“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.

Watching “Madhouse” Starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing

Like so many others, this review first appeared on my Letterboxd account.

Sometimes I share expanded thoughts here, since it’s easier to write it out here than there. My expanded thoughts at this point have more to do with what movies like this showed as the need for that horror renaissance brought on by films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween.

Madhouse is a clear example of how stale the horror template had become by the 1970s. Aging stars locked into films their legacies were built upon, like the rock’n’roll bands that are on tour in their seventies. We’re all trying to keep a moment alive that should fade, possibly, into fond memory.

The great thing is that I see this older tradition of horror coming back to life with Jordan Peele’s efforts in Get Out and Us. It’s a return to horror films driven by atmosphere as opposed to body count. This is a welcome return to form, but I’m sure we’ll hit the same sort of excesses we always do.

Ah well. Whatever else you think, at least you didn’t see Madhouse. Or if you did, please leave a comment and let me know if you think I’m way off base here.

Vincent Price and Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry in Madhouse a movie called Madhouse with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing with Robert Quarry this image is hosted from somewhere else. Vincent Price could have played Craigula pretty well.
The cover image for the movie. The woman on the cover isn’t in the movie, I don’t think.

My Review of Madhouse Starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing

I so very, very wanted to like this movie. Vincent Price! Peter Cushing! Old 1970s mood horror, constructed to possibly leave you guessing who the real killer is until the final moment! Incongruous nonsense ending that plays like a kid making up for not explaining everything earlier!

It works overtime to try to convey suspense and intrigue. Instead it constructs an historical film curio, where you recall that the 1970s film renaissance wasn’t some aberration that occurred from nowhere. The storytelling – especially in horror – had become so stale as to be incapable of escaping its old formulae.

“Madhouse” goes wrong in many of the same ways that “Dracula” with Jack Palance goes wrong. In trying to substitute style for substance, what’s created is a telelvision mediocrity projected large for aging stars. There’s real magic when Cushing and Price interact; the rest is era drudgery masquerading as suspense. The only room to enjoy this, now, is to mock it.

They should have just titled it “S***house” and been more truthful in their advertising.

True Horror.

The Brilliant Violence of “Brawl in Cell Block 99”

I had been meaning to watch Brawl in Cell Block 99 for awhile. Once I knew that it was from the director of Bone Tomahawk, I knew I had to see it.

I knew it would likely push my limits of what I could tolerate for onscreen violence. Like Tarantino following up Reservoir Dogs with Pulp Fiction, I knew the director had no choice but to prove the first film was no fluke.

Still, I was trepidatious about it. Something as memorable as Bone Tomahawk is hard to follow. The jarringly horrific as its ending makes one nervous to re-enter the thought process of the person who created it.

Regardless, once it appeared on Amazon Prime, I had to take the plunge. S. Craig Zahler had earned the opportunity to impress me again.

Time being a precious commodity, I decided I’d watch an hour of it then finish the rest the next night. Instead I wound up compelled to sacrifice sleep and finish the film. I know that sounds like an odd compliment, and it is. It’s a testament, though, to how entrancing I found this work.

Like Jazz

The entire film operates like jazz. What isn’t said is as important as what is spoken.

Zahler knows when to let a character speak with physicality and when to give them voice. He doesn’t force cool monologues where they don’t belong and, when a character makes a declaration, the words have great impact. Long takes allow you to study the character and imbue things with a realism that is missing from so many films that attempt to construct reality.

This gets to the true beauty of this work. Vince Vaughn’s performance as Bradley Thomas is an amazing testament to restraint and what happens when an actor physically inhabits their role completely. This is the same space as Charlize Theron’s performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster. I lost Vince Vaughn in his portrayal and never saw anyone but Bradley.

It’s what makes the violence in this film truly jarring. Bradley’s restraint gives an intent to the violence. It’s executed with the unnerving dispassion of Hannibal Lecter as he was written in Thomas Harris’ books, or as Brian Cox displayed him in Manhunter. This is why these moments make you recoil in horror; you believe in them.

We see a violence that was was always within this man. His few words and stoic demeanor highlight his dedication to control; it’s counterbalanced with an earlier outburst that shows what an unrestrained Bradley could do.

As a result, the violence has an intent seriousness that elevate it past stylized cool. This is no John Wick with energetic takes of vengeful, audience-pleasing brutality. This is the violence of a film like Taxi Driver. It’s shocking partly because it’s not glamorous. It has the smack of horrific inevitability.

This stoic nature also makes the unguarded moments with his wife that much more resonant. When he has his stolen moments of happiness, we see someone who wants to hold onto them with everything he can. When those he loves are threatened, we understand he is channeling a lifetime of simmering resentment at a life that didn’t work out the way that, by the law of averages, should have had more happiness in it.

Who betrayed Bradley? Life? The American Dream? Himself? We’re left to debate the nature of the man in the wake of his decisions.

Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Carpenter in Brawl in Cell Block 99 which is a movie called Brawl in Cell Block 99 with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Carpenter in a movie called Brawl in Cell Block 99 which still needed some Craigula.
The stoicism and violence underscore the desperation of a man who wants to hold onto the little happiness he finds.

The Right Way to Subvert Expectations

The film also plays with your expectations, and subverts them in intelligent ways. These are conventions broken with a purpose. The unexpected mercy he shows early in the film, when you expect his rage to overtake him is gut-wrenching and establishes so much later in the film. It would have been so easy to bring to life someone less human than Bradley Thomas.

There’s the feint of the expected prison-buddy dynamic as Bradley meets different characters on his journey. This entire story gear-shifts from domestic drama, to prison story, to brutal grindhouse fare effortlessly.

Udo Kier, Don Johnson, Dion Mucciacito, and Jennifer Carpenter give performances that thrill and captivate you. There’s not a wasted beat nor missed opportunity. The entire cast, even those I’m not naming, bring the story to life.

Yes, there’s still an appeal to the cinephile in search of a new sensation that will disturb and disrupt their thinking. But there’s a depth to the material that elevates and enhances it. This is a film that will stay with you, and you will think about it for days afterward.

I’ll leave you with this one warning. If you have a weak stomach or an aversion to realistic onscreen violence, then bring a pillow, a jacket, or a blindfold to cover your eyes at the right parts. The masterful sound design will still get to you, but you can at least choose whether you want the accompanying image.

As always, you can check out other movie reviews of mine at Letterboxd any time you like. You can even hear me babble about movies on one of the podcasts I do. Just look for “kesseljunkie” and you’ll find me!

On the Topic of the Documentary about Flat-Earthers, “Behind the Curve,” on Netflix

We live in interesting times. I was pointed toward a documentary about members (adherents? disciples?) of the Flat Earth movement that’s currently showing on Netflix, called Behind the Curve.

The documentary primarily follows Mark Sargent, a prominent evangelist for the Flat Earth movement that has taken on a bit of momentum in recent years. We meet others as well, from Patricia Steere to Math Powerland (no, really).

Each of these people seems sincere in their beliefs. That could easily make this a challenging watch. It’s not, though. It’s fascinating. In many cases the subject matter is stronger than the structure at play, but it all comes together to create a compelling moment. It’s certainly one I won’t forget.

Flat Earth is a bunch of bunk, but I want to give people a hug and tell them it's OK that the world is crazy and scary.
The flat-hand signal there is apparently the “salute” (?) that Flat Earthers give.

I have to give the documentary a lot of credit for remaining kind in the treatment of its subjects. It’s a force of habit for many people simply to ridicule and deride others who don’t believe accepted doctrine.

This is especially true when it comes to accepted consensus. You need only to turn on your television to see everyone from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Stephen Colbert turning derisive sneering into an oft-lucrative art form.

In short, it’s easy to call someone “stupid” or “crazy” and move on with your life. It’s an emotional bloodsport we’ve elevated to a place of great honor in our society. Everything from sitcoms to Twitter have reinforced the idea that the best way to deal with “heterodox” thought is to tear down the person.

I agree instead with the person speaking at a convocation of scientists, captured in this movie. He points out that many of the people who believe things as outlandish as flat earth theory, faked moon landings, or the artistic merit of The English Patient, aren’t stupid people.

In many cases, they’re intelligent people who would benefit greatly from empathetic communication. They can and should be spoken to with a presumption of respect and intelligence, and work from there.

Calling someone stupid simply stops the conversation. Finding out why they believe something like Flat Earth Theory can go a long way toward understanding how to discuss it with them. If you start from a point of disrespect and attack, any human being is going to go into a defensive mode and stop listening.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t point out the flaws in their reasoning. You’re not obliged to go along with a delusion, as much as that seems to be the cultural norm these days. It’s fine to pretend someone you love is Teddy Roosevelt, but only so long as you’re Abby and Martha Brewster.

There will also be people you simply can’t reach. It might be beyond your personal ability. That’s OK, let them encounter someone else who can continue the conversation.

By and large, the movie does a terrific job of approaching these people sympathetically. Where it fails is that it diverges every so often from the intellectually curious to the self-righteous, as if it’s forgetting its own lesson.

Then it wraps up with a moment that needed more exploration than being interspersed with the end credits. A Flat Earth group, doing an experiment to prove that curvature is a lie, fails. Instead of continuing to explore their reaction to the failure in detail, it’s seemingly played for a chuckle. That’s all well and good, but undercuts the empathetic approach advocated earlier in the movie.

There’s another experiment earlier in the movie that works against another set of Flat Earthers, but that’s not followed up, either. It’s left dangling, and as a viewer I was unsatisfied that it was discarded and we just kept moving.

You can’t help but feel like the movie moves past these moments because the director can’t completely resist the default urge to mock just a little bit. That may feed into the perspective of other viewers, but for me it just doesn’t work.

In all, it’s a worthwhile movie to watch. If anything, it’s a fascinating exploration of the human desire to be important, to be heard, and to be special. It’s a testament to what makes conspiracy theories enduringly powerful; their adherents can hold a claim to intelligence and perception beyond the average.

There are undoubtedly conspiracies in this world. But we should approach the claims of them with extreme skepticism. The burden of proof should be on the people proving them to exist, not vice versa.

In short, I recommend this movie to you, if you have Netflix.

This review can also be found on my Letterboxd profile. Share and share alike, as it were. I also talk about it on a podcast. Cheers!

Movie Recommendation – You Should Watch “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father”

Usually I take a pretty light tone with the movie reviews I re-post here  from Letterboxd, but this one is a bit more serious. I’m simply re-posting without a ton of preamble, and encouraging you to see a very heartfelt and memorable documentary.

It’s called Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, and it’s the sort of memorable documentary that sticks with you for important reasons. Your philosophies on life, endurance, and sacrifices are called into clear focus when you see what one family handled on a very difficult journey.

Hat tip to my friend Joey for pointing me toward this. I’m not going into great detail about it, and I recommend you avoid too much research so as not to rob yourself of the emotional journey it provides.

As of the time of this writing, it’s still included for streaming on Amazon Prime without additional cost. You can rent if you’re not a member. I recommend you do.

Poster for Dear Zachary

My Review

This is a necessary, thought provoking, impactful documentary that communicates fully the human impact of evil deeds. No tragedy occurs in a bubble; every moment touches more people than you can count.

By turns infuriating, gut-wrenching, and heartbreaking, it will leave you full of the realization that our laws are only as good as the shiftless bureaucracy in charge of enforcing them.

Put together as a document to teach a child about his dead father, it accompanies the filmmaker as he embarks on a journey across the North American continent to collect memories and testify to the truth of tragedy. It becomes a testament to the failure at every level of human beings who see people as names on paper. Worse, it exposes how individual judgment calls erode the function of systems and our faith in them.

I strongly recommend you watch this film, but be prepared: if there’s an ounce of human emotion within you, it will be a difficult journey. But it’s one worth taking.