I was around 6-8 years old when He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe was all the rage. I watched every episode of the cartoon series and played a lot with the accompanying “action figures” (because “dolls” are for girls right?). As with most hot properties there is at one point a studio that tries to make a movie about it, but sadly the 80s and 90s weren’t the best decades for existing properties to be transferred to the big screen. With the exception of 1978s Superman, 1989s Batman and 1990s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles almost all of the other movies that were released simply sucked. Howard The Duck, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, The Punisher (a guilty pleasure of mine) and Captain America are just a few examples of movies that just showed us how little Hollywood understood the properties it was trying to bring to life on the big screen. To a certain level Masters of the Universe is no exception.
In Masters Of The Universe, He-Man travels from Eternia to Earth to retrieve a Cosmic Key with which he can defeat the dark lord Skeletor who has taken control of Castle Grayskull. On Earth he’s accompanies by a few comrades: Teela, Man-At-Arms and the goblin-like Gwildor. On Earth he befriends a young couple consisting of Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill. Trying to them from getting the Cosmic Key Skeletor sends his best cronies after them: Beastman, Saurod, Blade and Karg. So the plot is very simple and just features a bunch of characters trying to locate the Cosmic Key, occasionally running into each other and getting into simply choreographed fights, most of them being gunfights.
The first mistake Masters Of The Universe makes is the setting. There is this established world of Eternia in the cartoon series and, due to budgetary reasons no doubt, they set most of the movie in Smalltown U.S.A. Only the bookends of the movie take place on Eternia, almost all of it on a large set of Castle Grayskull’s throne room. Another mistake they make is the assembly of characters. The main objective of the cartoon series was to sell toys and lots of them. So almost every week a new character was introduced only to disappear next week. Only a few characters actually belonged to the show’s central cast. Sadly only He-Man’s crew has been partially re-imagined as live action characters, but from Skeletor’s crew only Beastman and Evil-Lyn have made the transition. Probably trying to sell some new toys, characters like Blade, Sauron, Karg and Gwildor were designed, bearing in mind that bringing them to the big screen would be relatively easy. Especially Gwildor is eveidence of this as he’s basically an Orko rip-off but one that requires just a costume and make-up to bring to life rather than expensive special effects.
So there’s no Orko, Trap-Jaw, Tri-Clops, Merman or Battle Cat to be found in Masters Of The Universe, which is in some cases understandable but still a disappointment. At some points the movie does get it right: Frank Langella makes for a great Skeletor even if he’s wearing an awful rubber mask. As He-Man, Dolph Lundgren certainly looks the part, but his thick Swedish accent is laughable on many occasions. Billy Barty’s Gwildor seems to be a turned down Star Wars character, with a little bit of Warwick Davis’ Leprechaun thrown in (even though it would be 4 years before he the first Leprechaun movie came out). None of the rest of the cast makes an impression save for Teela’s butt, which is jiggling around in tight spandex throughout most of the movie.
One of the most interesting elements about Masters Of The Universe is that it was produced by the Cannon Group. The Cannon Group was a low budget movie studio mostly known for producing B-movies like the Death Wish sequels, the American Ninja franchise and a whole pile of Chuck Norris movies. Trying to gain some recognition and respect they tried their hand at making a “big budget” fantasy spectacle. Masters Of The Universe seemed like the right property at the time, but the timing (by 1987 He-man had been replaced by G.I. Joe and Transformers) and the downsized budget made sure Cannon had a box-office dud in their hands.
That said Masters Of The Universe is still a fairly enjoyable movie, not a good movie, but enjoyable nonetheless. It’s goofy fun and at certain moments it feels like a guilty pleasure, which a movie features a Swedish muscular guy dressed in far too revealing clothing and hold holding up a sword yelling “I have the power” of course is.