Gary Goddard did not have a simple task before him when he was tasked to direct a live action motion picture version of Masters of the Universe in 1987. There’s no denying that the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon series was a generation defining TV show for kids of the ‘80s, but, like the GI Joe cartoon, it served primarily as a marketing vehicle for action figures. Even with that marketing push and mid-‘80s popularity, the Masters of the Universe movie would be hitting theaters a full two years after the cartoon ended. The franchise popularity already was in decline, and compounding the problem, Goddard didn’t have the technology or budget to properly service the sword and sorcery spectacle of the source material. Doing the best he could with what he had to work with, Goddard produced a flashy sci-fi action film that would fail at the box office before gaining cult popularity many years later. Now, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Masters of the Universe’s release, the movie finally is available on Blu-ray.
The original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe story is a familiar one to any kids of the 1980s. He-Man is the heroic and muscle-bound alter ego of Prince Adam, heir to the throne of Eternia, a far flung world that mixes sci-fi and fantasy tropes for a truly unique setting. Accompanied by his friends Orko, Duncan, Teela, and the Sorceress, He-Man does battle against the evil forces aligned with Skeletor in order to protect the planet and Castle Grayskull. The Masters of the Universe movie strips away much of the contextual backstory to present a straightforward sci-fi galactic conflict between Skeletor and the heroes of Eternia. Dolph Lundgren, then a newcomer to the acting scene and only a couple years beyond his role as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, stars as He-Man, opposite Frank Langella as Skeletor. Having someone like Langella play a character like Skeletor seems strange at first and becomes only more bizarre when you see him chewing the scenery with campy wickedness.
He-Man’s cartoon pals Duncan (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) appear along with the Sorceress (Christina Pickles), as does Skeletor’s nefarious and obviously named femme fatale Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster). Beyond those core characters, much of the movie revolves around new additions to the Masters of the Universe mythos. Central to the new roster additions is Gwildor (Billy Barty), a dwarf-like Thenurian who has created a Cosmic Key that can open portals to any place in time and space. Recognizing the exploitative potential of the device, Skeletor steals the Key and uses it to invade Castle Grayskull. He-Man and his allies fall prey to an ambush when they attempt to regain the castle, prompting Gwildor to open another portal with the prototype Key that he still possesses. Of course this new portal transports our Eternian heroes directly to Earth, where they promptly lose the Key.
Californian teenagers Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Julie (Courteney Cox) stumble upon the Cosmic Key prototype and unwittingly use it to summon the evil forces of Skeletor and Evil-Lyn to Earth. It’s not long before the wicked alien invaders arrive to steal the prototype Key, sparking an Earthbound battle between good and evil. Meanwhile on Eternia, Skeletor has captured the Sorceress of Greyskull and keeps her locked away and unable to use her magics to aid in her people’s defense. The resulting conflict is fantastic ‘80s action fare, full of plenty of cheesy costumes, elaborate alien tech, and pre-CG practical battle effects, all shoved into normal human settings. James Tolkan plays Lubic, the local detective who responds to all the mayhem, and he provides some Earth-style comic relief to the craziness happening in his town.
Along with the movie itself, the new Blu-ray release also includes the original theatrical trailer, as well as a full length commentary from Gary Goddard. This long (the commentary was recorded about ten years ago, or fifteen years after the movie was made) after the film’s production, it seems like Goddard has a new perspective on a lot of the elements that went into his film, and it makes for interesting listening. The trailer and commentary are the only bonus features included, making that area of the presentation rather sparse. It would have been fun to have some sort of bonus content about the connections to the animated series, the Mattel toy line, or the overall Masters of the Universe franchise, but perhaps expecting more than just the commentary would be unrealistic.
While Masters of the Universe is neither an excellent movie nor a faithful adaptation of a beloved cartoon series, it manages to make itself a memorable piece of pop culture cinema. That’s partly due to the cult-ripe acting and partly due to the unforgettably stylized look of the film, which Gary Goddard intends as a tribute to comic book legendary artist Jack Kirby. Really, the success of Masters of the Universe is that it is bottled nostalgia. There are enough He-Man references and nods that fans likely will appreciate it more now than they did a quarter of a century ago. The battle scenes, framing, and overall presentation of the film distills the elements of what made high flying but low budget action films in that era, and the movie even presents early performances from pre-Friends and pre-Star Trek cast members. I can remember being somewhat disappointed with Masters of the Universe when I first saw the movie at age nine, but after hitting my mid-thirties I’ve found a lot of fun here.