When He-Man and the Masters of the Universe first hit in the early ’80s I was almost, but not quite, out of the demographic for the toys and the television show. I never personally owned any of the action figures, but I had a friend who did. He also had a younger brother who was squarely in the target audience, though, so he had something of an excuse.
Because I wasn’t really who Mattel was after, the show never got its hooks into me. I was aware of it, sure, because it was part of the zeitgeist and therefore impossible to avoid completely. I was more of a GI Joe: A Real American Hero kind of kid, though I was probably too old for that, too.
Given that I wasn’t ready for tween-nostalgia in 1987, it’s sort of surprising that I actually went and saw Masters of the Universe in the theaters. As I say, I had no particular attachment to the setting or the characters. I suspect it was because Dolph Lundgren starred as He-Man, and even then I thought Lundgren was pretty cool. Unfortunately, Masters of the Universe is a terrible showcase for him besides being a bad movie in general.
When you get right down to it, there’s no real reason why Masters of the Universe had to be as bad as it is. Some of the people working behind the scenes are legendary in their fields, including SF/fantasy artist William Stout (who did the production design) and Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius, who also contributed, though I’m not sure what. There are elements of goodness embedded throughout, promising something better than what we got. What exactly went wrong?
I think the blame can be laid squarely on the backs of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the masterminds behind schlock production house Cannon Group. You may know Cannon best for making Chuck Norris a bona fide (though relatively minor) action-movie star, but they made a lot of other films, too. The Apple, anyone?
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that pretty much anything that came out under the Cannon imprimatur was destined to be at best half-good, but more than likely just plain bad. Whether it would be so-bad-it’s-good or so-bad-it’s-bad was the big mystery whenever you went to the theater or picked up a video or caught one of their productions on cable, where they saw heavy rotation on the pay channels. I’ll be fair to Masters of the Universe and say that it does occasionally flirt with the so-bad-it’s-good category, but for the most part it’s not at all worthwhile.
You want to know the story? Okay, here goes. On Eternia, the distant planet and/or alternate dimension where He-Man lives, is caught in a bitter struggle over Castle Grayskull, a place of ancient and mystic power. Opposed to He-Man (Dolph Lundgren, of course) and his allies is Skeletor (Frank Langella) and his crew of mostly faceless, stormtrooper-like baddies. Unfortunately for us, Masters of the Universe picks up after the fighting is over and Skeletor has won the castle, imprisoning the Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles) and setting the stage for him to gain ultimate power. With the help of a weird, dwarf/gnome-like character named Gwildor (Billy Barty, in heavy makeup), He-Man and his closest allies manage to escape through a wormhole to our planet, circa 1987, with Skeletor’s forces in hot pursuit.
Now you may have picked up on Masters of the Universe‘s first, most crucial error. About 99% of the movie takes place not on Eternia, not during the pitched battles that must be taking place, but in a small town in (apparently) California. The cast is whittled down to a couple of companions for He-Man and a handful of weirdos in Skeletor’s employ. Despite the fact that it’s within Skeletor’s power to send a whole army through the wormhole after He-Man, seizing the town and capturing its inhabitants, he seems content to let a couple of bumblers poke around here and there, only sending in a squad late in the game to even the odds a bit more.
Of course He-Man must gain Earthly allies, and to that end he meets Julie (Courteney Cox, looking very, very young) and Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill). Julie is essentially useless, at one point almost ruining everything for the heroes and Kevin is only marginally better. They also appear to be the only two people who live in the town, with the exception of a police detective (perennial jerk James Tolkan) and a few cops. Despite the sometimes noisy, explosive set pieces that occur, we never see a single person on the streets or peering out of a window. It’s kind of creepy after a while.
Masters of the Universe is very invested in the story of Julie and Kevin, almost to the exclusion of everything else that’s going on. The fate of an entire planet, and maybe the galaxy, lies in the balance so long as Skeletor is in command of Castle Grayskull, but we’re meant to be more interested in whether Julie is going to go through with her plan to leave town and break up with Kevin. And Kevin spends a big chunk of time wandering around with the movie’s MacGuffin, the Cosmic Key, getting into trouble.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that Dolph Lundgren is not a terrific actor. Masters of the Universe was only his third movie, and his first starring role, and it’s clear he was still getting used to being in front of a camera doing make-believe. One thing Lundgren has in spades, however, is presence. Just watch Rocky IV to see what I mean. He’s every bit as huge and buff in Masters of the Universe as he was in that movie and he’s the hero of the picture, but the script gives him so little to do, and what he does do isn’t very interesting, so he’s diminished into glorified co-star status. I think Kevin gets more screen time than He-Man does.
If Masters of the Universe has a secret weapon, it’s Frank Langella as Skeletor. As the villain, Skeletor gets all the best lines and the meatiest motivations. The movie cuts back to him frequently so he can make dire proclamations and while it’s cheesy, it’s the good kind of cheese. Without those moments, Masters of the Universe would be a huge waste of time. Another scene where He-Man and his buddies exchange laser fire with the black-armored enemy? No thanks, I’ll have some more Skeletor, please.
Masters of the Universe only really comes alive when it’s on Eternia, though the Eternian sections are confined almost exclusively to a single set representing the enormous Castle Grayskull. Dolph Lundgren finally gets to do some stuff at the tail end of the movie, doing one-on-one battle with Skeletor, and you have to wonder just how cool Masters of the Universe would have been if there had been more of that and less earthbound drama with Julie and Kevin. I mean, why bother bringing in Stout and Giraud if all you’re going to do is set your movie in Everytown, USA?
I hear there’s a director’s commentary on the DVD for Masters of the Universe and that’s one I’d actually like to hear. I want to know how much of the badness of the film is due to Cannon’s limited budget (and limited imagination) and how much was baked right into the script. Really, I can’t bring myself to truly despise Masters of the Universe because it’s such an earnest piece of work even when it’s being terrible. And Courteney Cox was awfully cute back then.