I was a huge He-Man fan as a kid. Huge. The biggest. My light-up, plastic He-Man sword that made electronic clashing noises when you banged it against imagined enemies & inanimate objects was a prized possession. That is, until I moved onto the next well-marketed obsession: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, WWF, whatever. It’s curious that although I watched the cartoon religiously & loved my plastic sword that bellowed “By the power of Greyskull!” when you pressed the right button on the handle, I somehow never watched the He-Man movie (not that I can remember, anyway). Promised by infamous schlock producers Golan-Globus to be “the Star Wars of the 80s”, 1987’s Masters of the Universe bombed. Hard. Critics hated it. It failed to make a profit. It still, nearly three decades later, holds a mere 17% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer. In short, the film was & remains a failure.
Well, at least Golan-Globus & the Canon Group got the Star Wars claim partly right. Sure, the film was far from the technical marvel, financial goldmine, or cultural landmark that Star Wars was, but Masters of the Universe at least made its best effort to mimic the visual style of the George Lucas classic. While the film was at it, it was also keen to borrow some visual ideas from Jack Kirby. And the covers to oldschool fantasy novel paperbacks & story records. The resulting aesthetic is a fascinating mix of bleep-bloop sci-fi machines & the medieval sorcery of skulls, magical crowns, and wizard staffs. Masters of the Universe excels most in costume in set design. Yes, you can see constant Star Wars reminders in the format of the opening credits & costuming (“These soldiers aren’t Star Trooper knockoffs! They’re uniforms are black! They’re different!”), as well as Skeletor’s irrefutable Darth Vader vibes, but there’s oh so much more going on. Besides the medieval wizardry adding an extra layer of visual cool (I’m serious!) to the Star Wars appropriation, the film is also bold enough to take the freakshow on the road. He-Man (played by a perfectly cast Dolph Lundgren) & his three intergalactic cohorts take a trip through a portal (somewhat resembling God’s anus) that results in their arrival in 1980s California. By the time Skeletor & his cronies arrive in a morbid parade procession in downtown Los Angeles, bent on world domination, the film reaches its full potential as a goofy trifle trying to modernize/cash in on that Star Wars magic.
The reasons why large stretches of the He-Man movie are set in America, even outnumbering the scenes set in the fictional land of Eternia, don’t really matter. There’s a MacGuffin called “The Cosmic Key” (presumably the same one that provides motivation for pro wrestler Stardust) that lands He-Man & his crew in California, but it honestly doesn’t amount to much significance. Masters of the Unvierse is far more entertaining if you clear your mind of plot-related concerns & focus on the ridiculous visual feast laid before you. For instance the question of why He-Man would bring a sword to a laser fight isn’t nearly as satisfying as the cartoonish spectacle of He-Man weilding a sword in a laser fight. The exact reasons why Skeletor’s third act acquisition of grand galactic power would transform his costume into a golden, intergalactic, imperial ensemble that feels like the best Jack Kirby knockoff to ever grace the silver screen don’t matter nearly as much as the image itself, which is a wonder to behold, however brief.
Similiarly, it would be smart for dedicated fans of the He-Man cartoon (if they’re still out there) to disregard all plot & character details they remember from the television show. Instead of the all-powerful Sorceress’ gigantic eagle headdress, she wears a complex crystal crown. There’s no mention of He-Man’s gigantic feline sidekick Cringer/Battle Cat. Nor is there any mention of He-Man’s “true” identity, Adam, which is really just He-Man wearing more clothes than usual (not that his own parents can recognize him in his skimpy costume). Gone also is He-Man’s awful Prince Valliant haircut. It’s kind of interesting what elements do remain of the original cartoon, however accidental. Many of the episodes of the original show consist largely of He-Man & pals searching for one thing or another instead of actually battling Skeletor & his evil gang. In the movie, this search happens to be a pursuit for the Cosmic Key. Curiously, what also remains from the show is the oddball sexuality seeping through the characters’ skimpy costumes & penchants for sadomasochistic torture. Very early in the film it becomes apparent that Masters of the Universe is just as interested in He-Man’s pectoral muscles as Russ Meyer would’ve been if they happened to be gigantic breasts. There’s also a scene where our hero (who Liz Lemon would almost certainly refer to as a “sex idiot”) is getting beaten at Skeletor’s command that I’m pretty sure has inspired a new fetish in me: laser whips.
However, a lot of what makes Masters of the Universe a fun watch, besides the surprising high quality of its set & costume design as well as its visual effects, is when it disregards its source material & basic reason completely. For instance, once The Cosmic Key is in the hands of a bonehead Californian musician, its keys are revealed to have musical tones to them that allow it to be played like a synth. Because of this detail, it’s rock & roll that saves the day just as much as, if not more than, He-Man. With some goofy rock & roll/medieval space wizard culture clashes like this, combined with roles filled by Lundgren, Billy Barty, and Courtney Cox, as well as some super cool villains that include a humanoid lizard, a werewolf-looking beast thing, a humongous bat, and their space age Rob Halford friend, Masters of the Universe makes for a really goofy picture. The visual accomplishments occasionally elevate the material, but it’d be untruthful to sell the film as being good for anything but a lark. Fans of shoddy Star Wars knockoffs, 80s cheese, and Jack Kirby cosplay are all likely to find something of value here. I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about the He-Man film as I used to be about my toy He-Man sword (how could I be?), but I ended up enjoying it far more than I expected.