Like many of you reading this, both male and female, He-Man and The Masters of the Universe was an integral part of my childhood. As a kid born in 1983, I was too young to have seen Star Wars the first time around, but old enough to catch on to the next big toy line that came along – Mattel’s ‘Masters of the Universe’.
For the remainder of my formative years, He-Man was my go to hero. I immersed myself in the lore, memorizing every villain in the toy line, and every moment from the animated series. Even when The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy lines came along, I always incorporated my 5 ½ inch He-Man action figures into my games. Believe me, you’d be surprised how cool the TMNT/He-Man crossovers were that took place in my house back in the late 1980’s.
Here I am, looking all cool, check out my sweet He-Man PJ’s:
The pinnacle for any kid who finds themselves obsessed with a particular franchise though, is the realization of their hours and hours of playtime into a full length, live action movie. So when I discovered Masters of the Universe on the shelves of my local video shop, it was a massive, massive deal.
Now, I was certainly no film critic back in the late 80’s early 90’s, but as I sat, wide eyed and slack-jawed waiting for a live action thrill ride based on the He-Man I had grown up with, even I knew I had been duped. I had been duped big time.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching the Masters of the Universe movie, or perhaps – like me before I wrote this – had some vague recollection that it “wasn’t that bad,” then I’ll save you the same trauma I had, as my childhood memories were ruined once again.
The plot is nothing like anything we’ve ever seen in the MOTU-Universe, and that’s not a good thing. Instead of basing the film on He-Man’s home world of Eternia, the filmmakers made the ill-informed decision to bring the characters to Earth, by means of a “cosmic key,” which acts as a doorway to any world in any galaxy. Skeletor, one of the few original characters that actually made it into the film, wants the cosmic key for himself, and sends his most gruesome and ineffective minions in search of it – bringing them to Earth, where He-Man, Man-At-Arms and Teela have been unwittingly transported.
It pains me to criticize the choices made by the writers, especially as one of them worked on The Dark Crystal, but setting a He-Man movie on Earth just makes no sense. It would be like having the next Star Wars movie take place in New York City. If Canon Films wanted Courtney Cox to be in the film so bad, then they should have cast her as Teela, or Evil-Lyn. Having some drab subplot about how she deals with the loss of her parents does absolutely nothing for the film, and totally killed the buzz for 7-year-old me. What did I care about that for? I just wanted the sword and sorcery my parents had paid for when they bought me the VHS!
I’d like to think that Masters of the Universe scribe David Odell had some idea about the mythology of the He-Man universe before he sat down to write the film, but Hollywood big shots got involved and sabotaged his script. I’d like to think that, because it helps me understand just why the film turned out to be so different from the source material.
Everything that made the toys and animated series so much fun has been stripped away. Gone were the colourful, magical world’s we had grown up with, replaced by dark and dreary backdrops. Our favourite bad guys were missing, with only Skeletor, Evil Lyn, and Beastman making it into the final cut. Throwaway villains were then inserted into the spots that could have easily been filled by beloved wrongdoers like Trap Jaw or Mer-Man.
The same could be said for the heroes as well. He-Man (played terribly by Dolph Lundgren) ditches his famous underpants and boots combo, opting instead for a more Gladiator-esque look, which allowed for way too many ass and nipple shots, while the once sexy Teela is reduced to an unflattering grey jumpsuit. Oh, and if you were hoping to see Orko at any point then you’ll be sadly disappointed. Don’t fret though – the filmmakers replaced him with the terminally unlikable Gwildor, an ugly troll like creature who is sadly integral to the plot, and therefore gets way too much screen time.
What else is very apparent in Masters of the Universe, is that Canon Films were reeeeally hoping that they had the next Star Wars on their hands. So much so in fact, they copied the infinitely cooler, and more successful Jedi saga at every given opportunity. For example, following a lengthy, and disco-inspired opening sequence, we are transported to the lair of Skeletor (Frank Langella). As he strides to his throne, looking more like Emperor Palpatine than the crazy, blue bastard we grew up watching on TV, he is surrounded by guards dressed in knock-off Darth Vader outfits, all the while rambling on about “The Resistance.” There’s also way more blaster sequences in the film that you’d expect from a hero who is famous for wielding a sword. Perhaps the director misread He-Man as Han Solo?
So whose fault is it that Masters of the Universe was so damn poor? The obvious place to start is with its director, Gary Goddard. Prior to being hired for MOTU, Goddard had worked almost exclusively on Broadway. In fact, other than Masters of the Universe, Goddard has not directed another full length feature. So yes, giving a first time director $22 million, and letting him loose may have been a bad idea – but a quick listen to the DVD commentary and it quickly becomes clear that Goddard was not the problem. In fact, Goddard even used some of his own money to make sure certain scenes were included that the distributors wanted to pull, to ensure the already crappy plot still made sense.
It should come as no surprise then, from reading the above, that the real blame should land on the shoulders of the criminally inept team of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who were famous simply for being the “Kings of Crap.” Golan and Globus were the ‘masterminds’ behind Canon Films, the film group behind such ‘classics’ as The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, and Bloodsport. As much as many of you reading this may have a fondness for The Canon Group, their back catalog certainly wasn’t one that screamed ‘big budget superhero movie‘. Which is handy, considering they made a small budget mess instead.
At least we get to see He-Man shout “I have the power!”, but by that point the power had well and truly gone out on the film.
Despite all of this, is Masters of the Universe still a bad movie, three decades later? The simple answer is yes. Often nostalgia kicks in in situations like this, and we forget about all the bad points, but in truth I found revisiting the film incredibly difficult.
If anything, MOTU serves as a reminder at just how far we’ve come in the world of superhero movies. There was a period of time where this kind of adaptation was not only expected, it was acceptable. It was an era where George Lucas was making Howard the Duck, and The Fantastic Four was so bad it never even saw the light of day. We’ve come such a long way as an audience that we simply cannot always excuse the sins of the past, and Masters of the Universe is one of them. At least with the upcoming reboot, the only way is up.