1987 in Film – Masters of The Universe

Release Date: August 7th
Box Office: $17,336,370

If there’s one trend that can be easily used to describe the last ten years or so it’s nostalgia. Look at all the brands that have been rebooted from GI Joe (Action Force for this side of the pond), Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park and the 300lb gorilla of pop culture Star Wars.

Of course this is a double edged sword; whilst it’s good seeing those brands dusted off for another generation you also get the whiny man babies crying when the end product doesn’t precisely match up with what they wanted. There’s something to be said for preserving the older stuff, like the Jurassic Park amber covered mosquitos, but when you’re making something new to attempt to bring in a new audience you have to shave off those corners, tidy things up, make it relevant for new people. What’s the point of just relating the same things over and over again? Just because they worked the first time doesn’t mean they will again.

Which is how we end up talking about Master of The Universe (1987).

Back in the early 80s, TV advertising restrictions were lifted which ended up giving us a Golden Age of animated TV shows aimed at kids. We’ll leave the discussion about that being a good or a bad thing off to one side for now, the point is that a lot of toys were sold which was helped by Saturday morning cartoons. The first of these out of the blocks was He-Man and The Masters of The Universe. This was a slightly bonkers blend of Conan style sword and sorcery with a heap of future science. So you had He-Man cutting about the place in a furry loin cloth swinging a sword around whilst other people used laser guns whilst flying around in high tech vehicles.

It was immensely popular, for a good couple of years at least before it began to run out of steam. However, it was popular enough to warrant a film being made based on the franchise.

Now, we’ve seen this before thanks to Transformers The Move (1986) and also a compilation of He-Men episodes with He-Man and The Secret of The Sword (1986). But this was the first one to be a proper live action film.

Well, we say proper. Whilst being a big franchise, it wasn’t a big studio that picked it up but Cannon Films, purveyors of low budget Chuck Norris films. This meant that, whilst not insignificant, the film’s budget was around the $22 million mark.

This caused several dominos with “budget restrictions” written on them to fall over: firstly, the majority of the film is spent on Earth rather than He-Man’s home planet of Eternia; we don’t see Snake Mountain, or much beyond a re-designed Castle Greyskull. The changes carried on, jettisoning He-Man’s foppish alter ego Prince Adam entirely and also his best pal in the form of BattleCat. Hell, the centrepiece of the show, the whole sword in the air “By the Power of Greyskull, I have the power!” bit is barely in the film at all.

All of this makes sense, in a budget conscious way, but moves the film away from the original spirit of the cartoon. Masters of The Universe ends up being more of a straight science fiction film with a few swords in it. In fact, the director has talked about the biggest influence in the film is the Jack Kirby Fourth World series, something which has popped up in the recent Justice League (2017) film. Yes, it has He-Man and Skeletor in a big fight but it’s a different version of the characters rather than what people were watching on their TVs.

Is this a bad thing? This film certainly isn’t bad, you can’t have a film with Dolph Lundgren cutting about with a cape and a sword and a beautiful blonde mullet and call it bad. The world it creates takes the original series as a springboard and goes down another path, and does it well. The creature designs are uniformly of a good standard despite the cheap looking effects. Whilst it does err towards being a bit of that generic Star Wars style in places there isn’t much else before or since that looks like it which is no bad thing.

All the cast seem to buy in to the film; Dolph as the lead gives it all he can at this stage of his career, Monica from Friends knows this is a big break for her and does her best with an underwritten role. Even Tom Paris, years before he’s stranded in the Delta Quadrant, isn’t that annoying. The biggest actor in the film, Frank Langella, is having a total blast under a ton of makeup as Skeletor.

This of course meant that the film was a flop; it was just too different with a tone that took it too far from the cartoon series to truly make the fans happy. But then it was also too tied into the cartoon for it to break out to a wider audience. It’s probably best looked at as a spiritual successor to Flash Gordon (1980), a film which shares the same campy tone.

The main question is why a franchise as popular as He-Man was has never come back and been properly re-booted. We’ve had a couple more attempts at the cartoon series to varying degrees of success but nothing attempted on the big screen. There have been rumours and all sorts for year but still nothing. This feels strange, especially in a world post-Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones. Whilst previously fantasy films struggled to find an audience, now they’re among some of the biggest franchises currently going. A reboot of He-Man, leaning into the fantasy side of it whilst also having a huge nostalgia factor, would seem like an easy way to print money.

Did Masters of The Universe poison the well that much? It would be unfair to accuse the film of that. It’s a big daft sci-fi romp that isn’t afraid to have it’s main character run around with a sword and a gun taking down bad guys. Even if you have no clue about it’s animated origins, it’s easily still worth your time.

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