In 1987, one of the most criminally underrated and visually entertaining science-fiction/fantasy films was released. Now, thirty years later, it’s time to take a look back at the gloriously over-the-top Masters of the Universe and give it some much-overdue time in the sun.
Directed by Gary Goddard, whose experience was mostly rooted in theme park attractions, on a budget of $22 million and released by Cannon Films, Masters of the Universe is the live-action adaptation of the popular line of toys and animated series of the same name.
Following the success of Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) and originally designed as a toy line based on Conan the Barbarian (Milius, 1982), Mattel’s Masters of the Universe franchise depicted an ongoing battle between the heroic forces of Eternia, led by the superhuman He-Man, and the dark aspirations of the evil Skeletor. He-Man’s barbaric appearance, untamed shoulder-length hair and penchant for medieval weaponry obviously showcased his connection to Conan but Mattel made the character, and the franchise, unique by introducing a strong science-fiction element that would run parallel to the sword-and-sorcery influences of Conan.
Furthermore, He-Man became a Superman-like figure in that he was able to transform from the meek, unassuming Prince Adam and into the “mightiest man in the universe” by unsheathing his sword and uttering the now-iconic phrase, “by the power of Eternia; I have the power!” Similar to the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic, very few characters were actual aware of this transformation, despite the incredible similarity between the two characters (something the 2002 relaunch of the series managed to circumvent by having the physical differences between the two characters far more obvious).
Anyway, the He-Man and Masters of the Universe toys were successful enough to produce an animated series of…let’s just say questionable quality. Despite this, though, the toys and the series were popular enough to warrant a live-action adaptation.
Despite the film’s budget being twice that of Star Wars, and with a proven media franchise behind it, the production Masters of the Universe suffered from two very distinct problems: being produced by Cannon Films (who were infamous for producing B-level science-fiction and action movies, had released the infamously terrible Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Furie, 1987) only a month of two before Masters of the Universe, and were clearly no 20th Century Fox when it came to film or franchise production and management) and having aspirations way beyond the budget and the limitations of the studio.
The plot, which sees He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his allies transported from Eternia to then-modern-day Earth by a trans-dimensional device known as the Cosmic Key, originally spent more time on Eternia and in Castle Grayskull. Instead, the film opens with Castle Grayskull, the home of the all-powerful Sorceress (Christina Pickles), being suddenly ambushed by the entirety of Skeletor’s (played gloriously by Frank Langella) forces. After rescuing Gwildor (Billy Barty), He-Man and his allies – Man-At-Arms (John Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) – discover that Gwildor’s Cosmic Key was stolen from him by Skeletor’s lieutenant, Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster), and that Skeletor used the device’s ability to transport people across time and space to ambush the Sorceress.
He-Man and his allies attempt to use the Cosmic Key to rescue to Sorceress, only to be repelled by Skeletor’s vast numbers and forced to flee, crash-landing on Earth. In the chaos, they lose the Key and it is picked up by a very young Tom Paris….er, I mean, Robert Duncan McNeill (who plays high school DJ Kevin Corrigan) and his girlfriend, Julie Winston (played by an also-scarily young Courteney Cox). Enraged by the existence of another Cosmic Key and desperate to have He-Man kneel before him as he absorbs the powers of the universe, Skeletor sends a team of his finest – Blade (Wesley Snipes…er, I mean, Anthony De Longis), Saurod (Pons Maars), the Beast Man (Tony Carroll), and Karg (Robert Towers) – to retrieve the Key, kill all who stand in their way, and bring He-Man to him so he can break him physically, mentally, and emotionally.
However, despite Blade wielding two swords eerily similar to that of He-Man’s, the ferocity of the Beast Man, the Predator-like appearance of Saurod, and the cunning of Karg, these bozos are completely outmatched by He-Man and his allies. Less than impressed with this news, Skeletor vaporises Saurod and forces Evil-Lyn to go with them and atone for this failure.
In the meantime, He-Man and his allies have met up with Kevin and Julie and, despite interference from Detective Lubic (played with relish by James Tolkan), have been attempting to figure out how the Cosmic Key actually works. However, their efforts are thwarted when Evil-Lyn leads a massive shoot out in a music shop and then uses her powers of illusion to pose as Julie’s recently-deceased mother and reclaim the Key. Although He-Man valiantly fights back against Skeletor’s forces, Skeletor arrives in person to collect the Cosmic Key and forces He-Man to surrender to him or else watch the execution of his friends and allies. A man of his word, and victorious, Skeletor departs after injuring Julie and rendering the Cosmic Key inert.
However, while He-Man is being tortured at Castle Grayskull, Kevin is coerced into using his knowledge of music to play the melody necessary to transport everyone back to Eternia. Although they manage to rescue He-Man, they are ultimately too late to stop Skeletor from absorbing the powers of the universe through the Great Eye. Transformed in a living God, Skeletor unleashes the full extent of his wrath towards his hated adversary, furious at He-Man’s refusal to kneel before his power. However, through sheer force of will and physical durability, He-Man reclaims his sword and engages Skeletor in combat, ultimately shattering his mystical staff and causing Skeletor’s powers to leave him. Although blindsided by Skeletor’s final attack, He-Man successfully tosses his nemesis down a seemingly-bottomless shaft and wins the day.
In the end, the Sorceress is freed, Lubic retires to Eternia, and Kevin and Julie are returned to Earth just before the plane crash that killed Julie’s parents, resulting in a happy ending for all.
Masters of the Universe is an impressive piece of cinematography; the set pieces, special effects, and scope of the tale are incredible. Castle Grayskull alone looks like it ate up a sizeable amount of the film’s budget, not that you’d ever know as the scenery is constantly chewed at and dominated by the enigmatic performance of Frank Langella as Skeletor. Langella absolutely looks to be having the time of his life, hissing with pure venom and spouting lines, with just the right inflection, that remain chilling and quotable to this day (“I must possess all or I possess nothing”, “in death I make him a martyr, a saint! No, I want him broken!”, and let’s not forget when he actual obtains the powers of the universe!).
Lundgren is perfectly serviceable as He-Man; he obviously has the build and the exact look for the character. To the chagrin of many Masters of the Universe fans, the film does not mention Prince Adam at all or depict He-Man turning back and forth. You can easily explain this by saying that, most likely, Adam became He-Man right before the film started, though I prefer to believe that Prince Adam just isn’t a part of this canon. Lundgren has always been a bit like a poor man’s Arnold Schwarzenegger; I feel his career was unjustly stunted by the presence of the Australian Oak (although I am an admittedly huge fan of Schwarzenegger’s). It’s a shame that Masters of the Universe didn’t fare better critically and financially (making a dismal $17 million worldwide) because a successfully franchise might have helped Lundgren to step outside of Schwarzenegger’s shadow a bit more.
The supporting cast is pretty well done, too. In place of Orko (again to the chagrin of Masters of the Universe fans but, seriously, Orko was the most annoying cartoon character since Scrappy Doo!), we get the warlock Gwildor who, though easily the most annoying character in the film, is still charming in his own right and never outstays his welcome. Man-At-Arms is played to perfection by John Cypher, who depicts him as a loving father, the veteran of many wars, He-Man’s trusted confidant, and also with a dash of well-placed humour (nonchalantly stating that he “[feels] a little hungry” right on the eve of the big shoot out). Teela is probably the blandest of the supporting cast but she gets plenty of opportunities to shine in battle and to voice her opinion; she chastises Gwildor for creating the Cosmic Key and thereby unwillingly causing the invasion of Castle Grayskull and vehemently begs He-Man not to surrender to Skeletor despite his heroic sacrifice sparing the lives of innocent people.
Similarly, Skeletor’s lieutenants are a big positive of the film. Even guys like Saurod and the Beast Man, who don’t get a lot to say or do, really, are visually engaging and show some layers to their characters. Blade even mentions that he’s “waited a long time” to face He-Man in combat, hinting at a past history between those two. While Karg is ultimately pushed aside once Evil-Lyn takes charge, he nonetheless is a nightmarish little creature. As for Evil-Lyn, Meg Foster seems to be savouring the role almost as much as Langella, playing it with a seductive relish that makes her both detestable and fascinating.
Even the human protagonists have some layers to them; sure, both actors are noticeably green here and would go on to refine their craft but Kevin’s struggle to define himself outside of high school is very relatable and Julie’s grief over her parents’ death makes her a sympathetic character. She never becomes a damsel in distress either and, when she is tricked by Evil-Lyn, you totally buy it because she has been largely unsuccessful at coping with her loss throughout the film. Of all the human characters, though, it is Lubic who shines the brightest; I’ve yet to see a role that Tolkan does not fully throw himself into and this is no exception, playing the hard-nosed unbeliever to perfection and ultimately becoming a valuable ally by the film’s conclusion.
For a film that is, ultimately, a massive toy commercial, Master of the Universe has some stellar performances by some great, and underrated, actors, proving that quality casting can elevate any film. This is aided not just by the special effects and set pieces, but also by Bill Conti’s score; a epic, regal theme accompanies the action, rising to a crescendo when Skeletor makes his dramatic (and, no doubt, extremely costly) appearance on Earth.
Many fans are understandably annoyed at the lack of swordplay there is in this film; He-Man primarily draws his sword to deflect laser fire and only engages in sword-on-sword combat a handful of times throughout the movie. While Lundgren looks great holding the sword, he only really shows some competence with the weapon in the final battle and prefers to use a laser blaster for the majority of the film. Similarly, Skeletor’s faceless black stormtroopers all wield laser rifles, although they are nowhere near as bad with their aim as their obvious Star Wars counterparts. Personally, I’ve never minded the preference on blasters over swords; it makes the times when He-Man does use his sword mean much more, plus the toys did come with blasters at various times.
Ultimately, the poor reception of Masters of the Universe is, to me, unjust. The film even has a final scene after the credits, pre-dating Marvel by decades, where it is revealed that Skeletor survived his fall. This was planned to be followed up on in a sequel but, after the film performed so badly, all of the sets, costumes, and props were retooled for Cyborg (Pyun, 1989). A reboot has been in the works for seemingly forever; although McG was attached to be the director, a tentative release date of 18 December 2019 has been announced so, perhaps, we’ll see He-Man onscreen once more.
I have no doubt that Masters of the Universe can be done better and be a massive hit, if done right, but just because the original film isn’t 100% accurate to the toys or to the animated series, or largely set on Earth, doesn’t make it a failure or justify overlooking its place as a masterfully crafted, enjoyable science-fiction/fantasy romp. For me, Masters of the Universe is far more engaging and action-packed than Star Wars (it’s not a popular opinion, but I find the original film to be quite dull and to not have aged as well as its later sequels), far less of a chore to watch than Conan the Barbarian (again, as much as I like that film, its pacing can make repeated viewings a slog to get through), and I fully believe that it should be celebrated not just as a cult film or as a piece of nostalgia but for being a gorgeous, charming, action-packed slice of cinematic gold.
Recommended: Definitely; Frank Langella alone makes this worth the price of admission!
Best moment: The entire finale of the film, right from the moment He-Man’s allies burst into Castle Grayskull up until Skeletor’s ultimate defeat.
Worst moment: Probably our introducing to Kevin and Julie and their last scene together (barring the magical snow globe they get) as their acting is a bit janky in these scenes.