Revisiting the Reviled — By the Power of Greyskull, ‘Masters of the Universe’ Takes a Detour Into Suburbia

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

It wasn’t always this way. It used to be that there were mid-budget movies that weren’t previously based on a comic book, another movie, or a toy line. There were marketing departments that were up to the challenge of trying to sell something new and different to audiences. It didn’t always work, but there was a certain effort. Of course, all that really started to change with Star Wars and the unprecedented merchandising rights that George Lucas obtained as part of his initial deal. In that deal, Lucas discovered where the real money was – everything but the actual, profitable film. Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, claimed to have walked away from Return of the Jedi because Lucas walked back on the idea of killing Han Solo because Kenner didn’t want to lose potential toy sales by killing a popular character. That, it could be said, was the moment when toys began to dictate the movie business.

Nowadays, movies based on toy lines aren’t anything special. But in 1987, it was something new and bold. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the masterminds behind Cannon Films, were to bring Masters of the Universe to the big screen. The toy line had already inspired a popular animated program, and the leap to the silver screen was the next logical step. They brought in screenwriter David Odell and director Gary Goddard, but all involved seemed to be hamstrung by creative limitations that were dictated by the uncertain financial ground of Canon Films, which would be bankrupt in a matter of years.

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The film opens on the planet Eternia, where the nefarious Skeletor (Frank Langella) has staged a coup to seize the Castle Greyskull and imprison the Sorceress of Castle Greyskull (Christina Pickles), whose confinement will give Skeletor even more power. Meanwhile, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his trusty cohorts, Teela (Chelsea Field) and Duncan (Jon Cypher) are trying to find a way to retake Greyskull back from Skeletor. He-Man and his pals encounter Gwildor (Billy Barty), an inventor who has created the “Cosmic Key,” a mystical device that can transport people between dimensions. When Skeletor’s lead henchwoman, the cleverly (eye roll) named Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster), closes in on the group, they teleport to Anytown, USA.

In suburbia, Julie Winston (Courteney Cox) is preparing to leave her hometown for a glamourous life in New Jersey, presumably to star in Bruce Springsteen music videos. Her boyfriend Kevin Corrigan (Robert Duncan McNeill) is a keyboard player in a local high school band, and discovers the Cosmic Key before He-Man and his allies can retrieve it. Skeletor then sends his most ruthless assassins – Beastman (Tony Carroll), Saurod (Pons Maar), Blade (Anthony De Longis), and Karg (Robert Towers) – to obtain the Cosmic Key, thus pulling these two suburbanites into a cosmic battle of good vs. evil.

For its time and place, Masters of the Universe should’ve been a hit. But it failed to win over audiences for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s such a mismatched blend of fantasy and camp that it can’t figure out which side of the aisle to stand on in a given scene. I mean, did anyone really want to see He-Man riding in a pink Cadillac? The biggest problem facing the film is the fact that it feels like an undeniable rip-off of many other more successful films, chiefly Star Wars and Richard Donner’s Superman. The score by Bill Conti sounds like a low-rent John Williams knock off, willfully aping the legendary composer’s theme for Superman. Skeletor’s faceless villains are a combination of Darth Vader and Stormtroopers, and their laser guns are quite reminiscent of the blasters from Star Wars as well.

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But the attempts to mimic Star Wars wouldn’t be so egregious had Masters of the Universe had something of its own to stand on storywise. But this film isn’t about setting up its own mythology and creating a bold new fantasy world. Likely for budgetary reasons, the action is transposed into a quaint suburban setting, making Masters of the Universe more like Masters of Suburbia. He-Man and his mighty friends face their fiendish foes in a music store, destroying the storefront of an otherwise respectable business. For a proper comparison, it’d be like if Luke Skywalker got a ride in the Millennium Falcon and wound up in Whittier – that certainly isn’t the material of a classic. Also not in the making of a classic is how Julie and Kevin believe the Cosmic Key is just a Japanese synthesizer, and later Kevin’s skills as a keyboardist allow He-Man’s allies to transport back to Eternia. Hey, it was the ‘80s and synths were really in.

All is not bleak within Masters of the Universe. There are some truly interesting set and creature designs, and quite a few of the film’s special effects are quite effective for their era. It’s really the interior sets of the Castle Greyskull that really pop. Production designer William Stout helped craft something that did have a truly unique look that it makes one wish that entire film was set within the confines of the mystical world of Eternia. But, alas, these moments of intriguing artistry are fleeting bookends for a film that lays the groundwork for Suburban Commando.

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The end result is that very little works in Masters of the Universe. Dolph Lundgren was at a point in his career where he couldn’t convincingly wield a weapon, and Frank Langella’s spirited performance is obscured by what is likely the film’s worst makeup. Director Gary Goddard was never able to stage a thrilling action sequence in the film, and thus was relegated to directing movie tie-in theme park rides, never to direct another feature film again.

Meanwhile, Cannon Films would face irredeemable financial troubles following the film’s under-performance, squashing plans for a Spider-Man film from the group. But as troubled as the history of this incarnation of Masters of the Universe was, it doesn’t seem half as troubled as the multiple attempts to revive the series for the big screen – a seemingly on-again/off-again affair since 2007. However, there is one area where Masters of the Universe was a true trailblazer – it was among the first post-credits stingers in the history of franchise cinema. Presumably dead, Skeletor peaks his head up and proclaims, “I’ll be back!” Therein lies the true legacy of Masters of the Universe – the first post-credits scene for a sequel that will never happen.

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