The Masters of The Universe Movie and Its Wonderful Worldbuilding

The He-Man and The Masters of the Universe movie from 1987 with Dolph Lundgren is always worth another look.

Masters of the Universe, the 1987 movie starring Dolph Lundgren that transferred what was at the time one of the most successful toy lines of all time to the big screen, wasn’t as well received as anybody hoped. The modestly budgeted He-Man movie underperformed at the box office, and response was so lukewarm that it’s credited as one of the factors that toppled the Masters of the Universe toyline from absolute mastery of the boy’s action figure market to mere afterthought in the space of a year.

Much has been made of the failures of the Masters of the Universe movie, and the disappointment inherent in the decision to set the vast majority of the film on Earth: two teenagers and a bumbling detective are the primary POV characters; there are obvious Star Wars echoes with Skeletor’s robotic not-stormtroopers and Gwildor’s cut-rate Yoda appearance; it’s located in an incongruous small town California setting complete with the seemingly obligatory 1950s imagery that kept popping up in ’80s flicks; the bonus presence of Marty McFly’s high school principal, James Tolkan. Some might say there’s a certain quaintness to how much of the film plays like a pastiche of family blockbuster conventions of the era.

But when you look purely at the fantasy and sci-fi elements, Masters of the Universe has aged remarkably well. 

Unlike Cannon’s other 1987 flop, the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (which MoTU siphoned some of its budget off of), Masters of the Universe isn’t a complete creative failure. While the comparatively grounded setting means there’s a little less high-tech sword and sorcery action than He-Man devotees were expecting, first-time film director Gary Goddard made the most of the modest $17 million budget. 

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Bill Stout, who was the concept artist on Tobe Hooper’s underrated 1986 Invaders From Mars remake and (more recently) Guillermo del Toro‘s lush and creepy Pan’s Labyrinth, had much to do with the movie managing to retain its sense of scope despite the fact that the vast majority of the action on Eternia takes place in one room. Initially reluctant to take on the job because of the concept’s toy aisle roots, Stout eventually relented and brought a sense of realism not usually associated with Masters of the Universe to the project.

Watch Masters of the Universe on Amazon

“There had to be little doubt in the audience’s mind that these were real characters,” he told Starlog in 1987. Compared to the relatively spare designs of the cartoon and the cartoonish proportions of the toys, many of the movie’s character, set, and costume designs hold their own against some of the best genre films of the era.

The statues that line the Castle Greyskull throne room, an enormous set constructed across two soundstages, were intended, according to director Gary Goddard, to represent Eternia’s technology based religion, interesting when you consider that this is a world where magic exists, as well. “I didn’t want to tie the throne room into just a sword and sorcery thing,” Goddard said, “it’s the past and future all rolled into one.”

Frank Langella, unrecognizable under the Skeletor makeup designed by Michael Westmore, is the real star of the film. He delivers a surprisingly restrained performance considering the subject matter, even dropping in an ad-libbed line from Richard III as he dispatches one of his failed bounty hunters. Lundgren is, of course, physically perfect as He-Man, looking considerably larger (if that’s even possible) and more defined than he did as Ivan Drago in his breakthrough in Rocky IV. Although at this point in his career he wasn’t quite as good at hiding his accent as he was by 1989’s The Punisher.

Goddard wisely elected to shoot the majority of any earthbound scenes featuring He-Man and friends at night with the rationale that doing so would make them look a little less ridiculous in such mundane surroundings. He’s not wrong, although most fans would have preferred a He-Man movie that kept its focus on Eternia and the amazing visuals it would contain.

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It wasn’t to be, though. Cannon determined that Masters had to be brought in under budget, and Goddard and company had to scramble to shoot a suitable ending for the movie. Despite the presence of Man-at-Arms and Teela, fans of the cartoon noted the lack of many recognizable heroes and villains, but two in particular. He-Man’s magical steed Battle Cat is absent as is irritating floating magical imp, Orko. “Orko would have been hard to adapt and prohibitively expensive,” Goddard says on the Blu-ray commentary, and that probably went triple for Battle Cat. Instead we get the equally annoying Gwildor, a character impressive if only for burying 73-year-old Billy Barty under several pounds of rubber makeup.

First wave toy baddie Beast Man (Tony Carroll in some impressive prosthetics) makes the cut, although he doesn’t have any actual lines (this was a speaking role in an earlier draft, however) and Evil-Lyn is brought to life wonderfully by Meg Foster. The rest of Skeletor’s crew of baddies is made up by toy ready villains created specifically for the film. Karg, who Bill Stout described as “a little Hitler. A half-human, half-bat creature who has strange dental tools to do his dirty work,” Blade, a fairly self-explanatory cyborg swordsman, and Saurod, a hideous reptile/robot hybrid. At one point, we might have also been treated to Arachno, “a man with the eyes and poison mandibles of a giant spider,” and Mantoid “a cyborg robot with infrared-vision [and] long, telescoping limbs designed for seizing things.”

Stout was particularly proud of Saurod. “Pons Maar as Saurod was so incredible that we all regretted killing him off so early in the movie,” he said in Dark Horse’s excellent The Art of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe book. “I took great pains to design every single aspect of Saurod, even down to his contact lenses.”

While Cannon’s budgetary concerns certainly affected how much time we could spend on Eternia, a He-Man movie set entirely on an alien world was never really in the cards. An earlier draft of David Odell’s script dated December 1985, nearly two years before the film’s August 1987 release date, indicates that the fish out of water/Wizard of Oz elements were already firmly in place, and the movie’s entire middle section is virtually identical to what was ultimately filmed.

However, there are some noticeable differences. There’s more time spent on Eternia in Odell’s early draft, particularly during the film’s climax. While the movie transports the characters directly back to the Castle Greyskull throne room where the final battle almost immediately ensues, the script put them in the jungles of Eternia, where they then have to journey through the caverns under Greyskull, and even encounter some allies who would have helped flesh out the all-important movie tie-in merchandise.

The noble warriors who would have joined He-Man’s fight at the end all boast appropriately on-the-nose names and abilities. There was Blastar “who can fire powerful energy beams from his hands,” Mandroid “the left side of whose body is pure robot, with powerful weapons concealed in the robot half,” Nettor “who can fling thin gossamer nets stronger than heavy steel cable,” Mirroman “whose armor is covered with shiny mirror segments that can catch and reflect back the laser beams of his opponents,” and Wizaroid who is (you guessed it) “a powerful magician.” While Mattel was probably looking forward to these characters making an appearance so they could have exploited them for toy sales, obviously they would have pushed Cannon’s finances much further than they would have wanted.

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What would have been the most important bit didn’t make the final cut (although it did make it into the Marvel Comics adaptation of the film) was the revelation that Eternia had first been colonized by astronauts from Earth’s future, including He-Man’s mother.

While the additional time on Eternia certainly would have been welcomed in the finished film, Skeletor’s spectacular transformation into his golden godlike form wasn’t in this draft, and the final throwdown with He-Man was a little more traditional. It’s a trade off, but audiences probably got the better end of this deal in the long run. As a quick aside, note that the purple banners in the Castle Greyskull throne room change from purple to gold after Skeletor has his psychedelic apotheosis.

While some of the early production art was done by sci-fi comics legend Moebius (who famously storyboarded the entirety of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune movie, the shadow of comics legend Jack Kirby looms large over Masters of the Universe. The toy line itself certainly took a lot of inspiration from Kirby’s cosmic comic book work (particularly The New Gods), and the movie looks more like a live-action Jack Kirby comic than most of the Marvel superhero movies of recent years that actually feature characters he created.

Gary Goddard was never shy about the Kirby connection. “The storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there,” Goddard told John Byrne in a letter to Byrne’s Next Men comic (via this handy Comic Book Resources article) in 1994. The director said he “desperately wanted” Jack Kirby to do the concept art for the Masters of the Universe movie, but Cannon wasn’t having it. Failing that, Goddard wanted to dedicate the movie to Kirby, but Cannon ultimately put the kibosh on that too. 

The Kirby influence is there if you know where to look, though. Gwildor’s workshop, which is far more than just a hi-tech version of Yoda’s Dagobah hovel from Empire Strikes Back, is filled to the bursting with bizarre machinery that resembles stuff out of Kirby’s dreams. The time/space gateways that the Cosmic Key opens are as close as we’ll ever see to the Boom Tubes that Kirby’s New Gods use to traverse the cosmos. Skeletor’s ornate “god” armor after his metamorphosis during the film’s climax feels like something straight out of panels from Kirby’s later ’70s return to Marvel. The flying platforms that the Air Centurions zip around on (they were actually designed by legendary Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie…his other designs didn’t make it into the film, sadly) are reminiscent of Orion’s preferred method of transport.

There are plenty of similarities if you want to look for them, whether they’re intentional or not. Perhaps someone should have given Goddard a chance to make a New Gods movie in the late 1980s.

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While Masters of the Universe is no cinematic classic by any stretch of the imagination, there’s an attention to craft here sorely lacking in most other attempts to bring toy lines to the big screen. It will never be more than a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been were it under the guidance of a studio with a little more capital to invest, but thanks to some talented folks who refused to talk down to material even as potentially silly as He-Man, it’s still worth a look. 

“We need pictures like this one,” Billy “Gwildor” Barty said during filming. “We’re bombarded with so much reality in our everyday lives that it has destroyed our urge to dream. Fantasies like Masters of the Universe spark imaginations and encourage people to dream again.”

Maybe we should listen to Gwildor.

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Wish him a “good journey” on Twitter @wayoutstuff.

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