Masters of the Universe: Star Wars and the Fall of Grayskull

Masters of the Universe Poster

How Star Wars contributed to one of Cannon’s most infamous creative flops.

During their B-movie pomp, Cannon Films were a modest distribution company who far exceeded expectations.

Originally formed by Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey as a soft porn production company, the struggling duo were forced to sell to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, an Israeli duo who would tap into the B-movie boom of the early 1980’s. Golan-Globus would achieve immediate success exploring the popular slasher and action genres, creating stars such as Michael Dudikoff (Avenging Force), and eventually attracting some of the industry’s top names thanks to a prolific output of low-budget movies that would turn a tidy profit.

The duo would also make an impact on cinema trends of the time. Their tenuous ninja trilogy of Enter the NinjaRevenge of the Ninja, and Ninja III: The Domination would fuel the ninja craze of the early 80s, leading to the highly-popular American Ninja series, movies that would recoup 10 times their initial outlay. The big name actors would soon follow. As well as buying the rights to the popular Charles Bronson-led vigilante series Death Wish, Cannon would cast Chuck Norris in the Missing in Action movies, before attracting Hollywood megastar ‘Sly’ Stallone for cult cop flick Cobra. During 1986, the Cannon Group would release an incredible 43 movies, a varied output that would see the company’s stock soar. Thanks to the unmitigated success of their B-movie model, Golan-Globus would make the decision to branch out even further.

Cannon collage

Of course, when you take your product mainstream, audiences expect a little more bang for their buck. Sticking to their bold origins, the company would pump their vast resources into mainstream vehicles as they set out to run with the big boys. By the end of 1987, the company had plundered so much money on high-profile flops that the they were facing bankruptcy, and although Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is cited as igniting their capitulation, another movie released the same year was an equally risky venture that failed to live up to its cocksure promotion.

Based on the popular cartoon series He-Man and The Masters of the Universe, Masters of the Universe was dubbed ‘the Star Wars of the 80s, and they weren’t kidding. For years, folklore would have us believe that the He-Man toy range was put into production as a cost-saving exercise when Conan the Barbarian proved too violent to market to kids, and although that claim has since been disproved, He-Man’s swords and sorcery formula is far more reminiscent of Arnie‘s breakout movie. Of course, George Lucas‘ space-bound phenomenon was a far more lucrative source of inspiration. Or was it?

In hindsight, it was perhaps not the best marketing strategy for a production company with franchise aspirations. Star Wars was and is an unprecedented cultural phenomenon, packed with rich and wonderfully conflicted characters, star actors, innovative costume and set design, with a degree of financial power that has its own gravitational field. It also exhibits the kind of breathtakingly grandiose world-building that a company of Cannon’s B-movie heritage could only dream of.

Plus, Masters of the Universe was already a cultural phenomenon in its own right. With a bigger emphasis on its swords and sorcery roots, Cannon may have been looking at a commercial goldmine. Kids had already bought into the He-Man concept in their droves, and a more familiar big screen translation would have been a much safer prospect. I mean, kids were already sold on the product. Why toy with a winning formula by essentially competing with the most successful movie franchise in history?

Still, you can’t blame Golan-Globus for green-lighting a movie with such imitative aspirations. Without the foresight of a sound franchise strategy, it made perfect business sense. But imitating a global franchise carries its own risks in the long term, particularly if you don’t have the credentials to back-up the commercial mouthpiece. Although many of the movie’s creative decisions had been made before they came on board, Golan-Globus were in charge of physical production and marketing, utilising their budget in a manner that put them at loggerheads with producer Edward R. Pressman, who had already purchased the adaptation rights for a Masters of the Universe toy range. A gaudy and overblown movie which fails to fulfil its epic proclamations, Masters of the Universe would prove a critical and financial failure just months after the embarrassment of the notorious Superman IV, and its easy to see why.

For one thing, the camp aura of the cartoon and its characters struggle to translate to the silver screen given the movie’s muddled psuedo-Star Wars appearance. Led by a ludicrously homoerotic Dolph Lundgren, the cast are largely laughable, particularly antagonist Skeletor’s rabble of cornball mercenaries. Looking more like a selection of cuddly toys with an iron-clad bald fellow thrown in for variation, the motley crew of Blade, Karg, Saurod and Beast Man spend most of the movie’s running time bumbling uselessly about the place, continually lambasted by the evil Skeletor in a manner that leaves them yelping like hungry kittens.

Masters of the Universe mercs

Facing the pseudo-dark side are He-man’s lustreless comrades Teela (Chelsea Field) and Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher), while Courtney Cox‘s cutesy heroine, Julie, proves so insufferably naive that halfway through you completely lose faith in her. We also have Star Trek: Voyager‘s Robert Duncan McNeill as Julie’s musician boyfriend and Back to the Future‘s hard line principal, Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan), who is in endearingly hammy form as the wildly dismissive but ultimately good-hearted cop who unexpectedly dumps his humdrum life for bliss on Eternia. Last, and most certainly least, there’s the infamously insufferable Gwildor, a leprechaun-like creature who somehow holds the key to the well-being of the entire universe while looking like he belongs on the cover of a cereal box.

The movie also suffers from a thinly-sketched screenplay that comes across as seriously half-baked: thanks to a garish and inexplicably-controlled key that opens gateways to other dimensions, a power-mad Skeletor has found a way to finally conquer He-Man and the imprisoned Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles), but the hapless villain soon realises that there are two keys to be had, the second of which our heroes fortuitously utilise to escape the monster’s evil lair.

Masters of the Universe Cox

Of all the places on all the planets of all the galaxies in the universe, our cheapo crew of intergalactic crusaders somehow end up in the sunny state of California, which one has to admit is a pretty convenient plot development production-wise. That’s not to say they scrimped on everything ― the movie did contribute to Cannon’s capitulation after all ― and most of the movie’s $22,000,000 budget is spent on schlocky, faux-epic sets and Star Wars-esque hover crafts, which means that most of the action takes place on home shores. The screenplay’s original draft spent more time on Eternia and Snake Mountain, and even revealed that He-Man’s mother actually came from Earth, a sub-narrative which certainly could have gone some way to fleshing out a story which proves tenuous at best.

For all the lolly they splashed on their potentially money-spinning extravaganza, you also have to question the day-glow special effects, from the second-rate laser guns to the horrifically staged portal leaps, the whole production smacks of inefficiency, while He-Man’s supposedly momentous ‘I have the power!’ money shot looks like an image from a beginner’s guide to Photoshop. Much like ‘Superman’ before it, the movie’s money-sapping embellishments look decidedly second-rate, and the famous post-credit sequel-setter tells you that those involved were none the wiser. Everything about this movie points to a franchise that was never meant to be. Cannon stared into the commercial void and were blinded by it.

Masters of the Universe SFX
Still, for any 80s kid bred on a breakfast of Saturday morning cartoons, the movie’s release was a monumental happening, and although it could very well be nostalgia putting up the blinkers, it’s hard to not have a certain degree of affection for such a gaudy piece of trash cinema, and going off the movie’s modern-day cult status it seems that a whole generation of you agree with me.

Like many Cannon movies of the mid-1980’s, Masters of the Universe sums up the cheapo charm of the decade so deliciously that you can’t help but fall for its cruddy charms. As well as the camp and clunky costumes and contrived idealism, you have a whole array of colourful, if predictable, gadgets to get the juvenile juices flowing, from Evil-Lyn’s hypnotic truth necklace to a visual device that allows you to see events which have already taken place. You also have the movie’s bigger-is-better gateway key, which features so many buttons even inventor Gwildor can’t figure out quite how to use it, although the fact that it plays musical chords identical to those established on Earth means one of our cast will prove rather useful in getting He-Man and his cohorts safely back home.

Masters of the Universe Evil-Lyn

The movie also benefits from some pretty impressive performances amid the silliness. Theatre veteran Frank Langella is excellent as the unquenchable force that is Skeletor, his thespian turn taking more than a leaf out of Darth Vader’s book, while an army of imitation Storm Troopers and a John Williams-eque theme by veteran composer Bill Conti only punctuate matters. Meg Foster is also rather special as the lovelorn Evil-Lyn, a conflicted character whose continued subservience to an unappreciative master hints at something deeper. Some faces are just made for the screen, and hers can certainly tell a unique story.

Take away the nostalgia and it’s easy to see why the movie flopped against all odds, proving a rather hefty nail in the coffin of Cannon’s incredible 80s run. Perhaps the most high-profile of all the company’s movies bar The Quest for Peace, Masters of the Universe is cheap, lazily-conceived, badly translated, wholly derivative, poorly realised and such a woefully transparent imitation of Star Wars that it’s hard not to shake your head in disbelief.

What’s even harder is to dislike this movie on any serious level. In fact, if you’re anything like me you’ll probably love it, and for all the reasons millions more condemned it to the creative scrapheap.

AUTHOR BIO

Bio
 
Cedric Smarts
: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director

 
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
 
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut

 



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2 responses to “Masters of the Universe: Star Wars and the Fall of Grayskull

  1. I’m surprised by how many Cannon films I’m familiar with, not realizing at the time that they were the production company. Especially, ‘Superman: Quest for Peace’, for which, unfortunately, Christopher Reeve shared writing credit with 2 others. I thought ‘He-Man’ was cast well. It’s what the actors had to work with that made it a ‘gaudy piece of trash cinema’, thought still enjoyable to a point. For me, it was Dolph Lundgren’s ‘ludicrously homoerotic’ He-Man that caught my eye at the time. As a gay boy I was seduced by his lack of clothing, usually regulated to female T&A. I even had several He-Man collectable toys and action figures that are valuable today, but sadly, I didn’t hold onto them.

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  2. Hi Louis,

    The He-Man cartoon has more than an inkling of gay subtext if you ask me. Just look at Adam. Tidy and constricted in his everyday garb and then POW!, he’s into his He-Man gear and out of the closet. His sword could even be construed as phallic. Either way, he certainly has the power.

    Yes, this was great casting from top to bottom. The fact that it was wholly derivative of Star Wars and not true to the original conception served only to confuse kids back in the day I think. Still, hard not to succumb to its cheapo charm. A nice 80’s time capsule which I don’t revisit nearly enough. Something tells me that might change.

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