg, could be considered on the scary side. Much of the opening itself that sets the stage for the events of the film is fairly dark, with Skeletor emerging triumphant, having temporarily conquered Grayskull. We find him gloating to a captured Sorceress and immediately see that this version of Skeletor will be much more serious, and will have a lot more depth than the periodically whining and buffoonish cartoon version.

As I wrote earlier, I won’t dwell too much on Langella’s terrific performance because it’s been covered effectively elsewhere, but I did want to note a few points. More than the malevolence conveyed, I found the subtler touches enjoyable: the dry, sarcastic delivery of lines like “well said, He-Man,” in response to a sentiment of nobility and self-sacrifice, and the “thank you for that bit of philosophy” line to the Sorceress. Langella shows he can do over the top ranting, low-key derision, as well as unexpected moments of uncertainty and vulnerability toward Evil-Lyn.

Other things of note included the Cosmic Key, which I thought was a good MacGuffin, as well as a pretty neat-looking prop. I’m only a little embarrassed to note that I did check into whether a replica was available for purchase. I also found the character of Charlie the music store owner (unintentionally) amusing, as he doesn’t particularly do anything important to the story, seems somewhat ineffectual in crisis situations in the movie, and he isn’t funny enough to be comic relief.

The part where Kevin yells “get out of here” and throws a dish towel at an attacking group of villains may be the most inadvertently funny bit in the movie. Did he really think that was going to work? Were they going to be intimidated by his whining, or threatened by the dish towel?

I thought it was a good decision to have Skeletor keep his word to the good guys after he captures He-Man on Earth, as it unexpectedly steers clear of a typical villain cliché. Rather than the usual “ha ha, your fault for trusting me, you fools” we’d get from a moustache-twirling character, it again demonstrates hidden depths and a surprising nobility to Skeletor.

While there were plans for a sequel to this movie, as a post-credits scene hinted at, that never came to pass. Masters of the Universe didn’t even make back its budget at the box office, and has come to be regarded as a somewhat silly failure. Taken on its own though, and separated from its association with the ‘80s cartoon, it’s a solid blend of ray-gun sci-fi and sword and sorcery fantasy.

The performances, with a few exceptions, range from decent to very good. It’s also interesting to get a look at very early performances from Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill. The changes that the movie does make from the cartoon, like doing away with He-Man’s secret identity and leaving Battle Cat out of the picture, don’t make any kind of negative impact on the film. In the end, while not a great movie, considering the development of the film was from an ‘80s cartoon that had run its course by that point, and considering the budget limitations that had to have influenced the writing, Masters of the Universe probably turned out close to how well it reasonably could have.

According to The New York Times review:

Off the toy counter and onto the big screen flies He-Man, biceps rippling, pecs glistening, to do battle with evil Skeletor, colored waves flashing from every perverse pore, over who will be master of the universe. Specifically at stake in ”Masters of the Universe,” which can be found at the Warner and other theaters, is possession of the Cosmic Key, invented by the cute dwarf Gwildor, which can transport you anywhere in any galaxy. He-Man and his allies, Man-at-Arms and Teela, whose close-fitting battle suit reveals almost as much as He-Man’s, find themselves in Colby, Calif., where they get involved with a couple of teen-agers and are pursued by Skeletor’s minions and a local cop. If you liked the toy, you’ll love the movie.

Everybody flies around and fires off colored jolts of electricity. Skeletor has the numbers, but his troops, got up like clones of Darth Vader, are rotten shots. Their weapons make a Fourth of July sparkler show, but they almost never hit anybody. He-Man, meantime, is blowing them away wholesale. It’s relatively bloodless combat; the villains go up in lights and that’s that. The most satisfying scene is the destruction of a music store filled with synthesizers and amplifiers.

You don’t get to see as much of Frank Langella, who plays Skeletor, as you do of Dolph Lundgren, who plays He-Man, but the bad guy has the good lines. ”I must possess all or I possess nothing,” intones Skeletor. ”Assemble the mercenaries.” ”The Alpha and the Omega. Death and Rebirth.” ”I am not in the giving vein this day.” Sure he is; it’s not every day an actor gets to spout such stuff.

Finally, as He-Man and Skeletor get ready for their climactic face-off, Skeletor announces, ”Let this be our final battle!” If you can believe that, you’ll have no trouble believing the rest of it.

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One thought on “On Masters of the Universe

  1. Pingback: On Universal Soldier | The Progressive Democrat

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