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, Israeli cousins who would tap into the home video boom of the 1980s. Golan-Globus would achieve immediate success exploring the popular action genre, their tenuous ninja trilogy of Enter the NinjaRevenge of the Ninja, and Ninja III: The Domination fuelling the Western martial arts craze of the early ’80s, but they didn’t stop there. Buoyed by Golan’s childlike enthusiasm, the two cousins churned out all kinds of low-grade trash: slashers, Indiana Jones rip-offs, surprisingly popular movies about break dancing. Hell, they even picked up three Academy Award nominations for the Kurosawa-devised independent thriller Runaway Train. The newly named Cannon Group’s production style was opportunistic, erratic and borderline haphazard, but for the first half of the decade it proved hugely successful, and things were about to get a whole lot better. At least in principle.

The big name actors would soon follow. As well as buying the rights to the popular Charles Bronson-led vigilante series Death Wish and transforming it into one of the most dubious and controversial of the decade, Cannon would cast Chuck Norris in the Missing in Action movies, before attracting Hollywood megastar ‘Sly’ Stallone for cult vigilante flick Cobra, which with Hollywood giants Warner Brothers as distributors would rake-in an incredible $160,000,000 worldwide, though Sly would swallow a huge chunk of that in what was a record-breaking deal. During 1986, The Cannon Group would release an incredible 43 movies, a varied yet relentless output that would see the company’s stock continue to soar. Thanks to the unmitigated success of their B-movie model and a newfound taste for the big-time, Golan-Globus would ultimately make the decision to branch out on their own, and branch out they would.

Cannon collage

You couldn’t blame them for having such high ambitions. The future looked bright for the foreign outsiders who had somehow managed to devour the sweet nectar of the American Dream, who had done so in a brazen manner that lacked industry decorum, but when you take your product mainstream audiences expect a little more bang for their buck, and this is where they ran into problems. Sticking to their bold origins, the company would pump their resources into blockbuster vehicles as they set about running with the big boys and were so committed to their brave new venture that they were practically living hand-to-mouth from movie-to-movie. By the end of 1987, the company had plundered so much money into high-profile flops that they were facing bankruptcy, and though 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.

Skeletor : Do you hear, Sorceress? The final moment has come. All the forces of Greyskull, all the powers in the universe will be vested in me! ME! And you will cease to exist!

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. Those who were regular viewers of He-Man’s terrestrial battles were in for a surprise when the movie finally opened on August 7, because though the characters were for the most part familiar, their environment certainly wasn’t. In fact, beyond those characters it didn’t look or sound like He-Man at all save for a few costumes and familiar catchphrases. 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. At least in theory.

In hindsight, it perhaps wasn’t 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, all 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. Sure, those movies had a pulp appeal too, but they weren’t cheap or throwaway. They borrowed genre staples and well-known philosophies, practically retelling the bible with strong western cues, but they didn’t imitate in a way that was transparent. What they brought to the table was fresh and unique.

Promoting the movie independently wouldn’t have proven too much of a problem either, as 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 away from a galaxy far, far away. Kids had already bought into the He-Man concept and a more familiar big screen translation would likely have proven a much safer prospect. I mean, why toy with a winning formula by essentially competing with the most successful movie franchise in history? It was like being born in someone else’s shadow. Inferior knock-offs may have flew on the home video market, but this was the big time, baby, and Star Wars had a deeply loyal fan base. Masters of the Universe would surely only inspire derision.

Still, you can’t blame Golan-Globus for pursuing a movie with such imitative aspirations. First of all, imitation had long been their lifeblood, and without the foresight of a sound franchise strategy it made perfect business sense. Naturally, imitating a global franchise carries its own risks in the long term, particularly if you lack the credentials to fulfil such bold ambitions. Though 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: The Quest For Peace, 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, pseudo-Star Wars aesthetics. Led by a ludicrously homoerotic Dolph Lundgren, the characters are largely laughable, particularly antagonist Skeletor’s rabble of cornball mercenaries. Looking more like a collection 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. That’s not to say the cartoon versions were any more terrifying or successful in defeating the protectors of Eternia. I mean, they barely put a dent in Skeletor’s adversaries over 130 episodes. But if you have serious aspirations of creating a money-spinning franchise you need villains with a little more bite, or at the very least a modicum of intelligence.

Masters of the Universe mercs

Facing the pseudo-dark side are He-man’s lustreless comrades Teela (Chelsea Field), whose career would take a nosedive soon after, 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 proves endearingly hammy as the wildly dismissive but ultimately good-hearted cop who ultimately 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. Masters of the Universe required a C3P0 for their band of galaxy-hopping rebels, and Gwildor is what they settled on.

He-Man: I have the power!

Masters of the Universe also suffers from a thinly-sketched screenplay. 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. The fact that they are able to randomly open a vortex using a highly complex alien contraption with only a few aimless taps should have been taken as fair warning by a rabble of baddies who never seem capable of overcoming their earthbound foes. Golan-Globus were infamous for their harebrained approach, often selling a movie based on a conceptual poster and coming up with plot developments on the spot. That was during their B-movie pomp, but if Masters of the Universe is anything to go by, not much had changed by 1987.

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 — but most of the $22,000,000 budget was spent on schlocky, faux-epic sets and Star Wars-esque hover crafts, which means the majority of 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 could have gone some way to fleshing out a story which proves painfully predictable.

For all the lolly Cannon splashed on their potentially money-spinning extravaganza, you also have to question the Day-Glo special effects. From the sub-par laser guns to the horrifically-staged portal leaps, the whole production smacks of ignorance, 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 film’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 gazed into the commercial void and were swallowed 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 though 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. Though those kids may have been somewhat disappointed by the glaring differences between the movie and the TV show, the youngest of us were easily swayed. The movie’s action figure range may never have materialised, but many of us already owned figures from the original Mattel toy line, and a trip to the cinema to see our ludicrously camp hero, in any form, was an irresistible prospect — though those of you who bought video game tie-in Masters of the Universe: The Movie may still harbour some ill will, and I wouldn’t blame you.

Julie Winston: Thank you. He-Man, Teela, Man-At-Arms…

Teela: Don’t say goodbye. Say Good Journey.

Duncan: It is an old Eternian saying. Live the journey, for every destination is but a doorway to another.

Julie Winston: Good Journey.

Like many Cannon productions of the mid-1980s, Masters of the Universe sums up the decade’s cheapo charm so deliciously that you can’t help but fall for its crude sense of opulence. As well as the camp and clunky costumes and contrived sense of idealism, you have a whole array of lurid 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, and you just know that both of those gadgets were used with cost-cutting in mind. 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. Who said a career as a rock star was a waste of time?

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 affairs. Having produced such movie theme wonders as Rocky and The Karate Kid, Conti probably wasn’t used to composing blatant derivatives. I wouldn’t be surprised if the notoriously on-the-fly Golan marched directly up to him during production and demanded a John Williams knock-off for his intergalactic venture. It’s unlikely due to Golan’s late arrival to the project, but if that is indeed the case Conti did as good a job as anyone could have. Langella struts to his Vader-esque theme with theatrical impudence, chewing the scenery with a relish that makes you wish there was a sequel, and the make-up department do a fine job with his skeletal pallor, a creepy design that puts his cutesy underlings to shame. 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.

In the end, a sequel never materialised. As a kid, the infamous post-credits set-up was a real source of confusion. For a start, I’d never stuck around long enough to see one before, and the sight of Skeletor suddenly emerging from a pool of pink-coloured water to utter the words ‘I’ll be back!” was quite the novelty. At the time, I didn’t see this as a cheap nod to the hugely popular Arnold Schwarzenegger. I instead saw it as a promise of more He-Man, as a sign that the irrepressible Skeletor would soon return to enact his vengeance. I mean, I saw him come back from the dead, I heard him make that promise. Why was there still no sequel? How long did it take for an evil genius to devise a new strategy?

Ultimately, it was probably for the best. 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 Superman IV: 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.


Masters of the Universe logo



Written by Edison Smith Editor-in-Chief

Science Fiction Writer, Horror Enthusiast, Scourge of Plutocracy, Creator of vhsrevival.com

2 comments

  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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