“Masters of the Universe”: The Unrecognized Trailblazer in Making Kids’ Properties Grittier and Darker

In discussing movies recently with a pal of mine, he mentioned he had recently rewatched Masters of the Universe. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a 1987 movie that had the dubious honor of trying to turn He-Man and his friends (and enemies!) into box office icons.

It had a name cast, if not an all-star one, and featured future 1990s television and film icons like Courtney Cox (Friends, Scream) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Star Trek: Voyager). The hero was played by fresh star Dolph Lundgren, still enjoying his success playing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. The main villain, Skeletor, was played by screen legend Frank Langella.

Much like The Transformers, He-Man was a dominant cartoon of the 1980s; a thirty-minute ad blitz with crazy stories based on the action figures from Eternia. The entire premise of everything was silly, but it was high drama to kids.

Though people think it’s a new-ish thing for movies to try to bring toys and cartoons into “real world situations,” it isn’t. Marvel®©™ movies are basically that exact thing, but they struck lucky gold when they got Robert Downey, Jr. to star in a Jon Favreau movie.

Reliable templates before Marvel®©™’s Iron Man were few and far between; the belief was that, if you’re going to bring it life you need to make it “dark.” This was supported by the occasional franchise-starters like BatmanThe Crow, or Blade, which relied on making things darker and grittier.

The problem is that the material doesn’t always lend itself to that. But I’m not here to offer a review of the movie, which remains one of my guiltiest pleasures. No, enough digital ink has been spilled to both praise and bury Masters of the Universe.

I’m here to talk about its unrecognized cinematic impact.

Courtney Cox in Masters of the Universe which is a He-Man movie starring Courtney Cox called Masters of the Universe.
That’s Courtney “Friends” Cox tending to Robert Duncan “Voyager” McNeill as Dolph “Drago” Lundgren oversees things.

Masters of the Universe Made it Dark, FIRST

Back to the point at hand, when my pal said he’d watched Masters of the Universe, a sudden realization occurred. He mentioned how “dimly lit” the final fight between He–Man and Skeletor was. Everything rushed into my brain about the look of that film, and the amazing fact of its darkness, in general.

I remembered when Skeletor’s barge (?) floated into town between the two worlds at night. I remembered Skeletor’s creepy skull-head design, as they took his skull face and adapted it to the makeup capabilities of the time. I remembered how gritty and used the world was made to look, and the grim re-imagining of Skeletor’s horde of henchmen. The grim design of his soldiers, with their shiny black evil and capes, marched into my mind’s eye.

I realized that, in 1987, Masters of the Universe had ushered in the gritty, dark adaptation of kid-friendly properties. It had busted the door down two years before Tim Burton managed it with the genre-shifting Batman!

I’m ashamed to have come to this realization now. I can’t believe it’s been this long to arrive here. I’m stunned no one else has pointed out this irrevocable historical cinema fact.

I just can't do it with this one. The keywords joke can't touch this.
It’s not about budget, it’s about design!

Reclaiming History

I think it’s time to let Masters of the Universe rightly reclaim its place in film history. For too long, people have overlooked a truly influential film that changed the way things were done!

This movie was dark before it was cool. It was imagination run wild, mixing magical fantasy and space-age technology on a scale not seen since Krull. It fully embraced an aesthetic that would be attributed to Batman‘s influence, simply because the fanboys love Batman and insist on holding it up as a standard.

We get blinded by box office success. Masters of the Universe had a more targeted audience and a smaller budget. Batman was carried forward by marketing and a giant base of fans that was multi-generational.

We should move away from the toxic obsession with comic book heroes and recognize a real trailblazer. We should recognize Masters of the Universe.

One Final Note

By the way, since some people don’t pay attention all the way through my posts, I’m totally screwing with everyone. Since you’ve made it this far, I feel you’ve earned this. You’re in on the joke.

This is one of those posts highlighting the absurdity of the majority of online “analysis” and “criticism” we get. Twitter makes it even worse, too, as people trot out half-baked quasi-intellectual takes based on nothing more than knee-jerk emotionalism.

By the end of this, I’ll have put together more than 800 words heaping fake praise on something that I openly acknowledge as a nostalgic curio. If you were to subtract this final section, you’d be convinced that I honestly came to this conclusion without irony. The arguments can’t be disproven so much as disputed, because it’s contained within a perfect bubble of self-assurance.

It’s like an article on just about any opinion site you frequent! I just don’t have a social media army to push this out to the world and legitimize it. [HINT, HINT.]

At the honest best, Masters of the Universe is a magnificently cheesy misfire. As pointed out by my friend “Old Joe,” it was bad enough to kill a successful toy franchise.

I still love it, but just because it looks exactly like the movie that would be made by a kid if you gave them a copy of The Dark Knight Returns, some He-Man figures, a large bag of Skittles, and locked them in a room to come up with ideas.

Frank Langella as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe which is a He-Man movie starring Frank Langella as Skeletor in a movie called Masters of the Universe.
That’s *Frank Langella*.

Also, in case you were wondering, when I mentioned Krull earlier, that was part of the joke, too. That movie’s terrible.

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