Masters of the Universe (1987)
Masters of the Universe landed in theaters with somewhat baffling timing in August of 1987, after the peak of the He-Man cartoon and toy phenomenon had passed. It was neither a critical success nor a financial one, fading from theaters into obscurity for a long while, before being somewhat rescued from that obscurity thanks to the internet.
The ease with which the internet allows cult entertainment and cult fandom to gain a voice has, I think, led to renewed interest in this movie, and it’s gained some further recent attention with podcast shows and review sites. A few repeated themes and points have emerged about it, ones that I’ll try to present my own take on without dwelling on them too much, since I think they’re fairly well-established.
It’s common, for example, to hear praise for Frank Langella’s performance as Skeletor, but also plenty of criticism for inconsistencies with the cartoon, and the decision to move most of the action to Earth rather than have it stay on Eternia. But overall, I think the movie deserves a reappraisal. Leaving aside the association with the cartoon and toy line, it’s a decent but not great sci-fi movie of the ‘80s.
It’s hard to escape the obvious thought while watching it that the movie is somewhat derivative. This is apparent from the opening music, a seeming blend of Superman and Star Wars. But that’s only the beginning for the Star Wars similarities, as one of the first scenes is of Darth Vader walking down a line of stormtroopers… er, I mean, Skeletor walking down a line of his storm—guards, his guards. We also get a scene of Skeletor reviewing a group of mercenaries, which is a lot like the scene in Empire Strikes Back with bounty hunters. And then there’s the repeated scenes of He-Man’s small group facing off against a much larger group of evil troopers, only to have the troopers repeatedly miss with their laser guns. Even the blend of sword and sorcery with sci-fi and ray guns, despite being found in other works, reminds the viewer of Star Wars.
The movie does suffer from a problem of scope. Due to budget and effects constraints, we see very little of Eternia, though I thought the Castle Grayskull scenes looked good for the most part. More problematic, though, is the totally unnoticed invasion by Skeletor’s forces of a small suburban town. It actually gets quite comical to see floating vehicles and marching troops go up and down deserted streets at night. I guess it’s supposed to be well past midnight or something, but it still seems strange.
Also, we never get more than the core group of good guys fighting Skeletor and his minions. The heroic resistance consists of six people, three of whom (Kevin, Gwildor, and Julie) aren’t really fighters. This is again an issue of scope and limitations of casting, but it makes it seem that this small group defeats Skeletor’s much larger force entirely on its own. Star Wars: A New Hope does that with the escape from the Death Star and rescue of Leia, but at least we see a lot more of the Rebel Alliance later, and that small group doesn’t take out the Death Star on their own. I guess that’s why they added Lubic going back to retake Grayskull, so he could single-handedly take out a bunch of troops.
Masters of the Universe is unexpectedly dark for a movie targeted toward young fans of He-Man. Skeletor’s look, as well as that of two of his henchmen, Saurod and Karg, could be considered on the scary side. Much of the opening itself that sets the stage for the events of the film is fairly dark, with Skeletor emerging triumphant, having temporarily conquered Grayskull. We find him gloating to a captured Sorceress and immediately see that this version of Skeletor will be much more serious, and will have a lot more depth than the periodically whining and buffoonish cartoon version.
As I wrote earlier, I won’t dwell too much on Langella’s terrific performance because it’s been covered effectively elsewhere, but I did want to note a few points. More than the malevolence conveyed, I found the subtler touches enjoyable: the dry, sarcastic delivery of lines like “well said, He-Man,” in response to a sentiment of nobility and self-sacrifice, and the “thank you for that bit of philosophy” line to the Sorceress. Langella shows he can do over the top ranting, low-key derision, as well as unexpected moments of uncertainty and vulnerability toward Evil-Lyn.
Other things of note included the Cosmic Key, which I thought was a good MacGuffin, as well as a pretty neat-looking prop. I’m only a little embarrassed to note that I did check into whether a replica was available for purchase. I also found the character of Charlie the music store owner (unintentionally) amusing, as he doesn’t particularly do anything important to the story, seems somewhat ineffectual in crisis situations in the movie, and he isn’t funny enough to be comic relief.
The part where Kevin yells “get out of here” and throws a dish towel at an attacking group of villains may be the most inadvertently funny bit in the movie. Did he really think that was going to work? Were they going to be intimidated by his whining, or threatened by the dish towel?
I thought it was a good decision to have Skeletor keep his word to the good guys after he captures He-Man on Earth, as it unexpectedly steers clear of a typical villain cliché. Rather than the usual “ha ha, your fault for trusting me, you fools” we’d get from a moustache-twirling character, it again demonstrates hidden depths and a surprising nobility to Skeletor.
While there were plans for a sequel to this movie, as a post-credits scene hinted at, that never came to pass. Masters of the Universe didn’t even make back its budget at the box office, and has come to be regarded as a somewhat silly failure. Taken on its own though, and separated from its association with the ‘80s cartoon, it’s a solid blend of ray-gun sci-fi and sword and sorcery fantasy.
The performances, with a few exceptions, range from decent to very good. It’s also interesting to get a look at very early performances from Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill. The changes that the movie does make from the cartoon, like doing away with He-Man’s secret identity and leaving Battle Cat out of the picture, don’t make any kind of negative impact on the film. In the end, while not a great movie, considering the development of the film was from an ‘80s cartoon that had run its course by that point, and considering the budget limitations that had to have influenced the writing, Masters of the Universe probably turned out close to how well it reasonably could have.